How a halt to wedding industry has hit Yorkshire's suppliers and devastated couples

The wedding industry has been hit hard by the coronavirus crisis, with marriages on hold. Laura Reid speaks to couples and suppliers about the impact and ongoing uncertainty.

Roger Lee at Bedern Hall, a wedding venue which has been impacted.

“When this first happened, there was a moment when I pulled my car over to the side of the road and cried,” Grant Saunders sets out honestly. “I didn’t know what the future of the industry was going to be, what the future of my business was going to be...I had suppliers ringing me in the same position saying we don’t know what we’re going to do.”

Grant runs Huddersfield-based Wedding Fayres Yorkshire, which typically stages more than 60 wedding trade shows in the region every year. That’s all changed in 2020 though, for when lockdown began, the entire wedding industry, worth around £10bn to the UK economy, was put on hold.

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For Grant, it has meant cancelling or delaying 15 events. “A lot of spend has already gone out marketing events but the revenue we get from the sale of the exhibition space hasn’t come in. We said at the beginning that any deposits that people had paid, we would offer full refunds because if the small wedding businesses that make up the market don’t survive, we don’t survive.”

Beth Cunningham and Liam Liburd, who have had to postpone their wedding.

Wedding suppliers and venues have found themselves under immense strain, with their work - and income - wiped out as devastated couples have been forced to cancel or postpone their big days, many after more than a year in planning. In some cases, Grant says, finding a new date that works for couples, their venues, and a dozen or so suppliers has been a logistical nightmare.

“Most venues only do one wedding a day so there’s only so many dates that they’ve got and there’s only so many dates that suppliers have got as well...There’s cases where people’s suppliers that they wanted are not available on their new dates.”

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Where suppliers are having to refund or postpone, it’s effectively cutting or pushing back the cash they would have had coming in.

Wakefield photographer Christopher Thomas is feeling it particularly hard. Last year was his first as a full-time wedding photographer, having previously captured pictures whilst working as a teacher. He says more than 80 per cent of his income has been wiped out or put on hold and he hasn’t been able to access any support from the Government.

“I feel like I’ve completely fallen through the system really as a new business start-up,” he says. Though cash will come in eventually from the weddings that have been postponed, Christopher says the knock on effect is that the re-arranged dates are now ruled out for new business and income next year. In the more immediate-term, he struggles to see how he’ll make it through the winter without getting another job.

“Even though you are retaining the money and economic capital you would get this year, it’s still not really progressing because you’re losing out next year,” he says.

The winter months are also a concern for make up artist Laura Power, of Halifax, who has been left with a now almost-empty calendar for this year due to postponements. Though she’s been able to get self-employment support from the Government, it’s not what she would normally be earning during peak wedding season.

“The hardest part for me is that this is actually my biggest grossing time,” she explains. “I’m a lot quieter over the winter months, I don’t earn as much then. The payment that they’ve given is an average over the past three years but March to September is my busiest time and normally I would earn a lot more and bank that cash so that we’ve got it across the year. Although I’m really grateful I’ve got the payment, it doesn’t actually reflect what I’d be earning now...It’s a long, long way off.”

Slaters menswear in Leeds is also missing out on its peak time, as Sean Mahon, its store manager explains. “Where the high street is predominantly geared up for Christmas and that’s when the nation spends the most money, we’re an anomaly. Our peak weeks are now, with people buying suits for the height of the wedding season of June, July, August.”

As for existing customers, who have bought or hired, it took him six days to call all those affected as it equated to more than 300 weddings. With most people having already paid but their weddings now not taking place until 2021, he says he believes the financial hit may come next year instead.

“We’ve taken money 12 months in advance of when it would naturally have fallen into the cycle...What we lose out on will be over the next 12 months when the number of weddings that occur that we can actually still sell products to won’t be anywhere near as high because there’s so many that have moved from this year to next. The downfall for us then is yet to be fully known really. We’ve got to do our best in the meantime.”

For Roger Lee, who manages Bedern Hall, a small independent venue in York, there’s been an added element to consider with weddings being postponed. The venue operates largely on a not-for-profit basis to preserve the medieval hall for future generations.

Though new enquiries are still coming in, Roger is concerned about any restrictions or social distancing measures that may have to be implemented once weddings return. They could potentially impact the ability to pay for the hall’s upkeep. “We are a venue for gatherings and if we have to continue to be two metres apart, we’re either going to have some very small gatherings or really look at other ways of earning money for the hall,” he says.

“The layout of the building is particularly difficult, narrow corridors, smaller rooms so there are economics questions there. It’s very concerning as to what’s going to happen. All we can do is continue to plan as if there will be a better outcome next year and put our efforts into marketing the place to get as many bookings as we can.”

Of course, it is not only venues and suppliers that have been feeling the strain of the coronavirus crisis. Around 250,000 marriages take place each year in England and Wales and hundreds of couples have found themselves with no choice but to postpone their wedding days, with many more left in an uncertain limbo period to see if their marriages planned for later this year will be able to go ahead - and in what form.

Beth Cunningham, of Sheffield, was due to get married to partner Liam Liburd in April. As the virus took hold, they realised that even if they were able to go ahead, it was unlikely that their grandparents and guests with underlying health conditions would be able to join them.

“We started looking into postponing, but we discovered that unless the venue closed, we would be liable for paying everything,” 28-year-old Beth says.

“I spent days trying to get through to my insurance, who really didn’t know what to tell me as the situation was so unprecedented. Eventually it boiled down to unless me, Liam or a member of our close family or wedding party got sick, we wouldn’t be able to cancel...It was an insanely stressful couple of days.”

In the end, the venue agreed to delay, and with lockdown starting before the wedding was due to go ahead, the couple would have been forced to postpone anyway.

They’ve rescheduled their day for April next year instead, marking what would have been their date this year with their own private wedding ring exchange in local woodland, followed by a virtual wedding reception with friends on Zoom.

“It’s sad, and we wish we’d been able to have our day when we wanted and be married now, but at least now we have a Plan B sorted,” Beth says. “I really feel for people whose weddings are supposed to be happening later this year. The lack of certainty about how the world will look then is incredibly stressful and the lack of control you have over the situation is really frustrating.”

Sam Tasker-Grindley, 32, knows how that feels. He was due to marry his partner Francesca Insley over Easter weekend, but the couple, who live in Harrogate and got engaged last Easter, were disappointed to have to put their day on hold.

Luckily, they managed to retain nearly all of their suppliers, with everyone but the photographer free on their new date, this coming October.

Yet, whilst they’re appreciating having the wedding to look forward to during this challenging period, there’s still an element of doubt over whether they’ll have to delay again.

“It still feels a bit touch and go, we still don’t know quite what it’s going to look like at that point and whether we’ll be able to have all our guests there,” Sam says. “One of our big worries is that if it doesn’t go ahead in October, we’re then probably at the back of the queue then for rearranging and it will then be a lot later next year...If this doesn’t happen in October, when is it going to happen? We could be waiting an awfully long time.”

Samantha Stonebanks, 26, is also in a period of limbo about her big day. She is due to marry fiancé Craig Mullarkey in early August and they have a “once in a lifetime” honeymoon planned in America in November. But the uncertainty is leaving her struggling to feel excited.

“I put a countdown in my work calendar and I’m thinking I should be getting really excited for it now. But I’m not. I daren’t get excited because I don’t feel like it’s going to happen.”

“I feel very guilty for stressing over this,” she adds. “I know people have lost their lives and key workers are risking their lives so it seems very selfish to be upset over a wedding.”

The couple, who live in Wakefield and got engaged in August 2018, say they would look to postpone their day if it’s only able to go ahead with a limited number of people attending.

“All of our guests have been invited because we want them at our wedding and not to have them there wouldn’t feel right,” Samantha says. “The limbo is very difficult. I think I would prefer it if we knew one way or the other.”

For Jessica Barker, who runs Thief Hall wedding venue on the outskirts of Northallerton, supporting distraught couples to re-arrange has been tough emotionally.

“It’s been heart-wrenching dealing with the couples crying down the phone,” she says. “That’s been the worst part.”

The venue typically holds around 60 weddings per year but there’s now already 98 in the diary for 2021, with couples who had planned to marry this year given new dates for next year instead, some on a ‘just-in-case’ basis.

The business is receiving Government support in the form of a bounce back loan and through the furlough scheme - and Jessica remains optimistic for the future.

“As long as the weddings kick back in next year, that debt will just go and we’ll move forward. I always try and look on the bright side of life...There’s a light at the end of the tunnel so I’m not scared at the moment.”

Grant, too, is trying to be positive. He’s been running virtual wedding fairs to help connect suppliers and new couples - and to show that there is hope and the industry is looking to the future.

“We’ll bounce back,” he says. “No matter what else is going on in life, having that one [wedding] day and making it special is important. We’ve got to put that out there because if there is fear, uncertainty and doubt, it breeds and gets worse.”

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