Santa Cruz’s outdoor wedding boom: After the pandemic pause, demand for that special place, day is surging

Outdoor is everything these days when it comes to weddings.
(Via Paige McQuillan / Ashley Rae Studio)

After a period of uncertainty that put traditional large weddings on hold, couples and those who help them put together the perfect day are finding creative ways to make things safe and special. Lookout turned to the experts to see what was going on.

While some couples held tiny backyard and Zoom ceremonies in 2020 — hardly most people’s dream wedding scenario — the post-lockdown stage of the COVID-19 pandemic has created a wedding-industry bottleneck effect.

Weddings scheduled for last year are getting rebooked while the market for new ceremonies is simultaneously booming. It’s resulting in double-booked venues and vendors juggling more requests than ever before.

“It’s the busiest I’ve ever seen it right now,” says wedding planner Paige McQuillan.

And the couples at the center of it all are grappling with ongoing safety precautions and concerns about COVID-19 variants, vaccination protection and everyone’s favorite topic: masking.

Outdoor zones have become all the more popular as wedding venues.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

In the midst of it, though, they are getting creative in finding ways to feel comfortable and safe without sacrificing the meaning they envision for their big day, whether that’s a casual afternoon park picnic wedding with closest family and friends or electing to exchange vows on the O’Neill catamaran, which accommodates only 49 people including vendors and children, with cocktails and a self-serve taco bar.

Keeping it small, outdoors, and local seems to be the post-restriction — but definitely not “post-pandemic” — vibe. “A lot more people are getting married in backyards,” McQuillan says. “It’s become a trend.”

In order to get a better idea of how everyone involved in the wedding process is dealing with the constraints, we went directly to the sources.

The Bride & Groom

Graham Freeman and Steph Wells.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Steph Wells and Graham Freeman are part of the unique group that found love — and each other — during the pandemic.

There were long email exchanges and Zoom calls, then outdoor dates that included bike riding, kayaking, cooking, yurting, hammock lying, kite flying. “Cue the romantic montage,” Wells said via email. “Oh, except this romantic montage also included masks, hand sanitizer, wildfires, racial injustice, protests, and the lead-up to an extremely contentious and divisive election season.”

The couple got engaged five and a half months into their relationship and are planning a pandemic-safe and stylish afternoon wedding, to take place in a state park grove, nestled among redwoods. Games and crafts will replace drinking and dancing.

“We decided to do something small,” Wells says. “We were originally thinking 30 people, just our closest family and friends.”

We decided to do something small. We were originally thinking 30 people, just our closest family and friends.

— Steph Wells

The couple has since opened it up to 60 guests, given vaccination rates among them and the safety of the outdoor venue. They also opted for an alcohol-free event. Otherwise, they’d need to have a ranger present, meaning extra cost and a stranger with a gun at their wedding.

On Wells and Freeman’s wedding website, they posted a message unimaginable in the “before times” that sums up the gist of Weddings 2021: We know many of you are vaccinated, and we’ll be outdoors, but the kids are not yet vaccinated, and the variants create uncertainties. So we still need everybody to commit to distancing or wearing masks when distance can’t be maintained. Thank you for your loving help with this.

Ultimately, the reason for the occasion is most important. “I’m most excited about marrying Steph,” Freeman says.

The Officiant

Rabbi Paula Marcus.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“The emotional impact of postponement has been incredible,” says Rabbi Paula Marcus of Temple Beth-El. “There’s grief around what people had envisioned for their ceremony, letting go and doing what’s practical in the end.”

As an officiant, what Marcus has noticed is the way rituals have been upended, people reevaluating what is truly necessary. She’s seeing a trend of smaller processionals, with fewer people walking down the aisle.

“There’s a certain element of reality to the ceremonies that I’ve been doing,” she says. “During COVID we talk about how we are celebrating right now but the whole world is experiencing some brokenness.”

During COVID we talk about how we are celebrating right now but the whole world is experiencing some brokenness.

— Rabbi Paula Marcus

And the ceremonies themselves are truncated, but she doesn’t see that as a problem. “A Jewish wedding is not long anyway, about half an hour, any longer than that and you lost ‘em.”

Marcus has found particular resonance in the Jewish wedding tradition of breaking a glass at the end: “I’m grateful we have this in Jewish ritual. A lot of times people there as guests or families themselves have lost people to COVID or illness and they haven’t been able to fully grieve.

“Rituals of weddings, funerals, have all been upended and circumscribed so to be able to name grief in a way that hasn’t been acknowledged is powerful. That’s the whole nature of the wedding, it’s about the circle of life and committing to be together in the joy and the sadness. That’s what we are signing up for in getting married.”

The Wedding Planner

Paige McQuillan.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Environmentally conscious wedding planning is Paige McQuillan’s specialty, and her vantage point provides a bird’s-eye view into what’s going on in the post-restrictions wedding world.

“Now everyone’s going crazy,” she says.

McQuillan has run Paige Events for four years, and being newer to the industry, she isn’t experiencing the same domino effect of not being able to take new bookings because everything from 2020 is happening now: “I had a lot of open weekends and didn’t have to rebook hundreds of weddings. Now I’m completely booked up.”

Friends of hers who have been in the industry longer, she notes, “couldn’t take any new weddings” because of pandemic rebookings. “People who wanted to get married this year can’t because last year’s weddings are taking all the spots.”

People who wanted to get married this year can’t because last year’s weddings are taking all the spots.

— Paige McQuillan

As a wedding planner, she now has to be attentive to new details, such as seating arrangements based on COVID comfortability. “The majority of weddings are asking unvaccinated people to wear masks. Some weddings have wristbands representing comfortability,” she says. “A red wristband would mean, ‘Wear a mask if you come up to me,’ yellow, ‘I’m comfortable being approached by vaccinated people,’ and green, ‘I’m vaccinated and comfortable talking with anyone.’

McQuillan is also making table arrangements based on COVID comfort levels. People who are more cautious might opt to be seated at a two-person table, or a vaccinated family might sit together at a table: “Table arrangements are definitely different this year. We’ve started doing assigned seating for ceremonies, too.”

In the midst of it all, McQuillan is planning her own wedding. “I’m a planner, so how do I not turn myself into planner mode on my wedding day?” She’s keeping her organizing impulses quite literally at bay, considering the low-key setup of an O’Neill catamaran wedding so that she can “have everyone else run everything for me.”

The Florist

Sharon Schneider.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Wedding florist and Flower Bar co-owner Sharon Schneider currently receives, she estimates, 15 inquiries per week for her availability of one wedding per day on weekends. (That’s 60 requests alone for 10 bookings in the month of October.)

“The uptick this year has been an issue,” Schneider says, “pushing people out of their venues.”

She points to this wedding-industry upheaval as affecting venues in particular: “They’re double-booked left and right. All weddings last year were pushed to this year. I recently had one at one location and they double-booked, so [the couple] had to find a new spot.”

Right now Schneider is seeing engaged couples choosing to keep weddings outside. “It’s nice for people to gather again and be comfortable outdoors. The area permits that anyway.”

It’s nice for people to gather again and be comfortable outdoors. The area permits that anyway.

— Sharon Schneider

In the past week, Schneider booked three October weddings. “It’s the Santa Cruz summer.” December is quickly filling up, too.

In addition to being a florist for weddings, bridal shower business is beginning to boom in the Flower Bar brick-and-mortar space downtown. “Brides and bridal parties do their own wedding flowers in a comfortable, safe space where they can be creative and get direction. It’s a good way for people to learn about flowers, come together, and have fun. We have truffles, food, wine and champagne. They can leave their mess here and we will deliver their flowers.”

The Band

Papiba Godinho on guitar.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“Our work stopped,” Papiba Godinho of SambaDa and the Papiba & Friends trio says of playing weddings — or anything other than virtual concerts streamed from his capoeira studio — in 2020. “It dropped from busy to nothing.”

He estimates half of his business before COVID used to come from wedding gigs. “We just booked two. People aren’t doing full-capacity weddings and a lot of weddings are outside.” But, he observes optimistically, the past couple of months have seen bookings pick up again.

“They’re all in the Santa Cruz area. A lot of people already know our music and wanted to have our music in their wedding,” Godinho says. “They know how fun it is. It’s not a very traditional wedding band.”

A lot of people already know our music and wanted to have our music in their wedding. They know how fun it is. It’s not a very traditional wedding band.

— Papiba Godinho

The weddings SambaDa booked for September each take place outside and in the afternoon, echoing Wells and Freeman’s park picnic-style celebration. “I think that since a lot of people postponed their weddings, there’s a lot of excitement,” Godinho says. “People are so happy we can do the music for their weddings. It’s a special moment and I’m glad to be playing weddings again after a year and half.”

Godinho has also seen attendance being kept lower with destination weddings. His band is being flown to Maui to play at a small ceremony.

Godinho has noticed a pleasing silver lining in all this: a more brimming tip jar than in the past. “People are being more generous,” he says. “They’re out and they’re happy. And people are more understanding of what it is like to not have business.”

The Outdoor Venue Czar

Tremain Hedden-Jones.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

A very affordable option many fiancés are pursuing for post-lockdown outdoor weddings is a City of Santa Cruz park or beach. Parks & rec supervisor Tremain Hedden-Jones and his staff are responsible for permitting and managing all the outdoor facilities, including the popular Cowell Beach.

Though a Cowell’s wedding often goes hand-in-hand with a Dream Inn reception, the outdoor venue is actually reserved not through any hotel or private vendor but through the city’s parks & rec department. From his position, Hedden-Jones has had a prime view of it all.

“Weddings are typically booked a year in advance,” he says. “Since we weren’t accepting reservations, they’re all booking right now. June 15 was the magical date, everything reopened.”

Since we weren’t accepting reservations, they’re all booking right now. June 15 was the magical date, everything reopened.

— Tremain Hedden-Jones

And the phones started ringing off the hook.

Hedden-Jones had been seeing a decline in use of the city’s park spaces for weddings, but post-lockdowns, there was “a big explosion of people wanting to be outdoors. Outdoors is just where people want to be right now.”

For those thinking of reserving an outdoor wedding via the city, Hedden-Jones emphasizes that information and rates are available online and, despite the rebooking frenzy, the spaces aren’t as overloaded as many other venues.

“We have a really good reservation system so we can’t overbook,” Hedden-Jones says. “But it’s overwhelming for our staff to deal with the volume of inquiries, transactions, and changes.”

The Photographer

Amber De Vos.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Felton-based Amber De Vos was flown all over the world to photograph weddings in the “before times,” with her work from a society wedding in a French chateau in the Loire Valley even getting a spread in Vogue.

Her COVID-wedding and post-lockdown experiences have been, to say the least, a bit different. The most recent wedding she shot, at a family-home backyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains, “was super tiny,” she says.

De Vos saw clients avoiding getting married at all during COVID. “They wanted to wait and some people ended up breaking up,” she says. “COVID weddings were a testament to how much people wanted to unite.” Getting married these days “speaks strongly to the level of commitment.”

They wanted to wait and some people ended up breaking up. COVID weddings were a testament to how much people wanted to unite.

— Amber De Vos

Now, “it almost feels like we are back to the way things were before. People wash their hands more and are still skittish when someone coughs, but people are back to invading space. Weddings are an opportunity for people to go all out in their own way — even if they’re going to city hall, they make it mean something.”

When not booked for a photography job, De Vos works as a matchmaker, which also lent perspective on pandemic-era love and marriage. Having her clients meet initially over Zoom made for a “low-commitment introduction,” allowing them to get a feel for each other to evaluate whether they should meet in person, rather than an initial blind date at a restaurant or bar.

The time-and-energy saver of a pre-date Zoom may have forever changed the way we go about the search for love.