Over the past two years, couples put their celebrations on hold, either rescheduling multiple times or canceling outright as the delta and omicron variants spiked. Now, inflation is creeping higher.
The annual inflation rate in the U.S. increased to 7.5% in January, the highest it’s been since February of 1982 and surpassing market forecasts of 7.3%, “as soaring energy costs, labor shortages and supply disruptions coupled with strong demand weigh,” the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes.
However, Matthew Wheeler, area general manager of Topnotch Resort in Vermont and High Peaks Resort in New York, said couples aren’t necessarily scaling back on wedding celebrations now because of inflation concerns. Instead, they might have fewer attendees because they want a more intimate experience, especially at a time when social distancing has become a widely accepted practice.
“When we start worrying about inflation or people tightening their belts, I always remind myself that it impacts the entire column; everything either shifts down or it shifts up,” he said. “They may select a different kind of venue but they’re still going to get married, they’re still going to have a party, they’re still going to invite people and eat and drink. It’s ultimately understanding what clients are really looking for early on in conversation.”
Size and Volume of Wedding Bookings
Jeannie Green, corporate director of sales and catering at Kessler Collection, said demand for weddings at her hotels is matching what the demand was pre-pandemic.
On average, the 12 hotels across the portfolio would each host 25 weddings per year, with most occurring during the summer months, she said.
Based on bookings since the start of 2022, Green said the hotels are on pace to reach that 25-wedding average. Kessler Collection’s Grand Bohemian Hotel Asheville in Asheville, North Carolina, alone already has nine weddings on the books.
Many couples pushed the date of their weddings back to this year, and the omicron variant that emerged in late 2021 hasn’t caused further setbacks.
Inflation isn’t stopping couples either.
“I did present that question to my team, and they are not seeing that [as a barrier],” Green said. “I had one hotel that did scale back a little bit just from a financial perspective, but for the most part, they’re so excited that they’re able to get married that despite the fact that the [cost of something] is higher.”
Not only is the pace of wedding bookings stabilizing, the size is, too, she added. The standard sizes range from 100 to 200 guests.
“Between their guest list and their spend, we’re back to pre-pandemic,” Green said, adding that hotel weddings have begun stabilizing since the fourth quarter of 2021.
The size of weddings that would typically book at Wheeler’s two properties — which are part of Spire Hospitality’s management portfolio — would range from 130 to 160 people, but now it’s become bifurcated. He said he’s now seeing a trend of weddings ranging from 150 to 220 people and another number of weddings that range from 75 to 90 people.
One reason for the bigger celebrations is a result of families not being able to gather as easily at the start of the pandemic, he added.
In terms of managing the rescheduling process of weddings from the past two years, Wheeler said his team has been able to accommodate everyone.
“The shutdown happened early enough in the season in 2020, so we weren’t yet fully booked for 2021. We were able to accommodate everyone. Out of all the weddings that we had scheduled, maybe one ended up outright canceling,” he said.
Brittney Jones, VP of sales, marketing and revenue management at development, investment and management company Raines, said wedding blocks pre-pandemic made up around 5% to 7% of its business mix. Her team is expecting that percentage to be a few points higher this year.
“In our higher-demand, transient leisure markets, we are capping group at around 20% to 25% on peak-season weekends, offering 10-room courtesy blocks to weddings,” she said.
And even more so than in 2019, people are calling to ask for extra room blocks, ranging from five to 10 rooms, she said.
“We’ve been able to push rate even further for this second block, and [guests] aren’t questioning it whatsoever. We’re not seeing pushback, they’re just taking what they can get,” Jones added.
She said it’s natural that the size of weddings have gotten smaller in 2020 and 2021, but into 2022 and spring 2023, that size is growing back to pre-pandemic levels at her properties as well.
Wheeler said his team typically will book weddings at his two properties 12 to 18 months out. How it differs this year is not necessarily that guests are booking further out but it’s that they’re booking faster.
For couples looking for fall weddings this year, Wheeler said his properties don’t have the capacity for it.
His teams are putting messaging out now, and his hotels are accepting wedding bookings for 2023 and beyond, which he expects will fill up quickly.
“What I’m hearing is that the energy was more frantic last year; people were hurrying to plan a wedding for 2022 and they were up against the properties that were already sold out,” he said. “Couples are studying their options, maybe reevaluating their priorities in terms of how they want to spend their budget.”
Jones said the booking has changed since pre-pandemic at her hotels. In 2018 and 2019, the window was as far out as 12 to 24 months. Now, that’s shifted back.
“We’re really seeing bookings that are in the year for the year. I think people are a little nervous booking too far out,” she said. “Our average lead time today, and since 2021, has been about six months … but we’ve even seen a lead time of as little as three months.”
Leads for weddings this fall are coming in quickly at her properties and some are booking on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays because Saturdays are completely booked, depending on the property. Some couples are even pushing out to spring of 2023 at this point, she said.
The three biggest priorities for couples this year for their celebrations are bar options, floral arrangements and music, instead of being laser-focused on the sit-down dinner, Wheeler said.
“People are ready to party, they’re still drinking Aperol Spritzes, craft beer,” he said. “The more formal components, like spending time and energy focusing on wine pours … people are getting away from that; it’s perceived as stuffy.”
Couples want to make a statement with floral, he said, such as creating ceiling installations over dance floors. And almost all couples booking at his properties are putting a lot of money into big bands or DJs.
“Now more than ever, the macro question is how have people’s priorities in terms of their own budgets shifted? Are they more willing to spend a greater percentage of their money on dining out or traveling than they used to because they value it more highly?” he said.
Green said couples booking at her properties aren’t scaling back on food and beverage, and they’re not asking for discounts either.
In terms of supply-chain issues, Wheeler said his teams fought hard early on in the wedding season.
“We knew that was coming. We had to be flexible with menu pricing and also be upfront with clients who may not be aware of what the supply-chain issues are,” he said.
Last summer, his teams saw the price of filet go up to $45 a pound, so they bought what they could early on.
Keeping COVID-19 in Mind
Despite COVID-19 guidelines across the U.S. relaxing, couples hosting weddings are still cognizant of the risks, Green said.
Some couples might opt to have a basket of more decorative face masks waiting for guests upon their arrival.
“We do share our standards or guidelines that we are following at our hotels. Social distancing, we encourage; however, there is no longer that mandate … it is back up to standard table seating,” she added.