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Wedding industry facing hardship

  • JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                A Cake Life, an award-winning custom cake shop, is among thousands of vendors in Hawaii’s wedding industry that have been hit hard because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tiffany Waikiki, above, checked on Easter cookies Friday in the Honolulu shop.

    JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    A Cake Life, an award-winning custom cake shop, is among thousands of vendors in Hawaii’s wedding industry that have been hit hard because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tiffany Waikiki, above, checked on Easter cookies Friday in the Honolulu shop.

  • COURTESY LAUREN RACHAL
                                 Aaron Torres and Lauren Rachal.

    COURTESY LAUREN RACHAL

    Aaron Torres and Lauren Rachal.

  • COURTESY SU-V EXPRESSIONS

    COURTESY SU-V EXPRESSIONS

  • JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                The owner of A Cake Life, Kristin Kato, said she has had to reduce her nine employees’ work hours because of the decrease in orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

    JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    The owner of A Cake Life, Kristin Kato, said she has had to reduce her nine employees’ work hours because of the decrease in orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

With numerous wedding cancellations and postponements amid the widespread coronavirus pandemic, Hawaii’s wedding industry is taking a severe hit as vendors are being forced to lay off or furlough employees to stay afloat.

“We had to essentially lay off 80% of our staff,” said Natalie Christensen, co-owner of Aloha Bridal Connections, which offers wedding planning and coordination services.

“It’s been an emotional roller coaster for many,” she said.

Photographers, catering companies and wedding planners are among the thousands of wedding vendors across the state enduring financial strain as spring nuptials are being either canceled or pushed back to a later date because of mandated government orders in place to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Hawaii has long been a prime destination for weddings with its idyllic weather, scenic landscapes and diverse cuisines.

Julie Aragaki, partner and founder of Best Hawaii Wedding and Wedding Week Hawaii, said, “It’s a huge industry in our state. It’s a very lucrative one, and there’s so many people who depend on it to feed their families.”

Normally, the busiest months for weddings are April through August.

Most beachside weddings have been canceled this month because of beach park closures and social distancing directives. Venues and chapels are temporarily closed to ensure public health and safety.

Philip Lemoine, acting president of the Oahu Wedding Association and owner of Supreme Wedding Films, said a lot of businesses require a down payment or deposit to save the couple’s date, with a majority booking one event a day. “Because of what’s going on, a lot of couples are having to postpone or cancel their wedding. A lot of the money that we accounted for is no longer coming in.”

Some vendors have partnerships with hotels that have temporarily closed to minimize the spread of the novel coronavirus.

For Aloha Bridal Connections, approximately 30 weddings have been affected for the immediate future, Christensen said. More than half of the company’s clients are destination weddings in Hawaii.

Of Aloha Bridal Connections’ 11-member team, four employees who assist with same-day wedding services have been laid off. Two employees responsible for vendor relations and two lead coordinators have been furloughed.

Christensen said they plan to reassess in mid-May and hope to reinstate their employees affected by the layoffs and furloughs.

Congress recently passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to assist small businesses with payroll and operating expenses.

Kristin Kato, owner of A Cake Life, a custom cake shop, said more than 100 wedding cake orders have been affected so far. Of those, approximately 30 orders have been canceled, and roughly 70 orders have been postponed.

“All of this came so suddenly. (I’m) just trying to adjust to everything. It’s been really hard,” Kato said. Work hours have been reduced for her nine employees because of the lack of volume.

The cake shop generally does 500 wedding cakes a year. Each cake costs at least $100.

To help generate income for affected vendors, Aragaki recently reached out to Hawaii’s wedding industry to give them an opportunity to come up with special offers for couples.

“Everyone’s struggling right now financially. Couples can save and vendors can get income generating while we’re waiting this out,” she said, adding that vendors can do virtual consultations with clients.

The average cost of a wedding is $30,000 to $50,000, depending on the guest count. Some couples spend a year or more to plan and budget every detail of their celebration.

Aragaki, whose company coordinates 300 weddings a year, said she is still receiving inquiries, with nuptials being postponed to the latter part of the year and 2021.

“A lot of our wedding vendors are small businesses. They live paycheck to paycheck and support their families. People are really stressed not knowing what they are going to do next,” she said. “It’s a difficult time for everyone right now.”

Brides-to-be, meanwhile, have created support groups on Facebook to vent their frustration and sadness with one another.

Anya Ishida, originally of Salt Lake, Oahu, who moved to San Mateo, Calif., four years ago, originally planned a June wedding at La Pietra in Diamond Head with about 150 guests, some slated to fly in from New York, California, Thailand and Taiwan.

Since she and her fiance have been under a stay-at-home order in the Bay Area for weeks, Ishida said they have had time to think about it and are leaning toward postponing it. The couple is also considering a more intimate celebration instead.

“We’ll celebrate when the time is right. I just feel there are more important things going on right now that we need to focus on than stressing about our wedding plans,” she said. “We’re just thankful that we’re together through all of this and our family is still healthy.”

Hawaii vendors she hired have been willing to refund their initial deposits, ranging from $500 to $2,000, which under normal circumstances would not be refundable.

Ishida said they are now brainstorming on other ways to exchange vows. One idea, she said, is to get married at City Hall in San Francisco and have an intimate dinner party in Hawaii with family and friends.

A virtual wedding is another possibility. “Maybe like a Zoom wedding? We’re still thinking of other options,” Ishida said.

Lauren Rachal of Kailua still plans to have her July wedding at Loulu Palm Estate on Oahu’s North Shore. “We are hopeful and keeping our fingers crossed,” she said.

“As of right now everything is still in place,” she said adding that she is monitoring the pandemic and will likely decide at the end of April whether to postpone.

About 130 guests with family members and friends from Virginia, Florida, Louisiana, Kansas, Wyoming and California are set to fly to Hawaii if the 14-day travel quarantine is lifted by then. “That’s something we’re factoring into the decision as well,” Rachal said.

She said she’d be content postponing her ceremony. “What’s important is the health of my family and friends and the community,” Rachal said.

“I want what is best for the community,” she added. “Everyone should do their part to flatten the curve.”

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