Correction: This story was updated to show 40 events were canceled or rescheduled at the Cool Springs House and the Ravenswood Mansion because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Olivia Arokiasamy expected to spend the morning of her wedding day in a bridal suite in Brentwood, drinking champagne and preparing for the day with her closest friends.
Instead, she spent the morning of March 21 in her bathroom at home, drinking a beer with just her maid of honor trying to figure out how to organize a makeshift wedding ceremony during a global pandemic.
“Around noon, we started getting ready ... listening to music. She was helping me do my makeup, trying not to cry together. It was feeling very surreal,” she said. “Everything was different from what we had planned. That was one of the few moments where I really felt sad.”
Arokiasmy and James Ethan Clark, now her husband, planned to throw a big party for all their friends and family at the Ravenswood Mansion in Brentwood on March 21. As the number of people infected by the new coronavirus climbed in Middle Tennessee, they decided to call it off, opting for a tiny outdoor ceremony instead. They rescheduled the party for next fall.
“We realized we had to make a decision on whether we were going to put people in the position to risk their health and the health of people they'd be going back home to, or tell us the most disappointing thing,” Arokiasamy said. “We came to the conclusion that it was just unsafe.”
Arokiasamy and Clark, who live in East Nashville, married on the nearly deserted streets of downtown Nashville. Clark’s father officiated the wedding. Other than a couple of their closest friends and a few family members, the only witnesses were a handful of passersby, including a man blasting Earth, Wind & Fire from a purple Corvette as he rolled down First Avenue.
“I expected my wedding week to super crazy, but not in the way that it was,” Arokiasamy said.
The coronavirus pandemic has forced many couples in Middle Tennessee to cancel or reschedule large weddings, and that is taking a heavy toll on the wedding and events industry. Some wedding venues, catering companies and rental businesses are temporarily shutting down. Others are looking for ways to adapt.
Krista Chapman runs a marketing company that represents several local companies in the wedding and events industry. She estimated that most companies in this industry have lost nearly all of their revenue for March and April.
“In the event industry 99% of the businesses are small, independent, local businesses. They're feeling this immediately, dramatically and really hard,” she said. “I think as a business you have two choices. You can hunker down and lean into cash reserves until things pick back up, or you can look for a new problem.”
Catering by Suzette, a catering company in Franklin, initially offered delivery of family meals, which included a small bottle of hand sanitizer. Earlier this week, the company decided to temporarily suspend operations and wait out the virus outbreak.
Emergency declarations in Brentwood, Franklin and Nashville essentially shut down wedding venues in Middle Tennessee.
Colleen Kelly, the manager at Cedarmont Farm in Franklin said she has rescheduled nearly all events on the property through May. Abby Cox, the manager of the Ravenswood Mansion and the Cool Springs House, which are owned by the City of Brentwood, wrote in an email that she had to reschedule 40 events from March through June. She expects those venues will lose at least $45,000 in revenue.
In a Facebook Live video, CJ Dickson, the owner of the Franklin event space CJ’s Off the Square, said her staff is working from home and putting in extra hours to reschedule planned weddings.
“We had awesome plans in place. Seven days ago we all thought we were done and moving ahead,” she said. “That’s not the case now. What we’re going through right now is accepting that uncertainty is the name of the game.”
The good news is that event space operators say many clients have simply rescheduled events for later in the year. That means the revenue may not be totally lost, but will be significantly delayed.
“It's hard because we're missing all those spring payments ... Your wedding isn't until the fall, but we still have to do all the property maintenance or by the time you got here it would be a jungle,” Kelly said about Cedarmont Farm. “That's our overhead.”
Several business owners said they’re looking into financial resources available through the U.S. Small Business Administration, including new resources included in a recent federal stimulus bill, to stay financially stable until the fall.
At the same time, many businesses in the events industry are finding ways to adapt right now.
Typical streams of revenue for the Franklin party rental company Southern Events dried up because of the coronavirus pandemic. Now, the company is marketing its tents, drapes, tables and chairs to local governments, hospitals and health care companies building temporary structures to triage and test patients infected by the new coronavirus.
“As a rental company, we looked around and thought, we can't pivot online. People don't need chairs for an online event,” Chapman, who does marketing for the Southern Events, said. “But there is going to be a need, from our perspective, for hospitals and health care facilities. They're not going to need lounge furniture and fine china, but we have tables and chairs and tents.”
New marketing materials advertise the party rentals company as immediately available for emergency response. Chapman said the company is also offering rentals to companies like restaurants that are setting up temporary drive-thru or pick-up locations.
“We are in touch with some area hospitals and are working out some of the pieces,” Chapman said. “We are ready to go as soon as they are.”
While event organizers have canceled the vast majority of events during April, couples and businesses are struggling to determine when it’s safe to host a large events once again.
In an email, Cox wrote that the City of Brentwood is relying on executive orders from Gov. Bill Lee to decide when to reschedule or cancel events. In a recent executive order, Lee urged Tennesseans to stay home and ordered non-essential businesses to close through April 14.
Kelly from Cedarmont Farm said she’s also relying on guidance from state and local governments, but outside of those guidelines the decision is up to clients. Often, they ask her for advice, but it’s hard to offer help.
"I've been fielding phone calls for a solid two weeks. It's fine, but it does take a bit of a toll. The brides are calling me. They're stressed out. I totally get it, but I don't work for the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)," she said. "I have no idea when this is going to end."
When companies start to host events again, organizers expect the industry will look different. Kelly said she expects smaller events with a focus on social distancing and sanitation. That likely means no more buffets for a while.
“I think this is going to change the event industry ... I know Southern Events is going to make proactive changes ... creating rentals for some of the things we see as needs," Chapman said. “I think you're going to see sanitizing stations at every single event now, but let's make those pretty.”
As clients return following the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, Kelly said she’s planning to help clients live stream wedding ceremonies so family members who don’t want to attend a big event can watch.
In other words, the first wave of events following height of the coronavirus outbreak might look more like Arokiasmy and Clarks’ small, intimate ceremony.