Left out of grant funding, Richmond’s wedding industry calls for special provisions

Business

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — It has been almost one year since the Richmond Weddings Show was canceled because of coronavirus-related restrictions and concerns. Since then, small business owners throughout the greater Richmond region who make up the local wedding industry have struggled, and are now calling for a plan.

“We’re the behind-the-scenes people,” Classic Party Rentals of Virginia Co-Owner Nina Whittleton said. “I’m selling my cars, we’re selling trucks, we’re selling inventory, just so we can stay alive.”

Classic Party Rentals of Virginia has been in business for more than two decades, renting tables, chairs, china, and staging for weddings and events. But over the course of the past year, weddings and events have been severely limited. The current social gathering limit under Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s Executive Order 72 is 10 people.

“We’ve lost millions of revenue dollars, millions, just my company,” Whittleton said. “The wedding industry is a $2 billion industry in the state of Virginia, and I feel like we don’t fit in a box. We don’t fit in a box that somebody can recognize. I feel like we’ve been off to the side and nobody’s listening to us.”

The Estate at River Run has tried to stay open to allow for some small gatherings and outdoor events, but gathering limits of 10 people make that nearly impossible. (Photo: Faith Photography)

Numerous businesses throughout the state have been forced to close at some point during the pandemic. But in many cases, small business owners have received funding to help them stay afloat.

The professionals who make up Richmond’s wedding industry have not.

“It’s not just the event industry. It’s weddings, events, tourism, hospitality, DJs, florists, transportation, everyone’s been affected by this,” Historic Mankin Mansion and Event Estate Co-Owner Paula Ramirez said. “There’s been no relief for us as a group or us individually as small business owners.”

On Dec. 27, 2020, the Shuttered Venue Operators (SVO) Grant program, established by the Economic Aid to Hard-Hit Small Businesses, Nonprofits, and Venues Act, was signed into law. The program included $15 billion in grants for shuttered venues. However, most of the small business owners who make up Richmond’s wedding industry did not qualify.

“The Venues Act, you would think, would apply to any event venue,” Ramirez said. “But it’s specific for ticketed events, so you have to be qualified in a certain tax category as a ticket venue. Well, we are technically a ticketed venue. One person pays a huge ticket to have their event in our space. The fact that it’s not divided up between 200 people shouldn’t make the difference and get us disqualified for relief.”

As an industry, Ramirez says that she and her colleagues in the greater Richmond region cannot face a second year of devastation.

The wedding and events industry faces unique challenges in that there are only so many days to make up for lost revenue.

“People only want to gather on the weekends when they’re off work, and so our entire industry, basically, was always just about Saturdays, with the exception of an occasional Friday or Sunday,” luxury wedding planner Kim Moody said.

Moody has been in the wedding planning business for nearly two decades. In October 2019, just a few months before the first case of COVID-19 was detected in the U.S., she and her colleagues purchased a multi-million dollar property to serve as a wedding venue.

Since then, The Estate at River Run has tried to stay open for small ceremonies and outdoor events. But because the venue was purchased towards the end of 2019, it did not qualify for the financial assistance that has been administered over the course of the pandemic, based on taxes from the previous fiscal year.

The Estate at River Run has space for hundreds of guests. (Photo: Faith Photography)

“I don’t think anything in the 17 years that we have been in business could’ve prepared us for what we’ve gone through as a company,” Moody said. “You might have one or two reschedules or postponements or something a year. But to do this on a mass schedule, a mass situation this year, is really unbelievable.”

Because couples tend to plan their weddings so far in advance, Moody says it will be years before the local wedding and events industry has recovered from the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We have basically been singled out,” she said. “Our 2020 bookings came from 2019 or 2018, so these people have been engaged for, sometimes, 18 months is common, and they don’t want to keep waiting. People want to get on with their lives.”

But the economic concerns aren’t the only issues these small business owners are battling.

“I love being around people. The wedding industry is always something changing, always something new,” wedding planner Emmett Hickam said.

Hickham tells 8News that he has dealt with clients who are moving their wedding for the third and fourth time, a conversation that’s been difficult and emotional to have.

“The first time for the move was probably the hardest,” he said. “Unfortunately, now, couples have just — it is what it is.”

For more than 30 years, Eric Cunningham has brought music to events as a DJ and Owner of Debonaire Entertainment.

“Typically, we’ll do anywhere from 110 to 125 events as a company,” he said. “This year, we’re about a third of that.”

Without people being able to book venues for their events, Cunningham says, he has nowhere to play.

“Our whole industry is suffering a ripple effect,” he said.

It all started back in March 2020, when 130 wedding vendors were told at the last minute that the Richmond Weddings Show could no longer happen.

“[The show] was canceled two days before it was supposed to take place — devastating, just completely devastating,” Richmond Weddings Co-Owner Amye Brunette said. “Our next event was going to be September, when the guidelines were 50 percent capacity. However, we still were told we couldn’t have our event, even though our event is not a social gathering with families and the guidelines did allow for it.”

The Richmond Weddings Show serves as a resource for small business owners like Whittleton, Ramirez, Moody, Hickam, and Cunningham to connect with couples who are planning their wedding.

(Photo: Renee Jean Photography)

“They rely on these events to generate business and revenue for the upcoming year and stuff, so we rely on each other,” Richmond Weddings Co-Owner Scott Brunette said. “We want them to do well so they can participate in the show, and then we want to hold the show so we can bring in all these happily engaged couples to find them and hire them.”

The first Richmond Weddings Show of 2021 has already been rescheduled from March 14 to June 13, in the hopes that coronavirus-related restrictions will have eased enough by this summer to allow for some sort of event to take place, even if it has to be modified.

Primarily, the local business owners who make up the greater Richmond region’s wedding and events industry want to be able to work, with proper COVID-19 testing in place. But guidance from the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) says that is unlikely to happen any time soon.

“Until we can vaccinate more people and really have a decrease in the number of cases, we don’t see large events — and by large, that means more than 10 people — being able to occur,” Director of VDH’s Office of Environmental Health Services Julie Henderson said.

Although Virginia’s coronavirus infection rate is starting to decline slightly, Henderson says that has only been the case for a short period of time, and the majority of the state’s population remains unvaccinated.

“We still have a stay-at-home order in place and we still have a curfew,” Henderson said. “We do see an increase in noncompliance when alcohol is involved, when people are drinking and there’s alcohol involved, and that’s been the majority of our suspensions for restaurants.”

While restaurants throughout the commonwealth have been allowed to open at 50 capacity, Henderson says that’s different than wedding venues opening back up.

“You are with people that you’re familiar with, that you know, that you love,” she said. “You want to hug people and really celebrate, and now is the time, really, we have to buckle down and just stay in close proximity to people that we live with.”

But north of Virginia, New York State is getting ready to allow wedding receptions of up to 50 percent capacity or 150 people, starting March 15, under a new Executive Order from Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Small business owners in the greater Richmond region’s wedding industry are requesting that Virginia follow in New York’s footsteps, issuing the following statement:

Our wedding & event industry is hemorrhaging money at a startling rate.  During the 11-month-long pandemic, not only was the wedding industry the first to be shuttered, but now the last to open.  With the current 10-person limit for social gatherings, thousands of small businesses and couples in Virginia are left without direction or hope. That said, we simply need an efficient plan on how to safely reopen our businesses. Just last week in N.Y., an Executive Order was announced that beginning March 15, weddings will be allowed to safely and responsibly take place with proper COVID testing. This decision was made only after vetted studies of efficacy to insure public safety. We feel this sets a clear and pragmatic precedent. We respectfully request that Governor Northam follow in Governor Cuomo’s footsteps. Without this Executive Order, we will unquestionably need industry-specific funding for past and future lost revenue to survive. You have the opportunity to save our industry and restore the hope of countless families around the Commonwealth. Virginia is for Lovers — now is the time to prove those words true. Thank you in advance.

Back in August 2020, U.S. District Judge Glenn T. Suddaby ruled in favor of two couples who sued for the right to have more than 50 people at their weddings in western New York, issuing a preliminary injunction that allowed the Arrowhead Golf Club in Akron, N.Y. to operate under the same 50 percent capacity rules as restaurants serving dinner indoors. Two days later, state officials challenged the federal ruling.

Back in Virginia, if wedding industry professionals in the greater Richmond region are not able to return to work in some capacity by March 15, they say they need financial support.

“I look around and I see indoor soccer happening and nobody’s wearing a mask and people are sweating on each other,” Whittleton said. “There needs to be some sort of special provisions for our industry, and I tell you, we will follow them.”

Ramirez says, without guidance, it is heart-wrenching to be in a situation where they can’t offer a solution to couples.

“We are an industry that is rooted in planning for the future, and when we can’t do that, we’re crippled,” she said. “We want to be able to open our doors and earn our own money. So I think the solution is very simple and can be quickly resolved. But if it’s not, we’re all going to be in financial trouble yet again for a second year in a row.”

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