WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — If last year was nightmarish for the wedding business, this year is turning out more like a fairy tale.
After suffering a drastic downturn in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, weddings — and the businesses that cater to them — have come roaring back.
And that’s both good and bad.
While everyone including caterers and tent companies, event venues, florists, photographers and even port-a-potty providers all report that they are receiving a flood of booking requests, the demand from pending nuptials is so great that vendors say they can’t take on any more business.
“We started turning away stuff in June,” said Brendon Blood, owner of Blood’s Catering and Party Rentals in White River Junction. “We have a big red banner on our website saying we are completely booked, but we are still getting two to three calls per day.”
The Upper Valley is a popular destination for weddings because of its rural beauty and venues that include luxury resorts, country inns and landscaped farms with remodeled post-and-beam barns, and the summer-to-fall wedding season plays a critical role in the local economy. But those that rely upon the event industry saw business slow to a trickle as the pandemic prevented the gathering of large groups of people.
“2019 was our busiest year ever, and then 2020 was almost nothing,” said Whitney Battis, who with her husband, Brent Battis, operates B&W Catering Co. in Perkinsville. “This year we have a wedding every weekend through October.”
A major reason for the bust-to-boom cycle is weddings canceled last year being rescheduled for this year, on top of the regular schedule of weddings planned for 2021. The rollover is pushing out bookings into 2022 and even beyond, wedding planners said.
“We’re almost fully booked for next year, and people are already booking for 2023 at this point,” said Emma Behrens, wedding coordinator at the Quechee Inn at Marshland Farm in Quechee. The inn has booked 17 weddings this season compared with eight last year and 15 the year before.
“It’s been one every weekend, sometimes two a weekend,” Behrens said.
A spot check of local town clerk offices for the issuance of marriage licenses confirms the jump in couples tying the knot this summer.
In Woodstock, where the Woodstock Inn & Resort is a popular destination for wedding ceremonies, the number of marriage licenses issued since the spring is 27, with another 11 either pending or awaiting to be returned for official recording, bringing the total to nearly 40 so far in 2021 compared with 27 for all of 2020.
Lebanon issued 61 marriage licenses between May 1 and Sept. 21, compared with 53 for the same period last year, and Hanover has issued 26 marriage licenses since May 1, which Hanover Assistant Town Clerk Donna Stender described as “pretty much average.”
And in Hartford, 52 marriage licenses have been issued so far this year, with another 15 licenses waiting to be returned, compared with 61 for all of 2020 and 124 for all of 2019, the last pre-pandemic year.
As a bellwether for marriage activity, Hartford, by virtue of being a heavily trafficked town on the border and at the intersection of Interstates 89 and 91 might be considered the Las Vegas of the Upper Valley.
“We are the first town that individuals from out of state come to to obtain their marriage licenses, and not all licenses issued have occurred in the town of Hartford,” noted Hartford Assistant Town Clerk Sherry West.
And for other arms of the wedding industry, like florists, business is blooming.
“Our wedding business is up three times what it normally is and still going strong into the fall,” said florist Michael Reed, owner of Roberts Flowers of Hanover. “We’ve had at least two weddings most weekends, and people are already booking for next summer, which is unusual for us.”
One difference, however, is that wedding parties are skewing smaller — although that doesn’t mean they are small, wedding planners said.
“The average is 125 to 150 guests. We’re not seeing so much the 175- to 200-guest parties,” said Tami Dowd, owner of Dowd’s Country Inn in Lyme.
For Dowd, the challenge this year and beyond is not one for lack of business — “a lot of our weekends are gone for 2022, and we already have 10 weddings booked for 2023,” she said — but the inability to find enough workers to staff an event, which requires 15 people — cooks, servers, bartenders — for a 130-guest wedding party.
That has forced Dowd to make some tough calls.
“We have had to close Latham House (the inn’s restaurant) this weekend and next because we need the staff for weddings,” she explained. “We’re moving people around, and everyone is pitching in.”
Quechee photographer Lyndsie Lord said the jam in weddings this summer is leading clients to grab any date available in order to pull together all the pieces — lodging, caterer, photographer, florist, officiant — involved in staging a wedding.
Saturday is the traditional wedding day, but Lord said this summer she was shooting weekday weddings, too. “A lot of people have ended up doing Wednesday and Friday weddings. I’ve had a wedding on Tuesday. Trying to find a date when everyone is available is hard,” she said.
The 37 weddings Lord is scheduled to shoot this year — she divides her business between New England and Tennessee — “is definitely the busiest year I’ve ever had.”
The pandemic has led more couples to hold their weddings outdoors, putting a demand on services like tent companies and port-a-potty providers.
Danielle Allard, who with her husband, Tyler Allard, runs Allard Portable Toilets in Charlestown, said they have “at a minimum” serviced 40 weddings this year “with seven more coming up.” They already have 10 weddings on their books for 2022.
“We are way beyond what we did in 2019,” she said.
Allard acknowledged, however, that their 2021 wedding total is inflated slightly by one special event: She and her husband’s own wedding in Walpole, N.H., on Sept. 4 (which, like many of their customers’ ceremonies, was postponed from last October).
Finding a white portable toilet wasn’t a problem, naturally.
“We shared our wedding date with our customers,” she said.
John Lippman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.