Smaller weddings, bigger price tags: How COVID-19 started a new trend in weddings

Hayley Bick's summer wedding was picture-perfect – but smaller than she imagined it to be. 

She and her husband, Joe Bick, exchanged personalized vows on a Virgin Islands beach last August. Once the two shared their first kiss as husband and wife, cheers erupted – not from the 150 friends and family they had originally planned to invite to their wedding ceremony, but from a group of vacationers wading in the ocean nearby. 

Hayley and Joe Bick on their wedding day in August 2020 in the Virgin Islands.

The San Diego-based couple had been looking forward to a larger wedding in Ontario, Canada, but pivoted to an island ceremony without guests after the pandemic foiled their plans. They're set to have a second ceremony with guests once the Canadian border reopens to nonessential travel, but Bick said she was happy with their initial wedding. 

"We were smiling the whole time," Bick said. "It was nice to not have the pressure of other people there. … I'm just here with Joe, and at the end of the day this marriage is about us, and who's going to be here at the end of this all? It's going to be me and him."

Industry experts say many couples opted for smaller, more intimate celebrations – sometimes referred to as microweddings – after the coronavirus pandemic upended their wedding plans.

The trend is expected to outlast the pandemic, but don't let the size fool you into thinking couples are spending less on weddings.  

"Weddings are expected, in general, to cost a little more on the other side of the pandemic," said Meghan Ely, president of the nonprofit Wedding International Professionals Association. "It's a matter of supply and demand."

►Did COVID-19 postpone your marriage? Here's where to have an unforgettable small wedding

►Wedding planning:10 things you need to plan the perfect microwedding

Microweddings: A long-lasting trend

The coronavirus pandemic shut down businesses, upended travel and placed many people's lives at a standstill.

Nevertheless, weddings persevered.

A recent report from The Knot found 93% of more than 7,600 surveyed engaged couples didn't cancel their 2020 wedding celebrations altogether. 

"We saw a lot more people do that last year, just decide not to put life on hold," said Liene Stevens, CEO of wedding business consulting firm Think Splendid.

Meghan and Dan Glewen on their wedding day in June 2020 in Milwaukee.

About 96% of the surveyed couples modified their plans in some capacity. Some, like Meghan and Dan Glewen of Milwaukee, had to cut down their guest lists to follow local health and safety protocols. The couple had just 10 immediate friends and family members at their wedding last June. 

"It's not what I envisioned, but it was very special. … If I didn't do anything on that day, it would have made me really sad," Meghan Glewen said. "I'm glad we went through with it."

Glewen is preparing for a second ceremony in November to celebrate her marriage and a "return to normalcy." The original guest list has been cut down since planning first started two years ago, from about 280 to 240.  

"Part of it is people we've lost touch with when you're waiting two years," she said, and "I just learned to be more simplistic. Looking at the guest list, (deciding) who are the most important people that we want to be there."

For Nichelle Finley, who married R&B singer MAJOR.  (née Major R. Johnson Finley) in August, scaling down their wedding was somewhat of a relief. The Los Angeles-based couple had intended to invite more than 300 people to the ceremony near Houston, but cut down the list to 88.

Major and Nichelle Finley at Sandlewood Manor near Houston, Texas on Aug. 8, 2020.

"I think the intimateness of having a smaller wedding can just be really special," Nichelle Finley said. "I wouldn't have changed a thing, looking back at the photos and the memories that we had. ... Other than the masks, you wouldn't have been able to tell that it was a wedding during the pandemic. It was just so beautiful."

There were other changes made to the ceremony after the pandemic began in the U.S. The couple had custom masks made,ensured guests were socially distanced, and showed pre-recorded messages from friends who couldn't attend – including singer Stevie Wonder, a mentor to Major Finley – during the ceremony and reception.

R&B singer MAJOR. (née Major R. Johnson Finley) poses on his wedding day at Sandlewood Manor in Tomball, Texas.

MAJOR. – who sings the popular wedding song "Why I Love You" – called it the greatest day of his life.

"The beauty of this pandemic, (which was) so devastating in many ways ... it called for a true stillness," he said. "(It was) basically mandating everyone to be present. And that was our greatest gift we had on that day. We were able to be present. And it was an experience I can't trade for anything."

Major and Nichelle Finley at Sandlewood Manor near Houston, Texas on Aug. 8, 2020.

►Best wedding gifts:50 best wedding gifts of 2021

►Wedding gift cost:Here's how much you should spend

Other couples, like Angie Moen and Brian Wehrman of California, planned for a smaller wedding from the get-go. They're set to marry this month at Calaveras Big Trees State Park in Arnold, California, with just 23 guests.

The couple originally planned to invite twice as many people, but changed plans after several family crises emerged over the past year. Wehrman's mother died last winter as Moen and Wehrman were recovering from the coronavirus. And Moen's mother, who has dementia, entered a care facility. 

"We both came through that, and, honestly, that kind of encouraged us to move up our date," she said. "We wanted to keep it a little more simple and a little more focused on immediate family since we've been through stresses and losses." 

According to The Knot's findings, about half of the wedding receptions during 2020 had 50 people or fewer in attendance, and nearly a quarter had fewer than 25.

Ely believes smaller ceremonies are here to stay.

How much will post-pandemic weddings cost?

The Knot found the average wedding last year cost $19,000, a 32% drop compared with the $28,000 average in 2019.

But wedding prices are expected to rebound quickly, in large part due to skyrocketing prices in the supply chain.  

"Weddings will cost more than they did pre-pandemic because the cost of certain goods has gone up," Stevens said. 

Certain vendors, including florists and caterers, raised prices as the wedding industry picks back up.

►Wedding tips:10 things you need to plan the perfect micro-wedding

Wendee Sawran, an event and floral designer based in Austin, Texas, said prices for wedding floral arrangements have gone up "at least" 30% to 40%.

High-quality flowers and other products have been hard to come by, and what Sawran can find has gone up in price. Labor costs have also gone up, she said.

While new customers are seeing the higher prices, Sawran is trying to keep costs steady for the couples who arranged for flowers before postponing their wedding date, which means part of those increased prices are coming out of pocket for her business. 

"Clients have come to expect a certain price, and it's hard to justify what they normally see as a $250 bouquet, now it's $350, $400," she said. "It's crazy trickle-down effects."

Meghan and Dan Glewen on their wedding day in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Trip Wheeler, President of SB Value, a group purchasing program that works with wedding caterers, said catering prices have also shot up amid the pandemic and hurt "every aspect of the supply chain."

He's optimistic that the dramatic price increases will be relatively short-lived.

"The pandemic was a year long, this pricing I don't think will be much more than a year at worst," he said. "It will be 2019 comparable. But it's going to be a little rough until then."

A 2020 American Wedding Study published by Brides website found 26% of more than 4,000 survey respondents who had postponed their wedding planned to spend more on their delayed ceremony.  

Couples who had to postpone weddings into 2021 or 2022 could avoid feeling the pinch of rising prices if they had contracts that locked in their initial price offer. Glewen, with a 240 guest list, said she'll still pay the prices set during initial discussions more than two years ago. 

Stevens added that while costs are rising and some couples are increasing their budget, she believes overall spending has remained relatively stable, with couples changing how they allocate their money.  

"People saved their money, and they want to spend it," she said. "There are groups, especially now, who are saying, 'We're not going to let 2020 define us, and we're not going to let it take anything else from us.' "

This story was made possible by USA TODAY readers.