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Maui event planners are singing ‘wedding bell blues’

  • COURTESY KARMA HILL PHOTOGRAPHY
                                Karma Hill Photography says it has had to cancel 63 weddings so far. Customers don’t know when they can return to Maui and are opting to hold their weddings at home or other destinations such as Mexico, which opened June 1.

    COURTESY KARMA HILL PHOTOGRAPHY

    Karma Hill Photography says it has had to cancel 63 weddings so far. Customers don’t know when they can return to Maui and are opting to hold their weddings at home or other destinations such as Mexico, which opened June 1.

“Getting Maui’d” is a dream come true for countless couples desiring a romantic destination wedding.

In fact, 4,175 pairs in which one or both partners were nonresidents got married on Maui in 2019, through Nov. 13, according to preliminary data from the state Department of Health. A third of those nuptials occurred in the three-month period from April to June.

Saving a date during that busy period was not an option for couples in 2020, as COVID-19 emergency rules required a 14-day self-quarantine for trans-Pacific arrivals which remains in effect at least through July 31.

Uncertainty about how long Gov. David Ige will insist on travel restrictions to Hawaii has foreign and mainland pairs rethinking where to say, “I do.” Many have already said, “I don’t,” making alternate plans in Mexico, according to local wedding and event planners.

Sugar Beach Events has lost all its August bookings, according to owner-chef Lee Anderson. Located oceanfront in North Kihei, Sugar Beach Events is a destination wedding and private event space that relies heavily on visitor revenues. It also offers community events such as family movies on the lawn, fundraising galas for nonprofit organizations and cooking classes.

Anderson said the company has lost 90% of its workers because of the COVID-19-related downturn, and “we see no start date in our future for all the weddings and events that had to be postponed.”

Those who rescheduled their nuptials for the fall are choosing to cancel their Maui weddings altogether.

“They just can’t trust that the state will be open,” Anderson said. “Without guidance from our state, we are not able to confidently secure dates for our clients. With weddings and events usually taking a year to plan, this has been a devastating time for our industry.”

In the meantime Sugar Beach is looking for ways to utilize its space for pop-up dining events. “A lot of restaurants will not be opening up for a while, and I know there are chefs itching to get back in the kitchen,” Anderson said.

The hurt also is being felt at Lahaina Loft, on the second level of the historic Kishi Building on Front Street in Lahaina. The 2,000- square-foot, air-conditioned venue offers a commercial kitchen, spacious deck and sweeping views of Lahaina Harbor and the island of Lanai.

It’s hosted corporate events, birthday and graduation parties, baby showers and school banquets, but owner Denise Black said weddings have the most economic impact.

“The wedding market brings the quality visitors that will stay in the hotels, buy local products for gift bags and do multiple events, from welcome receptions to farewell brunches,” Black said. “A typical wedding can employ anywhere from 10 to 100 people when it is all said and done.

“We are starting to see couples both from the mainland and locally having to move their special day not once, but twice. Mainland couples are losing confidence in us as planners as well as a destination to celebrate with loved ones,” she said. “The wedding and event businesses have primarily targeted the quality visitor that the island is looking for, so to not have them come to the island is a crushing blow to the island economy.”

To keep some money coming in, Lahaina Loft is partnering with other local small businesses to create both public and private events. Maui Tumblers is doing a summer series of “Ninja Training” classes on Fridays, and Moves in Healing is offering “Divine Feminine Dancing” on certain dates.

To draw graduation parties, Lahaina Loft enlisted other local companies to create a party package that includes venue, tables, chairs, a digital photo booth and balloon decor for up to 50 people. It is also launching “micro wedding” options for intimate wedding parties and date-night events.

Carolee Higashino, owner of White Orchid Wedding in Wailuku, knows something about resilience during the pandemic: She recovered from COVID-19 and went through a lengthy quarantine in the spring. Whether her business will recover, as Higashino did, is uncertain.

“With hardly any accommodations and mainland air travelers coming in, this is a full knockdown to us all,” she said. “It happened so quickly that I believe all of us were truly taken aback. We have lost over 35 weddings thus far, and with the month-by-month assessment of what to do next on the state level, many more are skittish and looking at canceling. It is like watching a building fall brick by brick.”

She said the ongoing quarantine is “devastating for our visitors and tourism overall. With no message or marketing that I have seen yet to positively promote tourism at all, we are going to be in serious trouble for years to come.”

Simple Maui Wedding and Karma Hill Photography also report business has come to a “screeching halt.”

“Our company typically plans around 350 weddings a year (along with Simple Oahu Wedding),” said owner Karma Hill. “So far this year we have had to cancel 63 weddings, and it’s increasing because our clients don’t know when they can come back to Maui, so they are opting for weddings at home or other destinations such as Mexico, which opened June 1.

“The uncertainty of when Hawaii will open is the main reason they are canceling, not finances or fear of travel. … Right now too much is up in the air, and they don’t feel comfortable doing it.”

The Maui wedding industry leaders noted the situation reaches far into the local economy, affecting photographers and videographers, caterers, DJs, musicians, venues, transportation companies, hair and makeup stylists, officiants, florists, car rental companies, hotels and other accommodations, and other vendors.


Veteran journalist Carla Tracy pops the cork on Maui’s dining and entertainment scene in her weekly column. Email her at carlatracy808@gmail.com.


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