What are the odds that there’s a global pandemic the year you decide to get married?” John deGraft-Johnson laughs nervously from the kitchen table of his flat in Dalston.
Not low enough, as 30-year-old advertising strategist deGraft-Johnson and his fiancée Sophie Christiansen found out last week. The couple had just received a message from their venue in Surrey, RHS Garden Wisley, saying their June 20 wedding is off in light of the outbreak. They’ve been given a new date in August, but it’ll mean losing important guests: Christiansen’s family in Australia have been banned from travelling for six months. He’s had to call off his May stag do, and an hour before our phone call the announcement came that Glastonbury — their honeymoon plan — has been cancelled too.
“We’re taking things day-by-day and everyone’s been very kind… probably not helped by the fact I’m in tears every time I speak to one of them,” sighs Christiansen, 29, also an advertising director.
She and her husband-to-be are heartbroken they’ll no longer have close relatives at the wedding, but they’re trying to stay positive: a cousin is meant to be getting married in May and has just been made redundant, which they say “puts [their] situation in perspective”, and at least they’re not alone.
Indeed, deGraft-Johnson and Christiansen are one of thousands of couples who planned to tie the knot over the next few months and are now facing tough decisions in light of this week’s order by the Government to cancel all weddings. Their choice: postpone (but until when?) or cancel altogether, potentially leaving them thousands of pounds out of pocket.
Even the Queen’s granddaughter Princess Beatrice has been forced to “review” her wedding plans, set for May 29. There are reports that she and her Italian fiancé Edoardo Mapelli Mozzi are now considering eloping before a big party next year.
“The wedding industry is built with this air of panic already built in, so the fact the whole nation is panicking is just making that panic more magnified,” says Chris Adnitt, head planner at Shoreditch firm The Wedding Arrangers. So far he’s witnessed all UK weddings being cancelled for at least three weeks; wedding insurers withdrawing their policies; and florists, photographers and caterers heading for collapse as their businesses are wiped out.
The situation feels desperate, and some couples are turning to desperate measures. This week, a bride and groom in the Midlands “took the opportunity while [they] could” and live-streamed their wedding on Facebook a month early, while another couple got married in an empty street in New York while their friend officiated from a window to maintain social distancing.
For most, though, going ahead without family and friends is not an option. “Our planner is calling it our Cobra meeting,” says East Dulwich PR director Anna Olszewski-Lewis, 29, who’s due to be marrying her fiancé Matt Trounce, 29, in Lisbon this September. The pair were scheduled to attend 14 weddings this summer but seven have already been cancelled and they are now “in limbo” over their own. Even weddings in September and later in the year are now at risk, according to industry experts, and friends with weddings in October are being told there are no postponement dates available until 2022.
For others, postponement is no longer an option. “We’re riding waves of emotion right now,” says Brixton TV coordinator Ali Evans, 34, who’d been due to marry Gary Hatfield, 40, in South Africa before the president announced a ban on travel and large gatherings. Her parents and 70 per cent of guests hadn’t made it into the country before the announcement, so they were forced to cancel and have her family watch a small legal ceremony via Zoom instead — “24 hours later and we would’ve gone ahead [with the wedding],” Evans says, tearfully.
She and Hatfield estimate they’ve lost at least £10,000 in cancelling the wedding, but they’re feeling fortunate compared to many: the average cost of a UK wedding is more than £31,000, according to planning site Hitched, and some couples are reporting losses of as much as £40,000 if insurers won’t pay.
“I didn’t pay the £50 cancellation fee because I was like, ‘Why would I cancel my honeymoon?’ Obviously I really regret that now,” says Islington-based consultant James Cunningham, 28, who has lost more than £2,000 on his honeymoon to Sicily in June.
For others, it’s a case of insurance. “We had an email from our wedding insurers to say, ‘If your wedding is cancelled because of an act of state you’re not covered’,” says Richmond-based strategy director Nicola Fish, 44, who was due to be marrying travel agent Finn McClean next month. According to event planner The Taylor Lynn Corporation, the majority of wedding event insurance won’t cover cancellations caused by Covid-19.
Fortunately, Fish and McClean’s venue near Hampton Court has let them postpone to January at no extra cost, but Evans and Hatfield weren’t so lucky. Their venue, a vineyard in South Africa, refused to offer a refund, unlike her photographer and makeup artist who both returned the money immediately. “It’s the smaller businesses who’ve been really considerate, even though they’re the people who are probably affected the most,” says Evans.
Olszewski-Lewis agrees. She’s paid her “panicking” Portuguese makeup artist and hairdresser the full sum in advance because “you’ve got to rally around people at the moment”, but many couples cannot afford to do so.
Deptford wedding photographer Heather Shuker predicts she’ll lose out on at least 50 per cent of this year’s income as a result of the Government’s wedding ban, and Wembley’s Fresh N Funky Catering is among suppliers which have gone from having “loads of business” to “nothing”, according to executive chef Gos Gosal. In the meantime, his team has decided to launch a food delivery service for people living nearby who are isolating. “Then at least it’s a bit of money coming in.” For wedding suppliers like Shuker and Gosal there are two elements of concern: the immediate cost of cancelled weddings over the next few months, and the longer-term impact of couples scaling down their postponed weddings to something lower key.
“It’s not as fun doing things a second time round,” says Cunningham, who’s spent the last year planning his lavish 100-guest June wedding in a converted barn in Sweden. If he and his fiancée Isabelle Rothstein, 27, have to cancel, they’ll opt for something smaller in London in late summer. “Probably a registry office then a pub.”
For now, postponement remains the most popular option. According to a poll of wedding suppliers by the UK Alliance of Wedding Planners, 70 per cent of couples are simply changing their wedding to a new date, if the venue allows it. But the biggest question is how long to postpone for, says Adnitt. There’s a greater likelihood of a wedding going ahead in late summer, but the unknown itself is causing extra stress.
The key, he says, is to be flexible and accept “small compromises”. More than half of UK weddings take place on a Saturday, “but you might just have to accept a Friday or a Sunday”, he says. Asking guests to take a day off work is a small price to pay to get the wedding you want without waiting until 2022.
Shuker agrees: amid the wedd-aggedon, she is championing the idea of midweek ceremonies. “Thursday is the new Saturday, anyway,” she says, insisting Londoners have already embraced the midweek wedding in recent years, especially if they work in non-Monday to Friday industries such as hospitality. As a photographer, she loves a mid-week wedding as certain areas of London are quieter so “it means you can get really creative with photography”.
When weddings do eventually happen, Shuker believes they’ll be more emotional. “It’s going to be about being grateful that everyone can be together again. The wedding might need a few modifications, but the one thing people will focus on now is being with the people that they love.”
West Norwood wedding planner Andri Benson agrees. Her recommended Plan B? An “intimate”, elopement-style wedding, then a big party when everything dies down. “I think we’ll need something to celebrate at the end of this.”