GILLETTE — The big day was originally supposed to be in May 2020. Tiffany Schatz and Luke Ely got engaged in August 2019, and nine months seemed more than enough time to plan a wedding.
By March 2020, those plans had changed as Wyoming, like the rest of the country, learned the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Instead of a big wedding with nearly 300 guests, they opted for a backyard ceremony June 12, 2020, that included about 15 people, Schatz said. They instead decided to celebrate their one-year anniversary with the ceremony that COVID-19 had denied them.
As the pandemic continued throughout the rest of 2020 and into 2021, the couple’s plans changed yet again. The uncertainty around the pandemic and its resultant restrictions made the prospect of another canceled ceremony too much for Schatz. She simply abandoned the idea all together.
The popular wedding website The Knot conducted a study of more than 7,600 couples who’d planned to be married in 2020, and the report found that 47% of couples chose to postpone their receptions to a later date and 32% opted to go the route that Schatz and Ely did by getting married legally and planning a celebration later.
Wedding planning is full of the unexpected, and every bride and groom have stories of those turbulent months, weeks, days and hours leading up to the vows. But 2020, and even the first half of 2021, presented complications beyond those of the normal wedding ups and downs.
June 1 was a Tuesday, and all morning at YTT Bridal the phone was ringing off the hook.
“Can you tell I was closed all weekend?” said owner Deb Meyers.
The ringing phone represented steady business which, luckily for Meyers, never really slowed as much as she feared it might in 2020.
“We sold quite a bit through the whole of last year,” Meyers said. “It’s just continued on into this year. For me, our wedding season with brides has been good.”
Wedding dresses were a safer bet for the store, because even if the couple’s ceremony was delayed, the bride still wanted her dress and would put it to good use when the big day finally arrived.
“With brides, they get engaged and then sometimes it’s the first thing they do ... go look for their dress,” she said.
Meyers said she noticed a slowdown on the groom side of her business, which made sense to her. Events weren’t happening, so naturally there were no rentals.
But for brides, she said it was surprising how much business she continued to do.
Her wedding dress sales representative was encouraging her to order more dresses in late May 2020, but she didn’t do it. Meyers worried she could be shut down in three months’ time. It wasn’t worth the risk.
“At a point, I was sorry that I didn’t because then my stock was so low that I felt almost like I didn’t have anything to sell,” Meyers said.
She did, of course, but it didn’t feel like it for the amount of traffic still coming through the door.
Even if people were brave enough to power through and have a ceremony in 2020, chances were pretty good that most of their most desired venues wouldn’t have been able to accommodate them. Many closed down and weren’t able to book events. Now that government restrictions have lifted, venues are free to book ceremonies without fear.
Those who run the venues are a good gauge for how eager people are to get back to buffet dinners, boozy toasts and dancing the cha-cha slide.
Mikenzie Ochs, sales manager at Cam-plex in charge of booking weddings, said June is a huge month for weddings at the venue, and 2021 has so far been its biggest year for weddings.
Wes Johnson, who owns 4 Season Events and Greenway Event Center, said he’s definitely noticed an uptick in business for 2021.
“A lot of people have been planning for a while and the ones that decided to pursue their wedding event this summer planned for smaller events — because no one really knew a few months ago if things would be getting back to normal or not,” Johnson said in a text message.
Johnson said he thinks those who didn’t want to sacrifice large guest lists likely opted for the hopeful certainty of two years’ distance from the worst of the pandemic.
“I noticed that the folks that wanted bigger events, but were uncertain what the summer would be like, have decided to plan for summer 2022, which is looking to be a big event year,” Johnson said.
Angela Raber, owner of Prairie Sky Venue, has a limited number of experiences against which she can compare 2021. She was scheduled to open her new business just a few days after the governor implemented public health orders that closed her doors last year.
The number of events that took place at the venue in 2020 was shockingly low.
“It is completely opposite from last year,” Raber said of the wedding rebound for the remainder of 2021. “Last year, I’d probably have said, ‘You can come for free, just please use the building.’”
This year, she booked her entire summer in the first two weeks of January.
The venue is completely booked until October, she said, except for one weekend in August. She couldn’t quite figure out why that weekend was empty, but she wasn’t necessarily complaining about it, either.
“Maybe it’s just God’s way of telling you that you need a break,” Raber said.
She said she’s noticed the crunch that a lost year has put on brides trying to make plans.
“A lot of pieces have to come together to make the whole thing work,” Raber said. “In theory, I could put things down on paper and say, ‘This is going to be great, we can do this in four months.’ But in all actuality, when you compile it with all other people trying to do it all other people trying to do it in a short amount of time, you now have a lot of missing pieces. I definitely see that — people having to figure it out on their own.”
One of those January couples had come all the way from Denver to check out the venue.
They’d driven up that day, and to Raber’s surprise, they don’t have friends or family in Gillette. They’d never visited before and weren’t even going on to South Dakota to look at other venues in the Black Hills.
They’d simply found Prairie Sky Venue through The Knot’s website.
“That’s when I realized this is so much bigger than I thought it was,” Raber said of the post-COVID wedding push.
By “this” Raber meant Gillette and northeastern Wyoming, in general, as a place that could be known as a celebration destination.
“We have something beautiful that people are looking for,” she said. “No, we’re not the Black Hills. No, we’re not the Rocky Mountains. But we are the basin. Beautiful prairies with rolling hills. We are really good people. And we’re quiet. We’re a place that’s kind of safe from the outside world. So let’s show that off.”
The wedding vendors know each other. Their businesses are symbiotic.
“A lot of these vendors are entrepreneurs, they’re self-employed, they’re startups,” Raber said. “It’s devastating when you can’t work for an entire year.”
Florists are wedding industry staples. Spring Creek Designs owner Kathy Jones said florists like her are still feeling the effects of COVID-19’s upheaval of supply chains. It’s difficult for her wholesaler to get flowers shipped in.
“Some of the farms permanently closed down,” Jones said. “Some of them actually switched to growing pot because it’s more profitable than flowers. We’ve actually lost several farms in California due to that.”
Prices have risen on flowers, Jones said. She hasn’t passed those costs on to customers just yet.
“It sure makes you rethink what you’re charging for things, though,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Man, maybe we’re going to have to rethink our pricing,’ because you can only swallow this for so long, and for a while you think, ‘Well, maybe prices will go back down,’ but they don’t seem to do that.”
Photographers are another must-have for weddings, and Sydny Koehn of Kreative Memories Photography, like Raber, started her business in a pandemic-affected world. The 22-year-old graduated in December, and though she’s been shooting weddings for a few years, 2021 has been her official business launch.
“I feel very busy, very overrun,” Koehn said. The sudden ramp-up of business surprised her when it started in March, but she’s happy to start a business in difficult times and thrive as she has.
She attributes that, in large part, to Gillette and Wyoming, more generally. A Gillette native, Koehn said she always thought she’d seek out a big city, likely outside of the state, to settle down and start a life, but the pandemic decided it for her.
She prefers Wyoming’s freedom to allow businesses to stay open and do everything they could during difficult times, and she’s going to ground her business in Gillette as a result.
She’s also noticed a few trends with weddings in 2021.
“Small weddings are definitely the trend I’m seeing right now,” Koehn said. “Usually under 100 people.”
Compared to the few weddings she shot in 2020, she said this year seems to be returning to normal. Couples made a lot of adjustments and sacrifices to wed in 2020, she said.
“Weddings with no food, or they wouldn’t cut the cake,” she said. “People seem more relaxed this year.”
Koehn is pulling double duty in 2021, because when she’s not busy shooting other couples’ special days, she’s planning her own.
Her observations as a bride track closely with what Raber said about missing pieces and things not lining up.
“They all had dates available, but it was hard to find dates that aligned,” she said about coordinating her vendors. “I think there’s always some of that (difficulty) in a normal year, but it’s especially bad this year. I think (vendors trying to accommodate obligations made last year) is why it’s sporadically booked.”
For Ashley Howard and Ryan Jackson, June 2021 was always the goal. The couple was engaged in February 2020, shortly before the pandemic hit, but it was a nerve-wracking process to make their wedding a reality.
One of the biggest things Howard noticed was how hard it was to find vendors without the usual bridal shows and expos that were canceled.
“I found every single one of my vendors through word of mouth,” Howard said. She would have loved for bridal expos to help her navigate the massive world of the wedding industrial complex.
Howard thinks that the pushed back weddings from 2020 made it more difficult for her and other 2021 brides to find vendors.
“This year, if you didn’t book last year, you’re not getting anything this year,” she said.
It was important to work with vendors who were understanding of the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic and public health orders.
“When we went to YTT Bridal, she was very honest about, ‘You’re going to want to get this stuff early, because it’s taking eight to nine months to get wedding dresses in right now.’ And it did; it took nine months for me to get my dress,” she said.
She talked with her vendors about what would happen if something unexpected derailed their plans. If they weren’t accommodating and flexible, Howard said she didn’t book with them.
“I didn’t want to be out $3,000 for something that I wasn’t going to be able to use,” Howard said.
The pandemic also has had a carry-over impact on many weddings, including Howard’s.
“Most people just said no, they weren’t going to come,” she said. “We invited over 200 people, and I think only 75 are coming to it.”
Howard is from Utah, and she said that many of her would-be guests were excited about the prospect of coming back when they got engaged, but since the pandemic and related travel issues cropped up, she understands the reluctance.
“Catering was the hardest thing to find,” Howard said.
Besides the logistical challenge of finding vendors like caterers, Howard said she watched with a sigh of relief as her prices remained locked in, but her vendors announced increases to future clients.
“Our venue has increased in prices and rentals I think by, like, $500,” she said. “They increased our DJ services by $300, and videographers increased by $500.”
Howard said she booked most of her vendors last June, but there was a slightly unpleasant undercurrent as they searched for them.
“It was a little bit anxiety-driven, a panic of, ‘OK, are we going to be able to even get vendors if we don’t book this early?’” Howard said.
She called planning a wedding during a pandemic a weird experience.
“It was just a huge leap of faith that it would all work out,” she said.
Perhaps that’s no different than what any bride would feel before any wedding, pandemic or no.
If the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 19, Verse 6, had been written in 2021, it might very well read: “So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let not man nor virus separate.”