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'Bit of a gut punch': Vendors react to B.C. nixing wedding receptions

Expert says diversification of services is important in weathering pandemic
Effective Dec. 22, no indoor organized gatherings of any size, including wedding receptions and celebratory events, are allowed in B.C., due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It's a conversation Jordan Maxey has had many times over the last 21 months.

On Tuesday, the co-founder of North Vancouver-based Smitten Events talked to three clients that were set to get married on New Year's Eve. The couples were notified that their wedding reception would not be happening, given the recently announced public health order prohibiting indoor organized gatherings of any size. The order is set to expire on Jan. 18. 

"It's a bit of a gut punch," says Maxey, who runs the company with friend Devon Dunn. "We've been working really carefully within the restrictions for nearly two years now. As a small business in the event industry, we've been really hard hit by everything COVID-related."

The entrepreneur tells Glacier Media the couples are being given some time to figure out their next step — either postpone to 2022, 2023 or outright cancel. 

Uncertainty is a feeling that all vendors and brides-and-grooms-to-be share, she says.

"Behind every wedding, there are 10 to 15 vendors who are all small businesses and we're just trying to keep things moving so we can do our jobs."

The order "is hard to understand as a small business," Maxey adds.

"You can still go to a Canucks game with 9,000 people, which is 50 per cent capacity. It makes no sense at all," she says. (Due to COVID-19, a number of NHL games involving crossing the U.S.-Canada border were postponed this week.)

Melissa Sinclair, owner of Natural Touch Wedding and Events out of Kelowna, didn't have any weddings booked for December or January. 

"I think everyone's scared [to have a wedding right now], to tell you the truth," she says of the constantly changing situation.

In a non-COVID year, Sinclair does between 20 and 23 weddings. Since the start of the pandemic, she's done two. That's more than a 90 per cent drop in business.

"It's been a huge hit financially," she says, adding she has a secondary, trucking business she relies on for income. "It just doesn't seem to get any better."

Besides the financial blow, Sinclair says the pandemic has taken an emotional toll on her.

"I've been doing this for 11 years and then it's just taken away from us... [You're] struggling emotionally to come to grips with everything you've built and worked so hard for — just gone."

Victoria-based wedding photographer Hattie Root echoes similar feelings. 

"It certainly feels like a bit of a roller coaster," she says of provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry's latest order.

Root is working with one couple who had plans to tie the knot in January. She calls Tuesday's announcement "a familiar feeling of disappointment," noting wedding vendors are usually booked 12 to 24 months in advance. COVID-19 changed all that, she says.

"I feel like we've been here before, we've gone through it before and we've developed tools, both personally and in our business, to make sure we can keep going."

For Root, that's meant leaning into commercial and lifestyle photography. One of the positives, she says, is that she's been able to market that aspect of her business more. That's due to a small grant she received from the province.

On Thursday, the province announced businesses ordered to close — like gyms, bars, nightclubs and event venues that can no longer hold events — are eligible to received a new one-time relief grant of up to $10,000. 

Government needs to give a heads-up

In an ideal world, Maxey says she'd like the B.C. government to give her industry a few days notice before implementing new orders.

Without it, she says, vendors have no insight and can't plan accordingly.

"We've been asking for that [communication] for months and months," she says. "There are people who are being so closely affected by every decision the province makes. Some collaboration would be really helpful."

Maxey would also like to see the province update their online public health orders at the same time, if not shortly after, the media briefings. She tells Glacier Media that oftentimes clients will come to her and say they heard Henry on TV say, 'X, Y and Z.'

"It's like, well yeah, maybe, but we have to wait until we review the actual PHO because that might be what she's saying but that might not be exactly how it's [interpreted]."

In an emailed statement to Glacier Media, the Ministry of Health says "public health does not make these decisions easily."

"Temporarily closing businesses is a measure to protect our hospitals from being overwhelmed, keep people safe and to stop the sudden and rapid spread of the virus," a ministry spokesperson says.

"We have to remember that this is only temporary — a four-week period — and we encourage all businesses to review their COVID-19 safety protocols and make sure staff and customers are reminded of the protocols in place — such as mask wearing and proper physical distancing." 

Glacier Media posed the following questions to the ministry but did not receive a response:

  1. Does the government provide any communication to B.C.'s wedding industry prior to making any PHO announcements? If yes, who gets notified? If no, why not? Are there any plans to open the lines of communication with wedding vendors going forward? If so, what does that look like?
  2. What is the government's reasoning for updating the PHO a day or two after the press conferences? Are there plans to better align the two?
  3. What's the ministry's reasoning for cancelling weddings but still allowing events (concerts, sports games, etc.) at 50 per cent capacity?

Diversification key in weathering pandemic

Jeremy Stone, adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University and former director of the university's community economic development program, anticipates some wedding vendors to shutter over the coming year. 

"Simply because there have been two solid years of disruptions to events and event planning, and there's only so long this can last... you can't just keep going through this and living personally on the margins. ... You can't plan for the future and you're still trying to pay your rent or your mortgage, and pay your staff," he says. 

"It's just too much for people."

To become more "pandemic-proof," Stone says businesses need to diversify their services, as well as access to those services. 

"Some really innovative people could take this as an opportunity to create online weddings. ... Make people feel like, 'OK, we can't be together but we just want to get married and we're going to do this event online, and it'll be fun and we'll have [Zoom] breakout rooms,'" he says with a laugh.

For a wedding caterer, diversifying could mean booking smaller, more intimate events, Stone adds.

"To homes, to families, to smaller groups of people."

Root, meanwhile, has a piece of advice for any couple impacted by this week's restrictions: "Hang in there."

"At the end of the day, the most important thing is that you're marrying the love of your life," she says.