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For better or for worse: Duluth wedding industry slows as weddings get smaller

Services have spent the last year trying to help couples change their wedding plans to fit with state restrictions, but not every niche of the industry has been able to operate with those restrictions.

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Zach and Megan Schneider cut their guest list from 325 to 30 for their Aug. 1, 2020 wedding. Many couples have opted to hold more intimate micro-weddings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Following their 2019 engagement, Zack and Megan Schneider had almost everything planned for their August 2020 wedding — including a 325-person guest list — when the coronavirus pandemic suddenly forced them to change it all.

The Duluth couple didn’t know how to move forward with their wedding to meet the state’s restrictions on large events, so they reached out to Mariah McKechnie at Northland Special Events in Duluth for help.

“As a business owner it was like fighting a fire every single day,” McKechnie said.

She and others in the event industry have had to constantly monitor the rules venues and gatherings have been under since March 2020, while also guiding couples as they try to salvage wedding plans.

The Schneiders opted for a small, 30-person wedding in Megan’s grandpa’s yard. They, like many other couples in the last year, had a more intimate ceremony with the people most important to them. These micro-weddings were popular across the Northland, especially since people could feel safe holding small gatherings outside in yards or tents.

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Zach and Megan Schneider (Photo by Hannah Johnson, Hannah Nicole Photography)

Many mini-weddings

For wedding planners like McKechnie and Mary Carlson, owner of Pure Events in Duluth, the micro-wedding fad has been fun. Carlson said the details couples could incorporate made the day extra special for them. Planning a smaller wedding takes less time for the event planners, so McKechnie said she was able to take on more clients and work with them for about eight hours in total, instead of the typical 40 hours or more a large wedding requires.

“They’re more economical for the client, too, because paying $3,000 for an all-inclusive experience is a lot less of an investment than $25,000 for a big wedding,” McKechnie said.

Some couples were willing to take the money they saved and spend it on decorations that wouldn’t have been feasible for a crowd of 200. Couples were also able to enjoy more time with their loved ones because they spend less time stressing about large-scale plans. The Schneiders also said their small group made mingling easy.

“I think Megan and I remember every piece of that day because it was so small and intimate,” Zach Schneider said.

Misty Matson, owner of Bella Rose Bridal in Duluth, said brides were also still willing to invest in their dream dress, regardless of their wedding size or location. Although she acknowledged that many of her clients already have sizable budgets for their dress, Matson said she heard from many brides that they were willing to spend even more on their dress because they didn’t have to foot the bill of their large weddings anymore.

Cancellations cause complications

However, micro-weddings don’t solve the problem for everyone in the industry. Not everyone is willing to splurge so much if there won’t be as many people there to see the big event.

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Photographer Bryan Koop, owner of Bryan Jonathan Weddings in Duluth, said booking these smaller events is anything but economical. A large wedding would employ his time for eight to 12 hours on a Saturday. Now, he spends maybe three hours shooting a wedding, but he won’t double-book a day because he doesn’t want to run into scheduling problems if events run long.

“You lose the day whether you book a two-hour wedding or a 12-hour wedding. You can’t book anything else — or at least I don’t book anything else,” Koop said.

Ken Pogin, owner of Duluth Event Lighting, said he lost every event from March to June, which especially hurt knowing the circumstances were completely out of his control.

“The wedding and event industry is probably one of the hardest hit because of COVID because we are exactly what COVID is telling us not to do,” Pogin said. “How do you do a curbside pickup for a wedding?”

He saw things slowly pick up midsummer with outdoor weddings or clients upgrading the size of their venue to ensure social distancing. Through this, Pogin and his crew got back to work to create beautiful wedding venues, including backyard tents, golf courses, country clubs and even county fairgrounds.

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Tent weddings like this venue have become increasingly popular during the COVID-19 pandemic. This tent's chandeliers were provided by Duluth Event Lighting, decorations were from The Vault and the tent was from Lefty's. (Photo by Duluth Event Lighting)

Weddings are already extremely seasonal. In the Northland, the season doesn’t pick up until June or July, and almost completely drops off in late fall. Because of this, there can be hundreds of couples fighting to secure the same 16 Saturdays for a wedding. Koop said dates are perishable, and even if a couple reschedules their wedding to a later date, that original date is a day of work and revenue he can never get back.

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Opportunities for adaptations

Since weddings take months of planning, couples need to have multiple options to fall back on depending on the current restrictions. Planners also have had to monitor the rules in both Minnesota and Wisconsin.

“We’re seeing a lot of changes, and those changes look different for every single couple,” Carlson said. “For some it’s downsizing, for some it’s postponing again, and unfortunately, a lot of clients are going over to Wisconsin.”

Couples changing their plans to go to less-restricted venues across the border has hit Duluth’s vendors as they lose clients. At the Greysolon Ballroom downtown, sales director Jax Eisenmann said in the last year, they’ve hosted the same number of events they used to hold in a week.

“All of it has been painful for us to see Greysolon not bustling with people celebrating events, but we’ve taken the time and we’ve worked on projects to preserve and enhance the original beauty of Greysolon,” Eisenmann said.

One of the biggest projects they’ve undertaken is removing the carpet on the ballroom level to restore the original tile in the 1924 building. Eisenmann said without the slowdown of the pandemic, they wouldn’t have had the time to upgrade the space.

She also credited the restaurant side of the company for helping them stay afloat for the last year. Black Woods' takeout options and catering for some small events, including weddings, have given them some income, although it doesn’t compare to a typical business year at all.

Other businesses, like Diamond MC Entertainment in Duluth, have incorporated several creative solutions to keep their business running during the dry spell of weddings. Owner Mark Cpin said one COVID-19 addition to his business was having wedding attendees wear colored wristbands to indicate their comfort level: red for "keeping my distance;" yellow for "I'm OK with talking but not touching;" and green for "I'm OK with a hug and a handshake."

Cpin said he made his business work by going almost completely digital at times. This meant hosting livestreams of the wedding ceremony for loved ones to watch from their homes and installing large screens at the wedding so couples could see and interact with their guests from afar. They also started using an app to take song requests so people didn’t have to approach the DJ booth.

“What’s neat about this is I think, in a lot of ways, this is going to help out in the future,” Cpin said. “We’ve kind of come up with solutions for problems that existed before that we never really took into account.”

He said they plan to continue to offer these digital options even after the pandemic is no longer such a big threat.

Looking forward to moving forward

Wedding businesses and venues are already seeing things pick up as couples scramble to rebook what they lost in 2020. Most people said 2021 is almost fully booked, and 2022 is projected to be one of the busiest seasons yet. Couples are scheduling weddings earlier in the spring than in years past, and many people are opting for Friday weddings because almost every Saturday is booked.

McKechnie said much of the preparation for these upcoming weddings is like trying to read a crystal ball. Events for earlier in the 2021 season have already started to be canceled or postponed again.

“Brides from last year moved into 2021 hoping they could hold their wedding, only to find out, a year later, we’re still in the same situation,” Pogin said.

For Cale Seis and Kristi Poling, their August 2021 wedding plans have shifted, but with help from McKechnie, they’re looking forward to their smaller wedding. The Minneapolis couple decided to move their nuptials up north after downsizing their guestlist from 130 to 30.

“I think it’s a nice change,” Seis said. “I think a lot of people think that if we’re changing everything our dreams will be dashed, but everyone from different parts of our lives will be able to talk to each other at the same time and sit down to dinner together.”

Poling added that the couple hasn’t had to give up their dream wedding at all — this plan has helped them prioritize to make it become their dream wedding.

Pogin said that he has encouraged every couple he’s worked with to go ahead and get married, even if it’s just a civil ceremony.

“Even though you can’t have the party, the reason you wanted to get married is still there,” Pogin said. “So please, please still get married and then have the party whenever you can.”

Cpin, on the other hand, said he doesn't think couples should compromise their plans if the big party is part of their dream wedding. He said either way, he and other Duluth wedding industry workers are there to make it happen for them.

"If you want to have your wedding during a pandemic, there are ways around it. We can make it work," Cpin said. "But don’t settle. You’ve waited this long, so have the wedding that you want, and if it takes a little bit longer, so what? You guys aren’t going anywhere.”

When big parties and receptions do start happening again, which some local wedding experts believe will start to happen this fall, area vendors are ready. Eisenmann said she and the Greysolon staff are gearing up for when things go from zero to 100.

Cpin said he believes the parties coming up are going to be like never before.

“It's going to be not only a wedding celebration, but a celebration of friends and family and being able to get together again,” Cpin said. “I think parties are going to be huge — we just have to hold on a little longer. Those vaccines are coming!”

Related Topics: DULUTHWEDDINGS
Laura Butterbrodt covers health for the Duluth News Tribune. She has a bachelor of arts in journalism from South Dakota State University and has been working as a reporter in Minnesota and South Dakota since 2014.
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