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I'm Ali Rae and I love building brands.
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Don’t worry…this isn’t a negative blog post at all. Of course I am not thankful for COVID, but I am thankful that it pointed out some weaknesses within my business that I may not have otherwise found.
COVID affected everyone…obviously–the world shut down. Businesses shut down. Bodies shut down. It was devastating. The wedding industry was one of the hardest hit because we thrive off of those large, in-person events. Moving a wedding over to Zoom doesn’t quite give the same celebratory vibe when you can’t hug the cousin you haven’t seen in a few years and cheers glasses with the person next to you during toasts.
But I truly believe in looking at the positive side of any situation, including the one we were faced with in 2020.
There are a few obvious ways that COVID changed my business, and the businesses of many others in a service-based industry heavily reliant on large group gatherings. One of those ways was our contracts.
Phew, this was a doozy. Many photographers (and planners and florists and DJs and anyone else in the wedding industry) had never had to deal with a cancellation before [knock on wood]. Once a date was set, it was set and that was it. We show up on that date, fulfill the details of our contract, and go home. But with COVID…no such case. Dates were swapped once, twice, sometimes three or more times. Dates were sometimes cancelled because it was all too much to deal with coordinating those getting in from out of town, limited places to stay, limited guest counts from venues. All the things proved so overwhelming that some couples just said, “To heck with it,” and either got married with their five closest family members or just went to the courthouse to say, “I do.”
But where did that leave the vendors? Do we refund? Is the retainer non-refundable? Am I supposed to call it a deposit or retainer and does that impact whether it’s refundable? Do I charge to reschedule to a new date when the pandemic is out of the couple’s control? What happens if two of my couples reschedule to the same date? Does my contract cover this?
Well, most of the time…the answer was no, my contract did cover it. I was familiar with the term “Force Majeure” at the time. It was a clause in my contract that I generally knew meant if an act of God happened and I couldn’t be at a couple’s wedding, then I couldn’t be sued. An act of God was defined as a few different things (natural disaster, war, etc.)…but “pandemic” or “epidemic” wasn’t listed in those acts of God. Well, you can bet your bottom dollar that verbiage was updated really quickly.
If you want to learn more about Force Majeure and how the clause should read in your contracts, as well as the implications it has, I am going to refer you to my resident expert, Caroline Fox, who is an attorney who specializes in copyright law, but also contracts for wedding vendors! You can find a podcast interview with her here.
But onto the fees for reschedules and the cancellation policies–I have found that it is better to have an answer to unpleasant situation than it is to just hope that unpleasant situation never happens. Because the last thing you want in an unpleasant situation is ambiguous rules to play by.
Many of us in the industry felt like we were towing the line of being fair and running a business. Our dates on the calendar are basically our inventory, so as a solopreneur, we cannot be in two places at once. That resulted in some weddings being shot by associates, in some refunds being given, trying to find out-of-the-box, creative ways to come up with solutions to problems we never dreamt of having. It was difficult. But made us stronger business owners by forcing us to create policies that were in line with our business values, which is exactly what I did.
So the legal stuff was definitely an eye-opener–don’t get me wrong. But COVID also awoke a need in my business for me to hone in on some systems and overall general values of who I wanted to be as a business owner.
During COVID, every client had an emergency. Their venue was shutting down; they had to narrow guest count; they were required to wear masks for their pictures; vendors weren’t able to make their new date work. These were all huge things impacting their wedding, the wedding they had been dreaming of (keep in mind, some were less than two weeks out when the whole world stopped).
That resulted in a lot of emails and phone calls that were at all hours. I was trying to please everyone by being the vendor that listened, that cared, no matter what. But I quickly realized that was unrealistic. I needed time for my husband, for my one-year-old daughter, for my body to grow another human (yes, we have a pandemic baby).
So navigating COVID made my respect my boundaries and my needs, as well as those of my clients. In fact, I know this is true because I recently had a client tell me, “You have taught me so much about work/life balance. One day I texted you with an issue on my website and you said you would take a look at it tomorrow because today you had sick babies to take care of.” Life happens, and when you find the right clients, they know that it does too.
Up until COVID, the wedding industry had become…kind of cookie cutter, dare I say! Rarely ever did I have a wedding that was outside of the norm–150 or so guests, same traditions, almost identical timelines. And nothing is wrong with that at all. Honestly, it was probably so common because it was a known recipe for a beautiful wedding day.
But COVID made some ingredients for those fail-free wedding days impossible to come by…so micro-weddings started happening. People stripped away traditions like garter and bouquet tosses, wedding cakes, and lots of dancing. People went back to the basics–10-person ceremonies, intimate candlelit dinners, toasts that were from the parents of the bride and groom because there wasn’t enough guest count allowed for best friends to be there.
And you know what? Something beautiful happened. It became about the couple again. Not about the celebration. Not about the money. Just about the bride, the groom, and their few closest family members that made them into the people they are. The couples who I was with on those 10-person wedding days, I got to know in ways that I didn’t anticipate. It opened me up to new experiences and showed me the value of the sentimentality of wedding days again!
COVID was hard. Some of us are still feeling the effects… Although, it temporarily financially impacted my business in a negative way, it really did help my business in some awfully big ways as well that will long survive the short[ish]-lived financial impact. Again, while I am not thankful for COVID, I am thankful that it opened my eyes and taught me many business lessons along the way.
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