2020 caused many businesses to innovate in the face of adversity. We celebrate those who refused to be beaten by the tsunami of bad news.
At this time of the year it is customary to reflect on the year just gone as well as looking forward with renewed optimism for the one ahead. It goes without saying that for most of us 2020 was simply about survival, both in terms of personal health and a business perspective. We all learnt to develop coping strategies for the "new realities" that confronted us at home, school and work. As we all hope and pray for a better 2021 I want to explore further the idea of ADAPTABILITY as being a defining theme for what has been the toughest of years and a reason for optimism.
On a personal level 2020 started out very much as planned, with great enthusiasm for the market information service we provided wedding professionals - What Brides Want. But like so many sectors, the wedding industry was quickly brought to a shuddering halt during the first lockdown and has struggled to recover ever since. Not surprising when tens of thousands of wedding plans were postponed or cancelled, and even when weddings were allowed they were a pale shadow of the 'typical' wedding with 80-120 guests. The subsequent tier-systems and winter lockdown only dampened any realistic hopes that the wedding industry would be returning to anything like "normal". But the wedding industry is only one example of the tough challenges affecting so many other sectors, such as hospitality, travel and tourism.
A good captain never learnt on calm seas
One of my favourite quotes is the one above - it seems to encapsulate not only the experiences of 2020 but also those of anyone runs any kind of business. As if to emphasise the point, the Office of National Statistics regularly report that 60% of SME's cease trading within 5 years. So while good planning is undoubtedly important for business success, there is also the need or ability for flexibility and being able to adjust to new market environments, trends, crisis, etc. Again using the sailing metaphor, while a sea captain can make all the necessary preparations and precautions for a safe journey - plotting a sensible route, checking weather forecasts, stocking plentiful suppliers - the real skill of captaincy comes when the "unexpected" happens. Nothing could have prepared any of us for the extremities faced this year - whoever plans for the effective closing down of their business sector?
And yet ......
despite all the disruption, disappointment and hardship there were many "beacons of light" that shone during 2020. Not only the fantastic dedication to duty from our health, care and key workers but the kindness of colleagues, neighbours and strangers. For many businesses too the pandemic acted as a catalyst for new innovation - adapting, repurposing or pivoting services and products. Restaurants started providing take-away services, schools/colleges introduced distance learning resources at short notice, high-street services developed online alternatives.
Adversity being the mother of invention.
For us, when it became inevitable the wedding industry was going to be affected long-term we decided to broaden the scope of our information service by launching the Wedding Industry Research Hub - a single place where wedding professionals could get primary and secondary market research data focused on the ongoing impact of Covid-19. We conducted a range of surveys covering the opinions, attitudes and behaviours of those involved - from couples having to re-arrange plans, to venues, wedding suppliers and planners - and collated all the latest news and media coverage. We knew market research couldn't stop or prevent the massive upheaval taking place in the sector, but it could provide a base from which suppliers and planners could see what was still possible in terms of their services and marketing.
With reduced wedding numbers it could be forgiven for thinking that many wedding professionals were hibernating or simply 'treading water'. However, within a matter of weeks of the lockdown being announced we were noticing lots of proactivity across the industry, of people and groups taking positive steps inspite of the shock waves.
Below are just some of the examples we came across as the year unfolded .....
Early into lockdown, wedding planners Bruce Russell and Tara Fey began hosting a twice weekly ‘whine, wine and realign’ sessions on Instagram Live for couples: “The idea was to offer a way to support couples who don’t have a dedicated planner or a trusted place to get information,” says Russell. In a similar vein, bridal boutique Maisie Darling decided to host a week-long virtual music festival for their clients and friends, involving over a dozen wedding musicians who were able to showcase their talents.
And while virtual wedding fayres had been muted for a few years it took the pandemic to kick-start their introduction, with a steady number now being advertised across wedding sites. Among the pioneers of the new genre in April were The Little Wedding Agent, with organiser Jessica Perry seeing them as a “good opportunity for suppliers to advertise their services and get their name out there while we’re not busy with weddings”. With the post-Christmas 2021 wedding show season due to start in January these virtual wedding events are likely to become a regular fixture on the wedding scene for some time to come.
Other suppliers began to adapt their existing service for the changed times. In May, couture bridal designer Phillipa Lepley described how she was now conducting virtual wedding dress consultations with her clients during lockdown.
“People often fall in love with a design on social media and we use that as the starting point of a discussion,” says Lepley, whose handmade-to-measure couture gowns usually require seven fittings over eight or nine months. Virtual consultations follow a similar format to face-to-face appointments: Lepley quizzes the bride-to-be about her vision for the wedding, her likes, dislikes and personal style.
“I’ll ask them to wear leggings and a vest top for the video call so I can get an idea of which shapes and silhouettes will best suit them,” says Lepley, “and then I’ll start sketching it out in front of them. It’s a very special process - they can see me designing their dream dress in front of their eyes.”
“From there we’ll create a pattern and the first toile. If necessary we’ll post a toile out and do a virtual fitting with a lot of guidance and instruction,” Lepley continues.
Lepley’s team post out fabric swatches and samples of embroidery and, once the design is confirmed, conduct a virtual fitting where they advise the bride-to-be on how to take the necessary measurements accurately.
“Our pattern cutters and seamstresses are still working from home, so we’re doing everything we can behind the scenes to make sure every dress is as ready as it can be for when we reopen. For brides who’ve had to postpone, we maintain that whenever they need their dress to be ready, we’ll pull out all the stops to make sure it is.”
In May we conducted a members' poll in The Wedding Industry Supplier Network which also revealed the extent to which many had been adapting to the challenges faced by the lockdown. The poll found 6 in 10 wedding suppliers had/were planning to launch a new product range or service during as a result of the lockdown, sometimes offering alternatives for wedding customers or trying to capture completely new audiences.
“I’m about to launch a new Heritage Collection of top quality pearl jewellery, more expensive pieces that can be future heirlooms … that’s the idea” (Jeweller)
“It’s not wedding related, but I’ve just launched a doorstep delivery package for school leavers and the interest has been crazy” (Suzanne)
“I’ve launched a new service – personalized music messages. I record personal messages and special songs into a unique video, a great alternative gift for people … and for sending to my clients with postponed weddings” (Wedding entertainment)
A good example of this drive to repurpose existing skills came from the award-winning Handmade Sign Co. Its owner Jenni Cabrelli created a stylish 80-page guide for DIY weddings, providing a comprehensive workbook giving couples the tools needed to create their own wedding signage at home, including tutorials, exercises and ideas. The new workbook is now a form of passive income alongside Jenni’s existing wedding signs and bespoke service.
Ingenuity in the face of a crisis!
Meanwhile, other suppliers began adapting existing services to take account of the cancellations and restrictions that were placed on weddings for much of the years. For example, Purely Bespoke Design came up with the idea of creating digital ‘Change the Date’ videos to music for couples to send to guests as a fun alternative to single images - estimates suggest that over 200,000 couples that had weddings booked for 2020 have needed to set new dates!.
Addressing the limitations on guest numbers for those weddings that did take place in 2020 wwas the company E-THERE who were offering couples the ability to live stream their 'micro ceremony' and celebrations to non-attending guests anywhere in the world. What started with zoom-inspired business meetings, is now passing through other sectors including entertainment and wedding services”.
We're all in this together!
While innovation and creativity is often seen as a business-specific or individual thing, this year also showed a strong level of comradeship across different sectors., particularly those hardest hit. One only has to think of the sterling campaign work that Kate Nicholls of UK Hospitality has undertaken in tirelessly for one of the hardest hit areas of the economy.
So too in the disparate wedding sector which until recently had no single voice to represent its multi-faceted constutent parts - venues, suppliers, planners, etc. Soon after the lockdown was announced a number of new online wedding support groups were established alongside a series of virtual summits. These virtual groups have now been formalised into the UK Weddings Taskforce (December 2020) which offers the prospect of a more co-ordinated lobbying platform for the industry in pushing for the 're-opening' of weddings as soon as practical.
However, the support and sharing of goodwill across the sector was also reflected by the scores of small businesses who offered FREE training and resources to help others adapt to the new realities. A prime example of this was James Garrett of HNE Media series of ‘How to’ videos, giving fellow suppliers lots of bite-sized practical tips for creating promo or ‘direct to camera’ videos - recognising its growing importance in the absence of wedding shows, showcases, etc. Likewise, Katie Lythe & Roxie Bond of the Wedding Industry Supplier Network produced a host of downloadable 'Guides' and 'Lives' to help support small wedding suppliers during this time, notably the increased role of social media.
Reasons to be cheerful!
So while few will remember 2020 with any fondness, the skill and ingenuity shown during the year are reasons for optimism. Many of the new services, products and forms of communication that have been honed during the various lockdowns and restrictions will mean many businesses may feel they are better placed to survive the choppy waters still ahead. More than ever may we recognise "a good captain never learnt on calm seas".
Happy New Year.
This blog was written by Robert Rayner (MA Marketing), founder of The Market Research Service and formerly of Wedding ConneXions and Accord Marketing & Research.
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