The Knot Worldwide's chief marketing officer on how the pandemic is reshaping weddings
Dhanusha Sivajee is chief marketing officer at The Knot Worldwide, which runs wedding planning sites The Knot, WeddingWire and Bodas, as well as other relationship milestone brands including The Bump, The Nest and Lasting.
With much of the country closed down due to social distancing restrictions, weddings are one of the most prominent life events affected. While some couples forged ahead with small ceremonies on front stoops or with masked attendants spread out in backyards, many others—already committed to large deposits for venues and caterers—opted to postpone their ceremonies.
This left vendors in the lurch, with empty venues and prepared food with no one to eat it.
That’s when The Knot and WeddingWire set up a 24-hour global hotline for both couples and vendors to talk with experts about the logistics of postponing their ceremonies. The brand also instituted a $10 million financial assistance program for vendors and offered advice on applying for small business loans and subsidies from the coronavirus government stimulus bill.
Sivajee spoke with Ad Age about the effects the pandemic is having on wedding venues and vendors, wedding planning and couples preparing for one of the biggest days of their lives. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
How has the pandemic affected couples who had been planning to get married?
Initially, people were freaking out. They were like, “What do we do? How do we handle this?” So we surveyed our users and vendors, and we found that more than 90 percent of people decided not to cancel their weddings, but to postpone them to later this summer or next year. But they still really wanted to celebrate that original date, so we saw the rise of what we coined the “mini-mony.” Couples are still coming together with a few close family and friends while social distancing, or other times it’s just a couple with an officiant, either in person or virtually.
How are vendors and the rest of the wedding industry being affected?
Their job, from Day One, is to put themselves in the shoes of couples. So even when so many vendors were hurting—it was really a cash flow issue—we saw them step up and be flexible in terms of moving dates and working with couples when they weren't able to find Saturday dates, which is typically the most popular wedding day.
Vendors were also still able to work with each other to support their local communities, whether it was venues and caterers helping food banks or helping couples with these mini-monies—making mini-cakes and dropping them on the doorstep or making bouquets so couples could still celebrate their original date.
As states begin to reopen and social distancing relaxes in some areas, how will weddings look different?
What we're seeing for the summer is that vendors and couples are adjusting the wedding format. People still want to celebrate with all of their loved ones, so they get creative about how they can have multiple weddings with different groups of people, like close family and friends, then maybe doing another wedding with their work colleagues, then with more of their extended college friends. Vendors are really figuring out how to accommodate these “shift” weddings.
So you have the original venue, but in order to socially distance, you can only have so many people, in different parts of the day. That gives you time to do the cleaning, the sanitization between the next group.
They’re getting very creative and practical in terms of what it means to have a safe a wedding in the time of COVID. So anything from incorporating hand sanitizing stations into the overall wedding design, bigger dance floors for more space between people.
We're definitely seeing a move from self-service food stations to plated dinners, multiple smaller bars to eliminate long lines of guests. Masks are our biggest seller right now on The Knot Shop. Couples are going to be wearing a mask, and they're going to be asking their guests to wear masks, but they don’t want it to be awkward, so they’re incorporating fun designs on the masks to match the overall theme.
So the guest experience is changing just as much?
Right, we're seeing people think about guests being more incorporated into the ceremony, sharing favorite memories. We’re seeing alternative entertainment like special musical performances that guests can actually enjoy themselves as they're sitting at their tables, which also allows for social distancing. But it’s also couples saying, “Look, we want to invest in you and give you an experience. Thank you for coming to celebrate with us today.”
What are vendors and venues most worried about?
We're finding this is a time where they want to learn from us and each other. How can they can manage their finances? How do they also take care of their own mental health? We're talking about a lot of small businesses, most of them mom-and-pop shops, trying to keep their businesses going, to keep their employees.
Weddings are definitely going to be more complicated than they have been before. Vendors are working on those different formats for couples, but we haven't really gotten into the full-on pricing and packaging at this point. I think they’re just trying to think about how they can take the budget and figure out how to work out different options. Weddings are expensive. We’re not here to gouge our couples, and neither are our vendors.
Have travel restrictions hurt destination weddings?
People are definitely not canceling them, but they're postponing them. They might travel now, but maybe they'll do that as a smaller mini-mony for themselves, and then they'll do something later in the U.S. that is more of a wedding ceremony, or a big party to celebrate with their friends.
What permanent changes do you see the pandemic having on the industry?
I think what we're seeing with the wedding industry is that people do not want to forgo a wedding celebration with their nearest and dearest. So I think that it is a matter of not if it comes back, but when it comes back. Long-term, the industry is probably going to come out stronger and more creative.
We think there will be a boom in not just Friday and Sunday weddings, which were already becoming a thing, but definitely more weddings throughout the week and in the winter. We're also anticipating a rise in engagements this summer. Usually the proposal season comes out of the holidays and goes into much of the spring. Some people have held tight—they had plans to do it a different way or weren't able to go and get the ring because of social distancing, so we're also predicting proposals in much more grand gestures and locations.
At the end of the day, budgets and all that aside, why do people get married? Why do people have a wedding to celebrate? I think COVID has really shined a light on that to me. Love is not canceled, and people want to celebrate and experience that joy with each other and their closest friends and family.