Has the pandemic fundamentally changed weddings forever?

Natasha Harding
Photo credit: Getty - Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Getty - Hearst Owned

Last year it’s estimated that the UK wedding industry lost over £5.2 billion due to the pandemic. Searches for ‘postpone wedding’ were up 845%, and ‘cancel wedding’ queries increased 156% compared to 2019. And at one point, weddings were even illegal. To say that it’s been a stressful year to be engaged is an understatement.

Now, as restrictions continue to lift, there’s a renewed, albeit tentative, sense of optimism for those planning their big day. And with so many ceremonies rain-checked to 2021 and into 2022, the next 12 months have been touted as the "greatest year of weddings in history". It's a big call, but is it likely? Or has the pandemic changed weddings forever?

It is, quite literally, the million (er, billion) pound question, for both couples and the industry as a whole. COVID-19 introduced new ways of saying ‘I do’ – with micro-weddings becoming the status quo and, conversely, overseas weddings a distant memory – but will things simply go ‘back to normal’ as soon as possible? And, importantly, following a year of financial and logistical hardship, is the wedding industry even capable of bouncing back and supporting such a sharp increase in demand? To answer this, we have to take a look at exactly what happened to weddings during the pandemic.

The wedding industry took a big hit in 2020

When the government first announced restrictions back in Mach 2020, the guideline for weddings was unclear at best, and devastating at worst. Consisting of thousands of small businesses, the wedding industry entered 2020 fragmented and without a clear, unified voice to demand answers. This prompted the formation of the UK Weddings Taskforce, an industry-led group of professionals and associations providing, “formal and effective representation for all UK wedding businesses by engaging with Government, media, workers and consumers.” Its focus? Financial support and a clear roadmap out of lockdown. But it wasn’t an easy task.

“Part of the reason we had such a big battle right at the beginning, is that we were seen by MPs as being a really frivolous industry,” explains a Deputy Chair of the UK Wedding Taskforce and founder of Guides for Brides, Alison Hargreaves. “We had to really push hard so they understood the economic contribution that weddings make to the country.”

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Uncertainty for businesses around when restrictions would lift, in turn, reduced confidence for those looking to tie the knot. Add to that the fact that many insurers refused to pay out claims for disrupted or cancelled weddings, despite some policies explicitly covering pandemics (arguing that the pandemic wasn’t at the venue, but rather the venue was closed instead due to government restrictions), and the industry was in a serious plight. While most wedding companies survived 2020, smaller businesses without the financial reserves to fall back struggled to stay afloat and some, ultimately, went under.

Then, in September 2020, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a new financial support scheme for jobs considered ‘viable’ which, notably, didn’t include many wedding businesses. “I think that was probably the point at which everyone went, right, we're going to show them, we are professional,” recalls Alison. “It sort of pulled us all to arms.”

Pandemic weddings looked (and felt) different

Despite the (many, many) disruptions and uncertainty, some weddings still went ahead in 2020, although not necessarily ‘as planned’. The industry and couples had no choice but to embrace the changes thrown at them. “We’ve really had to learn as we go,” explains Michelle Kelly, wedding and event planner at Pocketful of Dreams. “As wedding planners, thinking on our feet and coming up with a million and one solutions calmly and efficiently is our status quo. So adapting to the new laws, safety guidelines and health and safety recommendations is something we take in our stride, albeit it would be so much better if the guidelines were clearer.”

The size of weddings was arguably the most notable shift for nuptials, with tight restrictions shrinking wedding parties to as little as six guests. And so, ‘micro weddings’ gained traction. “A lot of brides are now opting for smaller more intimate occasions with close friends and family rather than waiting for the day they had initially envisioned,” notes wedding planner, designer and founder of ARW, Alice Wilkes.

Contrary to what you might think, though, smaller weddings don’t necessarily equal smaller price tags, with couples opting to spend just as much on more indulgent experiences for fewer guests. “Overall, budgets have been more generous per person as with a more intimate occasion you can afford to go ‘all out' with the design, decor and details,” adds Alice. “It allows for a truly personalised experience for guests. Think handwritten welcome notes, embroidered napkins with guests initials, bespoke printed tablecloths and over the top florals.”

For some couples, having a smaller wedding was stressful in its own way, but also alleviated some of the pressure. “Over many years, weddings have become a theatrical performance, and all of the bits and pieces that fit together to make that performance or add stress to the couples would take away from what the wedding was actually about,” notes Alison. But the pandemic fundamentally changed how micro weddings are viewed.

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“It used to be that if you wanted a small wedding, without all of the trimmings, you had to go and have an elopement and it somehow felt a little bit sordid [but] what we heard from those couples that just decided that they were going to go ahead with their wedding [is that they were] just totally bowled over by the whole emotion of the whole thing.”

Weddings aren’t a ‘one-size fits all’ template though. For other couples, the size of the celebration and community involvement is one of the most important elements. What’s surprising is how little the restrictions accounted for the huge number of cultural weddings that take place in the UK each year, "almost like [the government had] forgotten that they happen" adds Alison.

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Postponing isn’t always an option for couples whose lives might be on hold until they’re married, so some weddings still went ahead with altered, smaller cultural ceremonies. This meant that, while disappointing in many ways, venues historically deemed ‘too small’ for certain weddings, were now involved, causing wider cultural awareness within the sector about particular ceremonies and traditions.

As the world slowed down, so too did the fashion industry. Bridal Fashion Weeks went ahead virtually, but the main trends were more felt than seen. For example, 2021 is one of the first years that Pinterest hasn't released its Annual Wedding Report. And as brides pivoted into town hall ceremonies and smaller arrangements, their requests started to change. Throughout the pandemic, there was an industry-wide shift towards embracing more sustainable options, which extended from the high street to bridal fashion. Second-hand wedding dresses were put on the map (even Princess Beatrice gave a nod to the movement) and wedding dress rental services came to the fore.

During the height of lockdown, Grace Richmond and Abi Gadsby launched The Loop, a platform offering pre-owned luxury bridal wear at a variety of price points. “Covid-19 just accelerated the main trends that the wedding industry was leaning towards in 2020,” they note. “Sustainability, versatility and a break away from traditional dressing were already starting to make their mark within the industry.”

Rather than splurging on a single dress that they will wear just once, Richmond and Gadsby say that brides are increasingly interested in getting more bang for their buck. “We think priorities are now on finding things that suit a few occasions, that feel comfortable and that can be worn again. “

Will things simply ‘go back to normal’?

So, more than a year on, where are weddings at now? The short answer is: things are looking up. For starters, the UK is currently in Step 2 of restrictions lifting, meaning that weddings and civil partnerships ceremonies are permitted for up to 15 people in COVID-secure venues. All going well, from the middle of May that number goes up to 30 and, after June 21st, the cap will (hopefully) be removed entirely. From that point onwards, it’s unchartered territory, but there are already promising signs.

“After so much uncertainty we’re definitely noticing a revived excitement in the planning,” explains Michelle. “As soon as the roadmap was announced, our inbox literally exploded.”

Smaller weddings won’t simply vanish though, Michelle says. “There will always be a place for a micro-wedding as it simply suits some couples better, however, I don’t see it lasting too long as a ‘trend’…The restrictive nature we’ve all experienced recently is making people appreciate everything so much more. We’re all desperate to kick our heels off and party hard, there’s a real thirst for celebrations as we know them to return.”

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In a recent survey of approximately 7,000 couples, completed by Guides for Brides, couples were asked whether, when restrictions ease, they’d rather have a seated banquet for 50 guests, with room for dancing, or 100 guests without a dance area. The result? 80% preferred to have the dancefloor (our kind of people, to be honest). Furthermore, in the same survey, the majority of respondents said they would dance with ‘anyone’ at the wedding, as opposed to sticking with just their family and friends. These findings suggest that weddings are, fundamentally, social events and that people are keen for that element to return. Just like before, the key is finding the right balance.

Understandably, though, amidst the eagerness, there’s still a slight air of caution. “Many couples are of course wary of committing to large-scale celebrations but, at the same time, are more determined than ever to work towards the day they have envisioned,” adds Michelle. Now, more than ever, couples need to do their research on wedding providers. With a sudden increase in demand comes opportunists keen to make a quick buck.

“That is the danger of businesses that may well try and come into the industry to take advantage of that boom: they won't be prepared to put in the graph and actually get it right,” Alison notes. Those planning their big day need to be on the lookout for scams and, to that end, new initiatives such as Wedding Safe (a platform launching this month designed to help couples verify providers and their experience) have emerged to meet the increased need for security.

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For businesses that have been able to hold out until now, they are eagerly awaiting getting back into the swing of things. “The wedding industry is so lucky, because if we get it right, and we don't have one bit of the jigsaw missing, then we can all recover really fast,” explains Alison.

Aside from the renewed enthusiasm for weddings and parties, there is a clear legacy of 2020 for those working in the industry. The formation of the Taskforce has been instrumental in creating a new space for wedding businesses and competitors to collaborate which, in the long term. Alison says, “can only benefit the industry”.

We’re not completely out of the woods just yet. Restrictions are yet to completely ease and, if the last year has taught us anything, it’s to take things as they come. If we’re going off the signs though, the mega year for weddings is already shaping up to be one hell of a party. Lord knows, we deserve it.

Follow Natasha on Instagram.

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