As the country begins to reopen, weddings are back on the schedule.
by Pamela Mills-Senn
Although the guest counts are smaller compared to pre-pandemic times, the tent and event rental industry and event planners are seeing reasons to celebrate. As the misery of 2020 begins receding in the rearview mirror, tent and event rental companies and event planners providing wedding-related services are feeling less dismal about the prospects for 2021. In fact, buoyed by the rollouts of the vaccines and the loosening of pandemic restrictions, their moods, while not exactly giddy, are fairly optimistic about the upcoming nuptial season.
“Recovery certainly appears on the horizon, for sure,” says Brad Isbell, general manager for Roseville, Calif.-based Celebrations! Party Rentals and Tents, adding that his company has “a lot of orders” through all of June, with most being weddings and graduations. The easing of pandemic-related restrictions in California has also led to an uptick in wedding quotes, Isbell says. Although Celebrations! is still down from previous years, it’s anticipating a “nice bounce-back” in the last two quarters of 2021.
Celebrations! serves homeowners and event professionals who primarily focus on corporate events and large-scale weddings. It also provides diverse services and rental products for movie promotions, sporting events and car shows. The pandemic, says Isbell, greatly affected all aspects of the company’s business.
“Our plan moving forward is to bring employees back at the rate at which the events come back and to slowly release new products and marketing plans corresponding to the reopening of America and California in particular,” Isbell says. “We want to show strength and excitement but do so at an appropriate pace so as not to sour the tastes of our prospective clients. We try to be aware of societal expectations and feelings of safeness.”
Alicia Fritz, owner/proprietor of A Day in May Event Planning & Design LLC, a Traverse City, Mich., high-end wedding and special event planning and design company, sees some recovery but comments as well that her clients, although having the means and the desire to entertain, are keeping optics in mind.
“They want to be respectful of the times we’re in and don’t want to completely disregard what is safe for guests,” she explains. “So when it comes to weddings, we’re moving forward but the guest counts are being capped based on the recommendations of where the wedding is taking place.”
In a typical year, Fritz says, A Day in May does fewer than 10 weddings, which she describes as “full-scale productions.” Last year the company did three—a 50-person wedding in Montana, a 35-person wedding in Tennessee, and a micro-wedding for 16, working on this one remotely (currently, it’s up to six throughout this year). However, while the guest lists shrank, the production quality was comparable to 2019.
Isbell noticed the same. Although last year Celebrations! did a “fraction” of its usual wedding business—“We had some small weddings in remote locations that required a lot of equipment to accommodate the additional space required [for social distancing],” he says—the company found that since guest counts were reduced to 30 or 50 people at the most, the quality of the items utilized was better as a result of not having to rent hundreds of everything.
Focusing on experiences
This illustrates one of the wedding trends likeliest to remain in play for this year—small. For example, although Isbell says guest counts are up slightly, they’re still much lower than in previous years. Hana April Chughtai, CEO of marketing agency Hana April Inc., and of sister company Mani Mela, both in Minneapolis, Minn., says intimate is in.
“What we’re seeing now is that the wedding business is back, but on a smaller scale,” she says. “Clients are still focused on intimate gatherings rather than hosting larger guest counts. We’re also seeing that clients are spending less of their budget on their wedding overall, focusing instead on the guests’ experience or choosing to focus their budget toward purchasing a home or traveling to a honeymoon once the pandemic is over.”
During the pandemic, Mani Mela, which serves the luxury wedding market, saw all its weddings canceled or postponed. The resulting downtime led to a reevaluation of its business model. Rather than acting as a full-service wedding design company, Mani Mela decided to concentrate on providing creative floral services and artistic installations for weddings, says Chughtai. This strategy has enabled the company to work with more clients and a wider range of budgets. This was an especially timely move since some clients are spending more judiciously and favoring simpler options, for example replacing couture floral design choices with more classic and less expensive floral choices and incorporating non-floral elements, such as pampas grass and natural herbs, into the mix.
Outdoor weddings are also trending. A Day in May is hosting more of these, ditto for Celebrations!
“The most popular weddings we’re seeing are definitely outdoor and rural,” Isbell says. “We have a transformation team that comes out and takes an old barn or tents and transforms them into a beautiful wedding oasis. Outdoor event lighting and hedge walls can really make you forget that your big day is actually in a relative’s backyard.”
Fritz, who says A Day in May is doing more tents with open sidewalls and more outdoor decking, finds that in general, people are more concerned about creating experiences guests can enjoy together in environments where they will feel comfortable gathering for longer periods of time, such as over a weekend, with plenty of activities to keep them engaged.
Playing it safe
Things may be opening up, but that doesn’t mean anyone is throwing caution to the wind. In fact, for the duration of 2021, safety will probably remain top of mind with most wedding clients, although the extent of that concern may vary from client to client.
Daryl Sensenig, sales team leader for Tents for Rent LLC in Lititz, Pa., recalls how for the first five months of 2020, their business was cut in half—weddings, private parties and corporate events comprise the company’s primary business, along with sales promotions, graduations and more. But now numerous wedding customers are returning. And although the preference is still for smaller gatherings, Sensenig, who expects strong demand this year, says there are some relatively large ones on the books. In fact, Tents for Rent started boosting its tent inventory in response.
Last year most of the company’s wedding customers opted to go with “normal spacing,” Sensenig says, although some rented larger tents to provide room for distancing, a tactic many current wedding clients are taking, renting more spacious structures (sailcloths are popular choices) for small guest counts.
“We’re not seeing most customers opt for any COVID mitigation options this year,” he says, adding that last year, open walls and wash stations were common rental requests. “We’re offering a full refund if there are cancellations or changes due to COVID. This gives customers the confidence to order early. I don’t see any major changes in the types of tents ordered for weddings.”
Isbell says Celebrations! has made tent walls from mesh to encourage airflow. Because there has been strong demand from hospitals, restaurants, gyms and others for small-to-mid-sized tents, he says the company has had to get creative when tents are needed for weddings and other events so no one goes without.
“Our main focus for wedding tents that doesn’t cut into our main tenting inventory is the sailcloth or the Tidewater® series tents,” Isbell says. “These are absolutely beautiful and ideal for weekend events and weddings.”
He also expects demand for accessories like privacy dividers, sanitation stations, mobile restrooms and outdoor kitchens to be stronger than usual, as well as misters and polar coolers in the summer and patio heaters and fire pits during colder weather—anything to make the outdoors more comfortable.
For all their events, weddings included, Chughtai says her two companies are seeing an emphasis on creative guest-spacing strategies, devising imaginative furniture layouts to help accomplish this. As such, she anticipates innovative seating chart signage and seating styles to be among the hot accessories this year, along with fun ways to include remote virtual guests.
Isbell says Celebrations! strives to educate customers on how to ensure their guests have fun while still staying safe and following whatever guidelines/restrictions are in place at the time of the event, for example, showing them how to follow table-spacing plans or where to locate protective barriers.
A Day in May is also staying on top of the requirements—challenging in an environment where COVID-19 restrictions are constantly in flux, says Fritz. Those in effect when planning the wedding could shift to something else entirely at the time of the event. But as she observes, when people are choosing to get married in the time of a pandemic, they’re choosing to accept change. Even so, Fritz is “really happy” clients are able to celebrate in the capacity they’re able to. It’s just nice to be working again, she says.
And if the outlook for 2021 is looking decidedly sunnier than 2020, next year could be even brighter, says Chughtai.
“We can foresee that 2022 is making way to larger events and weddings, with clientele planning for post-pandemic events with no restrictions,” she enthuses. “I can see the buzz of excitement coming back for the events and marketing industries, and the sense of a newfound appreciation for connecting and engaging with people.”
Pamela Mills-Senn is a writer based in Seal Beach, Calif.
SIDEBAR: At a distance
Unlike in other industries, Zoom didn’t really catch fire in the tent rental/event planning space last year. As Brad Isbell, general manager of Celebrations! Party Rentals and Tents in Roseville, Calif., explains, when it comes to planning a wedding, seeing and touching are essential.
“Instead, we used a lot of new sanitizing processes and made sure to only allow appointments and followed strict guidelines to make our customers aware of our offerings while being safe,” he says. “We also utilized a live-chat function on our website that allows multiple customers to ask questions while they’re browsing each product online. That was huge for us.”
Live-streaming services are another matter. Hana April Chughtai, CEO of marketing company Hana April Inc. and luxury-wedding planning company, Mani Mela (both in Minneapolis, Minn.), says they’re seeing more clients inquiring about adding this to their ceremonies.
“We’re also seeing that having a projector screen at the venue can further connect at-home guests to the wedding experience, since the wedding guests can see their loved ones on the screen live,” she says. “It’s empowering how technology has played such a crucial role in bridging the distance.”
In order to offer live-streaming, they’ve partnered with several AV companies that assist with camera operation, direction, positioning and lighting, while her teams concentrate on seamlessly integrating all the components together, allowing for a high-level experience, says Chughtai.
“It’s a strategic move since we know in the future, events will be relying on this even in a post-pandemic world,” she says.