Jane Chung and Chris Gorman stood face to face, with their cheery dog Jupiter gallivanting in the desert dirt. The sunset cast a golden glow and a light breeze cooled the summer air as they exchanged their vows at Joshua Tree National Park.
A pandemic-era wedding was not what she envisioned, but for Chung, eloping in the desert was as memorable as the Van Nuys couple could have hoped for.
“It was just me, him and our puppy,” she said. “It just made it super intimate and super loving. I felt like we were in our own little love bubble.”
Wedding industry data show about half as many weddings are expected to occur in California this year, with the coronavirus pandemic derailing large gatherings and state guidelines permitting only ceremonies. The state saw more than 241,000 weddings last year, a figure that’s expected to drop by roughly 50% in 2020, according to data from research firm The Wedding Report. Total associated sales were about $7.1 billion last year, and expected to be close to $3 billion this year.
While event planners are seeing many nuptials postponed, weddings that are going forward tend to be smaller, more intimate events. Palm Springs area hotels, once full of hundreds of guests for weekend destination weddings, are putting together new elopement and “micro wedding” packages for couples who want to make it official regardless — or perhaps because — of the pandemic.
Receptions are not allowed under current California guidelines for Riverside and San Bernardino counties. But some micro weddings are culminating in small dinner parties anyway, with loved ones gathering in small groups at boutique hotels or prviate estates. Other couples, like Chung and Gorman, are eloping.
“We didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, so we decided to not invite anyone and just throw a bigger party next year,” said Chung, who turned a planned desert getaway into an elopement and honeymoon. “It was a little bittersweet, but somehow it made the day more special, because we could just focus on us and not become hosts. I’m really glad it worked out the way it did.”
Chung and Gorman are both nurses at the same hospital, who’ve been working on their units and with COVID-19 patients. Their wedding was planned by Desert Pop Up, which specializes in elopements and intimate ceremonies. Planner and designer Trish Jones, who also runs The Walk Down the Aisle planning firm, said she thinks smaller weddings are here to stay.
“Micro weddings” have a way of narrowing the focus, Jones said, on what the day is all about: celebrating love and cherishing the present.
“The fact that people are still doing this, what does that tell you?” she said. “That love and commitment are important to everybody, and they’re going to make it happen.”
A more intimate celebration
Jones and other desert wedding planners say that many couples who had weddings planned for 2020 have pushed the dates into 2021.
The Wedding Report projects about 319,755 weddings in California next year, generating $8.7 billion in total sales. That figure is a 32% increase from 2019, representing many of the rescheduled events that couples hope to celebrate in 2021.
Other couples are like Chung and Gorman, who got engaged in May — people who’ve decided to get married in a short timeframe as they rearrange their life plans around the new circumstances of a global pandemic. And Jones said she’s also working with clients looking to book small weddings in the desert after canceling larger events at hotels or larger venues elsewhere in California.
“We’re really well-positioned to execute something styled and beautiful,” she said. “Joshua Tree is an amazing environment, Palm Springs is an amazing environment. In some cases, they’re still doing a big wedding a year from now, but we’re sneaking in these family-style elopements.”
These smaller events are as luxe as ever, with couples redirecting some of their budgets from a bigger guest list to elaborate details. Some are choosing to splurge on fancier alcohol, finer flowers or a high-end gown.
Jones said these choices are good news for brides who are used to getting wedding inspiration from Instagram and Pinterest, and see styled shoots that would be many thousands of dollars to replicate on the scale of a 100-person wedding. But if they’re planning for just a dozen guests, it becomes much more affordable to accomplish the Pinterest-perfect vision.
Jones is using a new hashtag, #GoSmallButGoBig, to identify these small-but-stylish weddings. “They can splurge on the details for a 20-person wedding,” she said.
For Joshua Tree National Park weddings, Jones is particularly attentive to what is and isn’t allowed in the park. They bring their set-up supplies on carts and work with local vendors who know what is allowed. San Bernardino County as of early October only permits outdoor wedding ceremonies.
“We want to create this beauty, but we want to do it from a place of respect,” Jones said.
Kristine Beal, an event specialist with Signature Party Rentals who has organized weddings and desert charity galas, is also seeing couples splurge on little details of their dreams, like special linens, fancier dinner chairs or better lighting.
“Some of these more specialty items, they don’t need as many,” she said. “So that contributes to the aesthetics, and the look.”
People are also ordering specialty masks or personalized bottles of hand sanitizer for their handfuls of guests, Beal said.
Overall, wedding planning comes down to priorities, Beal said. If it’s important to the couple to have loved ones who live overseas or far away attend, they may postpone a wedding a year or two. But if being married sooner is their goal, they may opt to go tiny.
“Every bride is going to give you a different answer,” she said.
Rescheduling weddings involves navigating a logistical quandary between the venue, date and available vendors. If caterers, flower vendors and photographers are already booked, the couple may have to find new ones.
Some weddings have been moved three or four times, Beal said. But all the new plans are sized down, she said.
“We’re not seeing a wedding for 120 (guests), we’re not seeing events for 200. It’s this micro wedding,” Beal said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that the more people an individual interacts with at a gathering, the higher the potential risk is of becoming infected with COVID-19. But there is less risk at smaller, outdoor events where people stay 6 feet apart, wear masks and all live in the same area.
The risk increases with the size of the gathering, the CDC says, and at gatherings where it is difficult to socially distance or where there are more attendees traveling from outside the local area.
In California, the color-coded, tier system for business activity provides guidelines for wedding ceremonies, but not receptions. The purple tier for hardest-hit counties permits outdoor-only ceremonies, while the red tier, which applied to Riverside County in early fall, allows indoor ceremonies with a maximum of 25% capacity or fewer than 100 people, a guideline that has left some planners confused on what is and isn’t allowed.
The Riverside County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday voted to seek more clarification and guidance from the state on what can be allowed for small group meetings and wedding receptions, with the Coachella Valley hospitality industry and local wedding planners clamoring to allow more activity.
Temecula and Palm Springs events planner Michelle Garibay spoke during the public hearing and said event planners are used to mitigating risk and can implement safety measures, which might not happen if people are throwing weddings or other events on their own. “Bootleg events have already been happening without us, whether we like it or not,” she said.
To accommodate the current public health protocols, hotels in the desert are coming up with creative new packages to offer couples. Instead of packing ballrooms with 250 guests and a buffet, they’re organizing tiny weddings on patios and lawns, and poolside.
The events staff at the Renaissance Esmeralda Resort & Spa in Indian Wells typically hosts upwards of 40 weddings a year, said director of sales and marketing Carolina Viazcan. But the pandemic put a halt to their wedding calendar, which now has largely been rescheduled for 2021.
With a freeze on large-scale conventions that typically fill up the sprawling Esmerelda property during the season, Viazcon said the resort has pivoted to creating leisure travel packages that include boosting micro weddings. They’ve developed a “Runaway Bride” package for elopements and micro weddings with up to 10 guests at one of their outdoor settings with the backdrop of the Santa Rosa Mountains.
“It’s an emotional roller coaster at times,” she said. “but I think we’re all so grateful to see this trend, little by little.”
The resort’s senior catering director Cindy Burreson, who is ordained to officiate weddings, also dreamed up a special package for an outdoor group wedding on Nov. 11. The “I Do” wedding package costs $2,000 and will feature 20 couples getting married from hotel room balconies overlooking the pool at the U-shaped property.
Couples will also receive a two-night stay, hair and bridal makeup, a 15-minute photo session, and other amenities. Guests can attend with a discounted room rate, and the hotel will provide a livestream option for family and friends elsewhere.
“Having celebrations and being able to do things like this but in a safe manner, I think people are looking for that,” Viazcon said.
Ace Hotel & Swim Club in Palm Springs was already a popular spot for outdoor weddings before the coronavirus pandemic, with more than one wedding every weekend. Their new micro wedding package starts at $8,500 for 20 guests or less, including dinner, cake and other amenities. All the options are presented in a digital sales package so the planning can be done in a contactless fashion.
“We don’t know how long this is going to go, so probably the size of the weddings is going to be smaller than usual,” said general manager Celeste Brackley. “We’re doing it in the best, safest way we know how to and still giving it our Ace touch.”
More: California desert vacation rentals proving a popular pandemic-era getaway
More: Southwest to fly through Palm Springs International Airport
While weddings already play a big part in the greater Palm Springs hospitality scene, Brackley is optimistic for wedding season 2021. Not only are there re-booked events, but the recent news of more air service coming to Palm Springs International Airport could help boost it as an accessible destination wedding, she said.
Around 3,100 weddings were held in the Coachella Valley last year, according to data from The Wedding Report. In some valley cities — like Palm Springs, La Quinta and Rancho Mirage — more than two-thirds of the people who married traveled from outside the area, according to The Wedding Report.
“Palm Springs is the perfect choice for health and wellness and still being able to live out your dream of getting married,” Brackley said.
A getaway celebration
Catherine Ferguson of Costa Mesa married Ryan Ferguson on Aug. 28 at Hotel El Cid in Palm Springs. The couple has a 3-year-old daughter, Ferguson said, and while she knew they were planning to get married one day she wasn’t expecting Ryan to propose in May.
They had always envisioned a small wedding, Ferguson said. Then she found Hotel El Cid on Airbnb in July, which could fit all of their family members who live in Southern California for the wedding weekend.
They made the booking for five weeks out, and quickly planned the flowers, food and other details. Their families in Orange and San Diego counties had kept close to home and were self-isolating before the celebration. Then, everyone stayed at the hotel for the weekend of the celebration.
If they had a bigger wedding, Ferguson said, they wouldn’t have been able to have such a special getaway with their family.
“I can’t imagine how many more times we’ll have the opportunity to go on vacation with both our families,” she said.
While she was disappointed their closest friends couldn’t attend, Ferguson is looking forward to a possible second party down the road.
Jones, who provided services as a day-of coordinator for Ferguson’s wedding, said it was everything a tiny wedding should be.
“Heart, souls, intimacy, details and an awesome group of humans,” she said.
But these pandemic-time weddings are missing one thing for Jones, who bonds with her couples as they plan together: a warm and happy hug at the end of the night.
“These are life-changing, intimate moments that you have with these couples. How do you do that without throwing your arms around them at the end?” she said. “It’s not easy, but we laugh it off and are like ‘OK, we’ll fist bump.’ If it was any other time, we’d be hugging, we know that.”
Melissa Daniels covers economic development, hospitality, and local business in the Coachella Valley. She can be reached at (760)-567-8458, [email protected], or on Twitter @melissamdaniels.
This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: ‘Micro weddings’ are a thing. California desert wedding planners create ‘little love bubble’