Editor’s Note: This story is the second and final part of a mini-series on the effects of COVID-19 on the wedding industry in Hope, Agassiz and Harrison Hot Springs area. The first part can be viewed in the July 2 edition of
The Agassiz-Harrison Observer and the June 25 edition of The Hope Standard.
Life under COVID-19 is drastically different. As the community, the province and Canada as a whole put initiatives in motion to return to a more normal way of life, celebrations of life and love are on the rise once again.
Weddings in the time of coronavirus are by necessity smaller affairs, but the celebratory spirit they exude can be just as big and unforgettable as they come.
‘This may even change the climate of the industry’
Wendy McConnell, the weddings coordinator for the Fraser River Lodge and Resort said business at the Fraser River Lodge took a crushing 80 per cent blow since COVID-19 rose in intensity.
McConnell said weddings are a significant part of the Fraser River Lodge’s business. Furthermore, international travelers drawn to the area’s rich fishing prospects could not pass borders due to the pandemic, which only made matters more difficult for tourism as a whole.
“Some of them come back every year,” McConnell said of the international fishing enthusiasts, who hail not only from the United States but from Europe, Australia and beyond. “We just have to keep going and try to keep our heads above water.”
Up until COVID-19 hit, McConnell said the lodge was gearing up for its busiest year yet with a significant increase in particularly international and corporate business. The sudden loss of business was devastating and traumatizing to the owners.
“This may even chance the climate of the industry,” McConnell added. “We’re not really getting big group inquiries; elopements and smaller weddings are the way to go. We have bookings for 2022; by now we would have 20 booked but I think there’s just a couple. I just hope next year looks different and that we don’t get that big second wave.”
There are several factors McConnell attributes to smaller bookings outside of provincial health recommendations. Financial concerns are significantly higher now since the dawn of the pandemic, and nerves about any sort of travel can certainly play a part in slower business for the entire industry.
“It was pretty scary at the very beginning,” McConnell said as weddings booked for 2020 started calling in to weigh their options. The sheer, often-overlooked number of moving parts involved in bringing a complex event like a wedding together – from florists to officiants to catering and beyond – made any booking modification difficult. Ultimately, those who booked weddings at Fraser River Lodge and Resort were given two options: keep the date they’ve booked with coronavirus-related modifications or to postpone until next year without penalty.
Despite an incredible uphill battle for hospitality and wedding workers everywhere, McConnell said there are a number of encouraging signs emerging from the ashes.
“Things have really picked up,” McConnell said. “It was a little intimidating; we were not sure what to expect with the first wedding. But everybody was so happy. They were looking for something to celebrate after being holed up for a few months. The feedback is positive and has been really good.”
“The word of the year is being flexible,” McConnell said. “We’re really trying to treat our clients well.”
With a few weddings under Fraser River Lodge’s belt this season so far, it seems those who made it work were happy with their choice.
“Some people were happy to keep their day and to downsize,” McConnell said. “The people who planned on sticking it out and making it work are quite happy with their decision, and their attitude makes all the difference.”
The staff undoubtedly drew a collective sigh of relief when the first wedding was a success.
“We didn’t know what to expect or how freaked out everyone would be since there are different comfort levels,” McConnell said. “They went right to the end, keeping distance and being respectful.”
On a personal level, McConnell said the pandemic has drawn her closer to her loved ones since they spent more time together. Though she wasn’t working at her normal office as much, McConnell sometimes wrestled with the emotions that come with the job.
“It was a few sleepless nights,” she said. “Some of my clients have booked their weddings years ago, and you really get to know them. I get upset or emotionally involved with them and their lives and struggles. Sometimes it’s hard not to take that home with you.”
Though aspects of the months ahead are foggy and uncertain, McConnell said she’s gained a sense of optimism in recent weeks.
“Some of them tell me ‘I’m finally getting the small wedding I wanted,’” she said, indicating some clients felt the planning and the growing guest lists were getting out of hand. “There’s not big money in elopements, but those weddings are more meaningful.”
Memorial Hall bookings shut down
Memorial Hall is a popular, often-used venue for a variety of events, including concerts, the Harrison Festival of the Arts, parties and weddings. Village officials estimate in any given year, there are four to 12 weddings each year. At this time, Memorial Hall is only open for council meetings and public hearings and will stay that way until the need for physical distancing no longer applies. At any given Harrison Hot Springs Village Council meeting, there are a number of regular attendees that amounts to 10 or 15, and with physical distancing protocols in place, there isn’t much room for crowds bigger than that.
“At this time, we are not accepting third party bookings [for Memorial Hall] and no date has been set to change that policy,” Village officials said in a statement to the Observer.
It’s estimated the village generates about $9,000 per year in terms of average Memorial Hall rentals. This impact is not insignificant, but it is a small portion of the estimated $300,000 loss in parking revenue, boat launch revenue and Memorial Hall rentals, as projected in April.
Meanwhile, at the Harrison Hot Springs Resort, food and beverage manager Lisa Rose said most of their 2020 wedding bookings have been pushed off until next year.
‘Excited and ready’
“We worked with the couples, to make sure we fit them in according to availability for next year,” Rose said. “For our brides and grooms who are still going ahead with their wedding, we are working closely with our couples to come up with a more intimate wedding that fits in with our COVID-19 safety plan.”
Events that carried on this year had to be downsized below 50 guests and buffet dinners were replaced with plated dinners.
While international travel restrictions hurt the bottom line at the resort, this summer saw some last-minute bookings from those within Canada who couldn’t make destination weddings in Mexico and Hawaii happen.
“The hospitality industry was hit hardest when COVID-19 happened,” Rose explained. “We slowly started seeing a decrease in wedding and group business at the beginning of March.”
The resort ultimately shut down reservations at the end of March, reopening again at the end of April.
“Even with the resort being open [now], we have still lost most of our wedding and group business for 2020. But are very excited for 2021.”
Rose said resort staff are hopeful and keeping positive for the 2021 tourism season due largely to what she said is B.C.’s cautious and productive response to the pandemic.
“With the postponements, the 2021 wedding season, can potentially double the number of couples looking to tie the knot, which we are excited and ready for,” Rose said.
While destination weddings in far-off lands are a dream come true for many couples, Rose said Canadians don’t have to go abroad to find a picturesque happily ever after.
As Canada slowly, shakily climbs to its feet following the devastation of the pandemic’s initial shock, though there will be challenges on the road ahead, with the way weddings have adapted, it’s safe to say there will always be cause to celebrate.v