For David McGaw and Kalei Kalani, Hawaii seemed like the dream destination for their wedding. Kalani was born on Oahu and raised on Kauai, and the two, who live in San Jose, California, had visited Hawaii together numerous times over the past 20 years.
“It’s always been kind of our special place,” said McGaw, a retail manager.
But now their plans for a 100-person celebration, including about 60 out-of-state guests, are up in the air. The planned October date seems safe, he said, but with the state shut down to tourists and no guidance from the government concerning large gatherings, it’s hard to say.
“Obviously, there’s a big air of uncertainty,” he said.
McGaw and Kalani are hardly alone. As a major subset of Hawaii’s tourism industry, the wedding business is bearing the brunt of the impact of Hawaii closing itself off from visitors.
A 14-day quarantine order for arriving passengers has helped shut down the spread of the virus, but it also has shut down the tourism industry and eliminated tens of thousands of hotel and restaurant jobs.
But the damage extends beyond hotels and restaurants, and the wedding industry is a prime example. To be sure, hotels often benefit from large weddings that bring in guests. But so do a host of small, local entrepreneurs: photographers, cake bakers, wedding organizers, florists, musicians and DJs and other vendors.
“The problem right now is we have all these couples in limbo,” said Tessa Gomes, owner of fred + kate events, an Oahu-based wedding planner.
As if planning a wedding for dozens of guests isn’t hard enough, try adding a 14-day quarantine for visitors into the equation, plus a state government that’s yet to give any indication of when that might change.
“Everybody’s waiting,” said Gomes. “Everybody’s on standby for what’s next.
“We’re just, ‘Please, give us a general guideline,’” she said.
In the meantime, the uncertainty is killing the industry, said Natalie Christensen, owner of the wedding planner Aloha Bridal Connections and vice president of the Oahu Wedding Association.
She’s had 67 events postpone or cancel, she said. About three quarters are big weddings with out-of-state guests.
“Business has just completely been demolished,” she said.
And weddings in Hawaii are a big business. About 102,000 people traveled to the state to get married in 2018, the Hawaii Tourism Authority says in its latest available annual report. That accounted for just over 83,000 visitor days. What’s more, the vast majority – some 72,000 – stay in hotels. And they tend to stay a long time: slightly more than eight days on average, the HTA reported.
In addition, marrying couples also often bring people with them. Nearly one in four marriages are destination weddings, according to a recent report by the the Hawaii Visitor and Convention Bureau reported, and it all adds up to big bucks for the state: some $16 billion in annual spending.
“People have no idea about all the little things that make up our industry,” Gomes said. And those little things support a lot of jobs.
Take A Cake Life, for example. The King Street bakery used to make cakes for about 500 weddings a year and another 500 special events, including baby luaus and corporate gatherings, said Kristin Kato, the shop’s founder. With cakes selling for as much as $1,000 to $2,000 for an elaborate wedding cake, it was enough work to keep a staff of 10.
But starting around March 16, orders quit coming in, she recalls.
“I had a panic attack, it was so scary,” she says. “When all this happened, I was like, ‘Oh my God, how am I going to take care of my team.’”
The staff brainstormed and came up with the idea of cookie decorating kits, which have been a hit with homebound families. Cookie lei for graduation were also popular.
But the lost events are a lot to replace: about 300 events, mostly weddings, displaced by COVID-19, she said. About 70% to 80% have postponed, she said; the rest have cancelled.
Still, the cookies and other items are keeping the team going, she said.
“It’s not the same, but it is enough to sustain everybody,” she said.
Other vendors won’t be so lucky, Christensen predicts.
“The financial impact could bankrupt a lot of businesses,” she said.
What the wedding businesses seem to want most is guidance on when the state might open.
Joseph Esser works with about 100 weddings a year doing photography, videography and running photo booths. It’s a business elaborate enough to support a team of eight for a wedding, with a price tag of $6,000 to $10,000.
One of the biggest challenges is trying to let customers know when the state might open for tourists, he said. Guidance from the government would be huge, he said.
“Having that clarity certainly would be helpful for a lot of people,” he said. “What’s been the hardest thing is trying to be the fortune teller.”
It’s also been hard to know what restrictions local authorities might place on weddings that involve gathering of 100 people or more. While the state determines the travel quarantine and provides some overall guidance and restrictions for businesses, the county mayors are generally left to fill in the blanks.
Christensen said she’s worried large weddings, where there’s a clear guest list and people tend to know each other, could get lumped into the same category as, say, large sports events which tend to have large crowds of strangers.
“The biggest concern so far is that weddings have been lumped into the general events industry,” she said.
Meanwhile, marrying couples can’t extend invitations with much confidence.
The idea of getting both sides of the family together for the first time for a ceremony at Kualoa Ranch is exciting, Kalani says. The question is whether it will happen.
“We’ve never had a lot of these people together at the same time,” he says. “This is huge for us.”
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.