Tying the knot amid pandemic, Aspen couples gets creative and postpone

Aspen resident Jenna Conti’s dream of marrying her soul mate on top of a mountain with the Maroon Creek Valley’s fall colors as a backdrop this upcoming weekend was dashed when it became clear COVID-19 was here to stay in 2020.

She and her fiancé, Casey Endsley, had planned on getting married Sept. 12 at the Cliffhouse restaurant on the summit of Buttermilk with 135 guests, many of whom were coming from around the country.

But by the end of June, reality struck that public health orders limiting group sizes to 50 would likely stay in place for months. So they canceled the ceremony and reception.

“It’s not the beautiful wedding we had hoped for,” Conti said. “Obviously I’m not happy about it. We wanted our families to experience the mountains. It’s so sad.”

“There’s been a lot of tears, a lot of decisions, a lot of change,” Elizabeth Slossberg, owner of Aspen-based EKS Events

Like many couples, they would’ve postponed until 2021 but the Cliffhouse is closed next summer for renovation so it’s not an option.

“I’ve already planned this wedding once and now I’m literally back to square one,” Conti said, lamenting that the venues and the vendors had all been booked and paid for. “My dress is sitting in my closet.”

Conti and Endsley can add themselves to a massive list that continues to grow as brides and grooms all over the world figure out how to tie the knot in the midst of a pandemic.

In Aspen, event planners say that between 70% and 80% of weddings were either postponed or canceled this year.

Yet they are busy with last-minute changes and plans by those who are moving forward with much different weddings than originally envisioned.

And emotions are running high.

“We have had our fair share of ‘therapy,’ as I like to call it,” said Shawna Rockey, director of events at The Little Nell, adding that some clients are moving their weddings for the third time. “But our clients have been understanding and appreciative of the public health orders keeping everyone safe.”

Elizabeth Slossberg, owner of Aspen-based EKS Events, said clients who didn’t postpone swapped their large events for more intimate gatherings.

“People have come back to what’s most important: family and friends,” she said, adding it hasn’t been without a lot of work by event planners and vendors, as well as the concessions made by the bride and groom.

“There’s been a lot of tears, a lot of decisions, a lot of change,” Slossberg said. “You have to make them feel confident that they made the right decision.”

Pitkin County requires anyone hosting an event of between 11 and 50 people to have a planner submit a safety plan, along with a floor layout that shows tables at an acceptable 6-foot distance and no more than eight people at each one.

“We’ve been getting fun and creative with seating areas,” Slossberg said. “We’ve designed these COVID units or vignettes.”

No bars or stand-up cocktail tables are allowed, which means mingling, a pinnacle of weddings, has all but ceased in an effort to slow the spread of what’s been described as a highly contagious coronavirus.

That means more wait staff serving cocktails and trying to enforce the rules of mask-wearing and social distancing, including upholding the county’s “five commitments to containment.

“The dancing is challenging,” Slossberg said. “Once you have a lot of cocktails you let go of social distancing, so our servers have to stay on it.”

For Conti and Endsley, not being able to dance with their friends and family at their wedding is completely off the table.

“That doesn’t work for us,” Conti said, adding she hopes to say her vows and celebrate in June in a formal ceremony.

Liz Cluley, who manages weddings for the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, said one way to manage the up-close-and-personal dance floor is to have people who are sitting at the same table dance together.

“Then they all can have dance battles,” she said. “We are trying to not let that energy die.”

Slossberg noted that she is planning an upcoming wedding of 11 people, which now involves a pickle ball tournament.

And instead of 200 people at a wedding in October in Aspen, she and her team are planning for 43 at a ranch in Woody Creek, and a lunch has been added.

Event planners say many couples are hosting multi-day events instead of one large reception, and elopements are on the rise as well.

“Fifty percent tell me they are going bigger when allowed,” Slossberg said.

She said she’s nearly booked out for weddings in 2021 and 2022.

Rockey said 80 percent of weddings planned this year at The Little Nell have rolled into 2021, and there have been a lot of last-minute bookings for September.

“In June, business went away entirely because people were hesitant on what the world was doing and what Pitkin County’s public health orders were,” she said.

There have been more than a dozen weddings held on top of Aspen Mountain ranging from two to 30 people. Five weddings are booked this month, according to Rockey.

Bryan Daugherty, who works in Pitkin County Public Health and reviews safety plans for events between 11 and 50 people, said judging from submissions his office has received, about 70 weddings have been held since mid-June to Aug. 26. A total of 222 submissions for all types of gatherings have been processed through his office during that time period.

He said following COVID-19 safety protocols and public health orders are imperative to slow the spread of the virus, and local statistics show that an increase in cases stem from events like house parties and large private gatherings.

“I know that it’s definitely been a challenge to have these smaller venues and we are trying to work with them,” he said. “(The safety plans) give us something to come back to if we hear of issues from the event.

“It gives us a picture of what these events are looking like,” he added. “We definitely know this is a hardship for people but we don’t want people getting sick.”

Carbondale residents Kelly O’Brien and Travis Norton were going to get married on Sept. 11, 2020, in front of 140 people, mostly coming from the East Coast, at the Old Thompson Barn at River Valley Ranch with a large buffet to follow.

“There were too many restrictions and too many obstacles,” O’Brien said, noting she and her fiancé decided in July to postpone. “We also thought it was irresponsible to bring a bunch of people here who don’t live here.”

Now the ceremony will be at the Maroon Bells amphitheater on Sept. 12, with their parents and each one of their siblings, along with their dog, Bruno.

Norton’s father will preside over the ceremony.

A reception with 25 guests will be held at Sopris Park in Carbondale with individually wrapped meals from Senor Taco Show.

“I didn’t want to wait a whole another year,” O’Brien said. “We are still doing the party and a vow renewal in 2021.”

She said all of the deposits for the vendors have been moved to next year.

Slossberg, Rockey and Cluley said local vendors, such as florists, caterers and party rentals providers have been great to work with through all of the changes, despite that they are working harder for less money.

“They’ve been so good,” Slossberg said. “I love our valley even more now.”

She said it takes about 30 minutes to fill out the safety plan for Pitkin County, but explaining the public health orders to the clients and ensuring their safety is a much heavier lift.

“It was a challenge to me at the beginning because they were looking to us on what to do and I have to worry about everything and make sure that our vendors and guests are safe,” Slossberg said. “Every layer is dealt with.”

Cluley, from ACRA, said she’s experienced weddings moving from large cities to Aspen, and she has been working with their wedding planners, some of whom she knows through the industry.

She cited a 300-person wedding in Miami that changed to 50 people at the Hotel Jerome and an Aspen park because the groom’s father has a home here.

“I matched the planner with (local) vendors and talked them through the logistics,” Cluley said. “It a definitely a consultative approach … we are an extension of that outside team.”

Sarah Reynolds Lasser, senior director of business development at ACRA, said the chamber of commerce is available in a supportive role.

“It’s more than just knowing the venues, it’s also knowing the public health orders,” she said. “Planning a wedding is hard enough, there’s so much time and investment in planning.”

Cluley said Aspen may not have been on the radar for some couples because of costs but are now having the wedding ceremony here and the party elsewhere.

“Aspen is more attainable in some ways,” she said. “Aspen awaits and we are here when you are ready.”