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Wedded bliss in the time of a pandemic

Livestreaming technology at a Martinborough wedding – allowing overseas family to join in. PHOTO/LUCALIA PHOTOGRAPHY

In covid and in health: Couples and wedding services are embracing a new kind of “big day” during the pandemic. ERIN KAVANAGH-HALL reports.

Small, cosy ceremonies, socially distanced receptions, no-frills venues, packaged deals for eloping couples, and vow exchanges streamed around the world via Facebook: in the midst of a pandemic, Wairarapa couples and wedding providers have discovered there are many ways to have “the perfect day”.

The events sector in New Zealand has taken a significant hit during covid-19 – with large gatherings either postponed or adapted to ensure public safety.

Weddings have not been immune, with couples forced to postpone their long-awaited big days thanks to lockdowns and international travel restrictions – leaving the wedding industry feeling the pinch.

A couple gets married in a small, private ceremony at Brackenridge Country Retreat – which offers special elopement packages. PHOTO/LUCIA ZANMONTI

Nationally, since covid, the wedding industry has reported a shift away from large, lavish weddings, with couples opting for smaller, scaled-back affairs, and elopements to secluded destinations.

Wedding service providers in Wairarapa have confirmed this trend is playing out here.

Wairarapa couples, they say, are planning minimalist, more intimate celebrations, and out-of-towners escaping to the region to say “I do” in relative privacy.

Providers say many of their clients are paring back their wedding plans (and guest lists) due to covid-related concerns and restrictions – while others, weary from the pandemic, would rather avoid the stress of planning a more “traditional” event.

Sarah Watkins of Lucalia Photography says her clients have, more recently, opted for smaller weddings – usually from 20 to 60 guests.

“People have also been going for simpler, more low-key venues – like Airbnb rentals, or friends’ gardens,” she said.

“On the whole, people are wanting more simplicity and less materialism. And I think people have been reminded of the importance of family – and want to have only the most meaningful people present.”

Watkins said she has also noticed clients planning their weddings within much shorter timeframes.

“Prior to the pandemic, couples were booking me 12 to 24 months in advance.

“More recently, I have been booked more like six months, three weeks and even four days in advance. All [those weddings] have been wonderful.

“There’s still a lot of uncertainty – people don’t know when their family from overseas will be able to travel.

“So, they’re thinking they may as well not wait and just go ahead and do it.”

Conversely, other providers said many clients have chosen to delay their weddings until New Zealand opens to quarantine-free travel.

Festival Hire in Masterton, the region’s premier event hire and decoration company, reported a “large reduction in weddings”, with couples either fearful of future lockdowns or not wanting to exclude loved ones overseas.

“We would normally have at least 40 weddings with 120 to 200 guests each season. Over the last two years, we’ve had four of those,” Shelley Mason, Festival Hire co-owner, said.

“We’ve been down on weddings overall by 60 per cent for the last two wedding seasons.

“Covid has threatened to take away the romance and excitement of what weddings should hold, replacing that with the need to postpone, cancel or adapt.”

Mason said Festival Hire continues to cater for smaller celebrations, and many of its clients have embraced the opportunity to “create something unique and put a spin on the traditional-style wedding”.

“But it’s also been emotionally exhausting. We work so closely with every one of our clients, and we feel for them when they have to change their dream plans.”

Another complexity facing the wedding industry is the Government’s covid-19 vaccine mandates.

Under the current Covid Protection Framework (or “traffic light system”), wedding and function venues are required to check vaccine passports, and wedding guests must be double vaccinated if the event if is to go ahead without major restrictions.

Lansdowne House owner Kadia Merralls, who regularly hosts weddings, birthday celebrations and conferences at the century-old mansion, said her annual Christmas lunch was impacted after unvaccinated families cancelled their booking.

She is concerned that vaccine requirements could pose an extra challenge for wedding businesses as events continue to reduce in size.

“In my opinion, the traffic light system is a step in the right direction for the wedding industry,” she said.

“However, the small percentage of people who still refuse to get vaccinated are going to cause ongoing issues for people wishing to organise a wedding or function.

“Plus, we now have to employ extra staff on the door to check everyone’s passport.”

Merralls said there has also been a significant concern among her clients about public safety, with people postponing weddings or functions for fear of causing a “super spreader”.

Other venue owners report weddings going ahead with added health and safety precautions in place – with clients and staff adapting well.

At Rose & Smith, a boutique wedding venue at Tauherenikau Racecourse, staff wear masks during the events, have stepped up cleaning and hygiene practices, and ensure guests are socially distancing where possible.

“Which is hard, as there are usually a lot of hugs at weddings,” wedding co-ordinator Paula Bevege said.

“But everyone’s been really responsible. We’ve had no issues with checking vaccine passports, and people are still bringing their phones to scan [the QR codes].

“Our clients have been really supportive of us and are prepared to be flexible.”

Bevege said the current wedding season is shaping to be a busy one at Rose & Smith – though couples are still having to adjust their guest lists.

“It’s been tough – some people have had to cut about 80 guests they’d already invited.

“But when weddings do go ahead, even with the smaller numbers, they’re even more joyful and full of love and gratitude.”

Adding to the sense of gratitude are the possibilities opened by the internet age.

Masterton-based wedding celebrant Wendy Morrison said she has seen more couples choosing to livestream their weddings so overseas friends and family can join in the festivities.

Livestreaming can be done relatively cheaply, using a smartphone and free platforms such as Facebook Live or FaceTime.

Last year, Morrison officiated a wedding in Martinborough, where one of the brides’ family members tuned in to the ceremony from Ireland via livestream.

“It was stunning – the bride even got to talk to her family on camera,” Morrison said.

“I did another wedding where the bride’s family streamed in from the UK – and her Mum got to talk to her on FaceTime while she was getting into her dress.

“The overseas family are getting up in the early hours of the morning or staying up all night so they can stream in. It’s really special.”

For couples who’d rather dispense with an audience altogether, Wairarapa is proving a popular destination for hassle free elopements.

Brackenridge Country Retreat offers an elopement package – for which, says wedding co-ordinator Courtnay Fafeita, bookings have “increased tenfold” since the 2020 lockdown

The package includes two night-stay at the venue, antipasto platters, a miniature cake from The Cake Lab, a photography package, celebrant, hair and makeup artist, and a bouquet and buttonhole for the bride and groom.

“Basically, you just turn up with something to wear,” Fafeita said.

“You can bring up to eight guests – but, a lot of the time, it’ll just be the couple, the celebrant, the photographer, and me as a witness. My signature has appeared on quite a few marriage licences!

“It’s really sweet – you can see the couple has written their vows just for each other, and no one else.”

As well as keeping covid restrictions in mind, many of Fafeita clients are relieved to avoid the trappings of a traditional wedding.

“For some couples, there’s a bit of shyness there – they’d rather not say their vows in front of a crowd or sit at a head table with everyone looking at them.

“This allows them to do things their way. One of our brides said she didn’t want to wear shoes – which was fine with us!”

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