Earlier this week, the Wisconsin State Journal and The Cap Times each shared extremely well-written stories about what the Dane County event industry has been facing these past nine months, since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. We are grateful for this coverage. In writing these articles, I was asked to share my thoughts and observations on the situation, as well as an overview of our local wedding and events industry. There is so much to tell and obviously not every detail could be included, so today I wanted to share with you my full original response to these requests. I am so fiercely proud and deeply invested in our industry, and we need as many people as possible to understand what we are facing right now in order to maintain hope as we enter 2021. See below for the narrative.
Small but mighty, vibrant but understated. The Madison and Dane County wedding and event industry is composed of many unique venues and vendors, capable of pulling off high-end events week after week, year after year. We take pride in our ability to create one-of-a-kind gathering experiences, and love working with event hosts to bring their vision to life. Having these two values taken away from us for these past nine months, the two main functions our entire industry is based upon has been extremely devastating.
Thanks to Covid and local messaging, the word “wedding” has now almost become a bit of a taboo in our county. People are hesitant to mention anything about planning to have a wedding or attend one, out of fear of being shamed for even considering such a thing. Data snapshots generalize how many cases have come from “weddings” without any further details such as location or circumstances. What was once one of the most joyful sectors of our local hospitality industry feels extremely heavy right now. And knowing what I do about our event community and what keeps us all in this difficult business, this truly is one of the hardest parts.
Dane County has over 100 venues that host events and over 500 wedding and event vendors in total, made up of photographers, planners, florists, DJs, caterers, and dozens of other categories, that all team up hundreds of times together during normal years to deliver start-to-finish unique event experiences. Many of these vendors have made this their full-time career while just as many, if not more, offer their service as a passion project, in addition to still working a day job. A common thread for most though tends to be “stumbling into” the industry in one way or another. They weren’t necessarily seeking it, but once found, they’ve never wanted to leave. It can be exhausting, thankless, physically, and emotionally demanding, but the high of bringing people together has an energy that cannot be beaten.
From May-October, our local wedding season is in full swing. The reasons why someone wants to get married in Madison are endless, but most of them come down to the hosts’ connection to our beautiful city. We have everything they want, and they can’t wait to show us off to their guests. Many of our venues book up for the season and the average guest count is between 150-250 people. These people are not only here to attend these weddings, but in turn stay in our hotels, eat at our restaurants, take in our sights, and experience the city. While weddings still take place in our colder months as well, our offseason is filled with holiday parties and other local celebrations. We are ready to cater to any needs, any time of the year.
And of course, the same thing could be said for the many other different types of events that are hosted in our city. People fall in love with Madison and want to share it with others, so they chose us to host their shows, conferences, and sporting events here year after year.
Except this past year, and if something is not done quickly, possibly for years to come.
Events take time to plan. The current lack of guidance on what a reopening plan will be for the events industry is already impacting us well into 2021 and will continue to do so, as we see things regularly drop off our schedules week after week. New orders being released with just 24 hours notice on a seemingly ad hoc timeline does not work for someone trying to plan any sort of event, let alone a wedding. These plans require communicating with guests, ordering perishables, and coordinating with multiple vendors. These factors have understandably led some couples to already make the decision to postpone their 2021 wedding, with that feeling like a more favorable option at the moment than a state of constant limbo. We vendors of course understand the position they’re in and do our best to accommodate because it feels like the right thing to do for everyone. But we also take a bigger hit each and every time this happens. With each postponement, there is both lost revenue from the originally anticipated event date, as well as the lost opportunity of new business that could’ve come on the new date. For many of the smaller, independent vendors, each and every booking can go a long way to make or break their business and personal goals.
Weddings are the main type of event that has still been trying to make things work through this, because they are so personal. All corporate type events originally on the books for venues, many held at the same location year after year, have essentially all been cancelled for the foreseeable future until things seem safe. It’s understandable why, but this again is all lost revenue that will never be recovered. And those planning large scale events from a distance are certainly considering right now if Madison is even a viable option for 2022 and beyond, given the state of uncertainty around how we will be allowed to run events well into the future.
I don’t say all this to gain sympathy. What’s done is done, but we must do something right now to stop this from getting much worse.
We are asking for the opportunity to work together with our local officials, to define a clear reopening plan for the events industry, to put into effect when the time is right. Safety is the number one priority and we know that large scale events won’t be realistic for some time. But we must start strategizing together today to define what our industry is capable of. We can have conversations of what appropriate metrics could be realistic to aim for, now that we know so much more than we did in July, when the original Forward Dane plan was released. We can have conversations about science-backed measures that are seeing success around the country and how we can adopt them locally. We can have conversations about the expected path moving forward, now that a vaccine exists. We must start these conversations now.
Doing this together would allow us to develop a plan that directly addresses public safety, while letting our industry begin to serve again. Instead of being caught off guard with every new order that is released, we could be better equipped to advise event hosts on what their event could look like a few months down the road. This would allow them to feel more confidence both in us and in their leaders. It would allow us hope to slowly come back. We in the world of mass gatherings can be a part of the solution, not the problem, if only given the opportunity.
A secondary ask of these conversations would be for a further breakdown of the data that exists. Right now, “weddings” is the generalized term that is blamed for a number of local Covid cases. However, we need more details. Did that wedding occur at a commercial facility? Did it occur in someone’s backyard? Did it occur inside our county per our guidelines? Or outside the county, out of our control? Did it involve professional, licensed vendors? We ask all these questions because we believe there should also be a distinction made between mass gatherings at private residences versus commercial facilities. Commercial facilities can require a number of safety guidelines in place for their event, while those hosting events at private residences are less likely to take these measures. Commercial facilities have greater square footage and better HVAC systems at minimum, and we should be working to guide people towards those spaces for their gatherings, not away from them.
Finally, more aid is needed. All of hospitality is suffering greatly, but the world of private events is being left in the dust. After seeing financial relief distributed to restaurants, hotels, theaters, and community spaces, our sector is the one remaining that seems to not have been seen. Venues that function specifically to host private events still have huge holding costs each month. Vendors that can travel, such as photographers or planners, have been forced to put themselves in unsafe situations this year and work weddings with loose restrictions, simply because they need to survive. No specific distribution has come to the private events industry, one that was the first to shut down and will likely be one of the final to reopen fully.
I share this all because our tight-knit event community, one that works year round to keep our city a vibrant destination, is suffering immensely. There is no perfect answer to any of these circumstances of the past nine months, but we know that we can do this better, together. Please give us the chance.