Rescheduling more than 125 weddings in the span of just a few months is a Herculean task, but for Fausto Pifferrer and Reuben Bell of Blue Elephant Events & Catering in Saco, that’s what had to happen this spring once the coronavirus pandemic struck, forcing the postponement or cancellation of nearly all large gatherings in Maine for 2020.
The wedding industry has become a nearly billion-dollar part of Maine’s economy, supporting everything from venues, hotels and rental businesses, to caterers, photographers and DJs as Maine has become an increasingly popular destination wedding location. Though most people planning weddings have rescheduled their events for 2021, a dramatically smaller 2020 season puts many of the businesses that support that industry in jeopardy.
“We really hustled, and managed to move every one of our clients to next year, and by the grace of God, we only lost one job,” said Pifferrer, a 35-year wedding industry veteran. “But now the reality is starting to sink in that there is no money coming in, for us and for all these other businesses. And what we do have left is rapidly being spent up. We lost $1.2 million in one week alone.”
Blue Elephant Events & Catering has nine full-time staff members and employs between 100 and 125 part-time employees between May and October — a typical setup for caterers and event venues, which rely on part-time, seasonal workers. Right now, almost none of those part-time employees have work.
“Pretty much the whole year is a wash,” said Pifferrer.
Gov. Janet Mills’ administration recently raised the limits on the number of people who can gather at an outdoor event from 50 to 100, but that move was too little, too late for most people who had a wedding planned for Maine this year.
Meg Schindler, a York native now living in Vermont with her fiance, Soren, had an Oct. 3 wedding planned for the Wells Reserve at Laudholm in Wells. In March, she figured they’d probably still be able to have their celebration, since it was at that time more than six months away. But by the end of April, she concluded that it was just not possible in 2020 to invite 120 people from all over the country to Maine.
The couple now has a small ceremony and dinner planned for Oct. 3 at the same venue, with just 25 to 30 guests, and they are hoping to have a second, much larger reception in May 2021.
“It was really important to us to still get married, and not let this put our life on hold completely,” said Schindler. “It makes you realize that nothing is promised. Who knows what next year will look like? Of course we want to have a big, beautiful wedding. But it was more important to us that we have that moment with our really close family.”
Portland resident Jordan Barrett married her husband, Richard, last Friday, in a wedding for which the couple changed plans three times after the pandemic struck. First, they moved it from May to August, then they moved it to Portland City Hall, before finally moving it to July 31 at Fort Williams in Cape Elizabeth. The couple held a 25-person dinner in their backyard afterward, and plan to host a larger party on their one-year anniversary.
“I kept having to remind myself that this isn’t just happening to us. This is happening to thousands of brides and grooms all over the world. I didn’t want to be a spoiled brat about it,” said Barrett. “And as I got to know my vendors really well, I knew it was so difficult for them as well. It was all a lesson in flexibility.”
Some people have forgone a gathering altogether. Kate Crabtree, a Bangor wedding photographer, has shot three elopements so far this year, as well as a few pared-down, traditional ceremonies.
“I think everyone’s reaction to everything has been all over the map,” Crabtree said. “It is a wild mix of emotions. Some people have taken stock of what matters to them, and just want to get married, regardless of the size of the wedding. And other people have postponed to next year, so they can still have their dream wedding. Everyone is different.”
Crabtree said she’s worried that with so many people postponing to next year, most of the popular wedding venues in Maine will be all booked up with rescheduled events, meaning there won’t be space for the people who are getting engaged this year, and want to get married next year. That could, in turn, create a ripple effect that may take years to resolve.
“I think 2022 is probably the target for some semblance of normalcy,” said Crabtree. “But who’s to say? It’s all incredibly complicated.”
While many couples are rescheduling their weddings, Pifferrer said the pandemic could result in others simply dropping their wedding plans altogether for any number of reasons, from job losses to pregnancies to breakups.
“There is a huge ripple effect in the lives of people, especially in this time, which is just so incredibly stressful,” he said. “Suddenly a year has passed, and the priority of the wedding is not as high.”
With so much uncertainty, and with an industry entirely dependent on people making important, emotionally charged life decisions, and on the return of mass gatherings, Pifferrer said he hopes to see more organized action to help his industry. He and others in Maine’s wedding industry wrote to Mills on April 16, pleading for help, and on a national level, the National Association for Catering and Events is lobbying to be included in any assistance for hospitality and tourism businesses.
“We’re kind of the stepchild of the tourism and hospitality industry, because we’re a little different, but we do have some similarities,” said Pifferrer. “If you’re coming from out of state to Maine for a wedding, you’re probably doing all the things tourists do — going out to eat, staying in hotels, all that stuff.”
Pifferrer and Bell and some colleagues also drafted a document describing best practices for large, catered events — distinct from guidelines for restaurants — that includes new sanitary measures and new guidelines for social distancing.
“The state has been very supportive, and I think they understand that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for everyone,” said Pifferrer. “But that’s as far as we’ve gotten. I think a lot of people were really clueless about what it is, exactly, that we do. Hopefully, now, it’s becoming clearer. And hopefully that can help us as we try to navigate this.”