In sickness and in health: How Scotland's wedding sector has been fighting for survival

It’s an industry synonymous with joy, helping happy couples embark on married life in the presence of their nearest and dearest via nuptials filled with memorable moments.

But the wedding industry itself is one of many sectors to have instead endured despair and question marks over its viability as it tries to stay afloat in the turbulent waters of Covid-related restrictions.

More than 26,000 marriages were registered in Scotland in 2019, according to National Records of Scotland – but this more than halved to just under 12,000 in pandemic-afflicted 2020, including a mere 117 in the second quarter of the year.

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The industry has received some good news in the form of a £25 million fund unveiled earlier this year to prop it up, with 2,811 eligible firms receiving a slice.

The Scottish wedding sector was found in a survey to be losing £6.5 million a day. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto.
The Scottish wedding sector was found in a survey to be losing £6.5 million a day. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto.

And Nicola Sturgeon announced in the past week that as of tomorrow some restrictions will be loosened, comprising live entertainment at a wedding being permitted; suppliers and others employed at such an event no longer counting towards the cap on attendance; and nobody needing to wear a face covering while walking down the aisle.

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But for many in the sector it feels like much damage has already been done.

A demonstration took place outside Holyrood before the latest easing confirmation, organised by Pauline Borris, of LBS Event Design & Wedding Planners, and with participants sporting “no, sir, we can’t boogie” t-shirts, alluding to large crowds of Scottish football fans gathering for Euro 2020 matches.

However, under level two rules, for example, only a maximum of 50 people can attend a wedding.

"We just keep fighting, day in day out [for survival],” says Duncan McConchie, co-chair of lobbying group the Scottish Wedding Industry Alliance (SWIA), which was formed in November last year in response to the “crisis” facing relevant firms, and saying the sector was one of the hardest hit.

In February the alliance revealed how 95 per cent of the industry had been unable to trade viably for 15 months, was losing £6.5 million a day, and 12 per cent of venue-owners had tried or contemplated taking their own life.

“We may be called businesses, but we're real people,” says Mr McConchie.

“The stories we’ve ended up hearing have been just horrific – people losing absolutely everything that they ever knew as security, be that family, be that homes, their income, their businesses, just everything.”

The SWIA has also highlighted the expectation that 40 per cent of the industry will not trade profitably until April or May next year. Mr McConchie is himself a venue-owner – of Laggan in Dumfries and Galloway.

Conflict

"We’re an industry that's set up to deliver events full of love, [but] the conflict is that we've had to deal with day in day out, it's just been horrendous,” he says – although he acknowledges the firm has managed to diversify to help survive.

“However, many of us don't, and that must be so difficult.”

SWIA member Christian Orde is director of The Orde Food Company, a wedding and events caterer based in the Borders. He explains the business was started by his mother in 1979, and before lockdown had 11 full-time staff, but this has now fallen to five, having been unable to really adapt its offering.

It catered just four weddings last year – a fraction of its usual order book.

“Basically, I’ve spent the past year-and-a-half staring at a cashflow spreadsheet [wondering] when’s the money going to run out, what's going to happen,” he said.

Mr Orde said the authorities “have really not embraced how important a wedding is, which is just bizarre, because under the eyes of the law, marriage is such an important thing”. He said the wedding industry creates huge revenue and employment – but doesn’t get the “massive” government bailouts that have gone into other sectors’ coffers.

“I really can't see us being back at a level we were in 2019 until 2023/24,” he said. “It's gonna take a long time. You need to get the wheels moving again.”

The SWIA operates under the umbrella of the Scottish Tourism Alliance (STA), whose chair Stephen Leckie – also the chief executive of Crieff Hydro Family of Hotels – cites the enormous frustration experienced by those linked to and involved in the wedding sector.

Workload

His portfolio of hotels would usually host at least a couple of hundred weddings a year, with Crieff Hydro, for example, holding about 80.

But his team now has two dedicate about two-and-a-half times the number of hours compared to before Covid to arranging the average wedding, while most couples are on their third rescheduled date.

He also stresses the industry is “a big old business”, adding: “We shouldn't forget the people who supply weddings – the musicians, the bands, the photographers, the florists, the wedding dress companies ... these folk all rely on weddings for their trade.”

One firm for whom weddings are a key revenue stream is Edinburgh beauty salon That Rosie Glow.

Owner Rosie Fraser said: “In a normal year we would come out to over 30 weddings a year to provide make-up services. This is a huge part of our business so has had a great impact on our turnover with very little support of grants specific for this industry from the government.

“Many of the brides we have been speaking to at trials now are feeling very frustrated and saddened when they see events such as football and racing being allowed without these heavy restrictions.”

But she expresses delight, as does Mr Leckie, at seeing events resume – even with restrictions in place.

“To be a part of a bride’s special day and make them feel absolutely amazing, confident and glowing is so rewarding,” she said.

“We hope that weddings can get back to some sort of normality and the cancellations/rescheduling of wedding stops, as the industry really needs stability and support – now more than ever.”

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