June typically kicks off Montana’s busiest wedding season. But this year, couples and small businesses are navigating the ripple effects of COVID-19.
Last December, Kathleen Healy and her boyfriend of five years got engaged. They planned for an August wedding in Billings and were just about to send out the invitations in March. Then COVID-19 happened.
“We were thinking about postponing, and then we decided, nope, we want to get married," Healy says. "This is going to be an unforgettable year. No one is going to forget 2020! So we decided to move ahead but be really smart and safe about it and go with the flow and know that things could change dramatically and very quickly."
Healy says they’ll have fewer guests at their outdoor venue and set up a ZOOM link for out-of-state family and friends who can’t or don’t feel comfortable traveling just yet. She says she and her fiance are also keeping a close eye on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We may or may not all be wearing face masks," Healy adds.
While the Billings couple is tentatively moving forward with their August wedding, many others, especially those who had planned ceremonies in May and June, have postponed to the fall of 2021 or have decided to downsize.
That’s a big financial loss for a lot of small businesses, including caterers, florists and photographers.
“There’s some venues and photographers that are pretty much booked for '21 even though they’re not having business this year," Marty Paugh says.
Paugh is the executive director of My Montana Wedding Association, which represents about 200 vendors in the northwest part of the state.
She says the destination wedding industry plays a big role in the regional economy. The Flathead County Clerk of Court issued over 2,400 marriage licenses in 2019. According to the market research firm The Wedding Report, the average wedding last year was over $20,000 in Montana.
There are other ways the wedding industry boosts local economies. Paugh says nearly 1,000 people, many of whom were from out-of-state, visited Kalispell for My Montana Wedding’s expo in January.
“People fly in and make it a weekend. It’s a big deal, not only for people interested in getting married but also for our vendors. They do a lot of business at expos."
While some wedding vendors are struggling right now, Paugh says she’s hopeful that some of the creative solutions she’s seen will carry them through the dry spell.
More vendors have started offering services catered for elopements and ‘micro-weddings’ with half a dozen attendees.
Crystal Gordon is the lead consultant for Montana Wildflower Weddings, a popular outdoor venue and service provider north of Red Lodge.
“It’s just adapting to what is going on right now, honestly, so that we are still able to do weddings," Gordon says.
Wildflower typically hosts around 30 weddings from mid-May to mid-October. This year, Gordon says they’ve had two cancellations in May, two postponements in June and two postponements later in the season.
“Honestly, it's a little heartbreaking when you work with couples, especially brides, one on one, for so many months. And now here we are, just over a year before the wedding and all the planning that’s been done, just falls apart. And it’s for nothing. That’s the toughest part," Gordon says.
Gordon says the couples who postponed or cancelled were from out of state or had a lot of guests who wouldn’t have been able to attend due to travel restrictions or health concerns. She says some were also affected by the economic struggles brought on by the pandemic.
They recently started offering smaller wedding packages, one to two hours of venue rental for the couple and several guests, compared to a full day with 150 people. Gordon says she has received multiple inquiries every week and people are still making reservations.
“August and September are actually pretty full and I've only had one September wedding that downsized to an elopement package. And then I just booked a Sunday wedding in September, like a full-blown Sunday wedding," Gordon says, adding that Wildflower Weddings already has 10 bookings for 2021.
She’s optimistic that they’ll be able to get through 2020 even though there’s still a lot of uncertainty.