On March 3, 2021

Wedding, event planners frustrated with state’s silence on guidance

Roles of the wedding party

Absent a predictable forecast, events begin to cancel

By Anne Wallace Allen/VTDigger and Polly Mikula

Wedding planner Jaclyn Watson has 15 weddings booked this summer in Vermont, three of them expected to cost more than half a million dollars. Two are planned in Stowe, one in Burke, and one in the Manchester area in July, August and October.

But soon Watson said she’ll start looking for new out-of-state venues for those weddings. With no hint of when Vermont officials will allow public gatherings again, Watson said, her clients are no longer willing to leave their wedding plans in limbo.

“Our clients are so invested,” she said. “There’s so much money going into this. They’re saying, ‘All the other states are opening up; what the heck is going on in Vermont? What is Plan B for us?’”

“It’s been a really bumpy 11 months,” said Joshua Eckler, owner of the Trailside Inn in Killington. “We are seeing the surrounding states give reopening plans and guidance. We would expect that at a minimum, we would be able to host events with similar restrictions as were allowed last October,” he said.

But silence hinders all planning.

The resounding call from event planners is for more transparency on decision-making metrics that the state is using to qualify “safe” reopenings and a reasonable timeframe to allow businesses to book events that require months of advanced planning.

Nearly a dozen organizations representing thousands in the hospitality and event sector sent a formal letter to Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD) Secretary Lindsay Kurrle and Deputy Secreatary Ted Brady on Jan. 28 requesting the agency “forecast some level of predictability for summer” calling it “absolutely imperative in the event sector, where lead times are often four to six months.”

But since then, “the ACCD made it clear they do not expect to give this type of guidance. The ‘it’s too difficult’ and we ‘don’t want to be wrong’  answers we are receiving are already causing wedding cancellations for this summer,” Eckler said.

“Dr. Levine stated two weeks ago that he had great optimism for the summer and expected we would be able to host Memorial Day parades. There is lead time for these events; we can’t wake up on a Wednesday and decide parades are safe and have one three days later. This has been the all too short notice we have seen time and again over the past year,” Eckler continued, adding: “Waiting until May to tell us that we can have weddings would likely only save September and October events with the lead time given for planning. … We are on the verge of losing yet another event season and will only be able to survive with further grant funding,” he said.

Right now, the state prohibits most public events by banning multifamily gatherings.

The Scott administration has been fielding such pleas for more information for months, but it has made clear that it won’t offer any metrics — such as a Covid infection rate or a number of vaccinations — that would prompt lifting restrictions.

Officials say meetings and events are on the agenda every time the administration officials meet — twice or three times a week — to talk about the plan for lifting Covid restrictions.

But at the press conference, Friday, Feb. 26, Scott again said that he understands the desire for such guidance but that it’s just too soon to know.

Health Commissioner Mark Levine echoed a similar message when delivering a Covid update to the Vermont Senate: “I hate to say it, but it is still too soon for us to be able to give the announcements you are looking for. … It’s just a matter of when we get to that comfort point,” Levine said. “February, I hate to say it, is still too soon for us to be able to give the announcements you are looking for. But that doesn’t mean March or April won’t be.”

Scott and Levine continue to insist that they are aware of the tight timeline that hospitality businesses are facing.

“So stay tuned is all I can say,” Levine said. “We’re thinking like you’re thinking, but we’re not ready just yet.”

But frustrations seem to be mounting as each of the bi-weekly press conferences pass without guidance.

Talena Companion of Premier Entertainment & Events and treasurer of the Vermont Association of Wedding Professionals, has been active in assisting event planners and other businesses that rely on events.

She said the group recently surveyed members, and data shows wedding planners hosted 1,000 weddings in the state between Aug. 1 and Nov. 14 of 2020. Half had 50 guests or fewer, and half had 51 to 150 guests.

“With all of those events, including in-state and out-of-state guests, there was only transmission at a single wedding,” she said. “We did do this safely last year, and we’re confident we can do it safely this year.”

In addition to private events like weddings, public events are also starting to be effected as planning time-frames disappear.

On Monday, March 1, Quechee Hot Air Balloon Craft and Music Festival, the longest running hot air balloon festival in New England, rescheduled its June 18-20 event to the weekend of Sept. 3-5.

“It’s disappointing to reschedule but just as our community, sponsors, volunteers and town officials come together each year to make this a benchmark event, we must rally to work through these uncertain times,” said P.J. Skehan, executive director of the Hartford Area Chamber of Commerce (HACC).

Luckily, “a number of balloonists, entertainers and vendors have committed to participating at the September date,” Skehan said.

“The event sector is well-positioned to serve as an effective partner in the Covid-19 public health mitigation efforts in Vermont in this new phase of the pandemic as vaccination efforts move forward,” the formal letter to the ACCD argued. “The event sector provides experienced professionals who can provide management, trained staff, controlled operating venues, comprehensive attendee contact tracing and significant public trust. As warmer weather arrives, it would be prudent for the state to work with the event sector to counter public mitigation fatigue and manage the transition while simultaneously boosting the economy.”

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