Celebrated intern, Isabel Thornton, was lucky enough to attend a Zoom meeting with the incredibly talented women who created the Small Wedding Society, a new business that aims to arrange a society of planners and vendors in order to increase small weddings in various locations throughout the U.S. Amy Nichols from San Francisco, Beth Bernstein from Chicago, Gretchen Culver from Minneapolis, Valerie Gernhauser from New Orleans and Wendy Kay from Dallas, combined forces during the COVID-19 pandemic to make sure brides and grooms across the country could still get married. Holding true to their motto “marry now, party later,” these top wedding planners are doing whatever it takes to keep the wedding industry on its feet and find a sense of normalcy amidst the chaos of the world today.

Wedding Date: April 18, 2020

Caitlyn Milligan & Garrett Micklin
Wedding Planner: Minimal Matrimony
Photographer: Rachel Madelyn Photo @rachelmadelynphoto
Follow the bride on IG @milliganmovement

Isabel: How did you all come together to create the Small Wedding Society? 

Valerie: We already knew each other through different conferences that we’ve all attended — we’re actually all part of a mastermind group that came together through a business-building webinar course. We’ve been together for around four years and what’s interesting is that we always have had this synergy between all of us and our various markets. Right before COVID happened, Gretchen was weighing options about what her next move was going to be and had already done some of the legwork on researching small weddings. Once the pandemic hit, putting us all at home, we were on these weekly “happy hour” Zoom calls just to stay in touch with each other. We drank and talked and then we said “You know, I think this is a reality that we’re going to be faced with. What if weddings just don’t look like they used to for 2020? What are we all going to do?” Gretchen said that she could see how this small wedding platform can really transition to what we’re going through in the industry as a whole. We dove all-in working on our businesses and talking about how this was going to work. Just before we all launched our respective businesses on the same day, Beth said “Why don’t we start our own group — a larger group of planners to do this everywhere?” We said, “Let’s do this, this makes perfect sense,” and that’s how Small Wedding Society came to be. 

Isabel: How many people have come to you all directly for small weddings since the pandemic began and are they all within your respective markets?

Beth: It’s been really interesting because we’re all in different geographic regions and we’re all bound by the restrictions of our states and cities, so weddings are really starting to fall in line with the government regulations. Amy and I have had fewer bookings due to the greater restrictions in Chicago and San Francisco. 

Wendy: For almost every person that has reached out to me, and certainly the people that already booked weddings, this was something that they wanted to do anyways; they just needed permission to do it and someone who was offering it. There was a huge gap in the market of these types of weddings and couples didn’t know they existed. People have really jumped on it since this became a thing that they can actually do. None of my bookings are people who have been displaced by Coronavirus — they’re couples who have been wanting to do this anyway. It’s good for the couples because they get to share the cost of a wedding day with other couples who all have their own time slots. It’s not as much work on our end as it would be had we been planning a wedding for a year — that’s a lot of hours that we put in with one couple. This is not custom, it’s whatever we want to do — the couples just show up, get married, have some cake and champagne, get some really great photos, and go on their way. We make a profit off of it to keep ourselves and our vendors going, plus the couples get what they want, so it’s kind of a win for everybody. 

Isabel: What are some of the requirements needed for a small wedding during this time and how have things shifted? 

Amy: The way that we’re defining micro weddings is that they have fewer than 30 guests, they’re 90 minutes — 15 minutes for the ceremony, followed by about 30 minutes for cake and a champagne toast and then 30 minutes for a portrait session — and the weddings are spaced out by two hours, happening at set times throughout the day. There is not a sit-down dinner component, there is not a cocktail reception, there’s no dancing and someone can say a couple of words but it’s really not meant to have toasts either. 

Wendy: From a safety standpoint with Coronavirus, all I’m really adjusting is having my couples send me their guest list partitioned by family so I know how many seats to cluster together for the ceremony. I’m also doing mini cakes for each person so we’re not slicing into one big cake — we’re just giving everybody their own miniature cake to eat. The champagne will be in individual cans for everyone as well in order to keep things clean. The plan right now is to also switch out the linens on the cocktail tables in between and wipe everything down. So with these micro weddings it’s going to be a lot easier than it would be with a mini wedding, which we’ve classified as 50 guests or less and more like a traditional wedding. That is going to be a lot heavier when it comes to those regulations. 

Valerie: The point of the mini wedding is for clients who are looking for the meal component in addition to the ceremony, which contemplates us being in a different phase of COVID. I’m projecting that in early fall we will be in a place where, if things go well this summer, we can actually start opening things back up so that mini weddings can take place. My solution for couples is that they can have their big parties next year, and still have the ceremony in a micro wedding format to get that done. Or they can do a small celebration in the form of a mini wedding and then celebrate on their anniversary the following year. It’s a little something for everyone. I’m seeing that there’s a lot of clients who wanted a small wedding anyway but didn’t have a way to explain to their parents or friends what this desire looks like. The expectation in society is that the big wedding is the thing that is desirable. However, the focus here is on the actual marriage itself.

Beth: We’re trying to get larger venues so we can spread out. We’re trying to be creative and flexible with the venues that we’re using so we can modify the space according to the guest count and the restrictions. 

Isabel: How many wedding planners and vendors have been reaching out to all of you and is the Small Wedding Society getting the recognition you planned and hoped for?

Wendy: We have 75 applications just to look at after this call and some of us have even coached people prior to creating the application process. I’ve already coached one planner from Connecticut and she’s on the Small Wedding Society website and is booking weddings. We have somebody in Birmingham who is also doing that. 

Beth: We’ve also seen so much outreach from our local vendors wanting to do our micro weddings. It’s not just other people from around the country wanting to join the Small Wedding Society. We were all so pleasantly surprised by the fact that our vendors, who we have built relationships with, reached out to us saying they want to partner with us on this. I haven’t even booked as many dates as I have venues that want to host them. 

Isabel: How can the Small Wedding Society impact the local wedding planners and vendors on Cape Cod who may be struggling during this crisis? Has anybody from Cape Cod already reached out to the Small Wedding Society?

Valerie: We definitely have had some planners from Cape Cod reach out already. The coaching that we do through Small Wedding Society is really beneficial. We want to extend ourselves as a resource to any wedding planner in any market around the country and coach them on how they can position themselves to better serve small weddings. We don’t claim that we’ve invented small weddings, but the micro wedding model and the way that we’re doing it now does take some nuance in the way we normally do weddings. Negotiating with the vendors and the venues is another point of  conversation that hasn’t happened on a mass scale before, and we are all here because we’ve had those conversations — we thought through everything when we were supporting each other. We can extend that knowledge onto Cape Cod venues and vendors and tell them what they need to think about in order to be resilient in this time and then thrive afterwards. 

Isabel: What are your long-term goals for Small Wedding Society? Do you think it will continue to be an integral part of the wedding industry once the pandemic is over?

Beth: I don’t think things will ever go back to how they were fully — there is going to be some sort of change. This is really answering the problem that couples have had since day one: it’s not just because of COVID, it’s couples wanting to elope or have a very small wedding but receiving criticism from their parents. Small weddings are appeasing all parties by having just the essentials and elements that couples need in order to make everyone happy. I think it’s a solution that people will look to — it’s giving couples permission to have the wedding that they’ve always wanted.

Wendy: All of the people reaching out to me either already have a child, are older couples, are millennials that have crippling student debt but still want something nice, want to buy a home instead, or just want to spend all their money on traveling. A small wedding is what they wanted anyways, so I definitely see this going on beyond now.