The year of the microwedding: How COVID-19 transformed Delaware wedding celebrations

Shannon Marvel McNaught
Delaware News Journal

The coronavirus pandemic has transformed the wedding industry. In some ways, it might even have improved it.

Microweddings and outdoor ceremonies are hugely popular now. Masks and sanitizer are a given, often stylized to match the wedding. Livestreaming for people who can't attend in person is common.

For all the new things COVID-19 has forced humanity to take into consideration, it's made a lot of weddings simpler. Rather than finding the experience to be lesser, many say they've found deeper meaning in pandemic weddings.

Leeanne Rocheleau, owner of Luxe + Lovely Events, says the wedding industry is roaring back after COVID-19 lockdows.  Many local vendors are already booked for 2021 and most of 2022.

"We were able to be attentive to all of our guests and not feel like we were rushed. We actually remembered and enjoyed the day," Dover bride Kelly Meding said.

Of course, vendors had to adjust, from individually bagging makeup brushes for each bridal party member to installing plexiglass shields on musicians' microphone stands. 

"We've all changed, had to adapt and grow and figure out what works best. I think we've come out stronger," said Luxe + Lovely Events' Leeanne Rocheleau.

Rocheleau and her colleagues have fined-tuned the pandemic wedding. Many COVID-19 brides and grooms don't feel like they're making concessions. Their weddings are unique and memorable.

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"I feel like it will be more special because it will be more intimate and we can focus on our love, not on the million details of a large wedding," Taylor Davis of Claymont said. She's planning a fall 2021 wedding. 

As vaccines are distributed and hope that the pandemic is passing grows, the wedding industry is ramping up. Vendors are quickly filling their calendars for not just this year, but 2022 as well. 

"I think 2021 and 2022 are going to be years of celebrations," Rocheleau said. "If people haven't booked, now is the time."

Randall and Kelly Meding sported personalized masks at their Nov. 7, 2020 wedding.

For better  For worse

When the pandemic began, wedding industry workers were hit with a flurry of activity as brides- and grooms-to-be scrambled to postpone and reconfigure their weddings.

Then it all came to a hard stop.

"Some couples definitely didn’t know what to do. Part of my job can be hard because I have to tell them things maybe they don’t want to hear, but it's for their benefit," Rocheleau said of COVID-19 restrictions.

There were some bleak moments, especially when the pandemic first began.

"I still remember saying we were about to enter an unknown area," said Kurt Titchenell, owner of BVTLive! entertainment and leader of popular wedding band Jellyroll. "It was very, very scary."

Salero, an events venue atop the Henlopen Hotel in Rehoboth Beach with ocean views, hosted 12 weddings in 2020.

Vocalist Morgan of BVTLive! band City Rhythm performs with a plexiglass shield installed on her microphone.

"We average between 70 and 90 events per year, so COVID hit us hard on the chin — close to a KO," owner Dawn Horton said.

Scott Brown owns Collars 'n Cuffs in Wilmington. Without relief grants from the state and Economic Injury Disaster and Paycheck Protection Program loans, it would have been difficult for him to keep the store open, he said.

For the menswear business, the second quarter of the year is usually the most profitable. But in 2020, that's when everything was shut down.

"I lost Easter, proms, Memorial Day, Father's Day, Mother's Day. I lost most of the wedding season," Brown said.

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Hilton Wilmington/Christiana has hosted 2,500 weddings since opening in 1985, with some years better than others.

In 2020, they hosted three, according to general manager Brad Wenger, and then there was the drastic reduction in hotel room bookings.

Advent of the 'rescue wedding'

By summer 2020, COVID-19 restrictions began to ease ever so slightly, and wedding vendors were learning to adapt.

Wedding boutiques like Claire's Fashions in Holly Oak began operating by appointment only. The Bridal Boutique Ltd. in Milford shortened their hours so staff could clean and disinfect more often.

Hair and makeup artists, already very familiar with sanitation, had to break up bridal parties.

"We definitely pivoted to doing smaller microwedding events last year. However, we still had to create films that were just as powerful and meaningful, usually with less material than a full wedding day, which had its challenges," said PGP Films' John Morgera.

"When they come in for the trial, we used to let them bring whoever," said Bethany Malloy, owner of Gloss Salon in Wilmington and Newark. "We can't do that anymore because of the capacity in salon."

Hilton Christiana/Wilmington, along with caterers and other venues that provide food, had to rethink buffets. 

"The traditional approach to cocktail receptions had to be reinvented. Butlered hors d’oeuvres are not able to be done the old way," Wenger said. "We’ve come up with single-serve, creative sampler plates that can be handed to a guest instead of picking from a communal tray."

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Limits on the number of guests forced some brides and grooms to switch from full bands to one- or two-musicians acts like guitarists and cellists or maybe a quartet, Titchenell said.

Wedding vendors had to figure out how to do more virtually, like at Irish Eyes in Lewes. Event specialist Jennifer Brown does about a quarter of all tours and appointments via FaceTime and Zoom.

"One of the things about the quarantine is that people have figured out just how rarely they need to leave the house," Brown said. "It is turning out to be really convenient with our out-of-town clients and for people who just have busy schedules. And who doesn't?"

Hand sanitizer is a necessity during the pandemic. Many are incorporating it into their wedding's design.

Venues like Baywood in Millsboro became experts in writing Division of Public Health-required safety plans. They also became more flexible. 

"We have seen more fluidity with plans," Baywood's Stephanie Nay said. "Sometimes things change last minute, and that is OK right now."

Tom Covello, venue manager at Bellevue Hall and Cauffiel Barn Estate, near Wilmington, maintained a sense of humor when faced with the volatility of pandemic weddings.

"All of the zigs and the zags and the just 'Are you kidding me?!' You think you have it under control, and it all just blows up in your face," he said with a laugh.

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Covello dealt with a lot of weddings that were almost tragedies in 2020 when the pandemic forced venues to shutter without notice. He said he was fortunate to have so much outdoor space, which allowed him to move several out-of-state weddings to Delaware.

"I call them rescue weddings," he joked. "I have stories from couples that were locked out of a New Jersey venue that we brought over to Bellevue three weeks before the wedding!"

Becky Eppig of Sherm's Catering said, "We feel the hope from the community and our clients."

Pop-up and microweddings

Experiencing the trauma the pandemic foisted upon them caused Delaware wedding vendors to bond. Many of them now refer to other vendors as "friend-ors," as corny as it sounds.

"Vendors have all been wonderful here in Delaware because everyone's going through the same thing," Rocheleau said.

Some of them adapted by partnering with each other.

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The owners of Delaware City venue Petit Social, described as a "unique and intimate gathering space" on their website, partnered in March with Rebecca Renner Photography and Vine & Oak Evening Styling and Floral Design to offer pop-up wedding ceremonies. 

Together, they offered packages that include photography, stylized decor, an officiant, a complimentary toast and up to six guests for half an hour at Petit Social. They execute multiple ceremonies per day. It was their second such event.

"So many people have been unsure about how to proceed, so they’ve kinda been holding off," Vine & Oak co-owner Erica Wright said. "Now they're doing more of these last-minute pop-up celebrations because, I think, they're starting to get impatient."

Leanne Rocheleau of Luxe + Lovely event planning prepares for a wedding during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In another partnering of vendors, Luxe + Lovely Events, PGP Wedding Films, Sherm's Catering and Jen and Katie Photography are offering all-inclusive microweddings.

They're popular among couples who don't mind a smaller wedding, as long as it's still meaningful.

"Couples are finding value in love rather than things now. They're really putting emphasis on their love for one another and the experiences their guests are going to have," Rocheleau said.

Bridal trends mix

Last year was undoubtedly the year of the microwedding, but microweddings don't mean minimal effort, just minimal guests. And they have maximum meaning.

"A large wedding, it's certainly fun, but there's something so special about those smaller weddings. You can talk to everybody and have meaningful conversations," Rocheleau said.

In recent years, farm weddings have been popular. Rocheleau said that theme is transitioning to a more nature and outdoor-focused style because the pandemic necessitates open space. It can easily be pulled off in a backyard, where an increasing number of couples are getting married.

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Several wedding vendors said they're seeing a dichotomy in wedding trends. 

"Because a lot of these brides were supposed to get married last year, it's almost like a stall in upcoming trends," Bethany Malloy of Gloss Salon said.

The result is two very different kinds of weddings. Colors are either uniformly muted or bright and vibrant. Guest counts and wedding parties are either very small or very big. Attire and decor are either more casual or ultra-fancy. 

Since the pandemic began, livestreaming has become a common practice at weddings.

"Everything's expanded to grays and blues, burgundies. It's much more flavorful," Scott Brown of Collars 'n Cuffs said. "But we do still have a lot of James Bond guys out there who want the traditional black-and-white tux."

BVTLive!'s Titchenell predicts that as vaccines are dispersed, wedding bands will come back in a big way. He doesn't have much room left on his 2021 calendar.

"Our bands are really sought after. We're a big part of their wedding dream. They want a big party," he said.

Hannaleigh Scott proves him right. She's getting married at Deerfield near Newark this fall after rescheduling twice.

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"There was no way we were getting married without a dance floor!" she said. 

With COVID-19 changing the way wedding food is presented, some vendors are capitalizing on it.

Jenny Brown at Irish Eyes said people are spending more money on food.

"People are seeing the beauty of having a higher-end menu and all the extravagant details that they might not be able to spring for if they had twice as many guests," she said.

Photographer Holly Blood of Photos by Holly captured this stylized mask setup at a wedding.

At White Clay Creek Country Club at Delaware Park, they're planning to concentrate on formal dining with tableside service, allowing them to showcase their food and beverage options.

"We want to encourage couples to consider enhancing their served food options like intermezzos, cheese plates and other added courses to enhance the overall dining experience for the guests," Delaware Park's Jennifer Oberle said.

Advice for wedding planning

Those planning a wedding in the next few years should start yesterday, according to wedding vendors.

Lots of couples have already booked 2021 weddings, on top of all the rescheduled 2020 weddings. From there, the bookings just keep rolling in.

Baywood has a record number of weddings set for this year. In fact, 2021 wedding dates are so sought after, they aren't just on Fridays or Saturdays anymore.

"Many people have waited to decide on scheduling their events, so now they are willing to have Thursday nights, Sunday afternoon, even weekday events," Baywood's Stephanie Nay said. "And we believe that their guests will drop everything and come because we are all ready to celebrate."

Petit Social and Vine & Oak collaborated to create some intimate wedding inspiration at Stitch House Brewery in Wilmington.

Wedding dresses, which sometimes took months to arrive in pre-pandemic times, are taking even longer to ship.

"We are urging brides to start shopping as soon as they can," said Nicole Bonacquisti, assistant manager at Claire's Fashions. "The more time they have the better!"

And don't forget, it's not just weddings coming back after pandemic restrictions — it's everything.

"(Weddings) should bounce back nicely, along with all leisure travel," said Patrick Staib at the Avenue Inn and Spa in Rehoboth Beach.

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He pointed out that, with people wanting to get away but still being reluctant to fly, drive-destination weddings could be big.

Whether your wedding is big or small, boho or neon, black-tie or denim, Rocheleau has some advice.

"Spend money on the things that bring you and your guests joy, rather than what your friends did," she said. "I think that’s going to be the new trend."