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Pandemic plunges couples into wedding-planning maelstrom

Pandemic plunges couples into wedding-planning maelstrom

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ST. LOUIS — Maura Weber started planning her wedding in January. She wanted plenty of time to get the details right, so she set the date for March of 2021.

Weber and her fiance, Matt Reid, booked the World’s Fair-era Franklin Room in Soulard after reading glowing reviews online. “It was distinguished,” said Weber, who lives in Oakville. “Everything else felt cookie-cutter.”

When the pandemic hit and many engaged couples got caught in a protracted limbo of abbreviated guest lists, postponements and cancellations, Weber and Reid felt lucky — and relieved. They had time.

An email in late July shattered their calm. “I opened it, and I was like, ‘No, I didn’t read that right,’” Weber said. “I think I read it four or five times.”

The Franklin Room had closed.

Of all the life milestones trounced by the coronavirus, weddings have arguably been dealt the most blows. The first bout of nuptial cancellations was mandated by the spring shutdown. Then came waves of uncertainty over safety protocols and crowd limits. Some couples are already in their second round of reschedulings, and available dates are becoming harder to find, as are photographers, florists, musicians and other vendors.

Longtime customs have all but disappeared from receptions: filling a plate from the buffet, schmoozing in front of the bar, even dancing the Electric Slide. Masks are now a gown and tux accessory.

Greg and Terri Launhardt, owners of The McPherson event space in the Central West End, wrote up a three-page directive on safety procedures before reopening in June. They added signs reminding guests to wear their masks and taped directional arrows on the hardwood floor in front of the bar. Everyone has their temperature taken upon arrival.

The venue is hosting just a fourth of the weddings it typically does; about two dozen couples have had to reschedule. Greg Launhardt is promoting Sundays as a cheaper, more available alternative as the calendar starts to fill again.

“We need to stop thinking inside the box,” he said. “People are pretty good about understanding this pandemic is a lose-lose.”

‘Not the best year’

But for couples who booked the Franklin Room, the loss feels lopsided.

First, they lost their venue. Then Michele and Doug Swaney, who owned the Franklin Room, said they couldn’t refund deposits, often worth thousands of dollars each. They went through their cash reserves paying bills when weddings were scrapped or pushed back, they told clients.

“The pandemic created a perfect storm of circumstances that eventually turned out to be insurmountable,” the Swaneys later said in a statement to the Post-Dispatch.

Jenn Halaz and Steve Coticchio of south St. Louis County had centered their budget around the venue. Save-the-date cards had been dropped in the mail when Halaz received the Franklin Room’s July 28 email declining to refund deposits.

Now, Halaz and Coticchio are $2,000 in the hole and spending their evenings visiting new sites and running the numbers.

“We’ve called around and most places are booked on Fridays and Saturdays,” Halaz said. “I’ll say it’s not the best year to plan a wedding.”

Halaz connected with other Franklin Room couples on social media; more than 50 events were left in the lurch.

At least 10 people have filed complaints with the Missouri attorney general’s office, which is opening an investigation.

Halaz and Coticchio had chosen the venue because they loved the neighborhood and the character of the two-story building, which dates to 1905. The price was good: $30 a person for their guest list of about 175. But the couple also felt at ease with the Swaneys. They were kind and attentive. They came with great reviews.

So the way everything played out was especially irksome.

“That’s the biggest thing: Call me and tell me what’s going on,” Halaz said. “They had been so nice the whole time.”

The building itself, kitty-corner from the historic Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, is owned by the Archdiocese of St. Louis. In early August, the Archdiocese began talks with Orlando Banquets and Catering to take over the commitments the Swaneys had made.

New deposits

Orlando’s operates three facilities in St. Louis County and caters for dozens more. The third-generation business has felt the pinch of the pandemic, furloughing kitchen workers and losing almost three-quarters of its usual summer income. Taking over the Franklin Room will help keep Orlando’s staff humming during the slowdown.

“Any event we can put on the books, that’s in the win column,” owner Sam Orlando said.

Orlando’s will lease what will now be called the Soulard Franklin Room on an event-by-event basis through the end of next year. So far, five of the Swaneys’ clients have rebooked there. About 40 others are still undecided.

Everyone is a little skittish.

“It’s really tough,” Orlando said. “As soon as we say we need a deposit, they cringe.”

A new, less-expensive “classic buffet” menu has been added as an option to ease some of the financial sting. And couples who were taken with the venue’s nostalgic charm — its 30-foot ceilings and original maple floors — are happy they can still celebrate there.

Weber and Reid, though, were ready to move on. When Weber found out the Franklin Room was closing, just two weeks after she had shown off the space to her maid of honor, she immediately started making phone calls.

Dozens of conversations later, she and Reid decided on Vin de Set, just a mile and a half away in Lafayette Square.

On Christmas Eve last year, when the pair got engaged, they knew that their lives together wouldn’t always be smooth. But they weren’t expecting the twists to come quite so quickly.

They have now regained their equilibrium. They are still looking forward to the same date, March 27, just with new surroundings and the Vin de Set staff at the helm.

“They have turned what was a train wreck back into a very special day for us,” said Weber. “We could not be more grateful.”

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