How COVID-19 is shaking up weddings in Northeast Indiana—and the changes aren’t all bad

When Taylor Hollister-Silver of Fort Wayne planned to marry her husband, Samuel Silver, in 2020, she didn’t realize her wedding would be happening in the middle of a global pandemic.

Once the pandemic began, she and her husband-to-be spent months deciding on more than table settings and guestlists. They had to choose if they wanted to move forward with their planned date, or to put off the wedding for a while, or to sacrifice their big day altogether.

“Planning a wedding outside of a pandemic is difficult enough because of the financial investment, justifying your decisions to family, coordinating with a long list of vendors, and putting your own spin on it,” Hollister-Silver says. “Having to also accept the responsibility of everyone's health turns it into even more of an existential fear.” Groom Samuel Silver kisses bride, Taylor Hollister, as Aaron Robles officiates. Photo by Roots of Life Photography-Fort Wayne.

It’s a fear that many couples across the U.S. were wrestling with in 2020, wanting to share their wedding with family and friends, but also wanting to keep everyone safe.

While state and federal guidelines on events in 2020 have been murky and varied, evidence has shown that even smaller events, like a 62-person wedding in Maine, can turn into deadly COVID-19 superspreaders. 

For these and many other reasons, the pandemic is adding stress to many couples' wedding plans, but it's also giving some an opportunity to get creative and shake up the traditional wedding industry. If you ask Corinne Hersha, the lead photographer and Owner of Fort Wayne-based SparrowSong Collective, that’s not a bad thing.

Year after year, weddings in the U.S. have been growing increasingly extravagant and expensive, inflated in recent years by the pressure for couples to have  “Instagram-worthy” weddings. In 2019, the average cost to get married in the U.S. was $38,700, according to WeddingWire's Newlywed report.

Nevertheless, despite the high price tag and meticulous planning involved in pre-pandemic “big white weddings,” all of this extravagance hasn't necessarily made the couples, themselves, happier on the big day. At least, that’s what Hersha has observed as a wedding photographer.

“I would shoot these big traditional weddings, and they would just get out of the couple's hands,” she says. “They would be so stressed and overwhelmed on their wedding day, and I just felt so awful documenting this supposedly super happy day where they're stressed out. It ends up becoming something that I heard a lot of couples say, ‘I can't wait to get this over with.’ And it just breaks my heart.”

As couples coped with the pandemic in 2020 and began scaling back weddings to more intimate environments, or even elopements, Hersha saw a noticeable shift in their enjoyment levels on the wedding day.

“I just noticed such a strong difference in the general mood of the day and how couples were like, ‘This is about us,’ and ‘This is the best day ever!’” she says. “They could focus on each other.”

The newly renovated historic Eagles Theater in Wabash is likely to be a hot venue for weddings.

These are the emotions Hersha wants to capture in her photography, so she’s been shifting her business during the pandemic, too, transitioning from photographing more traditional weddings to more intimate weddings in backyards and elopements.

“I really want to focus on documenting the emotions of the love and the commitment that comes with an intimate wedding and how it just feels a lot more intentional,” she says. “I think COVID helped push that kind of in the minds of couples, as well.”

The value of simple weddings could be good news for couples hoping to get married in 2021 and 2022. Industry experts expect the cost of weddings to surpass pre-pandemic levels in the next few years as vendors raise prices to make up for 2020's losses.

As for the Hollister-Silver wedding, they eventually settled on an outdoor ceremony and celebration on Oct. 10, 2020, and approximately 200 guests showed up throughout the evening with safety precautions in place.

“Thankfully, not a single person got COVID,” Hollister-Silver says. “If something would have spread, I'm not sure I would feel the same way. But I'm glad that we went ahead with our plans.”

A lack of big traditional weddings and events in 2020 could also mean more—and even bigger—excuses to celebrate in the future.

 “We can always go even bigger for an anniversary party, and we intend to!” Hollister-Silver adds.

Hospitality leaders in Northeast Indiana are likely to be counting on the promise of bigger celebrations and events in coming years to make up for lost time and revenue.

In March, Ceruti Catering Inc. filed a lawsuit against Gov. Eric Holcomb and the Allen County Health Department for setting “random, arbitrary and capricious” COVID-19 restrictions on large gatherings that the business says caused it monetary damages, lost staff, and lost revenues. It cites inconsistencies in Holcomb’s executive orders as creating stress and uncertainty for its business and clients.

As Chief Hospitality Officer for the Honeywell Foundation’s five venues in Wabash County, Afla Irani says the number-one challenge his staff has faced throughout the pandemic has been navigating all of the uncertainty associated with hosting large events in Indiana, like weddings and corporate gatherings.

While he has more than 35 years of wedding planning experience in hotels, luxury cruise ships, private country clubs, and event and convention centers all over the world, 2020 created new hurdles for hospitality leaders to figure out on the fly.

“Even now, we don't really have clear guidelines for what we can or cannot do,” Irani says. “Things kept changing in terms of capacity. First, it was 10 people. That went up to 50, 100, 250, and then again everything kind of shut down.”

The Honeywell Foundation can arrange for social distancing at weddings and other events at their various venues in Wabash County. Photo by Autumn Howell Photography.

Further complicating matters, Irani notes that 2020 was supposed to be “the bumper year for weddings,” in particular, since it was a turn-of-the-decade year.

“People like to go with dates, you know, 2020?” he says. “I remember on October 10, 2010 (10/10/10), I had six weddings booked for that day.”

For the weddings that did happen in 2020, Irani says his team’s top priority was complying with regulations and making sure that everyone, including guests, volunteers, and staff, felt safe despite a lack of clarity.

As vaccinations continue to roll out, he and others at the Honeywell Foundation are eager to make more use of their venues, like the historic Eagles Theatre, which had been fully renovated and reopened right before the pandemic began.

Along with the Theatre, the Honeywell Foundation offers a variety of indoor and outdoor venues for weddings and events, including the Honeywell Center, Charley Creek Gardens, Honeywell House, and 13-24 Drive In.

Going into 2021, Irani says the focus will continue to be on adapting to changing regulations while still creating beautiful, memorable events for guests—an opportunity that vibrant, less dense Indiana small towns can take advantage of.

Irani says Honeywell has enough options to fit any budget and any dream wedding from a drive-in movie theatre with a tailgate reception dinner to a gathering in the historic Honeywell House.

“Wabash is one of those small towns that has really focused on having different options and choices,” he says. “It's a really cute small town, and you can actually make a whole week or a weekend of it.”