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Wedding planner: There’s panic-booking happening right now

By Vanessa Yurkevich for CNN Business

In his West Hollywood studio, wedding planner Jason Rhee is working around the clock — planning dream weddings for his clients. But up until two months ago, Rhee had no business. Last year, he didn’t plan a single wedding after the pandemic shut down gatherings and events.

“My business from last June was a lot of silence. Now we’re right back into it,” said Rhee, who owns Rheefined Company Weddings & Special Events.

Nearly half of couples planning to get married last year postponed their wedding — with most setting the new date for this year, according to The Knot, a wedding planning website. That, along with newly engaged couples searching for dates, has created intense demand.

“Last week, we turned down six weddings. We don’t have enough dates available. You have two years of couples that are just foaming at the mouth to celebrate,” said Rhee.

Now with vaccines readily available and capacity restrictions lifted in almost every state — couples are speeding ahead with planning their nuptials. While in the past, couples preferred Friday and Saturday weddings, now any day of the week will do.

“I think there’s a little bit of a panic booking that’s happening right now, because they don’t know what to expect in six months or eight months,” said Rhee.

Brooklyn Winery typically holds weddings Friday through Sunday, but this summer it’s booking weekday weddings to accommodate demand. It even cancelled its September grape harvest to free-up dates. The tradeoff is worth it — weddings at both Brooklyn Winery and their sister location, District Winery in Washington DC, account for the majority of the venues’ revenue.

“The day of the week no longer means anything in the sense that demand for any date is the same as demand for a Saturday date,” said Rachel Sackheim, chief revenue officer of First Batch Hospitality, which owns the Brooklyn and District Wineries.

An industry in recovery

Despite the current surge in demand, however, the wedding industry is still in recovery. Last year, the industry’s revenue fell 34% from the year before, lost 34% in revenue last year, according to IBIS World.

Rhee opened his new event planning studio just days before the pandemic forced him to close. Meanwhile, Brooklyn Winery survived off small events and micro weddings, as long as they complied with the constantly changing regulations and gathering limitations imposed by the state. Both are now planning for 100-person plus weddings in the coming months, but the wounds of the pandemic are still fresh.

“I think that’s something that we all are trying to honor as we move into this next crazy Wild West version of wedding planning,” said Rhee.

Like many industries, the wedding business — which typically employs 885,000 people — is coming out of the pandemic short-staffed. Julia Testa, a flower shop owner in New York City, is not only looking for drivers and customer service representatives, but the cost of doing business has also increased.

“Flowers are a commodity, every week the price has changed. We’ve seen in certain flowers where the prices have doubled. So, you will see a slight variation in the amount of blooms that we can provide,” said Testa.

The majority of Testa’s business pre-pandemic was corporate events, but demand for weddings has shifted her business model. She now does weddings any day of the week — and has created a wedding department within the company to handle the influx.

“I think the pandemic taught us that you need to really diversify your portfolio, having only 90% of corporate accounts is sort of dangerous because that was the first thing to go,” said Testa.

‘Sad and stressed’ about the big day

Kira Tutko was supposed to be walking down the aisle with her fianc√© Dan Sgro this upcoming weekend. The couple got engaged in January of 2019, but in the midst of the pandemic earlier this year, they decided to change their date because vaccines weren’t readily available yet.

“It’s been sad. It’s been stressful. I cried almost every day,” said Tutko about the days leading up to the decision.

Tutko — a teacher who plans to get married at The State Room in Albany, New York — says the venue had just one available weekend in October later this year, right in the middle of her school year. After months of stress — the couple decided to look to 2022. When they saw the same date as their original June wedding was available, they grabbed it.

“I feel positive, and I am hoping that this exact time next year will be even better. It will be an even better place than we are,” she said.

The couple will be getting married on a Sunday instead of this Saturday, but despite the change in day — Tutko says her wedding will cost the same amount. She says she’s grateful, given other brides have had to shell out thousands of dollars for a new date.

“And I got 2019 pricing, so I really wasn’t going to complain,” she said.

Additional reporting by Kate Trafecante.

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