The wedding industry’s Covid catastrophe unveiled

Eighty per cent of UK peak season ceremonies were postponed in 2020

On the extensive list of lesser-spotted events in the UK during Covid, weddings are somewhere near the top. So much so, Wagner’s Here Comes the Bride has been rendered cruelly ironic.

In non-pandemic times the £14.7 billion-a-year industry caters for around 250,000 weddings but lockdowns and Covid restrictions saw a 32 per cent plunge in numbers, according to a study by Hello-Safe.co.uk.

The industry’s traditional peak months of April and September were particularly hard hit with 80 per cent of weddings postponed and 51 per cent significantly reduced.

“We've had nearly a full year now of no trade,” luxury florist and wedding planner Jessie Westwood told The National. “I think for any business, in any industry, that's going to be fairly devastating.”

By September 2020, the industry had lost £5.3bn to cancellations and postponements. A seismic sum felt especially hard given its fragmented make-up: 139,000 small businesses and 500,000 mostly self-employed workers.

Luxury florist Jessie Westwood surrounded by flowers pre-pandemic. She has had little cause to smile over the last 12 months. Courtesy Jessie Westwood
Luxury florist Jessie Westwood surrounded by flowers pre-pandemic. She has had little cause to smile over the last 12 months. Courtesy Jessie Westwood

Finance Minister Rishi Sunak may have announced money for a further 600,000 self-employed workers in Wednesday's budget, but over the last 12 months the government has faced resounding criticism for not doing enough in this direction.

“Around 50 per cent of wedding businesses have had no support,” said Ms Westwood. “We haven't been eligible for grants because we were deemed to be open during periods when restrictions allowed weddings of between 15 and 30 people.”

Her Studio Sorores business balance sheet painfully emphasises the point.

“We normally turn over £250,000 but last year we did just one profitable wedding and three in total – and we received a maximum of £5,334 in grants.”

The staggering disjunction boils down to the brittle nature of the industry.

“Our business models don't work around small guest numbers – we're not a fixed-cost service or product across the supply chain”, said Ms Westwood.

Despite taking such a financial thwack, she remains remarkably phlegmatic.

“We were the lucky ones in some ways because we've been going for 10 years and were a very successful business with cash reserves.”

From a full diary to no bookings - overnight

Less fortunate was Willow and Wisps owner Rhiannon Downton. Rewind to February last year and her Dorset-based floristry business was ‘blooming’ – but wilted almost immediately when the UK’s first lockdown was announced.

“We were actually in Japan at the time ... and we had a frantic dash to get back to the UK,” she told The National. “My diary was loaded when I booked the holiday and I returned to zero work, which was pretty terrifying for both me and my partner because we're both self-employed.”

In moments of shock the human instinct of fight or flight takes over. In Ms Downton’s case, it was the former.

“I’ve worked for supermarkets in the past and so I quickly got in contact with my local Tesco,” she said.

I had a florist friend and a well-known voice in the area, established for way longer than I had been, who went into liquidation

Rhiannon Downton

“I was really lucky to be offered a job to work night shifts, about two weeks after I got back into the UK.”

In the weeks that followed, Ms Downton fell pregnant yet continued to work the arduous shifts up to the 34th week of her term.

She is far from the only wedding worker to diversify during the pandemic.

“I've got a cakemaker friend who has done biscuits for the NHS and things like that,” she said. “I've also got a friend who is a venue dresser who over the Christmas period was renting out her venue décor, like tea lights and things, for people to decorate their Christmas tables.”

Not everyone Ms Downton knows has been able to adapt to survive, however.

“I had a florist friend and a well-known voice in the area, established for way longer than I had been, who went into liquidation.”

Willow and Wisps hasn’t been completely dormant during the pandemic, and around her work at Tesco Ms Downton supplied flowers for five downsized weddings – about 10 per cent of her usual annual quota.

“It feels like I did these weddings for free because I just took an upfront deposit which essentially covered their flowers for the day.”

Rhiannon Downton supplied the flowers for this stripped back outside wedding at Pylewell Park, Hampshire, in September 2020. Courtesy Rhiannon Downton
Rhiannon Downton supplied the flowers for this stripped back outside wedding at Pylewell Park, Hampshire, in September 2020. Courtesy Rhiannon Downton

She is banking on the approach paying off longer term at much larger-scale deferred receptions scheduled for later this year or next.

Will the wedding industry bounce back in June?

With Covid restrictions on weddings due to be completely lifted by June 21 – a date for which online wedding planner Bridebook reported taking 735 bookings last week – the assumption might be that the industry’s dark days are behind it.

Well, not quite. Ms Downton is a self-declared optimist but even her natural positivity has its bounds.

“Knowing what the government has been like over the last year, I won’t believe until I see it,” she said. “We've got this roadmap now for when the wedding industry will start to reopen but I fully expect there to be some sort of element of backtracking.”

Even if the government's roadmap isn’t upended by a third wave of the virus, there are bumps in the aisle ahead.

“The difficulty for the wedding industry is that it's never going to be an immediate start back,” said Ms Downton.

Before Covid! A crowded indoor wedding at Pylewell Park in 2019 for which Rhiannon Downton was the florist. Courtesy Rhiannon Downton
Before Covid! A crowded indoor wedding at Pylewell Park in 2019 for which Rhiannon Downton was the florist. Courtesy Rhiannon Downton

“People booking weddings don't book them for tomorrow, they book them for 12 to 24 months in advance.

"So we may have the bookings that people have postponed … but new ones I’m getting are potentially for the end of 2022. This means I will have a quieter period even if things are supposedly back to normal.”

What about weddings, Rishi?

It’s a concern shared by Jessie Westwood who started the #whataboutweddings campaign group to raise awareness of the industry’s plight.

“We set it up last year because we were feeling very frustrated that we couldn't seem to get meetings,” she said.

“We weren't being heard, we didn't know what was going on and we have no industry body or official association. At first it was literally an article that we wrote that went out on wedding blog Love My Dress ... but it kind of just went crazy because I think people felt that they didn't have an avenue to speak up.”

Ms Westwood and co-founder Annabel Beeforth subsequently set up bespoke Twitter and Instagram accounts and, such has been the success of #whataboutweddings, the pair are now in the process of instituting an industry taskforce. Getting the ear of Rishi Sunak and the government is its first task.

“I'd love the government to review the latest roadmap and give us parity with hospitality and other life events,” said Ms Westwood.

“Why shouldn't we be able to determine venue capacity and do risk assessments ourselves, just as restaurants do? We are a seasonal business, unlike some of the other industries, so we cannot trade profitably outside of our April to September peak season.

Her final plea is unequivocal.

”This is just the small guys waving a white flag saying ‘please help us’.”

The fear for Ms Westwood is that if her clarion call isn’t heeded, seasonal wedding marches will have to be swapped for an industry-wide requiem.

Updated: March 5, 2021 03:38 PM

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