SNOHOMISH —Kameko Ogg and Omar Leung planned a picturesque midsummer wedding in the Snohomish Valley for 150 guests. Now it’s been postponed until next July and will instead celebrate the couple’s one-year anniversary.
“It’s very likely we’ll go get courthouse married,” said Ogg, 32, a sales trainer at Zillow.
Thousands of nearly-weds have delayed their nuptials due to the COVID-19 outbreak and state and local orders that ban gatherings.
It’s disappointing, another milestone that can’t be celebrated with friends and family, but a necessary step to protect friends and family, Ogg said.
Just as the pandemic has scrubbed baseball and other sports, it’s also scuttled wedding season, which extends from May to October. Marriage license applications in Snohomish County are down 50% from a year ago. In April, the county received 161 applications, compared to 323 in April 2019, county Auditor Garth Fell said.
For hundreds of local businesses that depend on weddings and summer events to keep their doors open, it’s a financial disaster, said Aaron Shook, president of Washington State Live Events Industry.
“Currently, around 90% of our industry is out of work,” Shook said in a letter sent to Gov. Jay Inslee this month.
In Washington, the business of weddings, which includes venue operators, event planners, caterers, florists, photographers, dressmakers and high-end portable restroom providers, is a $1.3 billion industry, said Shook. Nationwide, revenues topped $34 billion last year.
One Pacific Northwest wedding hot spot that’s emerged in the past decade is the Snohomish River Valley, a lush region of working farms, rustic barns and old-growth cedar bracketed by river and mountain views.
“It’s 45 minutes from Seattle, and you can come out here and take a nice deep breath,” said PJ Parsons, president of the Snohomish Wedding Guild, which represents 19 venues and 170 vendors in an area bounded by the Snohomish School District.
Parsons estimates the area’s wedding industry generates at least $30 million and makes a hefty tax contribution to the city’s coffers.
Parsons is a beneficiary. She owns PJ Parsons Presents, a combination DJ, emcee and “day-of” wedding coordinator. “I’m not a planner,” said Parsons, who grew up in Everett. “I’m more like a bouncer, therapist and extra mom for the day.”
In the Seattle metropolitan area, the average cost of a wedding last year was nearly $32,000, according to a survey by ValuePenguin. More sumptuous weddings can top six figures.
Many share in the bounty. Local weddings also support Tacoma caterers, Everett florists, Bothell cake-makers and Seattle wedding planners.
“I feel the weight of keeping all these people in business,” said Parsons, noting that 90% are mom-and-pop enterprises and family farms.
Say yes to less
Shook is the owner of a Bellevue wedding planning company and a 60,000 square-foot entertainment center in Gig Harbor that features a restaurant, bowling alley and arcade.
Shook formed the live events trade group to advocate for venues and small businesses across the state, a large percentage of which are women- and minority-owned businesses. Big hotels, convention centers and restaurant chains are well-represented, he said, and a trade group to uphold the “little guys” was needed.
Staging weddings and outdoor events presents a unique challenge, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. Most vendors have roughly 25 weekends during the spring and summer to earn a year’s worth of revenue. This year, “100% of our events have been postponed or canceled,” Shook said.
Shook, Parsons and others have petitioned Gov. Inslee, asking that the wedding and event industry be allowed to resume operations gradually, following the rules set for restaurants.
During Phase 2 of the governor’s plan to resume normal social and commercial activity, which is expected to begin June 1, restaurants will be allowed to seat up to half of their legal capacity, with a cap of 100 people.
“Under the current phased approach, events greater than 50 guests would not return until Phase 4, potentially a year or more away based on current estimates,” Shook wrote in the petition.
That’s too late in the game, said Shook. In the meantime,”our industry is at risk of being wiped out,” he said.
“We’re not asking for anything more than what we think restaurants are capable of,” Shook said. “We wouldn’t do events with more than 100 people.”
Under Phase 2 rules, restaurants also would have to collect names, phone numbers and emails of dine-in customers for contact-tracing purposes — in case of COVID-19 exposure.
The wedding industry already does that as a matter of course, Shook said.
“At private events, the hosts know the names and contact information for every guest,” he said. “This is easy for us.”
Wedding or golf
Normally at this time of year, Sondra McCutchan is catering two to four weddings a weekend.
McCutchan, who’s owned the Cabbage Patch restaurant in Snohomish for 42 years, estimates that weddings and summer gatherings account for a third of her business’ annual revenue.
“I usually bring in six to 10 people, depending on the size of the event. This is their part-time gig. Now they’re on unemployment,” she said.
“My last wedding was March 15 at Rosehill (community center) in Mukilteo, and then they shut it down the next day,” said McCutchan. “I think the governor should move forward and move this up. If you can go out and play golf, we can distance at a wedding. Most of these venues have lots of room.”
The city of Snohomish and the wedding guild recently surveyed local event businesses to gauge the economic toll, and 49 responded. So far, losses total $700,000, said Wendy Poischbeg, the city’s economic development manager.
Said one business owner: “My biggest concern is the lack of new inquiries. Right now I would be showing my venue and booking fall, winter and spring dates for a constant flow of new contracts, down payments and payments. I have received no new business and no new payments since March 15.”
“You can be married next to old-growth cedar and hemlocks,” Grant said of the woodland setting.
“My husband and I had been looking for venue property for three years. Coming from the planning side, we always knew this was the next step,” Grant said. “This was supposed to be our first season and our first wedding was supposed to be May 1.”
Fifty-six weddings were planned on the property, and half have been postponed, Grant said. Couples are given the option to reschedule, but with 2021 weddings already booked, most Saturdays are already spoken for, she said.
As a result, couples may have to settle for a weekday wedding. “We’re not a churn-and-burn operation — we only do one wedding a day,” Grant said.
Couples who seek a refund may not get one.
It is industry practice for vendors to use down payments, usually 20% or more, to pay suppliers. “We can’t give refunds,” Grant said.
As the season marches on, Grant frets. “I’ve done nothing but think about ways to make money,” she said. “We’re talking to local chefs about a high-end, five-course dinner, date nights, a drive-in movie.”
‘It’s so pretty here’
The Snohomish Wedding Tour, scheduled for May 31, has been canceled. The popular event, sponsored by the wedding guild, showcases local venues. A video tour is planned instead.
Nicole Pemberton-Tarin is disappointed. Pemberton Farm won’t be making its in-person tour debut this year. She and her husband, James Tarin, took over the 80-acre farm that hugs the banks of the Snohomish River when her father died in April 2017. Her husband’s job at the Port of Seattle keeps the farm in the black.
The couple raise grass-fed beef and hay for horses. The wedding and event business is a sideline, she said.
Pemberton-Tarin isn’t sure a video tour will do the farm justice.
“It’s so pretty here,” she said as the couple’s three young children played beneath a towering cedar tree that shades the backyard.
Bundles of newly mown hay dot the fields. A day-old calf clings to its mother. Eight more heifers are expected to calve any day, Pemberton-Tarin said.
Two events scheduled to take place this spring were canceled. That leaves three weddings on the books, two in August and one in late October.
Pemberton-Tarin hopes state restrictions will have eased by then and she’ll be able to decorate the barn with spirals of new white bunting she had specially made.
The most pressing decision for couples who rent the farm for their big day is whether to face east or west during the ceremony.
The olive-green Snohomish River rushes to the west; Cascade mountain spires frame the east. It’s hard to go wrong.
Said Pemberton-Tarin, “We were really looking forward to showing off the farm.”
Janice Podsada; email@example.com; 425-339-3097; Twitter: JanicePods