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Big Island wedding vendors cope with cancellations, look to future

Big Island wedding vendors are cautiously optimistic about the future of the industry after trans-Pacific tourism resumed this month.

Postponements and cancellations have ravaged the island’s wedding industry during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The mandatory 14-day quarantine for tourists that was put in place to curb the outbreak of the virus has impacted local businesses that mostly cater to destination weddings.

Last week, Holualoa Inn hosted its first destination elopement since February.

The intimate bed-and-breakfast has not been open to guests since the second 14-day interisland quarantine was implemented on Aug. 4.

Nearly all wedding and elopement packages were either postponed or canceled at the popular venue.

“Like everyone else, we’re suffering losses and have adjusted policies and given refunds, because it’s no one’s fault that they have to cancel,” event coordinator Audrey Love said. “We’re lucky because most of our couples have decided to postpone rather than cancel.”

Everyone involved with the elopement last week was required to follow Hawaii County’s mandates, which included limiting the gathering size to no more than 10 people and wearing masks.

“Since the guidelines are changing so often, we make sure our contracts mention that we follow the county’s current rules in regards to COVID-19,” Love said. “We want to keep everyone safe, and that seems like the most efficient way.”

Holualoa Inn has adopted a new cancellation policy to help people trying to plan a destination wedding as well. If a couple has to cancel due to new restrictions, then they have the option of getting a refund.

“We want to be flexible in this time, and couples have been good about communicating with us,” Love said.

While the number of people getting married in 2020 is significantly lower at the bed-and-breakfast, inquiries for 2021 and 2022 have spiked.

“We got an influx of leads and calls after Governor (David) Ige announced opening for tourism,” Love said. “A lot of them are still holding out on booking with all the uncertainties right now.”

The pandemic has left a lot of engaged couples uncertain of what their wedding day might look like. Love thinks this might increase the demand for smaller ceremonies and elopements.

“We still have people inquiring about larger weddings, but we do see a growing trend of people wanting something smaller,” Love said. “I think the increased demand for elopements will be a trend, especially during the pandemic.”

People planning destination weddings are facing far more complications than normal, but Love is certain that once travel is made easier over time, wedding planning will be a piece of cake with the local vendors in the county.

“The biggest barrier of getting married in Hawaii is travel,” Love said. “Once policy allows for more travel here, a community of professionals on the island will make it a positive experience for couples.”

Business at Haku Formals has picked up since the beginning of the pandemic. Owner Tressie Richardson has been getting wedding inquiries and more requests for alterations at her shop in Hilo.

“Lately, I’ve had many inquires and even some bookings as well,” Richardson said. “I had someone come in recently with a wedding in two years who is interested in working together.”

Haku Formals provides formal wear for weddings, proms and other events, and Richardson simultaneously offers wedding coordination and alterations.

“It’s so nice to be open even with modified hours,” Richardson said. “I don’t know what to do with myself if I’m not working.”

Last week, Richardson altered a formal dress for a woman celebrating a 25th wedding anniversary.

“I’m not selling as many dress and tuxedos, but I’m still getting calls to help people with alterations before events,” Richardson said. “I had to take a different path during the pandemic and have been utilizing my social media much more.”

Richardson also will be working on the traditional kihei that will adorn fall semester graduates from University of Hawaii at Hiloduring their virtual graduation ceremonies and celebrations at home.

“I’m glad to live somewhere where people support local businesses,” Richardson said. “I hope that attitude continues when the wedding industry really picks up again.”

A formal wear shop in Prince Kuhio Plaza, Simply Said … The Wedding Store, was shut down for three months and owner Salina Iranon is working on bringing her business back to life.

Iranon had to close her store in the midst of prom season, which is normally prime time for her formal wear shop.

“Closing during prom season was detrimental to me,” Iranon said. “I had 50 tuxes ready to go and had to reimburse customers for all of them.”

Iranon had to reimburse most of her customers for the formal wear with funds from Hawaii’s Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, and lost all the income she usually makes during prom season.

“The schools being closed has been the hardest part of the pandemic,” Iranon said. “Proms and school dances create a large market of people needing formal wear and that won’t be the case at all this year.”

Although the mall reopened in May, Iranon had to remain closed. Restrictions did not allow for shoppers to try on clothing, which is a necessity for a formal wear bridal shop.

Iranon bought UV lights specifically to clean the dresses, so she could open again.

Since reopening, Iranon has had some business, but it has been slower than usual. People have inquired about future wedding dates while some have come in to buy a dress for a small ceremony or elopement.

“I am selling some dresses, because people are wanting weddings,” Iranon said. “Locals realize that it may be better to have a modest, quick ceremony with a larger party later.”

Although it has been tough to survive the pandemic, Iranon has faith the wedding industry will not be affected in the long run in Hawaii.

“No matter what happens, we will always have weddings,” Iranon said. “I’m not sure what it’ll look like, but the industry will always be there.”

Set to have the best year of her career, Ann Ferguson lost almost all of her revenue as a wedding and family photographer this year.

Ferguson owns Ann Ferguson Photography and is located out of Waikoloa Village. About 98% of her wedding photography business comes from people having destination weddings on the Big Island.

“I started off the year strong until the pandemic hit,” Ferguson said. “I probably lost 90% of what I would have made this year.”

Ferguson shot her last wedding the day before the beaches closed for the first time during the initial stay-at-home order at the end of March. Since then, all her planned weddings and family shoots cancelled or postponed until next year.

Ferguson and her family have been able to get by with help from PUA and her husband’s gainful employment.

“My summer session was completely wiped clean except for a couple people from Oahu that traveled when the interisland quarantine was lifted initially,” Ferguson said. “My family will be okay, but this has really hurt my business.”

Since more tourism reopened on Oct. 15, Ferguson has seen a slight increase in inquiries for elopements and family photography for next summer.

“This is a very slight improvement to the past few months of no inquiries,” Ferguson said. “Even when planning for next year, I can tell people are anxious to plan a big wedding.”

Although inquiries for photography have gone up, Ferguson will not be shooting a wedding until December.

“I think a lot of people are worried about testing positive when they arrive on the island,” Ferguson said. “There is also a lot of confusion on the mask mandate, and I haven’t gotten any feedback on if couples and families can take off their masks during a photo session.”

While many people who were planning on getting married this year have decided to opt out of a destination wedding, other couples are hopeful that they can have a smaller ceremony the Big Island.

“Overall, a majority of my clients are still hopeful that things will push through and happen next year,” Ferguson said. “I think next year is going to look better than 2020.”

Email Kelsey Walling at kwalling@hawaiitribune-herald.com
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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