For higher or for worse, the marriage business in Duluth slows down as weddings get smaller

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Unsure how to get on with their wedding to meet state restrictions on major events, the Duluth couple turned to Mariah McKechnie at Northland Special Events in Duluth for help.

“As a business owner, it was like fighting a fire every day,” McKechnie said.

She and others in the events industry have had to constantly monitor the rules under which venues and gatherings have been in place since March 2020, while guiding couples trying to save wedding plans.

The Schneiders decided on a small wedding with 30 people in Megan’s grandpa’s yard. Like many other couples last year, they had a more intimate ceremony with the people who mattered most to them. These micro-weddings were popular across Northland, especially as people could feel safe holding small gatherings outside in courtyards or tents.

Zach and Megan Schneider (Photo by Hannah Johnson, Hannah Nicole Photography)

Lots of mini weddings

For wedding planners like McKechnie and Mary Carlson, owners of Pure Events in Duluth, the micro-wedding fad was fun. Carlson said the details couples could include made the day special for them. Planning a smaller wedding takes less time for event planners. McKechnie said she could get more clients and work with them for about eight hours in total, instead of the typical 40 hours or more that a big wedding requires.

“They’re also more economical for the customer because paying $ 3,000 for an all-inclusive experience is a far less investment than paying $ 25,000 for a large wedding,” McKechnie said.

Some couples were willing to spend the money they had saved on decorations that would not have been feasible for a crowd of 200. Couples were also able to enjoy more time with loved ones because they spent less time worrying about big plans. The Schneiders also said their small group made it easy to mingle.

“I think Megan and I remember every piece of that day because it was so small and intimate,” said Zach Schneider.

Misty Matson, owner of Bella Rose Bridal in Duluth, said brides remain willing to invest in their dream dress, regardless of their wedding size or location. Although she acknowledged that many of her clients already have sizeable budgets for her dress, Matson said she heard from many brides that they were willing to spend even more on their dress because they stopped paying the bills for their big weddings would have to.

Cancellations cause complications

However, micro-weddings don’t solve the problem for everyone in the industry. Not everyone is ready to indulge in so much if not so many people are around to see the big event.

Photographer Bryan Koop, owner of Bryan Jonathan Weddings in Duluth, said booking these smaller events was anything but economical. A big wedding would use eight to 12 hours of its time on a Saturday. Now he might spend three hours filming a wedding, but he won’t double-book a day because he doesn’t want to run into planning problems when events take long.

“You lose the day whether you book a two-hour wedding or a twelve-hour wedding. You can’t book anything else – or at least I don’t book anything else, ”said Koop.

Ken Pogin, owner of Duluth Event Lighting, said he lost every event from March to June, which hurt especially because he knew the circumstances were completely out of his control.

“The wedding and events industry is likely one of the hardest hit industries due to COVID as we are exactly what COVID tells us not to do,” Pogin said. “How do you do a roadside pickup for a wedding?”

He saw things slowly accelerate in midsummer when outdoor weddings or clients increased the size of their venue to maintain social distance. With that, Pogin and his crew got back to work creating beautiful wedding venues, including backyard tents, golf courses, country clubs, and even fairgrounds.

Tent weddings like this one have become increasingly popular during the COVID-19 pandemic.  The chandeliers for this tent were provided by Duluth Event Lighting, the decorations were provided by The Vault and the tent by Lefty's.  (Photo by Duluth Event Lighting)

Tent weddings like this one have become increasingly popular during the COVID-19 pandemic. The chandeliers for this tent were provided by Duluth Event Lighting, the decorations were provided by The Vault and the tent by Lefty’s. (Photo by Duluth Event Lighting)

Weddings are already extremely seasonal. In Northland, the season only picks up in June or July and almost completely falls off in late autumn. Because of this, hundreds of couples can struggle to secure the same 16 Saturdays for a wedding. Koop said dates are perishable, and even if a couple postpones their wedding to a later date, that original date is a labor and income day that they can never get back.

Customization options

Because weddings take months to plan, couples need to have several options to resort to, depending on current restrictions. The planners also had to oversee the rules in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

“We’re seeing a lot of changes, and those changes look different for each and every couple,” said Carlson. “For some it’s a downsizing, for others it’s a shift, and sadly a lot of customers are going to Wisconsin.”

Couples changing their plans to go to less restricted places across the border have met Duluth’s salespeople when they lose customers. At the Greysolon Ballroom downtown, sales manager Jax Eisenmann said last year they hosted the same number of events they held in a week.

“It was painful for us to see that Greysolon is not full of people celebrating events, but we took the time and worked on projects to preserve and enhance the original beauty of Greysolon,” said Eisenmann.

One of the biggest projects they have undertaken is removing the carpet in the ballroom to restore the original tile to the 1924 building. Eisenmann said without the pandemic slowing down, they wouldn’t have had the time to upgrade the space.

She also credited the company’s restaurant page for helping them stay afloat for the past year. Black Woods’ takeaway options and catering to a few small events, including weddings, have brought them some income, although this is nothing like a typical fiscal year.

Other companies, such as Diamond MC Entertainment in Duluth, have incorporated various creative solutions to keep their business going during the drought of weddings. Owner Mark Cpin said a COVID-19 addition to his business was for wedding attendees to wear colored bracelets to indicate their comfort: red for “keep your distance”; yellow for “I can talk well, but not touch;” and green for “I’m okay with a hug and a handshake.”

Cpin said he got his business up and running by almost entirely digitizing at times. This meant hosting live streams of the wedding ceremony that loved ones could watch from home and installing large screens at the wedding so couples could see and interact with their guests remotely. They also used an app to take song requests so people didn’t have to go to the DJ booth.

“The nice thing about it is that I think this will help in many ways in the future,” said Cpin. “We found solutions to problems that existed before and that we never really considered.”

He said they plan to continue offering these digital options even after the pandemic is no longer such a major threat.

I look forward to moving forward

Wedding shops and venues are already seeing a revival as couples scramble to rebook what they lost in 2020. Most people said 2021 was almost booked out, and 2022 is projected to be one of the busiest times of the year ever. Couples plan weddings earlier in spring than in years past, and many people choose to have Friday weddings as almost every Saturday is booked.

McKechnie said much of preparing for these upcoming weddings is trying to read a crystal ball. Events earlier in the 2021 season have already been canceled or postponed again.

“Last year brides moved into 2021 hoping they could hold their wedding only to find out that we are still in the same situation a year later,” Pogin said.

For Cale Seis and Kristi Poling, their wedding plans have changed for August 2021, but with help from McKechnie, they are looking forward to their smaller wedding. The Minneapolis couple decided to move their wedding north after downgrading their guest list from 130 to 30.

“I think it’s a nice change,” said Seis. “I think a lot of people think that if we change everything, our dreams will be destroyed, but everyone in different parts of our lives will be able to talk to each other and have dinner together at the same time.”

Poling added that the couple didn’t have to give up their dream wedding at all – this plan helped them prioritize to make it their dream wedding.

Pogin said that he has encouraged every couple he has worked with to get married, even if it’s just a civil ceremony.

“Even if you can’t have the party, the reason you wanted to get married is still there,” Pogin said. “So please, please still get married and then celebrate whenever you can.”

Cpin, on the other hand, said he doesn’t think couples should jeopardize their plans if the big party is part of their dream wedding. Either way, he said he and other employees in the Duluth wedding industry were there to make this possible for them.

“If you want to have your wedding during a pandemic, there are several options. We can make it work,” said Cpin. “But don’t settle. You’ve been waiting so long so you have the wedding you want, and if it takes a little longer, what then? You’re not going anywhere.”

When the big parties and receptions resume that some local wedding experts believe will happen in the fall, the regional vendors will be ready. Eisenmann said she and the Greysolon staff are preparing for when things go from zero to 100.

Cpin said he believes the parties ahead will be like never before.

“It’s not just going to be a wedding celebration, it’s going to be a celebration for friends and family and an opportunity to get back together,” said Cpin. “I think the parties are going to be huge – we just have to hold out a little longer. These vaccines are coming! “