PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The wedding industry is normally a booming business in Rhode Island but over the past year, it was one of the sectors hit hardest by the pandemic.
The public health situation created countless challenges for not only industry professionals, but also couples getting ready to tie the knot.
Rhode Island may be the smallest state in the country, but its beauty draws big attention.
“We are a destination. People come here to have their weddings from all over the country and all over the world,” said Luke Renchan, a spokesperson for the Rhode Island Coalition of Wedding & Event Professionals (RICWEP).
The Ocean State offers both scenic views and an array of services available. Discover Newport President and CEO Evan Smith told 12 News that combination often brings bridal parties to Newport and Bristol Counties.
“Our wedding industry is enormous. Valued at probably about $50 million in direct spent here in Newport,” he noted.
Smith said the local wedding industry has grown considerably over the past 50 years.
“You go back to when Jacqueline Bouvier Onassis got married here in Newport, and ever since that time, I think Newport and Bristol County have been building on its destination wedding program,” Smith explained “The whole world saw that wedding, and I personally believe that was the start of putting Newport on the map for destination weddings.”
Data from RICWEP shows in 2019, more than 6,600 weddings were held in Rhode Island which brought in nearly $200 million. But when COVID-19 hit last March, it drastically changed the market.
“For weddings, we lost anywhere between anywhere between 60–75% of our market share in 12 months,” Smith said.
Through conversations with caterers and wedding venues, Smith said it’s estimated that 45% of couples still held their wedding in 2020, but with significantly fewer guests in attendance, while 40% postponed until 2021 or 2022 and the remaining 15% canceled all together.
The numbers varied from business to business, according to Smith, but that was the overall sense they got in analyzing the 2020 wedding market in Rhode Island.
“We’ve dealt with a lot of hurdles and now we’re just trying to plan ahead and give couples some hope,” Renchan said.
Made up of more than 900 industry professionals, the RICWEP was born out of the pandemic to help members navigate an ever-changing market.
“A lot of businesses are holding on by a shoestring, a lot of businesses have closed down temporarily,” Renchan added.
In the last few months, the RICWEP has held rallies and even put on a mock wedding. From that came a training video that event professionals can use as guidance to operate safely. Renchan said Rhode Island is setting the stage for the rest of the country and other areas are taking notice.
“They want to take and use the principles of what we as a coalition have come up with to utilize so they can open,” Renchan explained. “If we can use this as a model, I feel this can open the doors for people across the country, not only just here in Rhode Island.”
Renchan said the coalition is working closely with the R.I. Department of Health, R.I. Department of Business Regulation (DBR), and R.I. Commerce so they can host weddings and make sure all safety protocols are followed.
Health Department data shows that between July 1, 2020, and Dec. 29, 2020, 18 weddings held in the state resulted in at least one case of COVID-19. Pre-event testing is now required for catered events and Renchan said venues have the option to offer rapid on-site testing.
“We want to keep people safe,” Renchan said. “Introducing testing at weddings I think it going to be a great way for the time being until we can get through this pandemic.”
Renchan said the goal of the training video and testing is to create a safe environment for wedding guests.
“Look at that, the people dancing, hands up,” Renchan said, pointing to a picture behind his desk of the last wedding he DJ’d prior to the pandemic. “Just the experience of a normal wedding, that is what we all want to get back to.”
The wedding industry largely depends on planning, but over the past year, the pandemic has created unpredictability, which made it difficult for couples to make decisions.
“We went to La Salette, like we always do to see the Christmas lights, and I turned around and he was on one knee and I … I just couldn’t believe it,” Stephanie Walton said, describing the moment her fiancé proposed in December 2018.
Just hours after he popped the question, Walton began planning her dream wedding.
“I wanted just to feel like a princess,” she said.
Walton was one of many brides-to-be who was supposed to get married last year but had no idea what obstacles would get put in her way.
“Some days I would just want to throw in the towel. We’ll just go and get eloped,” she recalled. “But I know deep down that’s not what I want.”
The protocols changing so often also created stress and frustration, according to Walton.
“I do not understand why they can have a line out the door at Walmart and people be on top of each other, but I can’t have more than 30 people at my venue that can hold over 200 people,” she said.
At the time of that interview, weddings in Rhode Island had a capacity limit of 30 attendees indoors and 50 attendees outdoors. But Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor announced that beginning Friday, March 19, catered events like weddings can have up to 75% capacity, with a maximum of 100 people indoors and 200 people outdoors.
“The catered event business may allow for dancing under certain circumstances,” Pryor explained.
Walton changed her date to May 22 and planned on having 120 people. But no matter what the capacity limit is, she said she and her fiancé will get married.
“I have a gut feeling that everything is going to be fine, so I’m just going stay with that positivity,” Walton added.
While it’s currently unclear what kind of dancing will be allowed in Rhode Island and when, Massachusetts will allow dancing starting March 22. This will have a drastic impact on Rhode Island’s industry, according to Smith.
“It’s so critical we stay competitive and we stay close with the other states because if we react too slowly, it’s going to cost us millions of dollars,” he said.
Despite there still being a lot of unknowns present, there’s also a glimmer of light at the end of a really dark tunnel.
“My fears are all behind us, because all I feel is there’s hope ahead,” Renchan said.
Rhode Island officials are expected to make additional announcements this week on dancing and the wedding and event industry as a whole.