In what has come to be known as the B.C. era (before Covid), weddings were big business, a highly lucrative industry worth $55 billion in the United States alone. And prior to the global shutdown in early 2020, they were trending ever more extravagant. This isn’t news: for decades these events have been as much about showing off wealth and status as they were about celebrating love, but the rise of Instagram only seemed to push weddings into higher and higher strata.
Multi-day affairs in far-flung locales became de rigueur, with all of their requisite extracurricular activities, from welcome parties to farewell brunches. And then came the double wedding (see: Karlie Kloss and Josh Kushner; Sophie Turner and Joe Jonas; Charlotte Casiraghi and Dimitri Rassam): an intimate celebration followed by a bigger party later, creating a perfect excuse for well-heeled couples to now throw two affairs in two different destinations.
In the grand scheme of things, to have to cancel or postpone a wedding because of the coronavirus doesn’t rank as high on the list of sacrifices in a year of such unfathomable grief and loss. But that is not to say that giving up on an event in which you’ve put in months of blood, sweat, and tears—not to mention money—is so easy to do. Even the relatively small-scale celebration has a tendency to snowball—and every bride or groom thinks they’re chill until things stop going their way.
By last summer, it was clear that anyone with a date to say I do in 2020 would have to come up with a Plan B, stat. The ensuing wave of cancellations, venue closures, and travel restrictions devastated an entire ecosystem of planners, photographers, designers, caterers, florists, vendors, and the like. Eventually, though, the strictest stay-at-home orders were gradually lifted, a brief trend of Zoom weddings came and went, and couples began exploring another option, a happy medium of sorts: micro-weddings and elopements.
According to The Knot, 96% of couples had to change their 2020 wedding plans, but just 7% canceled their weddings entirely. Of the 43% of couples who went ahead with holding a smaller event last year, a majority of them considered that their only celebration, not a Covid-forced precursor to something grander down the road. And for Simply Eloped, the wedding planning site that specializes in tiny celebrations, last month was its biggest ever for bookings, a strong sign that this trend will continue into 2021.
For the team at global travel agency Embark Beyond, elopements used to be a once-a-year occurrence. Now? They were in the midst of planning four over one week earlier this month. “We started seeing them gain popularity in June,” says Hannah Cregg, Embark’s director of events. “For many, scaling down their weddings [in the midst of lockdowns] didn’t make sense so the elopement trend really began booming.” Adds John Graham, managing director of Vermont’s Twin Farms, arguably the most romantic hotel in New England: “As privacy becomes the ultimate luxury in today’s environment, the idea of elopements are being entertained more and more.”
Many couples, from Beverly Hills to the Hamptons, have opted for intimate backyard celebrations during Covid-19. Others are taking advantage of loosening travel restrictions and a robust slate of hotels in America, the Caribbean, and Mexico that have quickly pivoted to accommodate the rising demand for elopements (which generally involve up to 10 people) and micro-weddings (which include up to 50 guests, depending on state restrictions).
Mini destination celebrations, when executed with the utmost safety, provide all the benefits of a regular destination wedding—like essentially being on vacation with your favorite people—along with the silver linings afforded by the micro model. That distant relative you never really wanted to invite to your original wedding? There is now a perfect excuse to leave him out. A whittled down guest list also means much more quality time with each attendee, rather than engaging in infinite rotations of small talk with 200 people.
Plus, with the anxiety of dealing with things like color schemes and table charts largely alleviated, the group can focus on the experiences available at the hotel. “From getting heli-dropped on a mountain peak to an intimate dinner in a yurt, micro-weddings allow couples and their closest family and friends a one-of-a-kind experience without the stress of a big wedding,” says Joe Ogdie, general manager of The Lodge at Blue Sky, an Auberge Resort in Park City, Utah, where the activities list also includes horseback riding, fly fishing, hiking, and picnics.
And in what would be absolutely impossible for a big wedding, an elopement can be planned last minute. The Mauna Kea Beach Hotel on Hawaii’s Big Island saw an uptick in small wedding requests after the state introduced its pre-travel testing program in October. “Just two days ago, we received an elopement booking for the following week!” says Marla Dunn, director of catering.
Luxury hotels are already well-versed in planning all manner of celebrations, and, in light of constantly changing state and travel regulations, they’re able to pivot, quickly. When a couple was forced to further reduce their already pared down celebration due to California’s recent virus resurgence and stay-at-home order, Napa Valley’s Auberge du Soleil, the grande dame property of the Auberge Resorts Collection, created a unique experience for just the newlyweds that included a private ceremony set within the olive grove and a prix-fixe dinner served under a wisteria-covered canopy. “While it was a dramatically different scenario than they originally imagined, it was super romantic and left them with memories to last a lifetime,” says Renee Risch, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing.
Finally, as with pre-pandemic destination weddings, couples can stay longer on property to enjoy a mini-moon, since chances are obviously high that their first-choice honeymoon, whether it was a safari in Tanzania or two weeks in a Tuscan villa, has also been indefinitely postponed. According to Cregg, couples have been taking a property’s mini-moon potential into consideration when choosing a wedding venue. “It’s a great way to limit travel and still be able to enjoy their time away,” she says. And to help offset the cost of this mini-moon, Embark Beyond has launched a program in which 40 properties, from the Singita Lodges in Africa to the Bulgari Resort in Bali, will offer a free night for future honeymooners.
But all such benefits to miniature weddings notwithstanding, has Covid-19 forever altered the wedding landscape? Is the era of massive, blow-out weddings officially over? Not likely, says Cregg, who is already seeing a huge demand for larger events. “Looking down the pipeline, we’re at a 30% increase in events over 200 guests,” she says. “Couples are desperate to celebrate their weddings and other milestones in a big way as soon as they can.”
As for when that will be, that’s another story.
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