Wedding planners adapt to COVID-19 era with elopements, smaller ceremonies

Officiants and event coordinators across Tampa Bay are seeing couples tie the knot in small gatherings now, with plans to delay bigger celebrations.
Jazmin Espada, left, and Amanda Grau, right, married at Grau's mother's home during the pandemic, in a small wedding officiated by Nan Klater.
Jazmin Espada, left, and Amanda Grau, right, married at Grau's mother's home during the pandemic, in a small wedding officiated by Nan Klater. [ Courtesy of Jazmin Espada ]
Published Nov. 27, 2020

Amanda Grau always dreamed of a big wedding with all her family and friends there to celebrate with her.

With the pandemic resurging, she and Jazmin Espada exchanged vows during a more intimate ceremony inside the Tampa home of Grau’s mom.

“I could’ve gotten married at Walmart and it wouldn’t have mattered because I do love Jazmin very much and I wanted to marry her,” Grau said.

COVID-19 has brought a halt or at least a delay to large gatherings, including weddings. But some couples aren’t waiting.

While the pandemic has all but shuttered the wedding industry, it has had the opposite effect for those who specialize in smaller, more private ceremonies and celebrations. Some wedding planners are adapting and even thriving.

With even the Hillsborough County courthouse closed for wedding services, couples have turned to Nan Klater.

She takes them to her studio, the beach and, until the novelty wore off, to Corona Park in South Tampa to tie the knot. Or in the case of Grau and Espada, she set up in the living room.

“This is my busiest year ever,” said Klater, who’s been a certified notary for about 20 years.

In a normal year, she’d facilitate about 80 weddings. But this year, she’s officiated about 170 elopements and small ceremonies.

Whether finding ways to offer services to couples looking to shrink the size of their ceremonies, or rebranding altogether, wedding businesses have changed their focus, offering elopements, “micro-weddings” and even virtual ceremonies. This has allowed planners to stay involved in their clients’ weddings as they postpone bigger events.

Shifting strategies

Rev. Angel Luis Rodriguez, who officiates weddings with Cherished Ceremonies Weddings in Tampa, said in the past, couples would often include a few guests when they eloped.

“Now, they’re cutting that,” he said. Instead, Rodriguez said, more couples are choosing to get married without any guests at all.

Victoria King, who co-owns Royal Events and Services in Tampa with Ashanti Mock, said many of her clients already had their marriage licenses when the pandemic began. Since they expire within 60 days, the couples had to marry or risk forfeiting their licenses. So, King helped facilitate elopements for several couples and estimates she’s helped plan about a dozen elopements since March.

“The pandemic can cancel a lot of things,” she said. “But it cannot cancel love.”

Victoria King prepares for a micro-wedding with other members of Royal Events.
Victoria King prepares for a micro-wedding with other members of Royal Events. [ Courtesy of Victoria King ]

King offers three packages: a simple elopement, with flowers for both spouses, a ceremony that includes an arch and decor and a full ceremony for those who wish to include guests. This year, she’s planned about 10 micro weddings.

Although many of her clients have canceled their large weddings, Rima Shah of Big Guava Events in Tampa has also found ways to help make sure the couples’ special day is stress-free. Many of her clients are South Asian, she said, and normally would have weddings with 200 or more guests. Now, they’re getting married at home with just a priest and immediate family, postponing a bigger reception until next fall or spring of 2022.

Still, Shah has been helping these couples with their home weddings, in particular, coordinating set up for the ceremony beforehand, and clean up afterward.

“I hate when I see parents or bridesmaids or family or whatever, working when they’re supposed to be enjoying the wedding,” Shah said. “We make sure that they have everything that they need.”

New businesses are born

Other wedding planners have found opportunities for new business concepts, helping couples find creative ways to connect with loved ones while still moving forward with smaller, more socially distant weddings.

In March, Kristina Houser, a photographer who often works weddings, was scheduled to get married herself. Her friend, Jillian Bartosiak, a wedding planner, was helping her with the ceremony. The friends started talking about ways to facilitate safer ceremonies, not just for Houser, but for their clients as well.

“With all the stress of COVID, and everything that was going on, we just wanted to make it as easy as possible,” Bartosiak said.

Out of those conversations was born MiniMony Weddings, a micro-wedding planning service. Throughout the day, Bartosiak and Houser help facilitate 90-minute ceremonies and cocktail hours for couples with 25 or fewer guests. The package includes the venue, planning, photography and videography, as well as decor, a DJ, an officiant and food. Couples can also opt for a three-hour ceremony at the end of the day.

Virtual weddings are also an option in the Tampa Bay area. When the pandemic hit, Ilana Karcinski and Kelly Maronpot of FairyTail Pet Care — which has locations in Florida, Georgia, Illinois and Pennsylvania — began to coordinate Zoom weddings. Their initial business, founded five years ago, focused on helping couples integrate pets into their weddings. But with COVID-19 spreading throughout the nation, they wanted to find a different way for couples to connect.

A Zoom wedding that Kelly Maronpot and Ilana Karcinski coordinated during the pandemic.
A Zoom wedding that Kelly Maronpot and Ilana Karcinski coordinated during the pandemic. [ Courtesy of FairyTail Planning ]

While couples get married in person, sometimes with a handful of guests, they have hundreds of other guests watching online. Though many people associate the platform with work, Karcinski said she wanted to make the weddings special. Throughout the ceremony, she’ll spotlight different guests on Zoom to give toasts, and then divide guests into breakout rooms, taking the couple to the different rooms to speak with them.

“At the end of the wedding, all the people that are speaking are saying how surprised they were that it felt so intimate and special, and that they really felt like they were a part of this,” Karcinski said.

Grau, 37, and Espada, 43, originally planned to get married in 2021. However, they began to worry about the future of marriage equality under the Trump administration, particularly after Trump rescinded healthcare protections for transgender people on the anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting, of which Grau is a survivor. So, they decided to get married in a pandemic-era wedding of just 12 people, where Klater officiated.

Espada walked into the ceremony to Christina Perri’s A Thousand Years. Grau entered to Train’s Marry Me.

In talking about their wedding plans, Grau said she and Espada came to a shared realization.

They decided it wasn’t important how many guests attended their wedding. What was important was the love the two share.