How Cork's wedding experts are coping with Covid life

The wedding industry in Ireland continues to suffer, due to the ongoing pandemic. EMMA CONNOLLY spoke to Cork people in the industry and is impressed by their resilience and hope
How Cork's wedding experts are coping with Covid life

Claire Dilworth at Cinderalla's Closet.

Aisling Kelleher, Cork city, Polkadot Dreaming, freelance bridal hair stylist

“I’LL never forget that feeling of being afraid to look at my phone and check my emails.”

That’s how Aisling Kelleher remembers the start of the pandemic back in March.

“This year was going to be huge for weddings. I was booked out with weddings in Cork, Kerry and everywhere in between. And then everything snowballed and what was a full work diary was wiped out in a matter of a weeks.

“I remember my seven-year-old daughter heard my phone go off one evening and her words were ‘Mum is that another cancellation,’ which I think says it all,” she said.

Aisling says she really loves her work, and builds up a special bond with her clients and their families.

“You’re on the journey with them,” she says. That’s why she found it almost impossible to switch off from the upset and uncertainty couples have lived with over the past few months.

Aisling Kelleher, Polkadot Dreaming, freelance bridal hair stylist
Aisling Kelleher, Polkadot Dreaming, freelance bridal hair stylist

“I find when you know the background of some of your brides’ families, it can be very tough, the worry they have that some family members may not be around due to illness or being elderly can be so upsetting for them. It’s really impossible not to worry.”

Aisling was also faced with further dilemmas as the weeks went by.

Naturally, brides were constantly in touch changing dates from spring, to summer and then to next year.

“Some brides would have booked their wedding dates entirely around my availability and were forced to change the dates due to Covid, and then when you realise you’re already booked on their new date it’s honestly so hard to tell them.”

Aisling remains positive, but also realistic for the future.

“Obviously, I know the wedding industry is massively affected and will be for long time yet if you want to have a big wedding. But the respect wedding suppliers have for each other is so unbelievable.

“I’ve been very lucky to be able to pass on any brides that I couldn’t reschedule to stylists that I fully trust. In fact I created a group, #Corkweddingcrew, where we can share dates or concerns that we have and having this trust had just been a huge support for us all.”

The experienced hair stylist did a few select weddings while restrictions have loosened, which she says were “so beautiful and extra special” despite the precautions in place.

“You will now always see me masked up in a wedding morning. All hair tools from brushes to heated tools are sanitised after each use, contact tracing forms are used for each bridal party, the list is endless, but it’s the way we work now and I’m happy to give that sense of safety to anyone I style.

“And I can promise that wedding mornings are still the exact same despite all this. There will always be laughter, happy tears, excited nerves, love and sheer excitement. Not even a global pandemic can change this.”

Her ultimate advice to couples, is that if they can get married this year, to just do it.

“You will still wear your dress, marry your partner, have the celebration, even though it will be a bit different, you will have your pictures, your partner and your life ahead as a married couple.

“You can always have a small vow renewal and the party when you can. All of us bridal suppliers will be happy to help you where we can, and remember, we are in this journey with you.”

Ruthanna Crowley, Bandon, freelance makeup artist
Ruthanna Crowley, Bandon, freelance makeup artist

Ruthanna Crowley, Bandon, freelance makeup artist,

DURING lockdown, Ruthanna Crowley turned a corner of her kitchen into an office where she would spend hours emailing, texting, voice messaging, and calling brides who were trying to come to terms with what was happening.

“I had three kids at home and a never-ending pile of administration. Sometimes, when I got a run of cancellations, the tears would flow, but then I would get an email with a postponement and it would give me hope,” she remembers.

Her 2020 diary had been chock-a-block.

“January and February were filled with bridal trials. March was to be the start of the wedding season.

“But by the time schools closed, the postponements had started. I did my last wedding on March 16. There was a strange feeling that day amongst the suppliers.

“Then, all through March the postponements kept coming.

“Many moved to midweek dates in June, which in turn had to be further postponed. The diary at this stage was a disaster of red pen and Tipp-ex and eventually pencil. Some brides were on their plan D or holding three dates, trying to work out what would happen.”

Ruthanna remembers many brides spoke of feeling guilty about how much their postponements and cancellations were affecting them when people were dying from the virus.

“What I’ve learned along the way is that people deal with loss in different ways — for one bride it will be a disappointment and to another a crushing blow.”

As wedding suppliers, the ability to make income is concentrated on a few core months and April was going to be a big earner for her. Covid supports naturally helped bring some sense of relief and calm, she said.

“Fast forward through May, June and July where I maxed out on family time, roamed the hills listening to Eckhart Tolle, and the garden was looking less like a wilderness.

“And when I started back to work in August it was very emotional.

“Standing in the kitchen with just the bridal party was surreal after months of social isolation. All the nerves and speculation about our new normal.

“I had completed upskilling make-up artistry courses online over lockdown but it was the IAFMA (Irish Association of Freelance Makeup Artists) course that provided me with the relevant knowledge to safely return to work in Phase 3 of the roadmap. This was excellent training and really made a difference to my confidence starting back to work.

“Hygiene is at the core of all that we do as professional make-up artists. There are a few extra precautions and more PPE required than before, but it allows me to work and the customer to feel safe while being made look her best.”

When she arrives at the door now, instead of greeting the family with a kiss or a handshake, it’s a muffled good morning through the mask.

There are some forms to be signed and a little more preparation in setting up, but from there the wedding morning is as it always was, she insists.

“It’s a morning filled with laughter and tears, love and friendship.

“Meeting suppliers on the wedding mornings again has also been fantastic, and there is a hunger for more brave couples that want to go ahead and have that unique intimate wedding.

“Every couple that I have worked with since August are thrilled they went ahead. But it has to feel right for the couple and their family.

“I am a die-hard romantic, I love the wedding morning. The nerves, anticipation, stress, excitement and all the plans coming together in one glorious day celebrating the one you love. It is the loveliest hobby that I am lucky enough to get paid for.”

******

Laura and Benny Benson, of Cobh-based Laura and Benny Photography MANY voices in the wedding industry feel they do not have strong representation. As larger lobby groups like vintners and hospitality voice their concerns, wedding suppliers are a layer behind those industries in the order of businesses re-opening.

That’s the feeling of Cobh-based husband and wife team Laura and Benny Benson, of Laura and Benny Photography.

“Wedding suppliers do not have business until venues are open and venues host weddings. All that needs to happen before suppliers such as bands, entertainment, photographers, videographers and many more get a chance to offer their services. Many are self-employed and are back of the queue in terms of their activities getting back to work,” they said.

Laura and Benny Photography
Laura and Benny Photography

Like so many other local suppliers, they were expecting a bumper year.

“In March we very much fought to keep things going but the reality of the seriousness of Covid became apparent quickly. We very much understood the importance of health outweighing the need for business. That was hard to accept initially, as your hard work of building a business is undone. We have, however, no interest in risking anyone’s health unnecessarily. We support the judgement of the scientific community in Ireland.” They’re now in a situation where revenues are down at least 70% and will most likely be down 80% by year end, but the couple are determined to keep a positive outlook.

“Through all that has happened in 2020, people are so resilient. There are some people still getting married, they might not have a big traditional wedding but they are still tying the knot. Additionally, newly engaged couples are already planning ahead to 2022.

“Wedding couples have had a rollercoaster of a year, particular those due to be married in March and April. People have had to make difficult decisions. Solutions range from cancelling weddings completely, postponing short term to the next window of opportunity or postponing long term. Under the gathering numbers restriction, people have got creative, hosting two day weddings, split same day celebrations, with some even having a small wedding now and planning the larger party for next year.

“Even if couples go ahead with smaller numbers, they are having great celebrations. It really is the people and characters who are there to enjoy the day that make the occasion, rather than a large number of people. Now, some people know a large number of great characters so we understand some might want to hold out for the big shin-dig.” They’ve also highlighted the support within their sector.

“It’s a very solid community. Suppliers regularly interact and have supported each other in making decision and working through difficulties. We really hope that weddings in spring and summer 2021 get the chance to happen.” Sandra Looney, To Have & To Hold, wedding planning, styling and prop hire, Kinsale Road.

SANDRA Looney, of wedding planning company To Have & To Hold, was facing 2020 with such confidence that she hired one new person on March 5, and another on March 11, bringing the team to four full-time, and three part-time workers.

“On paper it was looking like our best year yet,” she said.

Then, like businesses everywhere, they closed up on March 14 and moved operations to home, and since then it’s been an emotional rollercoaster. Sandra admits that she initially felt things would return to normal in a matter of months.

“In March and April, we were constantly talking to couples who were upset and totally confused. We were crossing things out and moving things to later in the year, thinking it would be fine by, say, July. We were quite naive really at the beginning.” But as time went by, the full reality of the pandemic became more apparent and Sandra reluctantly had to let staff go.

Sandra Looney, To Have and To Hold
Sandra Looney, To Have and To Hold

“It was exhausting. We were working in a vacuum a lot of the time. We didn’t know the answers ourselves and had nothing left in our own armour either. I found the best approach was to ask couples questions and help them to come up with answers for themselves. “ Couples are reacting in different ways, she says.

“Some still want the big fairytale day and they’ve moved out to 2022. On the flipside, others who had initially gone to 2021 are now saying they’re going to go ahead in just four weeks’ time and are getting on with it. In fact lots of couples are happy as they never wanted a big wedding anyway but had felt compelled to go along with it.

“What we’re seeing instead is these couples are increasing their spend on the ceremony. They may only have 25 people there, but they’re making it very special through the décor.” In fact, Sandra has cleverly pivoted her business in response to this desire for special touches: “We found people were always asking us where to get things like a bridesmaid gift or a ring cushion and we realised there was a real opportunity for us to build a space in this area. We used the Covid Local Enterprise Office trading voucher to launch our online shop, which is now open.” Sandra admits that it is exhausting, trying to stay a step ahead.

“I think our industry has fallen into a no man’s land and we’ve been forgotten. There’s lots of sympathy say for the hospitality sector but there are thousands working in our industry and we generate huge amounts of revenue but we’re falling between stools.” However, her main concern is for her brides, many of whom are in tears when they come to her: “A lot of them have been dreaming about this day forever. Lots of them want to start families, or may have older relatives to consider. It’s such an emotional rollercoaster but we’re here to take all that emotion out of it as best we can and look at all the practicalities.” She said the wage subsidy scheme had been helpful and that their focus is now on how to be ready for weddings in a post-Covid world.

“I feel smaller, intimate weddings are here to stay as restrictions will be with us for a while so we must adjust what we offer accordingly,’ she said pragmatically.

Claire Dilworth, bridal boutique Cinderella’s Closet, North Point Business Park 

THE past few months have been an emotional rollercoaster for Claire Dilworth of bridal and communion-wear boutique Cinderella’s Closet. This is her 10th year in business and it’s brought her more ups and downs than the previous nine combined.

Among the more tear-jerking experiences she’s encountered are families who have gone ahead and collected first communion dresses without even having dates for ceremonies. “It’s so their sick or elderly relatives can get to see the youngsters in their outfits,” said Claire.

When the pandemic broke out in March, her shop was full of communion dresses which were waiting for collection. At the time she also employed a team of nine. Having no other choice, she had to let them all go, which was ‘heartbreaking’, and set up shop in her kitchen.

“I was literally on the phone morning, noon and night, talking to customers, to brides, and trying to keep people calm,” she remembers.

It was made more difficult as Claire, from Carrigaline, was homeschooling her nine and 14-year-old children; and because of restrictions she was unable see another daughter and granddaughter living in Dripsey.

What was positive was that she was able to reassure parents that all communion dresses could be taken out two sizes, which was a massive relief, she said.

And now, with restrictions lifted somewhat, like lots of other suppliers, she’s finding that brides are increasingly deciding to go ahead with their plans.

“The feedback from the intimate ceremonies that have gone ahead has been incredible, including my own niece Cork Rose Stephanie McCarthy. Brides are advising others to do it,” she said.

Claire has been able to rehire her team, and although appointments are now vastly different to what they used to be, they’re still finding ways to make them as special as ever.

“It’s now just a bride and two guests at a time so there’s lots of people using Facetime and Zoom to involve everyone. We’re lucky we have good internet! Or if they come with a larger entourage, they wait outside, and there’s often tears through the window when they see the dress, which is a lovely moment,” she said.

Naturally, while restrictions were in place she was under some financial pressure.

“Brides pay 50% of the dress as a deposit, and the rest on collection. But lots of brides were ringing me up and offering to pay the balance there and then, not even knowing when they’d get the dress, which really brought a lump to my throat. It was a time of great uncertainty for smaller business and the support shown was incredible.” Claire also used the lockdown period to became the country’s exclusive stockist of Disney princess wedding dresses which she says was something she had been working towards for a long time.

“Lockdown gave me the time and opportunity to do this. It also helped me really build up great relationships with my customers as we were spending so much time on the phone to each other,” she said.

In an incredible show of generosity, and to mark her 10 year anniversary, she hosted a competition to gift a frontline worker a dress worth €3,000. The lucky person was Eveanna Kearney from Montenotte, a nurse in the CAMHS services. Eveanna is due to marry fiancé John next July

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