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Wedding Bell Blues

Lindsey Reed thought she would be Mrs. Stell the next time she ate at Pizzicletta in Flagstaff or camped at Marshall Lake, but COVID-19 arrived like an uninvited uncle who barged in and messed things up just when she thought all was under control.

Northern Arizona University MBA alumnus Greg Stell surprised Reed when he got down on one knee on a Northland camping trip in October 2018. “We love Flagstaff so much – the outdoors and restaurants – it was my birthday weekend and I never thought it would happen then,” she said of the proposal.

The Phoenix couple had set a date for May 2020 for a large traditional wedding in Gilbert, complete with 150 guests including relatives flying in from the East Coast, plus a honeymoon on an Alaskan cruise. “We were making final plans, but by mid-March things started getting crazy and we made that really tough decision to postpone the wedding. It was definitely super disappointing.”

Lindsey and Greg are not alone in their disappointment. This year’s would-be brides and grooms, along with a whole bridal bouquet of caterers, event venues, rental companies and photographers, have been trying to rearrange their lives and businesses around the chaos of the pandemic. With large gatherings banned, Northern Arizona wedding vendors feel like they have been left at the altar.

Simply Delicious Caterer Nancy McCulla reports 98% of her catering business has dropped off since March. “We had 45 full-service weddings booked over a five-month period. Everything has been cancelled, including fundraising events and summer celebrations. We’ve really scaled things back, unplugged refrigerators we don’t need, and sanitized and put things away in storage. We absolutely had to lay people off.”

Viola’s Flower Garden averages about 22 weddings in spring and summer at its expansive Highway 89A property. “We had to postpone all but a handful, which were downgraded to 10 people or less,” said Viola’s Venue Manager Jesse Bangle. “About 90% of the weddings were postponed, 5% were downsized and 5% canceled. We have nothing booked for September and October.”

“The Verde Valley and Northern Arizona had been in a boom mode until recently,” said Krysta Gornick, business manager of Verve Events and Tents. “We have been growing for the past 15 years, but this year, our event business is down 80%. We’ve had to cut down to bare essentials, dropping insurance on vehicles not being used and downsizing staff substantially.”

Prescott-based photographer Christopher Marchetti says business as usual is gone. “We’ve seen an end to the big weddings and events. They’ve fallen away by almost 90%. I used to shoot six or seven major events at various resorts with upwards of 300 people. They’re all gone. The impact has been tremendous, but we’ve adapted to small backyard, close-knit family events.”

For Robynn Kleck, 27-year owner of Robynn’s Nest Flowers in Flagstaff, the economic implications of the novel coronavirus were terrifying. “When it first happened, it scared me to death. I thought, ‘What will we do? Will we have to close?’ But since we’re considered an agricultural and funeral service, we were allowed to stay open. Weddings have been scaled down from big weddings to intimate family affairs.”

But, as with all good love stories, those in the wedding business are looking for a happy ending to COVID-19 and working hard to write a lucrative next chapter. Some, like Kleck, are experiencing unexpected, yet positive, changes.

“I’ve been amazed. Weddings are smaller, but business has increased,” she said. “I thought it [the coronavirus] would really hurt business, but people can’t visit each other, so they send flowers and they spend more money. It used to be the average order was $50 to $75; now, it’s $75 to $100.”

Meanwhile, the plant nursery business in Viola’s Flower Garden is in full bloom. “Weirdly, gardening went up,” said Bangle. “When we took a hit in the venue side of the business, we kind of panicked, but then we saw the increase in garden sales. We lucked out.”

At Verve Tents and Events in Cottonwood, Gornick says the tool rental business has taken off as an interest in home repair and remodeling projects has grown. “About 10 years ago, we split into two different stores, but we never thought the tool side would be outpacing the party side.”

She added that as those in the food and events business are getting creative, more people are investing in long-term tenting. “The industry as a whole is trying to react. Restaurants are trying to create on-site outdoor seating. We’re working with churches who are moving people outside. Long-term tenting has become the revenue generator.”

McCulla, too, is adapting her operation at the Café Daily Fare. “We can’t open indoor seating at the café because the amount of space required between tables and the amount of time it would take to sanitize between customers would be too frustrating. But box lunches are more popular than ever. We’ve expanded the patio and it’s really nice out there under the oak trees. There are a lot of cute little tables. People can bring their dogs. And, we’re really excited to see our customers.”

Her delivery service and grab-and-go business have increased. “People love our soup flights, with three different soups. We love to make things people won’t take the time to make at home. As local businesses, we are all helping each other out and are grateful to our regular customers.”

Photographers, like Marchetti, have adjusted to the non-wedding season, as well. “A lot of artists have been really busy and I’ve been documenting their work for online advertising and general marketing. Business is not back to what it was, but people’s optimism is still there.”

For couples like Paige Melzer and Edward Hufford, who became engaged earlier this year at the Grand Canyon, they are watching and waiting. “Everything is so weird right now. We haven’t even started planning for our wedding yet,” said Melzer, as she watches her friends, Lindsey Reed and Greg Stell, re-schedule their big day, yet again, now from October 2020 to May 2021.

“We have spent so much money on stationary saying, ‘Save the Date’ and ‘Change the Date,’” said Reed. “I’m sure we’ll look back at this and it will be funny one day.” FBN

By Bonnie Stevens, FBN

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