A Bay Area wedding planner talks explains pandemic effects

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Wedding planning, by nature, is almost never an easy task. But throw in a global pandemic, accompanied by public health orders and social distancing mandates put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19 — and it has turned the wedding industry on its head.

Natalie Alvanez, director of sales and marketing at the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, has seen the fallout first-hand.

Over the past six months, Alvanez has had to make countless difficult calls to anxious couples, canceling, postponing or downsizing dozens of weddings. And her sales and event team has been gutted, leaving nearly all the duties of putting on a wedding ceremony on her shoulders. No sooner does she take one step forward than she’s forced to take one step back in the face of ever-changing restrictions.

In April, for instance, Alvanez built out new “micro-wedding” and elopement packages so couples could still enjoy the outdoor grounds of the Winchester Mystery House. After finally getting the all-clear to move ahead with the events, she was only able to host a couple of weddings before the county put out a new directive that outdoor wedding ceremonies were permitted but receptions of any kind were not — meaning her “micro-wedding” package was now off-limits as well.

To understand how the pandemic is affecting the wedding industry and how wedding planners like Alvanez are adjusting, this news organization recently connected with Alvanez for an interview that has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How have you tried to adapt to the new restrictions brought on by the pandemic?

A: Back in March or April when all of this started, I told my team to refocus from the corporate side of events to the social side. Unlike corporate business events that could potentially be delayed from happening for another year or more, social yearning will always be there and no matter what, people are still going to want to get married. Elopements and smaller wedding celebrations had already become a trend over the last few years as you started to see more people — especially Millennials — go for more of these exotic elopements on top of a mountain or whatnot. The younger generation it seemed was starting to pivot away from wanting to spend $30,000-$40,000 on a wedding for one day and focus more on the experience. So I, and I’m sure many others, figured we could also offer something during the pandemic when most other options are no longer available.

Q: Can you explain what a micro-wedding and an elopement package consist of?

A: At Winchester Mystery House, an elopement package is the ceremony only. Couples can bring up to 20 guests and they can have their ceremony in the front garden. And then with the micro-wedding, the idea was to have the ceremony in the front garden and then it included a mini-reception in our central garden with nice string lights and all of that. It included the space, tables and chairs and then we connect them with preferred vendors — a photographer, florist, cake maker and caterers. Both are basically allowing the couple to enjoy the rental space and scenery but at a much-reduced cost. Normally, we do weddings that are starting at $7,000-$10,000 for a six-hour rental of all our event spaces — outdoor with the front and central gardens and indoor with the greenhouse and carriage house. Now we’re doing a much smaller footprint for way less people, so it’s $2,000 for the elopement package and $3,500 for the micro-weddings. 

Q: What are wedding planners like yourself most cautious about in this moment?

A: I think the biggest concern is just not wanting anything to become a super-spreader event. I think that’s why we’re seeing from the state that a lot of ceremonies and receptions are still not allowed, because people are having these backyard weddings and events where people aren’t wearing masks. At least when they’re on our property, we can have some semblance of control. Whereas if it’s in your backyard, you don’t have someone saying, “Hey, you should probably wear a mask.” So, for instance, at the Winchester Mystery House, we’re super strict about trying to make sure everyone on property wears masks, and we’re limiting attendance to 20 — up to 25 with the vendors and photographers and whatnot.

SAN JOSE, CA – SEPTEMBER 5: Jeannette Moran and Jorge Curtidor are married in a small ceremony at the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, Calif., on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020. Due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions the Winchester Mystery House now offers smaller wedding packages a garden elopement or micro-wedding. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group) 

Q: Do you see any silver linings to having a smaller wedding?

A: I definitely see brides that don’t have that level of stress on the day of their weddings, because they’re not juggling so many vendors and so many decorations, so I think the brides we have seen have been way more relaxed and laid back. I think there’s a lot to say about the intimate family vibe that these weddings come with as well. It’s usually their closest family and friends that are there so I think it’s just much more intimate and meaningful for the couples.

Q: What do you see for the future of the wedding industry?

A: I don’t think the wedding market will come back at strong as it was, where you’ll see a 200-person event anytime soon. Because even the venues that could seat that big of a group can’t now with putting six feet between each table and all of that. So now, as an industry, I think a lot of people are struggling to figure out how can you make the same amount of revenue you used to when there are much smaller footprints as far as attendance goes. But, I’ve spoken with florists and cake vendors and caterers and it seems like couples now are putting their budget toward different things. So, for instance, instead of buying a much smaller decor package, maybe they’re really upping the ante with event rentals and other things that they’re interested in so that it feels more luxurious — even if it is a smaller group of people.

Natalie Alvanez

Title: Director of Sales and Marketing at the Winchester Mystery House
Age: 43
Birthplace: Alameda, California
Current home: San Ramon, California
Family: 8-year-old daughter, Gabriella, a boyfriend and his two children
Education: Bachelors of Science from California State University, East Bay

Five things to know about Natalie

  1. I’m obsessed with renovation shows and renovating things at all levels
  2. I’m a Mexican food snob, thanks to my grandmother who always made homemade Mexican tortillas
  3. I’m raising a chaotic household complete with three kids, a golden retriever, a cat, and now two new kittens
  4. I’m super passionate about travel and tourism after being in the industry for 20 years. I believe it makes us better people.
  5. Part of the reason I took a job at the Winchester Mystery House is because of my love for Halloween. This year, the kids and I are going with a creepy clown decoration theme.



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