We are close to reaching the 3rd step in the government’s roadmap; the reopening of hospitality venues on or after 4th July. There are many couples waiting to see if their wedding can go ahead and many venues keen to open.
However, at present, most of the information available from the government refers to pubs, bars and restaurants, with little advice relating to weddings. It is clear that every hospitality sector will need to develop their own set of guidelines relevant to their own sector. These will be based on best practice, financial viability and perhaps most interestingly, the need of their customers.
Here we seek to establish what those best practices might look like and the aspects venues should be considered in order to protect their staff, their customers and their business.
UPDATE: Weddings are now allowed to go ahead in Wales (from 22nd June 2020). If you are an approved wedding venue in Wales, please get in touch with your local district to inform them that you are ready to open and host weddings again as soon as possible. They are still forming their action plan and want to hear from venues and couples who are wanting to get married as soon as possible.
When should your venue open?
Most venues are keen to open as soon as they are permitted to and that could be as early as 4th July in England. Others are planning to wait until August when the situation is slightly clearer and the cost of furloughing staff increases. Many are waiting for the next announcement for the hospitality industry which is expected in the next few days and all these factors will play a part in the decision. We have been looking at online data to help venues take online activity from their target market into consideration too.
In most cases, the data would support the idea of venues opening as soon as it is possible. This would primarily be to boost consumer confidence, rather than with the intention of carrying out weddings or other social events imminently. “Opening” may simply involve announcing that the venue is Covid secure and open for business, and having a member of staff based there rather than working from home, available for show rounds if needed.
It is useful to look at data from other parts of the wedding industry to see the additional social media coverage you’ll achieve from a prompt opening. The bridal boutiques, menswear shops, jewellers, florists and other bridal retailers who made it clear that they were opening on 15th June received higher a lot of social media interest with couples talking online about visiting their shops or booking appointments and others responded to their comments.
Opening at the first opportunity gives the clear message that it was only the government closure that was preventing you from looking after your customers and that you are there and ready for them.
As soon as you open, your couples with weddings booked for later this year will have confidence in their plans going ahead and it may prevent further cancellations or postponements. Those wanting to book for later this year or 2021 will know you are definitely an option for them to consider.
There has been a very high number of couples looking online at wedding venues since the beginning of May; an increase of 36.5% from last last year. This online traffic is ready to convert into real customers for you, with couples keen to arrange viewings and to book their date as soon as venues start to open.
However, it is worth noting that registrars have not yet been given permission to carry out weddings or allow couples to Give Notice of Marriage and churches are not thought to be ready to offer weddings yet. There also is speculation that wedding ceremonies may be limited to register offices and council owned venues to start with, in order to ensure a safe working place for registrars.
For those venues choosing to wait before opening, we’d really encourage you to look at other ways to instil confidence. This might include a clear statement on the date you are opening on your website and social media, and changing out of office messages. We’re receiving so many calls, emails and Facebook messages from anxious couples who just want to know that their venue WILL be reopening, so that will go a long way in letting them know that their wedding plans are in safe hands with you.
Anxious about making decisions on COVID-Security?
In the absence of clear government guidance on what measures need to be taken it is sensible to approach this risk from two different angles already familiar to wedding venues. This can form the backbone of your policies, with government guidance, when available, adding the detail.
Risk Assessment. The risk of COVID-19 should be treated like any other significant risk in your business. In the same way that you assess any other risks, you should consider the likelihood and severity of the possible risk and then look at all the possible and reasonable ways to mitigate those risks.
Customer care. We would encourage you to approach your COVID security in the same way that you approach customer care. In both cases, there are regulations in place to ensure that customers aren’t compromised by unreasonably low standards. However, those that demonstrate exceptionally high standards will be the ones to win customer confidence – and their future business. Regardless of regulations, it could be worth going that extra mile to ensure your clients feel completely safe.
From the experts
Approach your COVID security in the same way that you approach customer care. Regardless of regulations, it could be worth going that extra mile to ensure your clients feel completely safe.
Alison Hargreaves, Wedding industry expert and Guides for Brides CEO
What Government Guidance is there?
The Government’s advice has centred around pubs and restaurants, with a specific focus on a date for reopening, rather than any concrete guidelines. One element of the guidelines which has emerged is that “wider spacing” will be required. We are interested that the existing two metre rule isn’t mentioned, suggesting a possible change there.
We have been hoping for more detailed government guidance, and the following excerpt suggests it may have been drafted in some detail, yet not released to the industry;
‘A draft of the guidance seen by Propel, the hospitality industry newsletter, encourages staff to split into shift teams and “use of radios or telephones or other electronic devices when sending orders from service areas to kitchens”.’ – The Telegraph
It is worth noting that even the council-owned, council-run wedding venues have not been given specific government advice on what steps they should take to be “COVID-secure”.
However, we know that the government has been looking to individual sectors to come up with their own innovative solutions to reopen safely and carry out their own risk assessments, using the general guidance already in place.
The industry body, UK Hospitality, released a statement on 11th May outlining their plan to advise venues on safe reopening. They indicated that there will be room for interpretation and flexibility within any guidelines, due to the diverse nature of the businesses affected.
What are the large Hotel Groups doing?
Some of the world’s largest hotel chains have taken the lead when it comes to announcing some of their own policies ahead of reopening. These can form a good basis for policies for others as the larger chains will be following best practice, particularly when it comes to cleaning standards. You can read more here on the steps that Marriott, Hilton and Accor are taking.
Risk Assessment Checklist
The following considerations will be relevant to most wedding venues, based on the information currently available. This information will be updated if further guidance is issued or becomes accepted practice.
Social distancing – There is speculation that the two metre rule will be adjusted to one metre before the proposed 4th July reopening date. It is worth looking at the implications of allowing two metre and one metre space for distancing in various parts of the venue including the toilets. This will also help you to establish your maximum safe numbers and make sure that opening is logistically and financially viable. It will become clear that a two metre space between tables and between guests at tables is not an option for the majority of venues; thus the pressure on the government to reconsider the two metre rule before venues have to make the decision on whether it is viable to open.
A limit on venue capacity – In line with other businesses currently opening, we think it is unlikely that the government will enforce a specific limit for venues. It will be down to each venue to establish how many guests can be accommodated safely at any one time. There may also be a limit on the number of people that can gather together in one place for a social event such as a wedding. Inevitably there will be pressure on venues to accommodate the permitted maximum numbers.
Space for individual households or ‘bubbles’ – In addition to social distancing, it will be considered safer for individual households or ‘social bubbles’ to be seated together and separately from other households or bubbles. This would require more flexible seating arrangements, ideally with a variety of table sizes.
Floor markings – Two metre marks and designated queue areas have become common in shops. Most venues feel this is not appropriate or relevant for a wedding but it may be needed anywhere that there may be queues such as toilets and the bar area.
One way systems – Many businesses have found that simple one way systems can help to increase their maximum safe numbers so this measure is well worth considering.
Physical barriers – Perspex barriers or “cough screens” should be considered anywhere that there is face to face contact between guests and staff, such as bar areas and cloakrooms. Some companies, for example, Wetherspoons, have proposed the use of perspex dividers between tables.
Laying-up tables – There are added risks associated with leaving cutlery, crockery and glasses laid on tables, with venue staff and suppliers such as the florist, photographer and toastmaster moving around the room in the hours before the event starts. We’d anticipate an increase in the use of decorative charger plates that can be replaced with a plated starter after guests are seated, cutlery wrapped decoratively in a napkin and glasses either being inverted or being added to the table after guests have been seated.
Serving food – Buffets, sharing platters and canapes will be higher risk than hot, plated food. Venues will probably want to avoid self-serve options such as chocolate fountains and cheese wedding cakes.
Serving drinks – The highest risk comes from “vertical drinking’ – guests standing at the bar to drink. At the very least you’ll need a perspex screen to protect your bar staff and a way of managing the queue and avoiding it becoming a focal point. Depending on the budget of the host or the guests, risks can be minimised by offering table service or by supplying a full selection of drinks to each table for guests to serve themselves, in a similar style to a nightclub.
Facemasks – It is unlikely that facemasks will be compulsory for all staff however they will become fairly standard for those serving food. Venues may want to make facemasks available for guests, although it is assumed that they will bring their own.
Hand washing and sanitising – Adequate provision will need to be made for guests to clean hands and this may be a challenge for venues with limited bathroom space only permitting one person at the basin area at a time. 100 guests each taking just 20 seconds would take a total of 30 minutes. Supply hand sanitiser in addition to handwashing facilities if needed.
Toilet attendants – There will be requirements for regular cleaning of touchpoints throughout venues. An obvious risk will be touchpoints in toilets including door handles and taps. Remember that an extra member of staff in the bathrooms reduces the space available for social distancing, so venues will need to balance the decision on wiping surfaces between users or less frequent but more thorough cleaning.
Time between venue bookings – Airbnb have indicated that they will aim to create a 72-hour gap in between their bookings. 72 hours seems excessive, given the evidence that the virus doesn’t survive on surfaces for more than 48 hours. Some venues have been considering next day bookings, or allowing different guests for the afternoon and evening. It may be considered safer to leave 24-48 hours between bookings to allow for deep cleaning and for the virus to naturally disperse.
Other aspects for venues to consider
There is far more than just the “on the day” risk assessment to look at for venues readjusting to the challenges coronavirus presents.
For most venues, it is clear where the liability for risk assessments and COVID security lies. However, there are some grey areas particularly for dry hire venues and marquee sites. It is important to establish who has liability, whether it is the venue, the caterer, the planner or the couple getting married.
Track and trace
The government has made it clear that an ability to track and trace will be an important part of the ongoing strategy. Weddings are unusual in that you are able to trace those present on the day. Guides for Brides has developed software that will be available to all their venues and wedding planners, to enable them to check that guests and suppliers are free of symptoms before attending. In case of an outbreak, the same software can be used to notify attendees.
Regional closures and other contingency planning
As venues reopen they will need to plan for numerous possible situations. In addition to the risk of key members of staff needing to self-isolate, for those close to regional and county borders it is worth paying particular attention to the risk of regional closures in neighbouring counties which could prevent staff or suppliers in locked-down areas from servicing your venue.
This will become a familiar phrase over the next months. It will refer to the wedding cancelled or postponed in the period after the government permits weddings, but whilst there are other reasons that the wedding can’t take place. The Frustrated contracts doctrine sets aside contracts where an unforeseen event either renders contractual obligations impossible or radically changes the party’s principal purpose for entering into the contract. It has the potential to protect, or compromise, the interests of both parties; the couple and the venue. It is an important law to understand and one that we will be explaining in detail over the next few weeks with a webinar and Q&A with the top consumer rights experts who are currently looking into all the likely scenarios.
The government was asked to look at secondary legislation in June 2019 to allow outdoor weddings in England and Wales, ahead of their main review of marriage laws due next year. Venues have mixed feelings on the impact this will have on their business, some risk losing weddings to venues with better outdoor facilities, others will benefit from the added flexibility. If the change to legislation is made, those with suitable outdoor areas, ideally with a large enough indoor wet weather option, will see additional bookings this year but only if they are a step ahead with suitable imagery ready to go on their website, social media and wedding directory listings. We know that a number of couples are waiting to see if this law changes before they commit to a 2020 wedding.
As ever, we will be keeping on top of the most relevant news as well as following online statistics and data to be able to guide our venue clients through the developing situation. We can only summarise the key points here but we are always happy to hear from clients needing specific advice or information.
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.