When the government announced its timetable for easing England out of lockdown, Sophie Ovens and Arthur Mitchell realised the wedding they had planned could not go ahead.
It was booked at Cornwall’s Rosevine Hotel with 60 guests on May 15, two days before the government-sanctioned attendance limit is set to double to 30 people. For many couples this has proved a tipping point for proceeding with their celebrations since, under current rules, unrestricted numbers will not be allowed before June 21.
Ovens and Mitchell asked the hotel to move the booking back two days and halved their guest list.
“It was horrible on the day [of the announcement],” Ovens said. “I didn’t think we would be as close to the cusp of it going ahead or not.”
“It would have been impossible to delay the wedding we wanted any further,” Mitchell added.
For couples, the uncertainty and administrative headache of rearranging dates, invitations and suppliers has been emotional. For the wedding industry, which estimates it typically generates £14.7bn in spending a year and provides work for 400,000 people, the crisis has been devastating.
Some 220,000 weddings, or 80 per cent of the 2019 total, were postponed last year, according to the UK Weddings Taskforce, set up to represent the industry during the crisis. Some celebrations were delayed two or three times as lockdown restrictions were lifted and then reimposed.
Sarah Haywood, a wedding planner who represents the taskforce, said that around five wedding businesses, from bridal wear shops to photographers and barns that host events, have gone out of business each week during the most recent lockdown alone.
In January, 74 per cent of the 3,000 businesses surveyed by the taskforce reported losses in 2020 of at least 76 per cent of their usual turnover.
Furlough has been the only major piece of state support available to most in the industry. Few wedding companies classify as hospitality businesses or have high street frontages that allow them to access sector specific grants. Most have had to keep on staff to handle postponements even with no revenue coming in.
Some businesses have been able to take advantage of government-backed loans but Christopher Mills, a bespoke events planner, said that these are a poisoned chalice: “We are all facing the reality of paying loan schemes back without any generated income . . . perhaps this is the financial equivalent of ‘long Covid’.”
The taskforce is lobbying the government to allow more than 30 guests at weddings from May 17. Given that indoor events will be permitted at 50 per cent capacity for up to 1,000 people from the same date, wedding organisers argue that the limit for nuptials is unfair, despite officials’ apparent concern about people embracing a lot and getting drunk at receptions.
“It does not make sense. [Ministers] appear not to trust that the wedding sector could or would adhere to the measures that are put in place,” Haywood said.
She also noted that it took at least six months for ministers to recognise the largely female-run wedding sector as a sizeable contributor to the economy. The industry generates almost three times the spending of arts and culture annually, Haywood said, but it is often seen as frivolous.
“[It’s] hard work, it’s every weekend, it’s antisocial hours,” she said.
Kate Bendall, head of sales at Bubble Food, which normally caters more than 400 events a year, said the company did one “micro wedding” for 10 people last year. She said that venues and caterers had to have rigorous health and safety protocols to be allowed to operate, regardless of Covid-19, and that it was hard to break even on a “teeny tiny” wedding.
In some cultures, particularly Asian and Jewish communities, having a large group of relations or friends present is a fundamental part of the ceremony.
LaToya Patel, a planner who specialises in Asian marriages, said that cutting numbers was “a massive compromise”. “This isn’t a nice-to-have situation. this is how they celebrate their wedding,” she said. “There were people who had bought houses together, cued up elements of their lives and those houses were sitting empty because they couldn’t live there without being married.”
Some orthodox Jewish communities require a “minyan” of 10 religious men to be present, which meant that when the government stipulated during the strictest lockdowns that ceremonies had to be kept to 15 people, essential family members were effectively excluded.
Nearly 500,000 weddings are waiting to take place as restrictions lift, the task force said, and some 350,000 are expected in 2022. As a result, wedding venues are struggling to placate couples who have had to move dates and fear burnout among staff who have been off work for more than a year.
“Looking at the diary is a bit terrifying at the moment, particularly when [staff] have been on furlough with their feet up,” said Hannah Petrouis, whose family business runs the Shropshire wedding venue Hawkstone Hall. “Lots of people who were getting married on a Saturday in August are now getting married on a Tuesday in November.”
She also said that the office staff have come to her several times in tears after fractious conversations with couples: “It became a bit dog eat dog, with couples saying kick that person off that date, but we can’t do that.”
Several planners said that many weddings this year, particularly after all restrictions are meant to lift on June 21, are set to be more extravagant festivities than initially planned.
“[Clients] are making up for celebrations they have lost in the past 12 months,” Mills said, adding that the proportion asking for multiple day parties had tripled to 60 per cent.
One wedding he is organising involves recreating the ballet Swan Lake on a Scottish marshland with tables made to look like swans and a replica of the Royal Opera House stage. Even though Mills’s events are high end with prices for his services starting from £70,000, he said that “everyone seems to have this energy to celebrate”.
But, he added, people need to understand that “we do bring in a helluva lot of money . . . we are so much more than putting pickles on plates”.