SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — In the last decade or so, Maine's wedding industry has seen a serious boom.
Weddings and wedding tourism contributed more than $927 million to the state's economy and supported more than 13,000 jobs in 2017, according to a report by the University of Southern Maine, and was on track to bring in more than $1 billion in 2020.
That was until the Coronavirus pandemic and the guidelines that followed brought the industry to a near standstill.
The unknowns left many business owners without a plan or a paycheck and some had to close their doors altogether.
More than two years later, business owners within the wedding community said they are still building back what they lost despite rules and regulations being back to normal for the industry.
"I think boom year is not the best way to describe it," Fausto Pifferrer said. "I think it was a great year. Not a great, great year because we were still covering everything from 2019 that fell into 2020 and 2020 moved to 2021, which caused everything to look like a boom year in 2022. But it really wasn't because it was new work with old work."
Pifferrer and his partner, Reuben Bell, own Blue Elephant Catering in Saco. The pair spoke to NEWS CENTER Maine during the pandemic about the difficulty of managing a payroll of 150 plus employees when there were so many unknowns. They ended up keeping their business and employee afloat by tapping into their savings account.
"I think we'll see the reality of stabilizing the industry for weddings in 2024, to be honest with you," Pifferrer added.
With COVID-19 restrictions lifted, brides and grooms in Maine were once again able to say their vows and celebrate with a large guest list. However, the reality for the businesses making those special days possible was not picture-perfect.
"This year we struggled with ... rising prices, a really tight labor market, availability issues," Sarah Maurer said. Maurer and her husband own and operate the 1812 Farm in Stonebrook. "There were restrictions on getting products, how long it takes to get things, lead times were much longer. So, we were dealing with a lot of those issues. Even though we were having what in and of itself was a good year, you just can't take it as a single year after what led up to it."
Courtney Wetzel owns Grayce Bridal and Formal in Portland and Bangor and, recently opened a shop in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She said she could hold on to her entire staff during the pandemic but it didn't come without challenges. Wetzel and her team had to completely change the way brides navigated finding their perfect dress.
They created a virtual fitting option and allowed brides to see dresses in real time via Zoom. She and her staff shipped the gowns with custom-made signs to keep the 'she said yes to the dress' alive and well for customers.
However, she too was impacted by increased minimum wages and said that reality still looms over her she thinks about the future.
"You don't go back once you increase wages, you don't, there's no return to anything more economical," Wetzel said. "As a business, I mean, if you want to employ and if you want quality you have to adapt and make changes to your business in order to compensate because you can't lose your bottom line, you can't lose your margins, so, you have to get really creative."
The pandemic presented a learning curve to both business owners and couples. Those within the industry said brides and grooms have started asking more questions ahead of booking and that contracts have had to be updated to reflect current demands.
Those current demands have also impacted which day couples are able to officially tie the knot. There are only so many Saturdays available during a calendar year and owners said it's not out of the realm of possibility for couples to be asked to shift their wedding date to a Sunday or even a Monday or Tuesday.
"Like every other industry, weddings are feeling the supply chain issue where you can find a venue for next year but good luck finding cups or plates or rentals or tables or anything to fill in them," William Wentzel said. Wentzel and his wife, Lucia Wentzel, own Focus Photography. "So, some people are feeling that and they're having to move to other days."
While many changes that followed the pandemic haven't been ideal, owners said one change has been warmly welcomed: the ability to rely on each other more through the tough times and the friendships that blossomed along the way.
"We share," Pifferer said. "So, if I'm busy I'll send someone to Sarah, and if she's busy, she'll do sort of the same thing."
"We're very collaborative," Lucia Wentzel said. "We all love each other, you know, what would we do without each other? Or, we reach out to our friends and we say 'hey guys, who can help?'."
"Knowing that there was somebody out there that I could call and just vent [to] that was going through the exact same thing was just invaluable," Maurer said.
"We're competitors, but we're friendly competitors," Jason Strycharz said. Strycharz owns The Music Man DJ.
Strycharz said he typically has multiple backup DJs lined up in case he got sick, but sometimes even the backup DJs get sick or have family emergencies come up. Then, he said, it's especially nice to have friends in the industry he can give a call.
"Couples don't care if you have family problems going on," Strycharz said. "This is the most important day for them. They don't even care if this is your fourth wedding in a row, and you're fried, you know, you have to give it 100 percent and every wedding is the Super Bowl."
When NEWS CENTER Maine spoke with business owners a year ago, many had voiced frustrations with how guidelines had been handled for their businesses. They all agreed those are a thing of the past and said they were more than satisfied with how those within the Mills' administration and others had stepped up to help them.
"The DECD and Heather Johnson and the governor's office really did listen to us and helped us figure out ways to reopen in 2020 and 2021 that worked for everybody," Reuben Bell said. "I appreciate that and I don't think we ever acknowledged that publicly but, thank you to them for really trying to make that work."
"They saw us as an industry and not just a footnote in Maine's economy and that was really important to us," Pifferrer said.