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Updated: April 21, 2020

Wedding, entertainment venues face severe COVID-19 fallout

Photo | Saint Clements Castle & Marina Connecticut’s wedding and entertainment venues are eagerly trying to postpone events during the COVID-19 outbreak to salvage 2020 revenues.

Limiting social gatherings to five or fewer people to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 has slammed the brakes on Connecticut’s wedding and entertainment venues just as the industry was approaching its busy season.

Banquet, corporate conference, meeting and wedding venue operators are scrambling to rebook gatherings that have been on the books for years to avoid issuing significant refunds, which could put a company under, and additional scheduling conflicts.

“April hurts us a little bit, but not as much as May, June, July and August,” said Sandy Dimitratos, general manager of Maneeley’s Banquet & Catering in South Windsor. “This is putting a big dent into our industry.”

Maneleey’s, an independently owned operator of two adjacent event spaces spanning more than 18,000 square feet, has been able to reschedule almost all of its planned corporate events and weddings in 2020 and 2021.

The venue’s early success in postponing dozens of events in March, April and May allows the business to hold onto its deposits, for now. But that may change if Connecticut’s social-gathering ban extends beyond May. Gov. Ned Lamont and the governors of New York, Rhode Island and other nearby states are collaborating on a regional approach to reopen their economies when the health crisis subsides.

But even if businesses are allowed to go back to work in the next month or so, large events may face attendance restrictions much further into 2020.

“In our industry, it’s going to be very difficult to rebound from this quickly,” Dimitratos said. “I think it will take years for people to rebound from this.”

Photo | Maneeley's Banquet & Catering
Maneeley's operates two venues on five acres in South Windsor.

Thousands of Connecticut weddings have already been postponed this year, creating headaches not only for couples and venues, but also photographers, videographers, florists, DJs, caterers, beauty suppliers, wedding consultants and others servicing the industry.

For context, more than 18,000 couples were married in Connecticut last year, and the average wedding cost roughly $34,000 in the U.S., according to wedding planning website The Knot. If, say, a quarter of those Connecticut weddings didn’t take place, it would eliminate about $153 million in economic activity.

“Couples aren’t calling and asking for their money back, which is great, because that could really put any business in a bankruptcy situation,” Dimitratos said, adding that couples are especially reluctant to cancel weddings because they are already on the hook for significant fixed costs with vendors. Some couples have even been willing to reschedule their Saturday weddings to a weekday.

“Nobody wants to host a wedding for 30 to 40 people if they were expecting 100,” she said.

Photo | The Connecticut National Guard
A temporary hospital for COVID-19 patients has been setup in downtown Hartford's Connecticut Convention Center.

Statewide collaborations

Rescheduling events that were booked years ago in a matter of days is no small task. That’s why Connecticut’s tourism boosters are actively sharing resources more than ever before, said Robert Murdock, president of the Connecticut Convention & Sports Bureau (CTCSB).

CTCSB, which promotes the state’s convention, meeting, hotels and sports venues through event sales and marketing, is partnering with the Connecticut Lodging Association, Connecticut Restaurant Association and Connecticut Office of Tourism to help planners access certain services to keep business in-state.

For example, some venues are recommending nearby operators if they are unable to accommodate rescheduling requests. The organizations are also sharing information about meetings that can not be rebooked in busier Northeast markets, like Boston and New York, and need to find a new landing spot.

Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resort Casino are also fielding interest from planners that can not find a new date for their previously booked events in Las Vegas, Murdock said.

“Some planners that perhaps wouldn’t have looked at us before are looking at us now,” he said. “It’s given us some exposure to some planners we wouldn’t have seen otherwise.”

Photo | Contributed
It's not yet clear when Hartford's XL Center will reopen.

More than 100 scheduled events through August have been canceled or rescheduled at downtown Hartford’s XL Center, Connecticut Convention Center, Dillon Stadium and Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, according to the quasi-public Capital Region Development Authority (CRDA), which manages those venues.

The Connecticut National Guard is setting up 646 beds in downtown’s 540,000-square-foot Connecticut Convention Center for Hartford Hospital to house COVID-19 patients who are still recovering.

CRDA Executive Director Michael Freimuth said the building being used as a temporary field hospital makes it difficult to forecast when it could reopen for events.

Meantime, several concerts have been rescheduled at Infinity Music Hall in downtown’s Front Street District, also home to Ted’s Montana Grill, Bear’s Smokehouse Barbecue and El Pollo Guapo restaurants.

“Events have been canceled through the summer and right now we are assuming September might be when we will have more activity,” Freimuth said.

Photo | St. Clements Castle & Marina
St. Clements Castle & Marina in Portland has been leveraging video conferencing and social media to market its ballrooms during the COVID-19 crisis.

Retooling sales, marketing practices

St. Clements Castle & Marina in Portland is one of many wedding venues in the state that’s aggressively retooling its sales and marketing strategies online to meet the demands of newly engaged couples.

The venue overlooking the Connecticut River has been conducting virtual tours of its property with couples via FaceTime and videoconferencing app Zoom.

Amanda Delzio, St. Clements’ vice president of marketing and communications, said her staff is focusing on sharing as much imagery of its two ballrooms, totaling 11,000 square feet, with prospective guests as possible. That includes creating and sharing photo slideshows and videos of past weddings to replace usual walking tours of the grounds.

Utilizing videoconferencing technology, social media and encouraging couples to stay in close contact with their respective sales manager to answer questions remotely has helped St. Clements score a number of future bookings for 2021 and 2022, Delzio said.

“We are still staying positive on social media, sharing inspiring images so couples can imagine themselves at the estate, getting married in our courtyard or overlooking our river,” she said, noting that 90% of the venue’s events this spring have been postponed in 2020.

“Couples are being extremely receptive to [rescheduling] — that’s why I think most have stayed in 2020. It’s great for both parties.”

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