‘People Will Always Get Married’
By Chris Fleisher
Valley News Business Writer
Florists, innkeepers, photographers and caterers all have their financial peaks and valleys. But from April to October, they can almost always depend on one part of their business, no matter the economic circumstances of the moment.
“Some believe weddings are recession-proof,” said Judy Risteff, owner of the Vermont Wedding Association. “I believe they are because people will always get married.”
That conventional wisdom has so far proven mostly true for many of the Upper Valley’s vendors.
Wedding party bookings at the Hanover Inn, for example, have doubled from last year, according to the inn. And photographers, including Paige Hiller in Woodstock, say they, too, are busier.
For many of these businesses, weddings are a vital and stable revenue stream, accounting for more than half of annual sales in many cases. But as nearly every sector of the economy has learned, no one is entirely insulated from the current economic crisis.
The wedding industry may have proven remarkably resilient, but the small business owners who depend on it say they must work harder to convince couples their services are worth the expense.
“I think that the scare of the economy, and the threat of potentially not having a job next quarter is actively holding people back from a lot of things,” said Robert Dean, co-owner of the Juniper Hill Inn in Windsor.
Bookings this year have come later than normal, Dean said last week, with people making reservations closer to the actual date of the wedding. In January, Juniper Hill had just three weddings planned for the year, or about one-third the usual number. Activity picked up in the spring, and it now has eight weddings for 2009. But couples are much more cost-conscious, Dean said, no matter the size of the budget.
The July 4 weekend, for example, the inn hosted a three-day affair that cost an estimated $60,000, he said. Everything turned out fine, Dean said, and the guests seemed to have had a great time. But halfway through the planning, the bride’s father lost his job.
“Knowing that he lost his job made us more aware of cost,” Dean said.
Other customers have cut certain options, like going without a tent, he said. It’s a risky bet, especially given the recent rainy weather, but one couples are willing to make to save money, he said.
Lloyd Gabourel, the assistant general manager at Home Hill Inn in Plainfield, said weddings have always been budget-conscious occasions, and they are even more so this year. Some are going with cash bars instead of an open bar and opting for a disc jockey over a live band.
“We’re finding that people with larger budgets are prioritizing more than they have in the past,” he said.
Still, those concerns haven’t hurt the actual volume of bookings. The inn has been chasing wedding business more aggressively since coming under new management a year and a half ago.
As a result, it has more than doubled its number of weddings — from five in 2008 to a dozen this year — and already taken a reservation for 2011, he said.
Florists also have reported steady volume. But do-it-yourselfers have cut into the size of some jobs, said Morgan Perrone, a floral designer at Valley Flower Co. in West Lebanon. Perrone said Valley Flower relies on weddings for half its annual revenue. This year, she has about 40 jobs, the same number as 2008. However, people want only the essentials.
“What I’m finding is people are choosing to do their own centerpieces and having us do personal things, like corsages,” she said.
The orders also have been coming in later. Usually, she hears from brides months in advance. The wedding party she has this weekend hired her just three weeks ago, she said.
Carolyn Sailer, who owns Christophe Chef Services in Brownsville with her husband, Chris, said she also has noticed later bookings and smaller parties. Typically, Sailer said, they work with weddings up to 400 people. This year, the larger ones have come in at around 250.
“We’re finding that we’re having a lot of smaller jobs,” she said.
Realizing that late bookings and a desire for flexibility were becoming the norm, Blood’s Catering in Hartford partnered with the Upper Valley Events Center to set up a semi-permanent tent at the Events Center’s Norwich complex.
It’s a risk, said owner Mike Blood, but one that he is willing to take if it means some extra business. It will save them time and money in setup and breakdown costs, and could lead to a catering job if someone chooses to rent it.
“We’re hoping to capture those last-minute changes, and it’s also discounted,” Blood said.
Wedding catering is a substantial part of Blood’s business, especially as corporate functions drop off, he said. Blood underscores the fact with his marketing: A slide show on the company’s Web site has alternating photos of a bride and bridesmaids, champagne corks popping and elegant tent parties.
The company has a small room at its Route 5 facility dedicated to showing off its event offerings. Tables with formal place settings and serving equipment are on display by the front entrance.
Blood has about 35 weddings this year, which is down a little, but nothing too concerning. It has helped support him this summer as business events taper off. “Thank God we’re in the wedding business because the corporate is soft,” Blood said. “If you’re only in corporate catering, you’re in deep doo-doo.”
Small extras — another hour from the photographer, a few dollars knocked off on the table and chair rental — have proven to be an important incentive this year, said Risteff of the Vermont Wedding Association. More important than the actual price, she said, is that people feel they are getting good value.
“If you can offer the slightest concession, it doesn’t have to be a huge monetary concession,” Risteff said. “Spend another hour taking pictures. That’s what these couples are looking for.”
Hiller, the photographer in Woodstock, competes on value rather than price. Quality, combined with some savvy online marketing, has helped her double her wedding business even as she increased rates.
“They’re not spending less on photography,” she said. “They’re cutting corners in other areas.”
Julie Ireland, a photographer in Hartland Four Corners, said she has included a couple of freebies in her package, such as an “engagement portrait” of the couple before they get married. She doesn’t try to sell herself on price, however.
“I treat my clients very personally,” she said. “Little things like that mean a lot to people.”
And as with the florists, the innkeepers, the chefs and everyone else, Ireland sees herself as providing a critical service to the couple getting married. This, ideally, is a one-shot deal. It is one special day that her photographs will preserve forever.
And when it’s put that way, almost no one wants to get cheap.
“From my perspective, the photographs are what they have when the meal is finished and the flowers are put away,” she said. “People understand that, so they’re pretty generous toward it.”