Wedding industry takes a hit

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald A prom dress is bagged and waiting to be picked up at Haku Formals Boutique in Hilo on Monday, May 11, 2020. Owner Tressie Richardson has encouraged seniors to get dressed up and take pictures to celebrate their accomplishments without prom.

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Tressie Richardson works on an alteration at Haku Formals Boutique.

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Tressie Richardson stands in the doorway of Haku Formals Boutique in Hilo.

Postponements and cancellations have ravaged the Big Island’s wedding industry during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many local businesses have been deeply impacted by the stay-at-home orders for residents and mandatory quarantines for tourists that were put in place to curb the outbreak of the virus.

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Destination weddings have been put on hold indefinitely, while local weddings also have dwindled.

Kate Hickey co-owns Sunshower Farms with her husband in Holualoa. The private venue puts on at least 50 weddings a year, most of which are destination weddings.

“We have postponed 10 weddings and cancelled five,” Hickey said recently. “We’re really pushing for postponements.”

Owning a small venue that caters mostly to destination weddings has been a positive for Hickey. With a short guest list and options for rescheduling, it has been relatively easy for some couples to handle the change.

“We’re not sure when we’ll be able to open again, because we aren’t sure when visitors will come back,” Hickey said. “But rebooking has not been a problem, because we have a lot of dates available.”

However, there is a lack of cash flow to the venue, which also operates as a coffee farm. Hickey has been trying to supplement by applying for multiple loans.

Hickey and her husband were approved for a Paycheck Protection Program loan, which is helping to keep the venue afloat for now. They have not been able secure other loans, but have been protected by good contracts and relationships with their clients.

“I think many vendors are going to realize how much you need good contracts,” Hickey said. “Both sides need to take risks, and many contracts don’t reflect that, so one person always ends up hurting.”

Although the venue has been able to survive, Hickey is worried about the wedding industry’s comeback when life returns to normalcy.

“The wedding industry trickles down to every level of business,” Hickey said. “It’s a billion dollar industry, and one wedding brings thousands of dollars to the island.”

Wedding guests spend their money all over the island, while wedding parties hire hairdressers, photographers, make up artists and planners for the special day.

“There is just so much impact on so many levels, and I’m not sure what a bounce back is going to look like,” Hickey said. “This is going to be an issue nationwide.”

Hickey predicts that the pandemic could result in a higher demand for people wanting smaller weddings, which could be good for the island.

“If people want smaller weddings, they may spend more to have a destination wedding,” Hickey said. “But it’s unpredictable and unclear what the long-term effects really will be.”

Shutting Down

Becky Ringler is a wedding planner and owner of Simple Kona Beach Weddings and postponed all spring and early summer weddings.

“It’s been devastating,” Ringler said. “I was so busy this season, and now there is nothing going on.”

Ringler is working on rescheduling dozens of clients within a year, while some clients have decided to wait to schedule anything further.

“Some people are waiting to reschedule, and I don’t blame them,” Ringler said. “I understand why we have to take time before visitors can come back, and I’d rather this be done properly.”

Ringer is used to getting business through last-minute weddings from tourists visiting the island, but that income is gone. However, Ringler runs her business from her home and doesn’t have to think about paying rent or employees.

Although the future of the wedding industry looks bleak for now, Ringler has hopes that Hawaii will be able to rebound quickly.

“I don’t worry too much about the future, because I think we’ll be able to bounce back,” Ringler said. “I think people want to be here and want to get married here, and that’s why the industry won’t disappear.”

Keeping Busy

Tressie Richardson, owner of Haku Formals Boutique in Hilo, has been trying to keep busy while having to shut down her store during the stay-at-home order.

“Being shut down has made me feel like there is a void in my life,” Richardson said recently. “We were in full motion and then had to stop.”

Richardson’s store remained closed during the stay-at-home order, but she allowed clients to pick up dresses and garments for their events.

When students’ proms were cancelled or postponed, students continued to pick up their dresses and tuxedos to celebrate with friends and family.

“I thought it was important for the students to get dressed up and take pictures to celebrate the milestone they achieved,” Richardson said. “Luckily, I think most of them (did) that.”

Helping brides try on dresses for their weddings can be an intimate tradition and frequently involves multiple people. Although there will always be a market for formal wear, Richardson is worried about how the pandemic will affect servicing clients because of the safety requirements.

“I’m worried about people having too much anxiety to go out and support small businesses,” Richardson said. “I may have to wait for the fear to lift.”

Future Anxiety

Breanna Nelson owns Bre Rae Photography and is one of many wedding photographers who has been hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I have had 100% postponements for weddings so far,” Nelson said recently. “I have had 100% of couples and proposal sessions cancel, and I expect more (in June).”

Nelson receives most of her business from visitors to the island and has not photographed an event in a month and a half.

Nelson has not turned to loans, because she has been able to get by with her income as a teacher in Kona, she said.

However, she worried that the state may be cutting teacher pay in the future.

“Between rent, food and paying off student loans, things are really tight,” Nelson said. “If I can’t continue photography due to state restrictions, and they decided to cut teacher pay, I don’t know what my husband and I will do.”

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Nelson said she does not know what the future of the wedding industry will look like in Hawaii, and is worried people on the mainland might shy away from planning something across the Pacific.

“People are anxious to plan a destination wedding, let alone any wedding right now,” Nelson said. “I am just hoping that people will not give up on their dream of getting married in Hawaii or be afraid to schedule anything in the future.”

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