Friday, 15 May 2020

Photographers, caterers and florists find alternatives as wedding season withers - VTDigger

Photographers, caterers and florists find alternatives as wedding season withers

This story by John Lippman was published by the Valley News on May 16.
EAST THETFORD — In April, Barry Clarke wrote an email to the 26 clients who had booked his services for the summer to let them know he wouldn’t be able to cater their event and was returning their deposits.
That wasn’t a problem. Most of them had canceled anyway.
“Seventy percent of my business is weddings,” said Clarke, owner of The Barefoot Gourmet, a “boutique catering” business that he runs out of his East Thetford home. “Or 70% of my business was weddings. I’ve canceled every event this year and next and returned all the deposits. There is no way I can put myself in an uncontrolled environment and bring it home.”
The “it” is Covid-19 and it has already largely wiped out Vermont’s lucrative wedding business for this year, a $164 million industry that supports scores of caterers, tent suppliers, photographers, florists, musicians and DJs who all provide services for the ceremony and celebration, not to mention hotels, bed and breakfasts, and Airbnb rentals that accommodate guests.
Even when Gov. Phil Scott lifts his ban on assemblies of more than 10 people for non-essential businesses, fear over contracting the coronavirus is likely to put a damper on weddings and accompanying parties until a treatment or vaccine is discovered, industry professionals say.
Weddings are a key part of the Vermont’s tourism economy: The wedding industry has assiduously crafted the state’s image into a bucolic destination for nuptials, playing up everything from the verdant landscape as a backdrop to catered farm-to-table banquets for the reception.
Vermont hosted 5,665 weddings in 2019, 46% of which involved couples traveling to the state to have the ceremony, the highest percentage among the New England states, according to the Vermont Association of Wedding Professionals.
“We’ve worked really hard to network and promote the Vermont wedding brand not only in New England but across the country,” said Talena Companion, treasurer of the association and owner of Premier Entertainment and Events, of South Burlington, which provides DJs, lighting and photo booths for weddings.
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The association estimates that the average wedding “spend” in Vermont is $30,000 — for the venue, caterer and other services surrounding the ceremony — and that’s before taking into account what guests consume on lodging, meals and traveling while in the state.
The industry serving the wedding market in Vermont is mostly made of small business owners and self-employed vendors, many of whom see and work with one another as they roll from wedding to wedding through a season that extends from late June to early October.
“For so many vendors, (weddings) are their livelihood. It’s what puts food on the table,” Companion said.
Perry Armstrong, owner of Rain or Shine Tent and Events Co. in Randolph, said he supplies tents to between 150 to 200 weddings a year, but bookings are currently running “at the 20% level” of normal.
“We’re literally sitting on millions of dollars in inventory right now,” Armstrong said of his idled equipment. He think his tents could be redeployed for restaurants setting up outside dining areas, but that would likely require a way to funnel the state’s federal CARES Act stimulus funding to pay for it, as restaurants are strapped for cash.
“This would provide some cash flow back to the companies. But if tent companies have to fold up and go bankrupt waiting to see what happens in 2021, that will be devastating for events in the state,” Armstrong predicted.
The collapse in wedding business due to Covid-19 is forcing vendors to try new things in order to make up for lost revenue.
Clarke, for example, has turned his catering business into a weekly to-go “meal package” dinner service that customers pick up roadside at the end of his driveway in East Thetford. Clarke emails a menu to about 80 people he knows on Thursday, and orders are due to be returned by Sunday for a Tuesday afternoon pickup (each package serves four).
“It invariably sells out in 48 hours,” Clarke said, adding he’s “done with” his wedding and event catering business.
White River Junction florist Morgan Perrone said she’s “going to have to get creative this summer” to find a way to make up for her lost flower sales to wedding events.
Perrone, whose Valley Flower Co. shop is on Gates Street opposite Northern Stage, said she normally supplies flowers — most of them imported from Europe — to upward of 40 weddings and events from June to October.
“Almost 85% of our events this summer have been postponed to 2021 and at this prove I foresee them all doing it,” she said.
With the average flower bill for a wedding coming to $5,000, Perrone said the loss in business “is a very big hit,” especially since her weddings and events business makes up for the decline in in-store flower sales during the summer.
Perrone is looking at starting floral design classes “now that I have so much down time” and is looking for places where she’d be able to set up outdoors since people may be uneasy about meeting inside the store.

Rita Champion Stitchdown Farm
Rita Champion, owner of Stitchdown Farm in Bethel, waters flower starts on May 13, 2020. Also running a weekly floral CSA, Champion said the farm’s diversity should lessen the impact of wedding postponements due to the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Jennifer Hauck/Valley News

Brendon Blood, owner of Blood’s Catering & Party Rental, is also weighing launching a new business that uses the established caterer’s equipment and know-how.
June is the busiest month of the year for Blood’s, which typically has more than 50 events to work around Dartmouth College’s graduation and homecoming events. But not this year with Dartmouth canceling all such events.
“We turn about $400,000 in three weeks from the Dartmouth business,” Blood said. “That’s gone.”
Also gone is supplying chairs for 17 high school graduations in the Upper Valley that have been canceled and many of the 50 to 65 weddings that Blood’s typically supplies over the summer to postponement next year.
Although Blood’s is supplying the white tents to Three Tomatoes Trattoria and Salt hill Pub for the new outdoor dining areas around the Lebanon Mall, those rentals are not enough to offset the loss in business.

Blood said he is now looking at introducing a curbside meal program where people would be able to pick up pre-ordered lunch and dinner to-go at Blood’s Route 5 location in Wilder.
“I don’t see I’m going to be doing a lot of catering or rental work, and I want to keep my chefs busy,” said Blood, who added that he’s been able to keep his 13 full-time employees paid thanks to the federal Paycheck Protection Program.
Thinking of new ways to operate during social distancing is the game plan for Sarah Priestap Porter, of Tunbridge, who with her husband, Jeff Porter, owns Two of Us Wedding Photography.
Priestap Porter said before the restrictions around Covid-19 set in, they were fully booked for the season with 22 weddings, with eight now “officially postponed.”
“Every day I’m getting more cancellations. I poor looking at my email,” said Priestap Porter, a former photographer at the Valley News.
She’s laughable the time to design photo albums for clients, which is included in some of clients’ photography packages, as people in isolation want to view comforting things.
She also is offering to meet clients who reschedule for next year, if they happen at any time to be in the Upper Valley, and offer them free 30-minute photo sessions.
Priestap Porter said she finds it helpful, both for her own mental well-being as well as for her business, to reframe the modern situation from “We’re going to lose a lot of money” to “How can we best serve our clients?”
Some wedding vendors said there really isn’t much they can do if they lose business.
Newton Wells, whose Stowe-based company Peak Entertainment provides DJs and music for weddings, fields a crew of a dozen DJs who spin music at about 175 weddings annually, including many at the Woodstock Inn, Quechee Club and Quechee Inn at Marshland Farm.
“I’ve already moved 60 dates, about a third of them to next year,” Wells said, estimating he’s lost about $100,000 in revenue so far. “Weddings and proms are 99% of what we do.”
Given that there are only about 16 weekends from late June to October, Wells foresees a major issue when it comes to securing venues and vendors for weddings pushed off until 2021 because of coronavirus.
“Next year is going to be the biggest year we’ve ever seen. You’re basically shoving two seasons into one,” he said.
But Wells said there may be a silver lining for couples whose engagements got a little longer as a result the Covid-19 pandemic.
“If you can survive quarantine together, you can survive anything,” Wells said. “You’re good to go.”
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