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After A Year Of Mostly Cancellations, Bookings Are Back For Many Event Venues

As some states begin relaxing pandemic restrictions on gatherings, many families are eager to reschedule weddings and other long-postponed events. That's welcome news for function halls and other event-related businesses, even as they continue to navigate a new normal, with the pandemic not over yet.

Tricia Henderson stood recently in the ballroom at Oceanview of Nahant in Massachusetts, an event space where she plans to get married in May, and scrutinized potential napkin colors, to match them with sea glass in her centerpieces. She said she doesn't have enough centerpieces now, because they had to increase the number of tables to meet the state's new COVID-19 regulations.

Henderson acknowledged Gov. Charlie Baker probably wasn't considering that when he set the new rules.

"God bless him for trying and I appreciate everything he's done," she said with a laugh. "But it's really inconvenient to have to have 17 tables with six people at it."

Even so, she's thrilled to actually be having her wedding. It was supposed to be in July, but indoor gatherings were banned in the state because of the pandemic. So they rescheduled for September. That couldn't happen either. Her third date, in May, looks good, though, because as of March 22, indoor gatherings of 100 people are OK in Massachusetts again.

But the pandemic is not over. So like everything these days, though, her wedding will look a bit different than what she originally pictured.

"So here's my invitation," she said, pulling it out. "And I did put on my invitation, 'COVID guidelines will be adhered to.' "

She said her guests should be familiar with those guidelines by now.

"I mean, we all know what's going on in Massachusetts," she said. "We all know that we have to wear masks still."

That includes on the dance floor. Henderson said the pandemic presented other wedding problems.

"I bought a dress and had it fitted," she said. "And everybody knows what happened with COVID, right?"

With some hard work, she said, the dress fits again.

Her biggest challenge is getting the guest list down to the maximum of 100 people the state's allowing indoors.

Soon-to-be bride Tricia Henderson (left) scrutinizes napkin colors with Allison Loomis of Oceanview of Nahant.
CraigLeMoult / WGBH
Soon-to-be bride Tricia Henderson (left) scrutinizes napkin colors with Allison Loomis of Oceanview of Nahant.

"So I'm going to have to eliminate my coworkers," she said. "They don't know that yet."

Mike Gallant, the owner of Oceanview of Nahant, said over the last year it felt like his whole industry was handcuffed and blindfolded. Suddenly, though, the phone is ringing off the hook.

"Now that we're starting to see nationwide some of the guidance and regulations starting to loosen, these people are starting to say, 'hey, I feel comfortable planning now. Let's start to celebrate love and let's start to plan our wedding day the way we envisioned it,'" he said.

The combined demand of everyone like Henderson who had to postpone weddings and all the couples who have gotten engaged over the last year means some are starting to book weddings on Tuesdays, Gallant said.

"Midweek celebrations do work," he said. "Speaking from our bookings, we have one day available in all of July and one day available in all of August."

A research company that tracks the industry called The Wedding Report says the amount spent on weddings in the U.S. was cut in half last year, to $25.7 billion. It looks a little better for the industry as things open back up this year, and projections for the next three years are booming.

Paul DeLorenzo is the general manager at Danversport, an event venue featuring a 10,000-square-foot ballroom with a wraparound terrace overlooking the water. Restaurants in the state have been open, with some restrictions, for months. But event spaces like this 900-person ballroom were only allowed to seat 10 people.

"That, to me, is crazy. I just went, wow, that hurts," DeLorenzo said.

The governor's rationale for that was you don't generally go around hugging strangers at other tables at a restaurant. But people let their guard down with family and friends at events like weddings.

It initially looked like 2020 was going to be their best year ever, DeLorenzo said, until the pandemic forced him to close.

"I had to furlough 220 employees," he said. "And then, we basically lost 85 percent of our business in 2020."

Now, he's thrilled to start hosting event again, and he's hopeful the governor will increase capacity limits soon.

It's not just the venues that have been hurting over the last year.

"Florists, deejays, bands, video people, hair and makeup artists," DeLorenzo said. "Sole proprietors who do not have the kind of wherewithal to just lose an entire year's revenue. And not only lose the revenue, but for many of them, they had taken large deposits that people wanted back."

It's also been hard for caterers, such as Olive Chase, who owns The Casual Gourmet on Cape Cod. And while she's excited to be booking small weddings again, she says a big part of her business before the pandemic came from non-profits and charities.

"All of those galas that we do and fundraisers — last year, canceled," she said. "And then they started doing them virtually."

It's not clear when those events are going to happen in person again.

Copyright 2021 GBH. To see more, visit GBH.

Craig produces sound-rich features and breaking news coverage for WGBH News in Boston. His features have run nationally on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on PRI's The World and Marketplace. Craig has won a number of national and regional awards for his reporting, including two national Edward R. Murrow awards in 2015, the national Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi award feature reporting in 2011, first place awards in 2012 and 2009 from the national Public Radio News Directors Inc. and second place in 2007 from the national Society of Environmental Journalists. Craig is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Tufts University.