Social event planners are swamped as postponed events return, but creative thinking keeps things rolling

Last year was surprisingly busy for some wedding planners as nuptials postponed from 2020 took place in person with added health precautions, including masks.
Last year was surprisingly busy for some wedding planners as nuptials postponed from 2020 took place in person with added health precautions, including masks.

Social event, reunion, and wedding planners are expecting packed calendars in 2022 after a surprisingly busy 2021. That positive news comes with some drawbacks.

The uptick in bookings, which began around the middle of last year, had planners like Maddie Ward doubling up on events.

“Because folks were postponing [in 2020 and early 2021], there was a huge crunch in summer and fall, even into this winter. I know from friends that are booking weddings all over the country that venues are swamped,” says Ward, founder of Sonnet Weddings & Events in Lubbock, Texas. “I’m already booking for 2023.”

Many of Ward’s vendors—who had an especially difficult year in 2020—are bouncing back, as well, she says. “I think things are leveling out now and just looking a little more normal as far as no high highs, no low lows,” she says. “It’s seeming a little more normal, but I think the general attitude is folks have been so burnt out.”

Of course, things can change rapidly, and no one knows for sure just where things will head. Cyndi Clamp, owner of Varsity Reunion Services in St. Louis and president of the board of directors of the National Association of Reunion Managers, says uncertainty has some of her colleagues worried.

“Some are more optimistic than others, but everyone is concerned about what events will look like, especially with so many unknowns,” Clamp says. “Many of our reunions scheduled for 2022 are carryovers from 2020 and 2021. Reunions regularly scheduled for 2022 are expressing interest, and we are all hopeful we’ll be in a position to have their parties in the upcoming year.”

Jeffrey Mandell, president of Caricature.com Inc. in Winter Park, Fla., says his familiarity with digital events helped keep him from experiencing a downturn in bookings. In the first year of the pandemic, he worked almost exclusively virtual events. Of the more than 300 events he worked last year, Mandell says some were held outdoors. But recently, he has seen a major return of fully in-person events.

“Almost every artist I know says everything is going pretty much back to normal by fall,” Mandell says.

Differences in state practices and safety guidelines have posed a challenge
Differences in state practices and safety guidelines have posed a challenge for planners.

Learning what works

Differences in state practices and safety guidelines have posed a challenge, says Mandell, who books events throughout the United States.

“Some states are very lenient, and some are still fairly strict,” he says. “I think overall it’s getting less strict across the country, but, you know, one place nobody’s wearing a mask, and yet, the other place everybody’s got a mask.”

Ward, whose company plans events in Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri, says COVID precautions are set event by event. One hard-and-fast rule: Keep her fully vaccinated team members safe.

“We are pretty strict that our teams are going to be masked in some version of an N95 mask,” she says. “It’s protecting us, and we’re going to do our best to stay socially distant, especially with people who we don’t know if they’re vaccinated or not.”

Enforcing health and safety practices among guests can be tricky, but Ward finds some tactics work well:

– Spread out tables and use fewer seats or pre-established social bubbles.

– Coordinate safety precautions with catering and bartending services.

– Keep lines moving.

– Maintain social distance between guests with different approaches to safety.

– Hand out masks and have willing high-visibility guests wear them to encourage others to do so.

“It seems like people wear, or don’t wear masks sometimes, based on social pressure,” Ward observes. “Having people who are highly esteemed, like the father of the bride, welcome everyone and be like, ‘We expect you to wear your mask’ is a huge tactic that I didn’t really foresee. Have the pastor say it in the ceremony. Have the grandmother welcoming people and telling people to
take a mask. Just creating a little more pressure.”

Clamp, whose service plans events in six states, including Missouri, Tennessee, and Texas, agrees approaches differ by event.

“Our reunions varied in how we responded to COVID-19 and the concerns of our classmates attending. Some reunions simply asked for classmates to be respectful and caring of their fellow classmates,” Clamp says. “Other reunions required classmates to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test taken within 72 hours of the party.”

Clamp says all of her 2021 parties were “mask friendly, not mask required,” allowing guests to decide for themselves. But adjustments were made. “When possible, we limited the number of guests at a table to six, down from the usual 10, and used a larger than necessary room to allow plenty of space to distance.”

The joy of reuniting with old classmates can be difficult to replicate in the virtual world, so some recent high school reunions were held in person.
The joy of reuniting with old classmates can be difficult to replicate in the virtual world, so some recent high school reunions were held in person.

The show must go on

Virtual and hybrid events are here to stay. But online events often take the “social” out of social events. In the case of reunions, when people have not seen each other for years, the idea of an online event does not hold the same appeal. And sometimes, computer connections can become a barrier rather than a uniter.

“The joy of being at a class reunion is spending time with those you knew when you were younger, hearing the laughter you remember, listening to the music from your high school years, sharing the stories of then and now,” Clamp says. “So much of this experience cannot be replicated virtually. At most events, you may only know a handful of those attending. At a high school reunion, you know most all of the classmates in the room. There is not enough time during a virtual reunion to speak to everyone you’d want to speak to, and the format doesn’t provide an opportunity to move from conversation to conversation.”

In addition, the pandemic has bred something of a dichotomy: While people are concerned about being exposed to others, the isolation has them craving human interaction.

“Reunions could see a resurgence as more value is placed on these types of experiences that offer a real connection after a time of so much uncertainty and loss,” Clamp observes.

Ward, on the other hand, has seen an increased interest in hybrid events. The ability to livestream weddings on platforms such as Zoom and Facebook Live—coupled with easier user interfaces—allows guests who might be unable to attend, or who feel at risk doing so, to be part of the day.

“Having utilized [hybrid events] as a planner and attended two weddings virtually, I think it’s awesome,” Ward says. “I do foresee it being something that continues in the future, especially with destination weddings or weddings where one side of the family is
on one side of the country and another on another side of the country.”

Outside the box

Many weddings are proceeding in person with socially distanced and masked guests. Others are taking their celebrations online, livestreaming ceremonies as hybrid or completely virtual events.
Many weddings are proceeding in person with socially distanced and masked guests. Others are taking their celebrations online, livestreaming ceremonies as hybrid or completely virtual events.

A happy medium sometimes can be found in outdoor spaces. “Venues have been working really hard to make outdoor solutions possible,” Ward says. “I had a wedding that was at a venue that usually has the ceremony and reception inside, and they ended up utilizing a space outside that I’ve never seen used for a ceremony so that some older relatives could come and be 100 percent safe and outside and at a distance.”

For better and worse, while the booking boom is keeping social event planners busy, Ward sees attitude shifts and more polarized interactions with guests since the onset of the pandemic. “I either get yelled at, or everyone completely understands and is completely on board,” she says.

Ward’s advice: Counsel your clients. “It’s very difficult to have a 100 percent safe event,” she says. “I’m trying to make sure that all of my clients and their families understand, this person’s here to help you.”

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