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Weddings are booming again, and the industry is struggling to keep up

After a pandemic-imposed drought, the wedding industry is seeing a flood of bookings. But that burst of demand is colliding with supply chain backlogs, labor shortages and inflation.

Maria Luz, the owner of Anytime Alterations shop in Kensington, Md., pins a wedding gown for alteration. (Shuran Huang/For The Washington Post)
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Tyler Laferriere and Travis Holloway’s wedding last month at a California resort featured sweeping views of the Santa Rosa Mountains, spicy margaritas and a menu of steak, bass and halibut.

It was also way over-budget.

The couple began planning the festivities and locking in some costs a year ago, but prices started ticking up — along with shortages and delays — as they neared their wedding date in early March. By the time their ceremony and reception were done, they had blown past their $35,000 target by nearly $15,000.

“We just kept noticing that our costs kept going past any sort of budget," said Laferriere, 29, who works for a wealth management firm in Los Angeles. “Food, rooms, travel — everything got much higher, and we had next to zero negotiating power.”

After a pandemic-imposed drought, the wedding industry is booming again. But that sudden burst of celebratory demand is colliding with supply chain backlogs, labor shortages and inflation, resulting in higher prices for brides and grooms across the country.

Consumers are ready to spend big again, even if the rest of the economy hasn’t caught up. Wedding vendors are reporting a flood of new inquiries for spring and summer weddings, as couples — some of whom have been unexpectedly engaged for three years — rush to make their way down the aisle before another wave of coronavirus infections thwarts their plans.

In all, Americans are expected to host nearly 2.5 million weddings this year, up about 30 percent from last year and the most in nearly four decades, according to the Wedding Report, a national trade group.

“People want a big, poofy wedding again, but the marketplace just isn’t ready for it,” said Cele Otnes, professor emerita of marketing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an expert in lavish weddings. “Consumer culture isn’t known for its patience. People had to give up key rituals during covid, and now that pent-up desire is back and possibly going haywire.”

Every week, dozens of would-be brides and grooms are begging to book wedding planner Susan Cordogan. But while the wedding business is frenetically busy, her confetti vendor is out of business. Go-to wedding halls are shuttered. And paper, ink, flowers and Napa Valley wine are becoming difficult to find.

"It’s all harder to get, sold out, back-ordered and more expensive,” said Cordogan, who owns Big City Bride in Chicago. “For two years, our hands were tied. Now it’s the great wedding boom, but our industry is still catching its breath.”

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To keep up, wedding singers are booking three ceremonies a day. Venues are scheduling receptions every day of the week, including Mondays. And attorneys are working overtime to hammer out prenuptial agreements.

“I’m getting calls saying, ‘I’m getting married in two weeks, how soon can we get this done?' " said Carolyn Goodman, a lawyer in Washington, D.C., who is seeing brisk demand for pre- and postnuptial agreements. “After two years of uncertainty, people want to have some control over their lives."

That pent-up demand, combined with too little supply, is also leading to higher price tags. Average spending on weddings rose 25 percent last year, to more than $27,000, according to the Wedding Report. Many weddings planners say they expect that cost to tick up even higher this year as companies raise prices and tack on fuel surcharges.

Corgodan, the wedding planner in Chicago, says she’s advising couples to budget up to 30 percent more than they normally would. She’s also encouraging them to pick more affordable local options when they can: wildflowers from Indiana instead of orchids from Ecuador, wines from Michigan instead of California, and locally grown beef instead of imported seafood.

“Behind the scenes, most people in our industry lost their jobs and just are not fully back yet," she said. “There are so many moving parts."

Demand for her wedding planning services is up 45 percent from a year ago, although the most coveted sites are already full for the next two years. Some couples are so eager to lock in available dates, she said, that they’re booking venues before they’ve even proposed.

But even once the location is secure, many wild cards remain. Caterers report trouble finding saffron, vanilla extract and, at times, beef and chicken. Innkeepers say they’re short on towels and bed linens. And wedding planners say it’s becoming increasingly difficult to track down party favors and flip-flops for the dance floor.

“We used to be able to move at the speed of light, but everything takes longer now,” she said, adding that she recently sent a staffer on a two-hour drive to find paper for invitations. “The kinds of things we’d normally have at our fingertips, that we could get within a day or a week, are taking months. They’re truly on the slow boat and just not available."

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An estimated 80 percent of wedding dresses, for example, come from China, where new coronavirus outbreaks have shut down entire cities. Given the delays and looming uncertainty, more brides are opting to wear family hand-me-downs, said Maria Luz, who owns Anytime Alterations in Kensington, Md. She has doubled her staff to four workers, in the last month and is working overtime to accommodate last-minute brides.

“Dress deliveries aren’t coming in on time, so people are using mom and grandma’s dresses,” she said. “We’re restoring gowns and resizing and restyling them for today’s tastes.”

Small businesses like Luz’s make up the vast majority of the wedding industry and were also among those hit hardest by the pandemic. An estimated 800,000 small businesses closed permanently in the first year of the pandemic, about 30 percent more than is typical, according to a study by the Federal Reserve.

“Wedding vendors tend to be the smaller mom-and-pops that didn’t make it through covid,” said John Salazar, an associate professor of hospitality at the University of Georgia. “Whether they’re flower shops or limo companies, calligraphers or wedding planners — they’re just not there anymore to provide the services people are looking for."

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In Winthrop, Maine, venue owner Gene Carbona says the industry is so short-staffed that local nurses and retail workers have begun moonlighting as wedding DJs and photographers. Meanwhile, he and his wife have begun catering rehearsal dinners and Sunday brunches themselves because vendors are so scarce.

“There’s been an explosion of events at the same time there’s a massive shortage of workers,” said Carbona, who bought the Barn at Silver Oaks Estate eight years ago. “Many caterers have had to double or triple their weekends. They don’t have the infrastructure to do it, but they’re doing it anyway out of desperation.”

Carbona says he’s also considering raising prices to keep up with inflation. Ice and liquor cost 50 percent more than they used to, he said, while 12-packs of Coca-Cola have more than doubled, from $2.99 to $6.99. Garnishes such as freeze-dried limes, which used to cost $2,000 per 100 pounds, now cost four times that.

For many vendors, the flurry of activity follows two years of near-zero business, when gigs were constantly being rescheduled or canceled. So while working back-to-back weekends has been overwhelming, many say they’re reluctant to turn down much-needed bookings.

Charisa Rouse, a violinist and jazz vocalist in Newark, is frequently triple-booked these days, squeezing in brunch, afternoon and evening wedding performances. Business has been so brisk that she recently hired two assistants to help with bookings.

“Almost every weekend in 2022 is full,” she said. “But everything was down for two years during the pandemic, so I will never complain about too much work.”

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For couples, particularly those who have had to repeatedly reschedule, the recent frenzy is adding even more complications to years of anticipation and planning.

Eric Malcolm and Hillary Steiger got engaged in early 2019, thinking they would get married the following year. But the pandemic upended their plans. They’ve had to reschedule their lakeside wedding near Cleveland multiple times.

Most of the wedding will remain as they had planned, with 100 guests, rib-eye steaks and an open bar. But Steiger’s dress has undergone multiple alterations, and the couple has had to get creative to deal with inflation: When their wedding photographer raised prices by $1,000, Malcolm enlisted an ex-girlfriend to take photos instead.

Now they’re set to get married on June 4 — just weeks after Steiger gives birth to their first child.

“The baby is going to beat us," said Malcolm, 39, who works in tech support. “We’ve been engaged three years, but life hasn’t stopped. It’s time to get married."