In a typical pre-pandemic year, Whistler-based photographer Pascale Gadbois would shoot 25 to 30 weddings on average, in addition to about 20 elopements.
“Post-COVID? I did one large wedding last year,” said the owner of Gadbois Photography.
Event planner Rachael Lythe said her business, Sea to Sky Celebrations, had three weddings go ahead in 2021 compared to a normal roster of 70-plus events. “When you’re walking through your numbers and seeing that you’re down 100 per cent month over month, it’s pretty depressing,” she said.
Unfortunately for Whistler’s wedding industry, that downward trend appears to be continuing into 2022. Lythe said she’s so far had two couples cancel the weddings they’d initially scheduled for March, since B.C. public health officials on Dec. 23 introduced a ban on indoor, organized gatherings of any size to help slow transmission of the Omicron variant.
Ceremonies are permitted to go ahead while outdoor, seated organized events can take place at 50 per cent of a venue’s capacity, but wedding and funeral receptions have not been allowed in British Columbia since the order was implemented.
On Jan. 18, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry opted to extend the restrictions past their initial expiry date. They will remain in effect until at least Feb. 16.
Now, some Whistler and Sea to Sky wedding vendors are adding their voices to the chorus of frustrated business owners calling on the province to reconsider the current rules barring wedding celebrations.
If the restrictions and cancellations continue, the impact on her business’ bottom line “is going to be catastrophic,” said Lythe.
WEDDING RULES ‘BASED ON RISK,’ SAY B.C. HEALTH OFFICIALS
The health orders “defy logic,” in Lythe’s view.
“You can have a restaurant full of people that don’t know each other, but I can’t have a wedding dinner with 30 people that know each other, under the same six-person-to-a-table rule, because it’s labelled a wedding ... What’s the difference?” she asked. “Why can we go to a concert or a hockey game or a movie theatre, but we can’t have a wedding reception abiding by the restaurant restrictions?”
When pressed during a media briefing last month, Henry doubled down on the rationale behind her reception ban.
“We know that invariably, those are the settings where we are seeing transmission—not at every one, clearly—but at many, many, many,” she said. “It’s very challenging … you all start off with the right intentions and you’re sitting at tables, but you’re with people you haven’t seen, and it’s a positive, joyful time, so at the end of the evening it becomes more of a celebration. Which is a wonderful thing, but also very risky right now.”
Comparing wedding receptions to hockey rinks, Henry said arenas are much larger spaces with more ventilation and space between people, due to the smaller number of attendees permitted inside under current capacity limits.
The decision, she added, “is based on risk.”
Whistler wedding celebrant Linda McGaw disagreed with Henry’s assertion. “I don’t know if any of these provincial health [officials] have been to a wedding recently, but especially around here, the venues are excellent at following the rules and the planners are outstanding,” she said. “They don’t need this, and they don’t deserve this.”
RESTRICTIONS COULD HAVE BROADER EFFECTS IN ‘WEDDING MECCA’ WHISTLER
The ongoing restrictions limiting wedding receptions impact a wide range of vendors and small businesses across B.C., aside from planners and venues: hairstylists and makeup artists, DJs, florists, rental companies, cleaners, photographers, videographers and musicians, to name just a few. But in the Sea to Sky corridor, where a majority of couples travel from out of town to get married, the effects of these restrictions reach even further.
McGaw estimated that 98 per cent, “if not more,” of her clients are destination visitors. “Whistler is a wedding mecca, and I think a lot of people don’t realize that,” she said.
Here, the absence of weddings and guests could potentially mean millions of dollars in lost business for hotels, restaurants, retail stores and tour operators. “The restrictions [B.C. has] in place for other industries generally affect only that industry,” added McGaw. “But the wedding industry, I think, is different, because it involves multiple different moving parts, and if a wedding gets cancelled, everybody gets cancelled.
“Everybody in Whistler should be concerned about this because a lot of people will be affected if they don’t change [the rules], in my opinion.”
Compounding the hardships brought on by these restrictions is the fact that most wedding industry players don’t qualify for the government supports currently available for B.C. businesses impacted by pandemic health measures—partly because ceremonies are technically still allowed.
“If there was ever a niche market to get lost in the shuffle, we’re it,” said Gadbois.
Plus, with postponed weddings typically rescheduled for months if not years into the future, vendors’ ability to recoup lost revenue has also been effectively destroyed, she added. The cost and logistics of re-planning an event have prompted some couples to reschedule their special days into 2023 and beyond, said Gadbois, while others have cancelled altogether.
“So for us it’s not six to 12 months,” of recovery, she explained.
The varying mandates that have been implemented on and off since weddings first ground to a halt in 2020 also mean Sea to Sky vendors like Gadbois and Lythe are left struggling to pack three years worth of demand into a few precious summer weekends, without the clarity or confidence of knowing which restrictions are coming down the pipe.
Even if all measures are lifted and every summer weekend is booked up once again, after nearly two years of lost income, “we’re not going to make up that financial loss, ever,” explained Gadbois. “There’s not enough space for us to do that, and the demand will go elsewhere.”
Agreed Lythe: “Our income is now compromised for years down the road.”
ELOPEMENTS SOAR IN POPULARITY, BUT DON’T MAKE UP FOR PANDEMIC LOSSES
The one bright spot for many B.C. wedding vendors since March 2020 has been a boom in elopements.
Data from BC Vital Statistics, shared in an Instagram reel by local florist Ninebark Floral Design, shows there were 73 weddings in Pemberton in 2019 and 349 in Whistler, compared to 28 and 72 in 2020, respectively. Last year, 49 weddings took place in Pemberton while 365 couples were married in Whistler.
But those statistics don’t factor in the number of guests in attendance. The average number of guests at a Ninebark wedding dropped from to 118.5 in 2019 to 21 in 2020, and lowered even further to 12.5 in 2021, according to the florist’s post.
Lythe coincidentally launched a second business, the Whistler Elopement Company, at the end of 2019.
“It was sort of a fortuitous decision,” she said. “As a new business it took a while to take off, but it has helped us—it’s saved us, basically.”
That said, “as far as losses, maybe it’s helped pay some expenses, but at the end of the day, I can tell you that when I did my tax return, we were down a colossal amount even with that.”
Finances aside, Gadbois has found joy in the flexible, easy-going nature of elopements and is “so, so grateful for the folks that have decided an elopement is right for them,” she said. “I am having the time of my life with them—they are creating such a different, unique experience.”
The downside? Gadbois must photograph five elopement ceremonies to bring in the same revenue she would by shooting one traditional wedding.
“If I have to work five times harder, and those are five more couples that I get to bring joy to help create keepsakes … then that is worth it,” she said. Nevertheless, Gadbois’ experience represents just how far wedding vendors’ incomes have fallen since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
And “there’s no way that my numbers are unique,” she said.