Tactics — Elisabeth Kramer, day-of wedding coordinator

Jason E. Kaplan

The journalist-turned-wedding planner talks about what’s next for the industry

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In 2016 a couple of Elisabeth Kramer’s friends asked her to help plan their wedding.

At the time, Kramer was an editor at ParentMap, a Seattle-based parenting magazine. But she developed relationships with wedding vendors and her one-off gig became a side hustle, then a full-time job. Kramer was inspired in part by the fact that wedding planning was often lopsided, with women telling her things like, “I feel so behind, and I don’t want to do all these things.” Kramer’s LinkedIn profile describes her as “a journalist turned wedding planner who’s fighting the Wedding Industrial Complex.” Helping couples prioritize what they actually wanted to do with their weddings — along with setting realistic budgets and asserting boundaries with family members and guests — was Kramer’s forte.

Then 2020 rolled around. After the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Kramer found herself sifting through a confusing and ever-shifting morass of public health guidance and government mandates pertaining to gatherings — indoor and outdoor— and masking. None of the Oregon Health Authority’s published guidelines addressed weddings specifically, so Kramer took it upon herself to determine which regulations could and couldn’t apply in her industry and published her findings on her website. When regulations changed, Kramer made immediate updates, emerging as a resource both for engaged couples and for wedding vendors looking to keep their businesses afloat amid confusing guidance.

As this issue went into production, a federal court had just struck down the mandate requiring masks on public transportation, including airplanes — and Oregon’s mask mandates were in the rearview as well. Oregon Business spoke with Kramer about what the summer wedding season looks like as restrictions continue to shift.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How has the last year been?

I think it was more challenging than 2020. As a wedding planner, in 2020 it was in some ways a clearer equation. We had fewer options to gather because we didn’t have a vaccine. We didn’t have a lot of the tools that we have now. In 2021 we had more options: We had an effective vaccine and we had masks — we had all the things that we’ve used. In some ways, it made the picture more complicated, because now we had choices.

For weddings, something that people often forget is it was very hard to track what was legal. Nobody necessarily wanted to take accountability for something that was really fluid and challenging. It’s still very complicated.

During the pandemic, you emerged as the person who was keeping track of what was legal, as far as what would affect the wedding industry. How did that happen?

I worked as a journalist for the first five years of my career, so I know how to identify credible sources and I know how to track government documents. There was a level of accountability that was really important to me in this work, because there was a lot of misinformation. I saw a story and I found need among clients and other vendors. So I did what I did when I was working in newspapers, and I wrote a story about it. Did I know in May 2020 that I would track that story for two years — and I still do track that story — and update it somewhere between 30 and 40 times? Did I know I would have a list of hundreds of people following that, because they couldn’t find that information elsewhere? No, no idea. But that’s what happened.

Was it other vendors that have come to you, or was it couples who approached you to figure out what’s going to work for them?

For the legal stuff, a lot of times it has been vendors. Very understandably, couples look at their vendor team and they say, “Well, we don’t know. We don’t know what’s legal. Don’t you know?” They don’t say it from a place of malice. They just assume we know. But any wedding vendor will tell you, “I’m a wedding vendor. I’m not an epidemiologist.” That kind of passing the buck has been really challenging, because who’s accountable? I’ve also definitely heard from couples. I’ve had some really beautiful, honest conversations with couples, both in Oregon and nationally, around health and safe boundaries. I just had an email a few weeks ago with the question, “How do I pick between my ER doctor fiancé and my two bridesmaids who are choosing not to be vaccinated and who could get vaccinated?” I’m having lots of conversations like that.

I have heard from tons of vendors — typically in Oregon — that are like, “Your articles are the only way I knew when [restrictions] changed.” It sounds very grandiose when I say it, but I’m really glad to help. It helped me.

As you said, in the beginning, like in 2020, things were pretty clear. In 2021, when vaccines came out, a lot of us were optimistic. But then of course, that ended up being a much more complicated scenario. What’s the general mood now?

It’s important to note that in 2020 weddings were still happening. My infamous story is that in 2020 a couple threatened to sue me. They said, “Hey, we’re going to do this no matter what,” even though I had informed them that, legally, at that time you needed to wear masks to gather. They said no, and I said, “This isn’t for me then.” I think that’s important context. I was in a position — and this is very much my privilege — where I could walk away from clients, even when it was a huge financial loss for my company. I was in a place where I could do it because I live in a two-income household and my food and my housing are not dependent on my income alone. Lots of vendors could not do that and had to do illegal things, because what else were they going to do?

In the wedding industry, we say engagement season is usually between Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day. And there’s been a lot of buzz about 2022 being a boom year for weddings. And in January there was a lot of appetite, a lot of leads. But we were also dealing with omicron and trying to figure out what that would look like. As case counts and hospitalizations have gone down this spring, I find that, understandably, folks are more hesitant to talk about COVID. I think we are all tired of talking about it. But is that a good thing or a bad thing? I continue to have a lot of conversations about this: Are you telling your guests and your vendors what they’re getting into if they come to your wedding in person, so they can make choices and can consent to that situation? Right now in Oregon, there’s no legal forcing function to have these conversations.

I’m personally optimistic that this summer will be more joyful, with less death and disease, because people are vaccinated, because we have a lot of tools to use. But I think there’s still a lot of uncertainty.

Are there trends that have emerged in the last couple of years that you see continuing into the future? And are there trends that you think will probably sort of dissipate? What are you seeing so far?

I wish I had a cute answer, like, “Mason jars and fairy lights are here forever.” Optimistic Beth wants to tell you that the trend is boundaries. Planning a wedding has always been an exercise in boundary setting, although we don’t talk about that part a lot. When I hear from couples that they are requiring everyone at their wedding to be fully vaccinated, that’s a boundary that they’re setting. I want to see more of that, because I think it has so many beautiful effects for all of wedding planning — and for entire marriages. It’s that communication with your partner and the people in your life that make your relationship what it is.

Vendors, I think by necessity, have had to get even better at communicating their boundaries. The half-hearted joke I tell now is that I used to tell my clients, “I’ll do anything for wedding clients, including bury a body,” until I realized that that body could be my husband’s. If I went to work, and I brought COVID home and he got sick, I mean, come on. I could never forgive myself. I’ve had to personally get a lot clearer about what I am willing to do and not do. That is not always an easy match in the service industry. It’s in the title: We’re here to serve, and the customer’s always right. A lot of these stories we tell ourselves can be very damaging, and can really take for granted people’s labor, their safety, their families.

I’m seeing that push and pull a lot this summer. Optimistically, I want to think that the good thing is that we’re going to have safer, more joyful events — and safer not just from COVID. I want to think we’re getting there. This transitional phase we’re in right now, it’s not always easy, because I think people are not used to that level of conversation, particularly from people they’ve hired. I’m interested to see where that goes.

What are your general thoughts on the near future of your industry?

I feel like this has been so much doom and gloom — but I still love weddings. One of the most challenging things has been that a wedding has all these behaviors that were the exact ways that we give each other COVID: hugging and kissing and eating and dancing and singing and just being close with other people. These things that I myself have been craving, they’re all there at a wedding, and that’s what makes it special. What a joy that we can go back to that. I want to remind people that if we’re going to go to all that expense and all that time and all those boundary-setting conversations, that’s why it’s worth it. It’s much easier to feel that joy when we also feel safe.

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