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Pandemic ties knots in NM wedding industry

Emily James, owner of Florecita, inspects newly arrived flowers at her Albuquerque warehouse. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

In a typical year, May is one of the busiest months for weddings in New Mexico.

The warm days, cool nights and clear skies make it ideal for large, outdoor gatherings, and Amy Gallegos, founder of wedding and event planning company For The Love Events, said her weekends in May are booked solid at least a month in advance with those large, outdoor gatherings.

“I don’t have weekends in May,” Gallegos said. “They don’t exist for me.”

A wedding cake from The Cake Boutique in Northwest Albuquerque. Founder Birdie Mathis said the pandemic has been hard on her business, which can make up to 100 cakes in May alone. (Courtesy of The Cake Boutique)

But of course, 2020 is not a typical year. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic and efforts to contain it have wreaked havoc on weddings and other large events, leaving business owners like Gallegos with an unexpected and largely unwelcome amount of free time.

She isn’t alone. An industry that would normally spend the early spring gearing up for New Mexico’s long wedding season has instead been faced with the prospect of unused flowers and empty venues, due to a string of couples postponing or even canceling their weddings.

In an industry featuring a lot of small businesses, several vendors told the Journal they’re worried about being able to keep their doors open through the end of 2020 if this persists into the fall.

“We’re all crossing our fingers,” said Melissa Paquin, owner of Renegade Floral in Santa Fe.

For The Love Events owner Amy Gallegos at her Albuquerque warehouse. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Gathering ban

The pandemic’s impact on weddings extends well beyond New Mexico. According to wedding planning site The Knot Worldwide, about 1 million weddings have been postponed through August.

In New Mexico, the postponements began in earnest in mid-March, after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham banned large gatherings as part of the effort to slow the virus’ spread.

Stacy Blackwell, owner of NM Wedding Expo, said the ban brought bookings to a screeching halt.

“People want to have these celebrations, they want to celebrate with family and friends,” she said.

Making matters more difficult, Bernalillo County stopped processing marriage licenses for several weeks after the closure of Civic Plaza.

Floyd Vasquez, spokesman for the Bernalillo County Clerk’s office, said the office began issuing licenses again in late April, but only by appointment on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Vasquez wrote in an email last week that the Clerk’s Office is processing applications from around 60 couples per week, but the office is booked until June 12.

Bruce Byers, a minister and founder of Life’s Moments, a Rio Rancho-based church that focuses on wedding ceremonies, said he’s encouraging couples in need of a marriage license to go to nearby counties, such as Cibola County – which he said doesn’t require applicants to reside in that county – rather than wait on an appointment in New Mexico’s most populous county.

“If you want a Bernalillo (County) license, you better get on it quickly,” he said.

Hotel Albuquerque General Manager Adrian Montoya stands in the venue’s wedding chapel. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Industry fallout

If there’s a silver lining for wedding planners and vendors, it’s that couples are still much more likely to postpone weddings than cancel outright, according to the data.

Kim Forrest, senior editor at WeddingWire, wrote in an email that only 7% of couples are canceling weddings rather than postponing them or keeping them on their original date.

“It’s clear that weddings will come back strong,” Forrest wrote.

Even still, the delays are being felt throughout New Mexico’s wedding planning industry, from small local vendors to iconic venues.

Jim Long, CEO of Heritage Hotels, said his company hosts around 200 weddings in a typical year across its 11 New Mexico hotels, which include El Monte Sagrado and Hotel Albuquerque.

This year, he said, couples have largely postponed their weddings until after July, when some have speculated the state may relax its rules around large gatherings.

While the company is optimistic about a busy fall, Long acknowledged he is expecting fewer weddings than during a typical year.

“The large weddings that might normally have 300 to 400 people obviously would be very hard to do right now,” he said.

LeeAnn Cumbow, owner and operator of the Casas de Sueños Old Town Historic Inn in Albuquerque, said she had to reschedule around 35 weddings from March through May.

Cumbow, who has worked in the industry for 16 years, said she’s been willing to work with couples, letting them reschedule without additional commitments and acting as a sounding board for couples to air their grievances about the changes.

“It’s taken the fun out of it,” Cumbow said. “And it’s not supposed to be that way. It’s supposed to be such a magical time.”

At least one New Mexico venue has already called it quits.

The Blue Door Venue in Las Cruces announced on its website it will cease to operate as a wedding venue in December because of virus-related cancellations.

Vendors have felt the pinch as well.

Between weddings, graduations and other events, The Cake Boutique founder Birdie Mathis said she typically makes between 20 and 25 cakes every weekend in May at her Northwest Albuquerque bakery.

This year, however, Mathis said, her usual slate of spring events has dried up. She has been making small cakes for birthday parties and other low-key events to try to fill in the gaps, but Mathis said she’s not getting enough orders to stay afloat until weddings start up again.

“I am a little worried about the latter half of the year,” Mathis said.

Event cancellations have also caused a full-blown collapse of the international flower market, which has started trickling down to local florists.

Emily James, who owns several flower businesses in Albuquerque, said about 80% of flowers purchased in the U.S. are grown abroad, particularly in Latin America and the Netherlands.

With the coronavirus limiting demand and upsetting supply chains, James said, she’s expecting the cost of flowers to increase as the year goes on.

“The global flower market has really been completely obliterated by this (pandemic),” she said.

Paquin of Renegade Floral agreed, saying her business’ heavy reliance on large destination weddings means she’s been hit particularly hard by the slowdown.

“At this point, it’s just been a free-fall,” Paquin said.

Hotel Albuquerque’s pavilion, which is typically used for weddings. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Hopes for early autumn

Many vendors are looking ahead to early fall – traditionally the end of wedding season in much of New Mexico – as a potential saving grace.

Forrest of WeddingWire wrote that more than half of couples who are postponing weddings are rescheduling for later this year.

If the state relaxes its rules on mass gatherings, Long and others said they’re optimistic about making up lost revenue with weddings in September and October, ahead of the cooler months that some experts say could bring a recurrence of the virus.

In the meantime, vendors that once competed for business are now banding together.

Blackwell said she’s brought vendors and venue owners together on video calls to chat about how they’re approaching issues like refunds, while helping vendors answer questions from clients.

“We kind of put aside some of the petty competitions,” she said.

Blackwell said some vendors have adapted by changing their services, including experimenting with virtual dress shopping and other online options.

James added that she’s building a platform where customers can buy flower arrangements on Florecita’s website, and pick them up at the company’s warehouse.

“We are trying to find new and creative ways to keep our team fed and our lights on,” James said.

Long term, Gallegos said she expects the impacts on weddings to linger even after the virus dissipates. She expects the shutdown to intensify the trend toward smaller, more intimate weddings, and said the new constraints that go along with planning a wedding could create innovative solutions.

“Our ability to flex and bounce back with creative solutions is what we do,” Gallegos said.

For The Love Events owner Amy Gallegos in a retro camper used during events. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

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