Bridal plans across Northern Ireland have been thrown into disarray due to the government ban on weddings, part of the strategy to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Outdoor weddings with 10 people present may be allowed from June 8, but it’s a tough time for suppliers, as Linda Stewart finds out
Andrea Adams (48), from Bangor, runs Angels Wedding Cars, a wedding chauffeur business which won the Transport of the Year category at the NI Weddings Awards 2020. She is in lockdown with husband Neil (52) and their two sons.
She started the business after a friend asked if she would drive them to their wedding in her Land Rover Freelander and she now offers a variety of car packages.
On the Friday that the Prime Minister announced that bars and restaurants would be closing down, she had two bookings for weddings the following day and both were cancelled that Friday night.
"We had a lot of bookings for this year but they're pretty much all postponed now, from April through to June and some of July," Andrea says.
"At the time we knew a lot of brides were starting to get worried and we were a little concerned about the car being a confined space. When the PM made his announcement, within 48 hours we started getting postponements. Most are going ahead at some point - I think only one has cancelled. Most people have got dates for a lot later in the year and maybe next year."
Andrea, who has been busy home-schooling and hasn't had any government assistance other than employment and support allowance, says no-one wants to make a booking until the situation becomes clearer.
"We're trying to keep busy. We're okay for the next couple of months and we don't know what will happen after that. If it goes into August there will probably be problems. It's a fairly small business so it's not too bad," she says. "The barrel is going to be a bit dry for the next few months, but I suppose there are going to be a lot of companies in a worse situation."
Gary Connolly (31), who lives in Belfast, runs Memento Floral Design on the Ormeau Road with his husband Nigel Close.
He says they're busier than ever at the moment and were flexible enough to be able to transfer the entire business online.
"From the day lockdown was announced we were able to transfer our business completely online which allowed us to keep our staff on properly and we didn't have to furlough anybody," he says.
"We were keeping a close eye on what was happening on the news and had seen everything that had been happening in Wuhan. At that time we thought 'it's away over there, it's never going to come to us'.
"But the first inkling that it might come to us was when we were preparing for Mother's Day, which is the biggest day in the calendar for a florist."
Just before Mother's Day, the government announced that over-70s would be asked to self-isolate.
"We had invested a colossal amount in flowers that were due to arrive from Holland. So at that point, when we realised what was coming, we amended our marketing strategy, we recruited additional drivers and we also set up a marquee at the front of the shop so people didn't have to come into the confined space," Gary says.
Deliveries have really blown up this year, he explains.
"Demand for flower arrangements and bouquets and plants has soared online. That was the first test for us of how we could perform being an online-only business for a period of time. We engaged a digital marketing company to help amend our online strategy to ensure we could reach the people that wanted to send flowers during the lockdown."
The company has also received an overwhelming response to its Thank You NHS initiative, sending complimentary flowers to frontline NHS workers
The business was due to cater for six weddings in April, all of which have been postponed.
"We're very lucky that we order our flowers a week in advance, so we had invested money in the props for some of the weddings, but not the flowers," Gary says.
It's now looking as if September and October will be extremely busy for the wedding industry, although some couples have rescheduled to the same time next year. "It's very stressful for couples, but from our perspective all they have to do is give us a call and give us a new date," Gary says.
"We are quite lucky that we were able to move all our operations online. A lot of local suppliers are completely closed, but we have a strong relationship with our suppliers in Holland and they are delivering to us four times a week."
One other bestseller during lockdown has been the firm's DIY kits, which supply customers with flowers and other products so they can assemble their own display. "There has been a massive upsurge in sales of them," says Gary. "It's a nice fun activity that people have been enjoying doing at home with their children.
"And we also got a lot of orders in the first few weeks for flowers to send to couples on the day they were due to get married, like a little 'chin up'."
John McClean (47) runs cake design business The Sugar Room from his home in Belfast. A former chef, he worked for Deanes for many years before going full-time with his own business.
"I work from home in a studio at the top of my house. It hasn't been too bad because I live on my own so I'm used to it," he says.
Despite the lockdown, John says he is still keeping busy creating birthday cakes, but the wedding and confirmation work has vanished.
"A lot of my wedding stuff has been rebooked, but it's one of those things where I don't have a ready-made product that I have to shift," he says.
"Even though venues will be able to offer new dates, people are not going to be able to get a lot of stuff together for that date.
"It's going to be a bit stressful for brides and grooms because they have to go back to the start of their planning."
John was due to cater for four weddings in April and five in May, and these have all been rescheduled.
"Also in May, all the confirmations were cancelled - I was booked up with confirmations throughout May and every single one of them was cancelled," he explains.
"It started to have a knock-on effect - May started to reschedule and then it was into the summer. I had eight or nine weddings throughout July and August as well.
"It's ticking over now, but it's not what it should be - at this stage of the year I would usually be very busy."
John was due to complete a massive cake order for an awards night on March 20 and also had a wedding in the same week, but everything was cancelled.
"A lot of people were frightened and in a week I probably lost about £2,500 worth of work. It's crazy," he says.
But he has reassured clients that the key thing is to get a new date from their venue and the cake can be rescheduled.
"When it comes round to it, I expect to be a bit busier. I'm sure I'll have a few weekends where I am completely booked out with weddings," he adds.
Tommy (41) and Laurene Blake (38) run wedding photography business Pure Photo NI. They are in lockdown in Lisburn with their daughters Megan (13) and Abby (10).
Tommy says he initially wanted a career in commercial photography but was asked by another photographer to help with a couple of weddings and found he loved it.
"After a few months, me and my wife decided to start doing it ourselves. I always liked photography, but with weddings you're constantly dealing with people all the time and the whole social aspect. You get to see pretty much every emotion at weddings, everything from people crying to people being overjoyed," he says.
He first started receiving concerned calls in early March from couples who were worried about their wedding dates, and in late March the cancellations began to flood in.
"It was devastating - we actually don't have a business now for this year," Tommy says.
"We still have a few couples hanging on and hoping something will still be able to happen, but 95% of the business for the year is gone - from March onwards."
In the meantime the couple have been passing the time with a lockdown project, posting one photo a day on their blog.
There isn't much they can do to tide themselves over financially, even with the recent relaxation in rules.
"We are offering engagement photography but we're finding couples are very reluctant to do anything at the minute, partly because of the fear of infection, but also because couples are in a bad situation. One partner may have lost their job and they are managing money very carefully, so photography is a luxury under these circumstances," Tommy adds.
"We've done a couple of family portraits, but it's not always ideal because you have to keep down to small numbers, under the six people meeting rules.
"The issue for us will be that most people tend to book photographers 12-18 months before the wedding and it's probably unlikely we will get any new bookings for this year. Unless there is a chance, when things do open up, that people may bring their weddings forward - all we can do is keep our fingers crossed and hope for that. Things at the minute are looking pretty grim."
Tommy says they have been surprised how nice people have been about it.
"We've had a lot of couples who understand there is nothing we can do. We've even had a couple of couples who have postponed their wedding until next year but have paid the balance in full. That really helped us out because we have no income at all and we want to say thanks for that, we really appreciate it. People genuinely do realise how it affects the likes of ourselves - we can't go on furlough.
"This has been a massive life-changing thing for us going forward for the next few years. It's been really strange for us - we're so used to being out and about all the time, dealing with the public, and right now we've been confined to home for a long period of time."
Designer and trends forecaster Mary Rose McGrath (47) runs her business from her design studio at Conway Mill in Belfast but has moved operations to her home. She is in lockdown with her son Christopher (19) and her dog Willow.
She says she carried on as normal with fittings until she realised in mid-February that coronavirus was serious.
"I was waiting day by day to see what was going to happen and I closed down before lockdown happened, because I'd much rather be careful of my clients and sewing students," she says.
"I transferred operations from the mill and I'm working from a home studio now. I made sure I'm all geared up and ready to go here.
"My wedding season is pushed back but thankfully this is not a problem for me as all my wedding gowns and Mother of The Bride designs are unique to each client and therefore custom-made to order, so there are no factory delays to worry about here.
"I am ready to see my clients just as soon as lockdown is over, and have plans in place to fast-track some orders if needs be."
In the meantime, Mary Rose says her sewing classes have moved online, and her clients have all postponed their weddings.
"As soon as lockdown is lifted, I am ready to go. We are used to working on really tight deadlines and can turn round dresses really quickly - we're prepared and have the fabric in the studio.
"Having worked on so many beautiful weddings over the past decade, I am used to deadlines. The fastest gown turnaround to date was when I created the first Kate Middleton Royal Replica gown in the UK - it took 22 hours to complete from start to finish."
Once lockdown is lifted clients will be able to be fitted at the home studio if they are uncomfortable with going to the mill, Mary Rose says.
"I already have a critical path to ensure I can turn dresses round quickly for my clients and I'm just waiting for the government - as soon as lockdown is lifted we can get going," she says. "I can make dresses from scratch myself. If a sample machinist can't come, it doesn't affect me - I can do all these things myself.
"It means there is a lot of work ahead, but it's a very intense job anyway being a fashion designer.
"I feel for all my lovely brides who now have a new wedding date and arrangements to make, but at least their wedding gowns are not something they have to worry about."
Vicki Cosgrove is wedding and events co-ordinator with the Balmoral Hotel in Belfast. She says hotel management realised very early on that a lockdown was imminent.
"In fact, the Balmoral was the first hotel in Belfast to close down entirely. Hotel management sensed quickly that the hotel needed to close in order to stop the spread of the infection and to prevent customers and staff from becoming ill," she says.
"We were well ahead of the advice from the governments and the feedback we received from the general public in relation to closing early was entirely positive. Our customers appreciated the swift response, even though it was a tough day for everyone, in particular our staff."
The hotel closed in mid-March, Vicki says.
"We had a wedding scheduled for Saturday, March 21, and we got in touch with the bridal party and advised them that we thought it would be responsible and best to make arrangements as early as possible to cancel the wedding," she says.
"Thankfully the wedding party, which was for 250 guests, were thinking along the same lines and we arranged an alternative date."
The hotel had around 70 weddings scheduled for the year, but alternative dates have been arranged for all.
"We're very grateful to everyone who has been adversely affected by this crisis, especially our customers and our staff whose health and safety is of paramount importance.
"Our wedding partners have also been hugely impacted - wedding suppliers and everyone involved in preparing for and delivering a wedding - but we've met with them and like ourselves they are philosophical about what's going on, but are really looking forward to going back to what they do best."
The hotel has been using the closure to carry out maintenance works but has to hold off on plans to improve the function rooms and create a new reception area and another bedroom block.
"Obviously if weddings can't proceed that would have a big impact on wedding days and the entire business, but we're confident that our customers will remain loyal to the hotel and that the Balmoral Hotel will continue to be one of Belfast's preferred and most loved wedding venues," Vicki says.