Report on the Impact of COVID-19 and Social Distancing on UK Wedding Venues
Covid-19 has brought the wedding industry to a standstill with government imposed restrictions meaning that weddings are currently banned. It is clear from the publication of the UK Government’s Covid-19 recovery strategy (May 11th) that, although they are examining how to enable people to gather in small groups to facilitate weddings in step 2 of the plan (June 1st earliest), hospitality will not reopen before July 4th.
Even then social distancing will need to be maintained, vulnerable people will continue to be shielding and guests from abroad may not be able to travel, or will be required to quarantine on arrival in the UK. These restrictions will affect most weddings, with BAME communities disproportionately affected.
The recovery strategy provides little clarity regarding what conditions are likely to be imposed on the hospitality sector from July onwards. If the government imposes strict limits on social gatherings a huge number of 2020 and 2021 weddings could be postponed and the wedding industry, valued at £14 billion / year, is at serious risk.
We surveyed wedding venues to understand what impact the current crisis is having and how continued social distancing measures would impact their businesses. Our founder and CEO, Alison Hargreaves, is a thought leader in the industry and is actively talking to MPs and the media, sharing the results of the survey and keeping up pressure to allow weddings of at least 50 guests.
Wedding venues have undoubtedly been hard hit by the pandemic. For 88% of the 249 venues that responded to our survey, weddings are a significant or primary part of their business.
Three-quarters of these venues are independent and one-quarter are part of a group. On average, they expect to host 64% less weddings than they had originally projected for 2020. This represents a huge loss of revenue, with most packages being in the £5,000-£10,000 price band but including packages over £20,000.
What would be the impact of the government continuing to limit the maximum number of guests at a wedding?
Weddings are a time when family and friends gather together to celebrate the commitment being made between two people. The surveyed venues told us that only 13% of weddings have 50 or less guests, and typically weddings are served by an average of 15 hospitality staff.
Making a profit whilst numbers are limited is very challenging. How far the government go in limiting the size of weddings will have a significant impact on whether venues can operate without financial loss.
If numbers are 50 or more, 66% of venues could at least break even.
Most can offer some element of upgraded package to protect their revenue and this is preferable to refunding a proportion of the costs if guest numbers are reduced.
What is the impact if the government restricts venues to a % of usual dining capacity?
Rather than imposing a fixed maximum number at a social gathering the government may limit hospitality venues to a percentage of their usual capacity. This will be a popular choice for some of the venues reliant on larger receptions, particularly for Asian, Greek and Jewish clients.
In this scenario, most venues could at least cover their costs at 60% of usual capacity.
What are the challenges?
There are numerous challenges for venues operating during social distancing. We looked at the factors that you felt might stop your venue from being able to host weddings once they are permitted.
The uncertainty of the situation has been one of the most frustrating challenges. With continued lack of clarity around future government restrictions on weddings, engaged couples are uncertain as to whether their wedding can, or should, go ahead.
The vast majority (81%) of weddings in our survey included a Civil Ceremony or Partnership and it’s disappointing that 39% of venues felt Registrars were making it difficult for couples to plan (e.g. by not taking future bookings).
The industry needs clarity so that both suppliers and couples can plan for the future.
Even with certainty, however, there remains the biggest challenge; couples are reluctant to get married when important guests are excluded.
We explored ways in which venues could include guests who are vulnerable or cannot be there in person.
1) Extend the space available to the wedding party
Almost all have some outdoor space, with the majority having sufficient space for the whole wedding party to gather safely outside whilst maintaining social distancing.
Two-thirds of venues would be able to make some additional space available for a wedding, for example by adding a marquee or expanding into another part of the venue, to allow guests to spread out.
And three-quarters have the possibility of providing additional indoor space that could be used for shielded guests during the wedding breakfast.
2) Live-stream events to guests who cannot be there
Increasingly during lockdown events, which would usually have taken place in person, are being live streamed and people are participating from home. This includes school classes, concerts, exercise classes and theatre. If numbers attending a wedding have to be limited, a larger circle of friends and family could share in the event from home. Whilst not ideal, this may encourage some couples to go ahead with their wedding with a smaller number of guests attending in person.
Around two-thirds of venues could possibly offer this service.
Would it be possible to split the wedding?
If numbers are severely restricted, another option is to permit couples to split their wedding, with a small ceremony and celebration on their original date and a larger reception when it is allowed. 84% of venues felt they could make this work. This is something we are now actively encouraging couples to consider.
We asked venues about their refund policies under four scenarios:
Weddings aren’t permitted at all
As a venue, you feel it isn’t safe or isn’t viable to offer any weddings
The government imposes number restrictions making the couples original plans impossible
You can go ahead with the number of guests originally planned but the couple don’t want to
Percent of venues who have this policy
Not viable for venue
Full refund if requested
Part refund if requested
Free postponement to any available date
Free postponement to any available date within 12 months of original wedding date
Free postponement to limited dates (e.g. weekdays) within 12 months of original wedding date
Free postponement but with limitations (e.g. hire period reduced or no longer exclusive use)
Admin charge for postponements to peak dates
Admin charge for all postponements
No refund, full charge at 2020 prices to rebook
No refund, full charge at 2021 prices to rebook
The most common policy is to offer free postponement to any available date. Most venues have a consistent policy regardless of whether the wedding cannot go ahead at all or cannot go ahead with the number of guests originally planned. However, if the wedding could go ahead with the same numbers but the couple chooses not to, venues are much less accommodating.
Only a minority of venues surveyed would be willing to offer a full refund in any of the four scenarios.
Only 22% of venues would be willing to refund couples that want to cancel because they cannot have as many guests as originally planned. And only 6% would refund couples who want to cancel for other reasons.
However, consumer rights organisations are advising couples that they should receive a full refund, including of their deposit.
“If your [wedding] venue or supplier cancels you will be entitled to get the money paid back for what has been cancelled … By law, deposits can’t be ‘non-refundable’.” – Which Consumer Rights Magazine
Similarly, if the number of guests allowed at a wedding is restricted by law, most venues (55%) would not even be willing to reduce the price of the package.
But consumer rights advice differs.
“These CMA guidelines effectively say it doesn’t matter what’s in the contract – if you’re not delivering the goods or service to customers, they have rights, and they should be given a full refund.”- Martin Lewis
This disconnect between venues’ policies and what couples are being told to expect could cause considerable disruption in the sector. We will be working with venues to try to establish standard policies as we know that couples seem more concerned about policies being consistent from one venue to the next, than venues refunding in line with CMA guidance.
What financial support is there to help venues weather the storm?
If weddings of a reasonable size are not permitted during 2020, a third of venues feel they could be at risk of closure.
Venues have low confidence that their business insurance will support them during this time.
It is disappointing, and frustrating to businesses, that insurers do not seem to be forthcoming in paying out to businesses affected by the current closure. This is compounded by their failure to settle claims with brides and grooms who have taken out wedding insurance policies.
It is important for venues to be aware that in the rare occasions that their couples have been successful in claiming on their wedding insurance policy, if the reason for cancelling was that the venue was closed, the insurers have then pursued the venue to cover the loss.
Forty three percent of the venues we surveyed have applied for government assistance in the form of Bounce Back or CBILS, but the remaining fifty six percent either do not want to take on additional debt (35%) or are not eligible (21%).
How can the government help?
We asked venues what would be the one most helpful thing the Government could do for them. What venues most need are:
A clear timeframe of when restrictions will be lifted so that venues and couples can plan with some certainty;
Allow wedding parties of 50-100 guests (or 60% of usual capacity) with clear instructions on space per guest required;
Demand insurance companies pay out for business interruption;
Continue the furlough scheme as long as weddings are restricted in size;
A grant for loss of business and assistance paying cancellation refunds.
Covid-19 has brought the wedding industry to a standstill. The publication of the UK Government’s Covid-19 recovery strategy (May 11th) has promised that the Government are examining how to enable people to gather in small groups to facilitate weddings in step 2 of the plan (June 1st earliest). But it has also been clear that hospitality and personal care (such as hairdressers and beauty salons) will not reopen before July 4th and that these businesses will only be permitted to reopen if social distancing can be maintained. Beyond those points, it provided no timetable, roadmap or detail as to what would be permitted.
Couples still want to get married, and marriage provides and social stability and financial security much needed at this time.
Whilst it is challenging for venues to make a profit whilst hosting smaller weddings, most venues could provide additional space to allow larger weddings to spread out and maintain a social distancing. Most can offer an upgraded package to protect their revenue. And two-thirds could offer live streaming so that those who cannot be there in person, because they are shielding or symptomatic, can feel involved.
With a £14 billion / year sector at serious risk, the government needs to provide the wedding industry with support as long as weddings are restricted in size.
The industry needs to provide a united front and a consistent message to encourage postponements or “split” celebrations over cancellations and reduce the risk of refund requests.
About the author
Written by: Alison Hargreaves
Alison founded Guides for Brides in 1995 and has been advising brides and businesses ever since. She has an unrivalled knowledge of the wedding industry and is part of an international network of wedding professionals and entrepreneurs. Alison frequently appears on podcasts and expert panels as well as judging various wedding awards.