Wallace Events used this clear span structure with a clear top for the Ellsworth Area Chamber of Commerce’s 2018 annual meeting. Usually, the company's summer schedule is packed with weddings and large gatherings. This spring, they're handling more long-term tent rentals. WALLACE EVENTS PHOTO

Pandemic devastates wedding industry



ELLSWORTH — Weddings are big business in Maine, generating $206 million in direct spending and nearly five times that much in other economic activity, according to a University of Southern Maine study commissioned by two business owners and published last year.

But a physically distant wedding is not only tough to pull off when your guests may be coming from all over the country and the world, it also kind of goes against the whole point of uniting couples and families.

“Typical years we’ll do about 60 weddings. It’s about 30 or 40 percent of our business,” said Mandy Fountaine, owner of Bar Harbor Catering Co. This year? “Zero.” Well, not quite zero.

“We still have five still hanging on,” said Fountaine. “It’s come in waves, so we’ll lose most of the June ones. There are a few in August and a few in October.”

Roughly 37 million people visited Maine in 2018, according to the Maine Office of Tourism. About 1 million were here to attend weddings, according to the “Marry ME” study published by the Maine Center for Business and Economic Research at University of Southern Maine, which reported 9,697 weddings hosted in the state in 2018, at an average of $26,211 a pop. About a third of Maine weddings unite out-of-staters, according to the study.

But weddings and other mass gatherings have been found to be a prime way of spreading the novel coronavirus. A 350-person wedding in Jordan in March, for instance, led to a large outbreak in the country’s north, spreading to 76 guests and several household members who didn’t attend, according to a paper slated for publication in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s September issue of Emerging and Infectious Disease.

So with gatherings of more than 50 likely prohibited throughout the summer and a 14-day quarantine period in place for those coming from out of state, holding anything other than a small ceremony becomes nearly impossible.

“The wedding industry is getting hammered,” said Barbara Courchesne, owner of the Bud Connection floral shop in Ellsworth.

“Some people are doing an intimate ceremony this summer, planning a get-together next year,” said Courchesne.

“I think there are advantages to intimate weddings,” she added, “Maybe you make it a little more lush, a little more fabulous, a little more special for those people who get to come.” But the impact on the wedding industry of suddenly paring down those larger events?

“It’s devastating.”

Courchesne noted that “Weddings touch so many different vendors. The makeup, the hair, the photographs, the photography booth, the venue, the florist, the wedding planners; it’s such a broad group of people that are affected at one time. The DJ, the band, the rental companies — there’s really such a trickle effect.”

Courchesne said she was awarded funds from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, but added: “It helps with your flow, but it doesn’t help the lost revenue.” And, she said, “Small business rules the wedding industry. There are companies that are really going to take a bruising here.”

Jake Taylor, co-owner and vice president of Wallace Events, said the company was forced to do “a small round of layoffs” in areas that simply aren’t seeing any business, “for example, our dishwashing and laundry services.” Current guidelines encourage people not to use tablecloths, said Taylor, which “certainly made a big effect and impact on that department.”

The company plans to rehire those employees as soon as possible, said Taylor, and has kept up with them to ensure they’ve received unemployment funds.

Wallace Events is diversified enough that it can do some pivoting, said Taylor, but, “We’re in the business of mass gatherings.” The company employs 31 people full-time year-round, along with 50 to 75 seasonally, some of whom live in Haiti, said Taylor.

“Obviously we’re going to hire based on the amount of work that we have,” he said. Right now, workers who are in Haiti aren’t able to travel to the United States, he said. “They’re all ready to go whenever things ramp up, but obviously our priority is our full-time, year-round people.”

Fountaine said she’s also cut back significantly on seasonal hiring.

“In a typical year in full season we’ll have 55” staff, she said, many of whom are local residents for whom catering is a second job. “We are down to three.”

Some companies and vendors have been able to find other revenue streams.

“Long-term rentals are happening right now,” said Brian Spencer, co-owner and president of Wallace Events. “People are expanding restaurants. They’ll put some outside space under a tent and be obviously able to take care of more guests.”

“As long as there’s a 14-day mandatory quarantine, guests aren’t coming,” said Spencer. “I’m not saying that’s good, bad or indifferent, that is the fact.”

Spencer said he’s grateful the state has made some changes to its initial reopening plan and made it more county-specific. The local chambers of commerce, including Gretchen Wilson, executive director of the Ellsworth Area Chamber, are helping businesses figure out regulations and what the season might look like, Spencer added.

“We’re hoping for a good fall,” he said. “The wedding business has a lot of other people that can’t quite diversify as much as us.”

Smaller vendors may have a harder time making the switch, said Courchesne.

“I see photographers that have lost all of their weddings,” she said. “They’ve lost 95 percent of their business.” Some are doing more senior and family photos, but it won’t make up for the outsize impact of weddings.

“Just like us,” Courchesne said. “We’re trying to reinvent what we are. It’s nuts.”

Many couples have opted to reschedule their big day for next year, which has helped lessen the impact somewhat.

“I’ve had very few cancellations and those are typically because they couldn’t rebook the venue,” said Fountaine. Most have postponed until next year, which is “going to be a crazy year.”

Kate Cough

Kate Cough

Kate covers the city of Ellsworth, including the Ellsworth School Department and the city police beat, as well as the towns of Amherst, Aurora, Eastbrook, Great Pond, Mariaville, Osborn, Otis and Waltham. She lives in Bar Harbor and welcomes story tips and ideas. She can be reached at [email protected]

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