Heather Yurovsky, 28, recently got married at the Grove Isle Hotel, determined to have her dream wedding, complete with an enormous cake, a nine-piece band, fireworks, crystal candelabras and a sit-down dinner. But as both the anticipated and unexpected costs piled up — there was that sound system for the ceremony and her hotel room for the night — she decided that not even her closest friends could bring dates. One out-of-towner with a live-in girlfriend was told he’d have to arrive alone.
“It was weighing very heavily on me,” Yurovsky says. “But when you’re counting every dollar, you have to pick and choose, and the easiest thing to cut is the guest list.”
Yurovsky is typical of many brides today, say the hotels and banquet halls that cater to them. Though the economy is improving — spending on the average South Florida wedding grew by 2 percent last year — persistent unemployment and the slow pace of the recovery have caused couples to choose cautiously as they plan for the big day.
As a result, catering managers are sticking with strategies they developed during the worst of the economic down times to keep customer costs down and event bookings up. They’re steering brides to off-season — and less-expensive — summer dates, lowering minimum food-and-beverage spending requirements for use of their ballroom and sharing cost-cutting tips like trimming guest lists or menus.
Conventional wisdom says that weddings are recession-proof. And to a large degree, that’s true, says Kristin Koch, senior editor at a wedding website and magazine, The Knot. “Regardless of what is happening with the economy, your wedding is something people approach as a once-in-a-lifetime event.” Many are planned several years in advance.
But that doesn’t mean brides’ budgets didn’t shrink.
“We noticed that before the recession the word ‘budget’ came in later in the conversation or not at all,’ says Laurie Hitzig, catering director at The Four Seasons in downtown Miami. “But during the recession, everyone was on a budget — whether it was $20,000 or $200,000.”
By 2008 and 2009, many South Florida venues reported a decline in matrimonial bookings of 20 percent or more. For instance, the Hotel InterContinental in downtown Miami hosted about 30 weddings in 2008, but only 20 annually in the years that followed, hotel executives say. At the Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa in Hollywood, the number of weddings fell from 130 in 2006 to just 90 in 2008.
Meanwhile, hotels and traditional venues faced increased competition, both from pricey venues like the hip Herzog & deMeuron-designed parking garage at 1111 Lincoln Rd. in Miami Beach to natural alternatives, such as the beach.
In 2009, for instance, the number of couples getting wed on the open-air sands of Dania Beach — where the permit fee is a mere $150 — rose to 18 from 2008, when there were just eight who got married there.
Other competitively priced venues benefited as well.
Some of the trendy but cost-conscious are turning to warehouses, says Jose Zaldivar, president of Fiction Events.
“You can bring in your own food, your own liquor — it’s the whole idea of customization,” he says. Plus “budget-wise, it can make a huge difference for people.”
At Miami’s Jungle Island, business — and prices — remained even, says Ashley Serrate, the public relations manager. Though it isn’t as cheap as a beach permit, a four-hour event, including a name-brand open bar, a cocktail reception, champagne toast and a seated dinner starts around $71 per person — half or less of the price at many hotels. And, says Serrate, “who wouldn’t want to get married among the animals?”
Hotels and banquet halls have competed by offering more flexible prices over the past four years, says Melissa Davis, a party planner in Palmetto Bay who focuses on high-end events costing around $200,000. Hotels — which tend to impose a minimum spending fee for using ballrooms — lowered their levels of entry, she says. Banquet halls relaxed rental fees, as did the musicians and the linen companies.
During the free-spending days of 2007, hotels would firmly charge for extras — such as a midnight buffet with peanut butter and grilled cheese sandwiches — but during the recession years, they were happy to negotiate those catering features into the function for more reasonable cost increases, Davis says.
Hotels faced extra pressure to keep catering departments busy. In the aftermath of government bailouts, large corporations were discouraged from holding sales events and conventions at resort destinations such as Miami; budget-stressed families and couples curtailed vacations. Nationwide, hotel-room revenues plummeted by 20 percent in 2009 from the year before, according to Smith Travel Research.
“Hotels were forced to be aggressive and seek new sources of revenue,” says Robert Mandelbaum, director of research at PKF Hospitality Research in Atlanta.
During the decade between 2000 and 2010, national room revenues rose by 0.1 percent and food and beverage revenues rose by 1.6 percent, according to PKF. In 2010, banquet services made up 45 percent of the food and beverage sales category, with restaurants trailing at 30 percent. But comparing those two components — restaurants and event catering — the latter is much more profitable, thanks to economies of scale. While a restaurant will serve, say, 20 chicken dishes, 12 plates of lamb and two fish dishes, weddings call for 200 identical meals. Plus they involve a heavy sale of alcohol, which also pushes up profits.
“The budget for a wedding is on the high end of most catering events,” Mandelbaum says. The wedding business became particularly valuable because it often included not only catering fees but also out-of-town guests in need of somewhere to stay.
To keep business flowing, hotels and other venues offered value-added incentives that continue today.
The Westin Diplomat introduced cost-conscious clients to less-expensive dates — typically summer — that cut costs by 20 percent and more-economical menu items, for example, flank steak over filet can also cut down costs, says Carolyn Horton, director of catering.
“There’s always flexibility on our part,” she says “That’s how you keep business going.”
As brides such as Yurovsky trimmed their guest lists — in South Florida, the average wedding size fell from 105 guests in 2010 to 104 in 2011 (and nationally fell from 149 in 2009 to 141 in 2011) — the Four Seasons on Brickell Avenue in downtown Miami capitalized on the trend toward smaller weddings by suggesting its junior, 2,500-square-foot ballroom with floor-to-ceiling windows.
While the hotel still served its customary, high-spending clientele that poured champagne and caviar for 400 people, it found a new breed of bride looking to host an intimate, 100-person wedding, the Four Seasons’ Hitzig says. This helped the hotel capture business from perhaps slightly less-expensive locations that same bride might have otherwise chosen to host four times the number of people.
“Before the recession, we just didn’t see a market for this kind of small wedding,” Hitzig says. “But we got more business from this trend from someone who wouldn’t have considered The Four Seasons otherwise.”
The Four Seasons also sharpened focus on its reputation for attentive service by presenting prospective brides with flower bouquets when they arrived to tour the property. Staff throughout the hotel was alerted to a bride’s arrival and instructed to continuously offer congratulations. After visiting the ballrooms, the bride-to-be is taken to the hotel’s newly created Bridal Room — a suite dressed in white furniture, where classical wedding music plays continuously while a video stream shows dramatic footage of the ballroom’s transformation into a wedding site.
“The business of weddings is intangible,” Hitzig says. “We want to give the feeling, ‘If I get married here, I’ll be taken care of.’ It’s a way to showcase our level of service.” To sweeten appeal, Hitzig adds value such as upgrades on liquor or champagne vintages.
The Biltmore Hotel has long been a bridal favorite, thanks to its grand historic ambience. Even before the recession’s effects kicked in at full force, the hotel created an event-planning group — the Biltmore Event Division — initially designed as a luxury service handling flowers, linens, music and favors, says Joyce Gomez, the Biltmore Hotel’s director of sales. But because the division negotiates on behalf of the hotel’s some 100 brides a year, it actually was able to lower prices from vendors who prefer to sell in large quantities.
“We found more cost-conscious brides,” says Danielle Finnegan, the Biltmore’s public relations director. “But we were able to capture the business.”
Behind the scenes, many hotels reorganized staffing responsibilities to increase sales while making party planning more pleasant for guests. The 641-room Hotel InterContinental in downtown Miami, for instance, once assigned responsibility for working with the bride and groom to a member of the sales department. Now, after a couple sign the wedding contract, they’re connected to a catering professional for the rest of their pre-party planning.
“We realized that if the sales person doesn’t have to do that part of the job — working with catering, finalizing all the logistics for the event, doing a tasting — that person could focus on selling,” says Ana Maria Rego, director of meetings and event services.
The Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa’s catering director, Horton, says the Hollywood property implemented cross-training for employees. That means the hotel’s Service Express operators who answer the phone also learned to assist with reservations and other client questions — freeing up the front desk to help waiting customers. Also, because potential wedding clients — who are perhaps resort guests — ask event questions in early morning or late nights, the concierge desk has been trained to provide a small client questionnaire that can afterward be passed on to catering.
“We don’t want to miss any opportunity,” Horton says. “If it’s slow, you have to staff accordingly. And make sure the experience stays the same.”
In hotels, as in many businesses, employees cheerfully have taken on the additional roles, say those in the hospitality business. “The people whose jobs were retained were more receptive and attentive because they were fearful of losing their jobs,” says PKF’s Mandelbaum.
The strategies have worked. Nationwide, food and beverage swelled from an average of 25.7 percent of total hotel revenues in 2007 to an estimated 27 percent in 2011, according to PKF.
Though rates for hotel rooms have inched up, especially in tourist-friendly South Florida, where revenue per available room rose by 14 percent, according to Smith Travel Research, “the volume of revenue and patronage have not come back as quickly,” Mandelbaum says. Which means that for now, at least, most discounts and value-added packages will likely remain.
For event locations in South Florida, 2011 brought signs that the economy was on the upswing.
In South Florida, spending for the average wedding rose from $33,810 in 2010 to $34,465 in 2011, according to The Knot.
Locations across South Florida note that swarms of brides this year are requesting property tours, and many having gone on to sign the contracts that indicate increased revenues for 2012 and even 2013.
At The Signature Grand in Davie, CEO Arlene Peckora says, almost 1,200 brides have toured the expansive grounds and Mediterranean-style banquet facility since Valentine’s Day — a popular holiday to receive marriage proposals. And they’re doing more than just looking around. “We’ve noticed an upswing in new contracts and revenue,” says Peckora, who expects a 30 percent increase in revenues for 2012 over last year.
Thanks to the recession, Signature Grand comes into the invigorated wedding market with an improved facility and balance sheet. As costs dropped over the past few years, the facility replaced furniture and kitchen equipment and rebid contracts for landscaping, business equipment and maintenance service.
“We found the competitive marketplace made it possible to lower some expenses,” Peckora says. Thanks to the company’s solid financials, The Signature Grand even managed to negotiate a better mortgage with Capital Bank.
And in a sure sign that the business of the wedding planners is improving, permit requests for weddings on Dania Beach have dropped almost to zero, leaving the sands free for beachgoers of all sorts.