Worcester County weddings rebound from COVID for couples, businesses

Having originally planned a destination wedding to the Dominican Republic in April 2020, Sarah Eck and her husband were forced to postpone before canceling and holding a Zoom wedding on their front steps. Eck, of Shrewsbury, held her reception a year later at The Manor, a venue in West Boylston.

“I was very adamant on not changing the date we got married,” said Eck. The couple officiated the ceremony themselves, with their four children and a few family members present, wearing masks and staying 6 to 10 feet away. The wedding video was the Zoom recording. 

Eck isn’t the only one to hold a proper celebration for a small COVID-19 Zoom ceremony or to finally have that long-postponed wedding. Wedding bells are ringing and business is booming this year, if you’re in the business of matrimony. Venue operators are reporting they have not only reached but also exceeded pre-COVID levels of event bookings.

“We definitely had a lot more bookings this year — it’s really taken off since last summer,” said Maggie Carolan, sales director for The Manor. Bookings have already risen past what they were just before COVID hit, she said, with the location booked into 2024.

“Wedding trade is quite brisk,” said Paul Levenson, executive director of the Massachusetts Symphony Hall at Tuckerman Hall, corroborating the post-COVID wedding bump. He said that Tuckerman Hall’s boost started around the fall of last year and shows no signs of abating through the summer and into this fall. 

For Levenson, it makes sense that weddings would be one of the first events to return as COVID concerns decrease.

“People are feeling safer,” he said, and “the nature of weddings” is that they are attended by two extended families, so “you know who you’re dealing with.” 

However, concerns around crowds have not entirely abated, Levenson said.

“It’s still not like it was,” he said, and while there is still the occasional 200-person blowout, events are more often in the smaller range between 120 to 170.

“I’d say on average, they’re about 20 to 30% smaller than they would have been,” he said, though he also speculated that COVID may not be the only factor, with gas prices and other travel expenses also playing a role. 

Courtney Maleakas, director of catering at AC Hotel in downtown Worcester, says events have been an even mix between normal-sized and smaller than average wedding parties, but COVID has left its mark in other ways. Last-minute cancellations by guests have become more common.

 “You see more empty seats,” she said. 

Couples are also more likely to request COVID safety measures such as more socially-distanced table layouts or masks, she said, with “about one in five,” making the requests.

Despite this, like other businesses, Maleakas said AC is “definitely having our best year yet.”

Small is beautiful

The desire for smaller and more customized experiences has proved a benefit for some, such as The 228 in Sterling.

“Since COVID we have been really fortunate to have had a huge increase in inquiries just due to how our business is structured,” said owner and manager Sharon Olsen, in that unlike other venues, The 228 does not require a minimum number of guests, making it an attractive choice for couples looking to keep their guest list small. “Marketwise, it puts us in a unique position in comparison to businesses,” said Olson.

Unlike others, The 228 did not completely close during the pandemic, as its property had an outdoor component allowing it to hold events in accordance with COVID restrictions. Even in the absence of such restrictions, however, Olson said more people are requesting outdoor weddings. 

Though she was glad they were able to make it work, Eck said she still felt, “kind of robbed of the day we initially planned,” especially with the absence of her mother, who wasn’t able to attend and give her away. The July reception was attended by 75 people and creatively included COVID safety with the tropical theme that the original destination wedding would have had. Color-coded leis given to guests communicated what level of social distancing each person was comfortable with — accepting hugs, preferring handshakes, etc.

Central location a plus

A number of these events have been after-the-fact celebrations, be it for couples who eloped or had COVID ceremonies and now want to celebrate with more of their friends and family. Levenson suggested that Worcester’s central location may also be a factor when bringing two different families together.

“If one side’s from New Hampshire and the other is from Connecticut, Worcester is a good central location,” he said. 

More than simply delayed and rescheduled events, Olson suspects that the trend comes more from the effect of COVID on relationships. She pointed to an influx of vow renewals she has seen at The 228, which she believes indicates a strengthening of marriages and relationships with people appreciating each other more overall.

“COVID put people through the wringer,” she said, “and that can make looking back at your own family and taking stock really important.”

For Eck, that wringer has only left her stronger.

“If one thing came out of it,” she said, “it was resiliency.”