Utah wedding industry hit hard during pandemic

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Sweetheart Bridal Owner Chade Grose stands at the store’s front desk. Grose said the company has seen about a 60-70% decrease in business since the pandemic hit. (Preston Crawley)

Leer en espa├▒ol: La industria matrimonial de Utah ha sido afectada duramente por la pandemia

Wedding-centric businesses have lost large amounts of business as couples across Utah cancel and postpone weddings due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chad Grose, owner of Sweetheart Bridal in Provo, said the company has lost a huge chunk of sales since the pandemic started.

“Probably 60-70% of our whole business has dropped off,” Grose said, specifying that about 80% of the company’s formal wear sales and 40% of bridal gown sales have dropped.

Before the pandemic, Gorse said eight of the shop’s 10 bridal dressing rooms were almost always full and that this time of year the store usually has 10-15 tuxedo appointments a day. Now, the store only has about four people in total come in each day.

Grose said the hardest part about all this has been juggling the trickle down effects of lost revenue, including how many staff members he can pay.

“We’ve cut our staff way down. Normally we have about eight employees working. We’re down to basically three because we just don’t have the business. There’s no need to have people here,” he said.

Fewer staff members doesn’t mean the shop has reduced hours, though. Grose said it was necessary to maintain the store usual hours to receive shipments and accommodate clients’ schedules. This means Grose has to pick up the slack. “I’m here all the time,” he said.

He said his current day to day reminds him of when he first started the business when it was a one-person operation.

“It’s really hard to see everything grow and then all of a sudden everything come to a screeching halt and go backwards,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like I’m progressing.”

For now, he’s trying to keep in line with CDC guidelines and to limit the number of people in the store at any given time.

Though COVID-19 has changed much about daily life for most Americans, young couples still want to celebrate their wedding day. “This is still one of the greatest days of their life,” Grose said. “That’s really what it comes down to is how they feel that day. So if they look and feel their best and the way they wanted to, it’s OK if you don’t have the big party.”

Jessica Bird, a bridal consultant at the Utah Bride Room in Draper, also said there has been a decrease in business, especially since spring and summer are usually the busiest times for weddings.

“This was kind of the worst time for a pandemic to hit,” she said.

Dress boutiques aren’t the only businesses that depend on weddings for a large portion of their revenue.

Penguin Brothers co-owner Brandon Barkdull said his business has also suffered since about 70% of the income is based on catering, specifically from March to September.

“Basically our business has been put on pause,” he said. “A lot of our weddings are canceled or postponed indefinitely and we’re trying to do our best to be accommodating because we know how hard it is as a bride right now to plan your wedding with so much uncertainty.”

Barkdull said Penguin Brothers has made some changes to accommodate brides, such as getting rid of deposits and reducing the minimum number of people needed for catering services.

Even so, the company has had more traffic to its storefronts than expected, partially due to a “Save the Penguins” campaign (started to give out-of-state customers a way to help the business). Barkdull said this year is going to be a “skip year” in terms of the business’s progress. The company opened a catering facility to help handle the load of food orders just before the pandemic hit.

“That was probably the most stressful thing. We were planning for that growth, and we’re making purchases and investing in the growth of the company, and we won’t really see the benefits of that ’til another year,” he said. “Our plans for growth and our goals, we’re probably not going to reach that anymore.”

Despite these challenges, Barkdull said the company is in a position where it won’t go under and that he’s grateful for some of the positives that will ultimately come out of the experience.

“It forces us to think outside of the box and kind of re-strategize and come up with new ways to work around this obstacle and so in a way it’s been like a positive thing,” he said. “There’s a couple of opportunities that came out of it that we probably wouldn’t have known about or tried without this COVID-19 era.”

BYU graduate and florist Marianne Hunt also said nearly all of her March, April and May weddings have been postponed.

“A lot of them haven’t postponed to a specific date yet so it’s all very ambiguous,” Hunt said. “That is my livelihood, so it’s been very difficult because that is what I’ve chosen to specialize in, and there haven’t been any (weddings).”

She said she’s not alone and is grateful for that. Since everyone is going through the pandemic together, it’s been easier for her to work with her bank about options for her loans and mortgage, she said. “For the most part, people have been very kind and very understanding and helpful that way,” she said. “If it was just me and I just lost my job, I don’t think they would have been necessarily quite as accommodating.”

One of the biggest challenges she’s faced is supply. Most of her suppliers are out of state and don’t have the means to get her flowers since airlines aren’t running their normal schedules.

“The flower industry has been hit so hard,” she said, adding that one of her suppliers, a grower who had been in business for 100 years, recently emailed her saying they were going out of business.

The suppliers who are still operating have to ship flowers through FedEx, something she says will drive up prices. Hunt said it’ll take time before flower selection isn’t so limited and prices return to normal.

“I’m very hopeful and super optimistic that we’ll get back to where we need to be,” she said. “I also would plead with every bride to incorporate flowers in their celebrations, no matter how small, and still make it a beautiful and memorable day.”

She also encouraged brides to look on the positive side of guidelines limiting large gatherings.

“In some ways, a wedding of 20 people of your just your family and your parents and your grandparents is great,” Hunt said. “There’s nothing wrong with events with 400 people, I love those too, but you have to stretch the budget so that it’s hard to do great things.”

Bird agreed with this positive sentiment. “There’s so many companies and so many talented people who are available right now for exactly what they want,” she said. “And it’s not just that we’re trying to make money. I get such a high, such a happiness, from helping other people find their ‘happily ever after.'”

Bird isn’t sure what the long-term effects of the pandemic will be for the wedding industry, but she hopes the one change that comes out of it is a focus on celebrating the love between the bride and groom rather than throwing a party.

The wedding industry in Utah may be in a better position than those same businesses in the rest of the country, though. Bird said most bridal shops outside the state usually close during the winter.

“In Utah every season is wedding season,” Bird said. “We get brides all through the year, all the time.”

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