COVID-19 and building an empathetic brand in the wedding industry
Five months ago, I was in the middle of my busy fall season as a wedding photographer, when everything came crashing down. I had a seizure in early October, which led to copious tests and the discovery of a brain lesion. It was a whirlwind week of refunding and rescheduling weddings, family shoots, and engagement sessions from my hospital bed in the ICU. A week went by and suddenly, I was home, recovering from brain surgery, with a left hand that no longer functioned due to nerve damage. My neurosurgeon called to tell me that I had the best possible outcome — this was all the result of a random infection. Months of extensive testing with incredible doctors never told me the source of the infection, but I’ve trained myself to stop questioning it. I try my best to live every day like it counts.
All of this was made easier because of the support of incredible clients and photographer friends in the Philadelphia wedding community who had my back. Not to mention my partner, friends, and family. After I had the seizure, I lost my license for two months until I was given the permission to drive from my neurosurgeon. I still have to take seizure medication preventatively for two years (apparently scar tissue on the brain can lead to post-op seizures), which means some small sacrifices on my end. Not swimming alone with my children (or myself). Only drinking a glass of wine at a time. But I can drive. I can type faster than ever before. I’m hungry for life.
I felt like I had lost all of my freedom during those months, stuck at home with a sore head and two children who I couldn’t lift due to recovery restrictions. My left hand is still weak in spots and part of my palm will likely always be numb, but I passed physical therapy and took incredible strides in gaining mobility. My scar is still numb and feels weird in hot or cold weather, but it’s a daily reminder that I’m alive and I have a lot to be grateful for.
Weather the ups and downs
All of that oversharing is to say that going through that experience made me realize how quickly things can change. When my bank account was dwindling down to nothingness after I refunded my clients, I realized I needed to re-evaluate how I handled my business. I needed to find a way to build an emergency fund, so I could sleep better at night when — not if — something unexpected arose.
The COVID-19 pandemic is not something I saw coming five months ago, but it certainly triggers those memories of being stuck at home, feeling panicked, and a bit lost as a small business owner. Tech industry events alone have lost beyond $1 billion in just one week. Now is the time to talk about things like contingency plans and take small steps in making this survivable, while caring the most for our clients.
In just a day, the CDC released guidelines recommending canceling events with +50 people for the next eight weeks to issuing guidelines to avoid social gatherings of more than 10 people. It breaks my heart that my clients have to reschedule their March-May weddings, when they were just finalizing the details.
It’s okay to grieve, cry, celebrate, be productive (or not). Recognize that all of those feelings are completely valid and that pain is real. What’s not okay is taking that panic and anxiety and projecting it onto our clients. As wedding vendors, we have a responsibility to protect our clients by working alongside them to figure out the best course of action together. No one expects us to get this perfect on the first try, but there’s something to be said for shared vulnerability, open transparency, and the willingness to be there for each other. Despite what your contract might say, despite what bills are piling up. This is a learning experience for all of us, but the way you care for your clients is directly reflected in your business and brand.
- Venues: Please consider waiving your date change fee. I’m also hearing that some venues have said things like “although the CDC recommended this, it is not a requirement, and you can still have your wedding on your date.” That kind of lack of judgment is unacceptable (recommending proceeding as planned unless a state or federal mandate “requires” a cancelation).
- Marriers: If you’re planning a wedding and don’t want to take on the emotional stress of postponing a wedding, that is completely understandable. You can obviously choose to cancel for your own mental health or plan an intimate elopement once the CDC recommendations have been lifted. Or, you could have a microwedding with social distancing (keep in mind most parks are now closed and off-limits, along with guest counts over 10). Some people may consider having a reception later this year or waiting until 2021.
- Photographers: Consider applying your retainer to future services, even if your contract states it is non-refundable (which is likely the case). If clients want to apply it to a 2021 date, try to be flexible if your budget allows.
- All vendors: Communication is key. If there’s wiggle room with contracts, let’s extend each other grace and figure out a way we can minimize damage to everyone. Be transparent with your clients along the way. Create a Google doc and share your 2020/21 availability, marking down any soft leads or bookings, so clients know what dates are available or potentially already taken. Working together will result in less miscommunication and providing real-time updates will lead to being able to work together as planned.
- All vendors: Please hold space for marginalized folks planning a wedding. For example, for those who grew up LGBTQ+ and might not have expected to have the opportunity to get married, it can be even more brutal to have this taken away unexpectedly. Immunocompromised folks like myself might also be struggling with increased anxiety, along with financial strain. Being sick in this country is not easy, especially for those who are marginalized, so be mindful when communicating with clients.
Adapt to a new normal
All of us are struggling with financial set-backs from this pandemic — a cancelation or halt in cash flow easily means bankruptcy for some of us. We’re all human, we’re all struggling, but we should be willing to acknowledge our privilege and protect those who need help the most.
We’re still unsure of what tomorrow will bring, let alone the next 90 days. We should be mindful in navigating this together, by offering advice and support, and simply being there for our clients. Just because we can’t physically be together during this time, doesn’t mean we can’t make strides ahead, together.
Reevaluate the future
We’re in a unique position. How can we use this as an opportunity to meet needs that haven’t been met before? Let’s step in and step up and ask how we can help. Let’s build a network and think of how we can grow from this experience. Let’s also not deny the emotional impact this has on all of us. There will be peaks of optimism and fear along the way and that is okay. Let’s share those fears, those feats, and maybe we can truly improve the community at large.