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Businesses that make Wine Country weddings magical regroup as the coronavirus sours the joy

How big is the wedding industry?

• Market size: $74 billion

• Number of businesses: 400,419

• Industry employment: 1,209,624

Source: IBISWorld analysis for the United States

The wedding industry is built around happiness.

Couples are excited to celebrate their commitment, and so are the businesses whose success is tied to helping weddings go off without a hitch.

These days, no one is profiting.

“Until people are allowed to gather in groups, the entire industry has been sidelined,” said Kevin Dennis, international president of the Wedding International Professionals Association, a member-based advocacy group with 12 chapters, including the San Francisco Bay Area. “Once it is deemed safe for us to gather and have events, I feel it's going to take 18 to 24 months until it is semi-recovered from this pandemic.”

On March 11, the day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the Business Journal connected with economist Robert Eyler to get his thoughts on the potential impact to the region's economy. It was days before the state went on lockdown and he said this: Keep an eye on the weddings market.

“You might see it change, which will be another round of major revenue shocks,” Eyler, dean of the School of Extended and International Education and a professor of economics at Sonoma State University, said at the time. “You might see people delaying their wedding dates because they're not going to be able to travel.”

Nearly three months later, his forecast has become reality.

“No matter what happens, this year is going to be very tough because we just don't know how we're going to have to react to new regulations,” Eyler said on May 22. That includes no way of knowing how couples will proceed once the market reopens. “There's a lot of moving parts in that market.”

Wine Country weddings

“COVID 19 has devastated our hospitality and wedding business in the (Sonoma) Valley,” said Victoria Campbell, director of events at Viansa Winery and B.R. Cohn Winery, whose parent company is Vintage Wine Estates. “2020 was going to be one of our best years yet.”

Both wineries had been shuttered since shelter-in-place, but did reopen on June 2, and direct-to-consumer wine sales have been steady throughout, she said.

There have been 112 weddings already booked this year between the two wineries.

Half of those weddings have now postponed into next year, amounting to a revenue loss this year of approximately $500,000 and, in turn, minimizing availability for new weddings and events in 2021, Campbell said.

In addition, “a handful of weddings” canceled due to restrictions on international travel, along with 25% of corporate event bookings. Together, that amounts to nearly $250,000 in lost revenue for 2020.

At press time, 30 of the 112 scheduled weddings remain on the books, Campbell said.

Viansa can accommodate wedding parties for up to 400 guests outside, and up to 200 guests indoors. Site rental costs for weddings taking place between May and October are priced at $11,000 on Saturdays, and $8,500 on Fridays and Sundays. For weddings held between November and April, the cost is $7,500 on Saturdays, and $6,500 on Fridays and Sundays.

B.R. Cohn can accommodate up to 250 guests. Weddings held between May and October cost $10,000 on Saturdays, and $8,500 on Fridays and Sundays. Weddings held November through April are priced at $7,500 on Saturdays, and $6,500 on Fridays and Sundays.

The properties rely on venue fees and wine sales from the weddings, which makes the tough times more difficult for all involved.

“This (coronavirus situation) is extremely hurtful to all the small businesses and vendors we work with,” Campbell said, noting those impacted include wedding planners, caterers, musicians, DJs, caterers and florists.

Thinking creatively

Marie Krick, floral designer and owner of Laurel and Vine in Novato, had five weddings booked in June, resulting in a loss of $18,000 for the month, she said. As of press time, she still has about 10 weddings on the books for the year, but they will be scaled down because large gatherings in the state are in phase 4 of Gov. Gavin Newsom's plan for reopening, which currently has no timeline.

On May 8, Newsom lifted shelter-in-place orders for businesses that include florists. But that only partially reopened the door for florists like Krick.

“My main business is wedding and events, and it's rough not being able to do that, but I'm really grateful for the opportunity to open back up again,” Krick told the Business Journal on May 8. Since then, she's been getting orders for one-day events such as birthdays and Mother's Day, which helps with revenue.

Krick said she had been expecting it would be a while before events with large gatherings would resume, and already was exploring other ways to bring in more business.

How big is the wedding industry?

• Market size: $74 billion

• Number of businesses: 400,419

• Industry employment: 1,209,624

Source: IBISWorld analysis for the United States

“I'm anticipating people not wanting to spend as much money on their weddings in general, just because of the economy and with smaller weddings happening,” Krick said.

She's about to bring to life one of her concepts, an online course to educate brides on how to successfully plan and execute their wedding flowers. Krick's DIY Wedding Flower Academy will launch in the next couple of weeks. She is still nailing down pricing.

“I'm going to have a basic package, which is tutorials and instruction on bouquets, boutonnieres and centerpieces,” Krick said. The next tier will go more in-depth, and a third tier will include two 30-minute phone calls where she will consult with brides about flower planning, colors, varieties and how to order.

A pivot plan

Moira Gubbins, a Mill Valley-based wedding planner who has run Parties, Parties, Parties since taking it over from her mother in 1993, had just resumed operating her business full time a month before the COVID-19 outbreak. She had mostly put her business on hold for about three years to pursue other endeavors.

Gubbins is now working on what she calls her “pivot plan,” which could mean planning Zoom weddings, intimate weddings, or celebrating postponed wedding parties when life returns to its new normal.

“What I'm really hoping is to be able to go to a venue and do an anniversary party next year, and have it be the celebration that (the couples) missed,” she said.

Gubbins also is strategizing for what will be the first wave of resumed gatherings.

“I think it could be a nice time for smaller, more intimate backyard weddings, curated with beautiful meals, beautiful silverware and china, and have it be really exquisite with fine details,” said Gubbins, whose client list for events over the years exceeds 100, including most industry sectors like hotels, hospitals, banks, nonprofits and tech companies. One of Gubbins' early gigs was planning a holiday party for Yahoo!

Gubbins also recently teamed up with Pulp Pours, a nationwide business with offices in Los Angeles and Seattle that brings its smoothies and fresh juice stations to events large and small.

Though the pandemic is new, Gubbins said she and her vendors have weathered economic bumps throughout the years, including the dot-com bubble and the Great Recession.

“We've seen these ups and downs, but this one is much more far-reaching for vendors and people like myself. It's a brave new world out there and we don't know what it's going to end up looking like,” Gubbins said. “I really hope that we don't lose the ability to celebrate with each other. I think we need it in person.”

Staff Writer Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and education. Reach her at cheryl.sarfaty@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4259.

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