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Apr. 16, 2021 | Friday
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Saying 'I do': NOTL wedding industry fighting to stay afloat
Ashley and Thomas Turner tied the knot last May. (Supplied)

Bernard Lansbergen
Special to Niagara Now/The Lake Report

Spring is here, which means so is the traditional start of wedding season, but COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on the NOTL wedding industry over the past year.

And the interruption caused by the current provincewide lockdown is just the latest in a long list of hiccups.

“Before COVID we were possibly looking at the best season we had ever seen,” says Paul Harber, proprietor of Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery.

“And then it all came crashing down.”

The Vintage Hotels group, which encompasses historic NOTL properties like the Prince of Wales and the Pillar and Post, saw 300 of its local weddings postponed.

“It was very dramatic,” says CEO Bob Jackson. "Most of the weddings moved to 2021” and some even to 2022.

When restrictions eased after the first lockdown and more was possible again, some weddings moved forward, but it was difficult to keep ahead of the ever-changing provincial health advisories.

“I was on the phone with the health department every week last year,” says Kristin Davies, owner and chef of NOTL wedding and event catering enterprise Events by Kristin's, adding that among her wedding bookings for 2020, all but 10 per cent were postponed.

Amanda Cowley, a Virgil-based wedding planner, says most of her 2020 nuptials were postponed as well. Those weddings she did execute or co-ordinate were often complicated because of the constant change in restrictions.

“Plan A or B was always rain or shine. Now it is Plan A, B, C, D, E, plus plan A, B, C, D, E, rain or shine.”

For a lot of wedding businesses, staying afloat meant changing their business model.

“We had to do a huge pivot,” says Davies, “because everything had to be self-contained and covered,” so her business started to offer food boxes for wedding guests to take home or enjoy at a safe social distance, in lieu of a big communal feast.

Over at Ravine Vineyard Estate, Harber turned the winery’s newly built event facility into a retail store and came up with a few programs to do smaller, intimate or elopement weddings where they would do multiple events in one day.

Now that vaccinations are underway there is hope that wedding events could be in full swing again sometime in the near future, but right now people are not committing. 

“There’s not a lot of new bookings this year,” says Davies, “because people are too afraid to lay out deposits only to have them cancelled.”

“Everybody is holding off,” Harber agrees. Although some that moved from last year to this year said "they’re getting married hell or high water,” even if that means throwing a bigger party at a later date.

Jackson is more optimistic. “2021 is still somewhat unknown" but it's an improvement over last year "and we’re expecting bigger numbers as we move through the year into the next.”

But, once this latest lockdown ends, even under eased pandemic restrictions it remains tough to make a couple’s dream wedding come true.

As a wedding planner, Cowley now has to anticipate various guest lists of different sizes for the same wedding, accommodating whatever gathering restrictions will be in place on the couple’s special day.

“It’s a lot of communication with guests,” says Cowley, “setting up websites and getting email threads going, keeping them looped in and informed so they can easily adjust as they go.”

“We’re at the mercy of gathering sizes,” adds Davies. “So until we can get those increased we are really constrained as to what we can do.”

Hopeful romantics who want their big day without any restrictions will likely have to wait until things are completely back to normal.

“If the day of getting married was emotional in a good year,” says Harber, “it’s now something else completely.”


Most couples postponed nuptials, but a few went ahead

COVID-19 wasn’t just a shock to Niagara-on-the-Lake's wedding industry, it caused major headaches for hopeful couples planning their nuptials.

NOTL's Danielle Gaio, who had been organizing her September 2020 wedding since the fall of 2018, initially didn’t think COVID would interfere with her special day.

“When it first happened and they said, ‘It is going to be just two weeks,’ we weren’t too worried. But then it was April and things were getting worse,” so she decided to postpone to September this year.

“Emotionally, it was really hard,” says Gaio, “because it had already been two years that we had been engaged, and we wanted to start our life together, being married, so it kind of felt like it was just postponing our life.”

Gaio wasn’t the only one who had to change her wedding plans.

Bianca Oakes and Vince Iuliano, a couple from Florida, have rescheduled their NOTL wedding three times since the pandemic hit.

Oakes grew up in Niagara and has a lot of family here, but most of the couple’s guests are flying in from all over the world for their weddingn at Kurtz Orchards, making it impossible to go ahead with the wedding while international travel is limited.

“Initially it was disappointing, but we’ve turned it around and made it a positive,” Oakes says.

“We’ve had more time to go into detail,” she says, noting she has been able to redesign her wedding logo, as well as make different choices when it comes to entertainment and the overall experience of the wedding.

But not all couples decided to postpone.

When Thomas Turner and Ashley Da Silva got engaged in December 2018, they knew immediately that they wanted to get married in 2020, on the day of their four-year anniversary.

When COVID-19 took over and everything was locked down, they were not deterred and followed through with their plans to turn that special day into their wedding day.

“We knew we wanted to marry regardless, we knew we wanted to stick to the timeline," says Turner. And they decided, "worst-case-scenario let’s at least get married. We can have a party later.”

On May 27, 2020, the couple were wed in an outdoor ceremony at their family farm on East and West Line with just two witnesses and an officiant.

“We got the important part done, which is really nice,” says Turner.  “We’ll have a party with friends, but honestly, now that we’re a year removed, I feel like if it doesn’t happen I’m kind of OK with it.”

Oakes and Iuliano’s wedding, on the other hand, has taken on a whole new dimension, as it has become their light at the end of the tunnel.

They look forward to a big party with all their friends, "hugging them, kissing them, dancing and laughing with them,” says Oakes. “Now we feel even more (that) we want to celebrate – because of what we’ve all been through.”