How COVID has reshaped the wedding and event business in Central Wisconsin


Courtsey The McCartneys Photography

When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, Kelsy and Butch McCartney said the impact on their business was slow at first; but soon those impacts were felt strongly as things changed in the wedding business, especially as the state imposed more stringent rules around gatherings to hold the pandemic at bay. 

The McCartneys, who started their wedding and senior portrait photography business more than ten years ago and opened a location downtown on Jefferson Street roughly five years ago, saw some big changes in the wedding business. “Couples with indoor weddings switched it up to an outdoor plan or postponed it,” Kelsy told City Pages. “Half the weddings moved to this year.” The McCartneys ended up shooting a lot of weddings in Door County, and numbers started to become limited. “Many scaled back their weddings from 200 guests to more like 50 or less,” Kelsy says.  

The McCartneys never stopped shooting weddings, but often the big day was very scaled back. They also kept on shooting senior portraits, which meant their business was able to survive and keep going. Known for shooting on full-frame film cameras, something that helps set them apart, they’ve been able to continue but other photographers they know who focus exclusively on weddings are in serious trouble. “Many photographers are saying it will take three years to recover from this,” Kelsy told City Pages. 

The COVID-19 pandemic had impacts on many industries and businesses, but one of the hardest-hit might be the wedding industry. There’s no delivery service for weddings (yet) and something like a wedding isn’t a good candidate for Zoom. Many big days were postponed or scaled-down. Many venues shut down or scaled back on what they could offer. 

But this year, 2021, is poised to be much different than last year. In 2020, a vaccine was still a long-hoped-for dream, cases were spiking and folks were settling in for what planned to be a long winter. 

Today, vaccination has started, and though it seems a long way off from being widespread, progress continues. Cases in Wisconsin and Marathon County have decreased greatly from spikes last November/December. And the idea of life somewhat returning to normal is at least on the horizon, if not still a ways off. 

So what does that hold for weddings, and other celebrations? City Pages reached out to various people in the industry to give readers a sense of what to expect. 

Angry brides 


Courtesy The McCartneys Photography

Today the Rothschild Pavilion is booked solid with events, including many weddings. Social distancing protocols are in place, including only allowing 25% of the pavilion’s capacity. Fortunately for Rothschild, the building that once hosted a Buddy Holly concert can hold around 1,000, so the limited capacity is still enough for a big wedding. 

But that’s only been since last September. Prior to that, Rothschild made the decision to close the pavilion for the safety of residents, and that meant Village Administrator Gary Olsen received a lot of phone calls from angry brides. And that was expected, Olsen says. “You’ve got to figure, to get a spot you need to book it two years in advance,” Olsen told City Pages. “You need to see it as a bride reserved her dream. I heard it more than once that I ruined their dream wedding.” 

That was March to September, and Rothschild was criticized for not opening sooner. But now things are back on track and once again the Pavilion is booked out two years in advance, Olsen says. 

That said, a wedding at the Pavilion still isn’t like it used to be, even with limited numbers. Olsen says wedding parties must sign documents saying they agree to follow social distancing requirements and wear masks, and then “if anything happens, it’s on them.” One party declined to hold their wedding at the Pavilion because, they told Olsen, they didn’t want to have restrictions on their festivities. 

They also loosened restrictions on cancelations and many brides and grooms moved their date into the future, he told City Pages. 

Faith Rutzen has had an interesting perspective on the industry. She opened a wedding venue/music hall in October 2020, a seemingly unlikely time for someone to start such a thing. But, in a lot of ways, it was the exact right time to start such an endeavor because of the nature of her venue. Mystic Ponds Estate Wedding Barn is located in a rural setting in Junction City and its scenic verdant landscape lends itself well to outdoor weddings, which became the thing in 2020 to do. 

Rutzen says her timing might be just right, as she has now found herself booking weddings into 2021. Many wedding parties also postponed their weddings into 2021, and that’s a challenge for those in the industry, such as photographers and videographers, caterers and floral arrangers. When those parties postponed to 2021, it means lost revenue in 2020. If half the weddings moved to 2021, that means a 50% revenue loss for those in the industry, Rutzen says. 

Rutzen almost feels guilty for saying they were lucky to open when they did — late 2020 — but doing so allowed them as an option as couples starting looking into 2021. With many venues booked full because of postponements, she happened to have a number of openings because they’d just opened. 

Rutzen says she’s been paying close attention to what couples are saying they are now looking for. One thing she is seeing a lot: couples are booking smaller weddings. That’s sometimes a challenge because it’s hard to do smaller weddings in a budget-friendly way, Rutzen says. 

Rutzen had a novel idea to adapt to it. She is booking half day weddings in 2021. Couples seeking a smaller wedding will be able to book either the morning or afternoon, allowing Mystic Ponds to book more small weddings to make them more affordable for couples looking to scale down. That’s a big change for 2021. 

“They have the choice between a lavish brunch in the morning or a sunset ceremony in the evening,” Rutzen told City Pages. 

Also new this year: Rutzen says she is working with a wedding planner who takes care of all the details of the wedding, taking a lot of the stress and detailed planning off the table for the bride and groom. Plus, with the half-day, they’re sharing the expense of the planner between them since the planner designs the entire day, for both weddings. The other wedding industry professionals she partners with are on board too. “It’s something we as a group believe will be popular in the future, so we’re all willing to take that challenge on,” Rutzen says. 

Planning changes 

For folks like Randy Verhasselt, the owner of Evolutions in Design, vaccinations can’t come soon enough. While some are finding ways to hold weddings, not many are going for the kind of elaborate decorating schemes that Evolutions is known for. 

“So far it’s a little iffy,” Verhasselt told City Pages. “I just had a couple postpone for April. They’re waiting for the vaccine to get fully distributed. I’ve got quite a few for May and June who haven’t decided yet. It’s all kind of up in the air.” 

There have been weddings and other events, but just like Rutzen says, they’re often much smaller. That’s something Verhasselt is totally understanding of – but of course that’s not very good for Evolutions in Design’s business. 

It might be no surprise that a business built in large part on weddings and other parties would have trouble. It wasn’t only COVID but also things like tariffs under the former Trump Administration that made things difficult on Evolutions. Even something like ordering flowers that was once easy now is a challenge because suddenly that product might cost 30% more with the new tariff thrown in, or new restrictions on customs because of COVID might cause problems. “It’s been a nightmare getting anything,” Verhasselt says. “If order flowers from Colombia and they sit in Miami for a week, now I can’t use them.” 

If all that sounds like doom and gloom, however, fear not; Evolutions is actually doing OK. The business shifted online once the pandemic hit. One of the first things Verhasselt did was start doing live showings with customers, where he would walk them around the store with an iPad. But for a more long-term approach, the store is now completely online and sales on the store’s website are up 400% since this time last year. Verhasselt says he has one employee whose full-time job is to keep the website updated and delivery drivers are kept quite busy from the shift to online sales. 

But the uncertain party season affects Verhasselt in another way: He is known for hosting one of the hottest parties in town, the 11-11 party. Started out as a birthday celebration for himself, the party has turned into the can’t miss event of the year. Last year it didn’t happen, but this year Verhasselt is eyeing a potential summer date for the party so there’s a better chance it can happen, with more people than a restricted indoor setting would allow, if that is the case next November. “Hopefully things will be back to normal next year, but there is no guarantee,” Verhasselt told City Pages. 

Looking to the future 

An interesting shift took place in photography, Kelsy told City Pages. Normally showing off wedding photos comes second nature to a bride, but last year many didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that they had a wedding, so many asked The McCartneys to keep their photos private.

Which is understandable. But, Butch adds, when a lot of your business comes from other people seeing your photos who then might also want to book you for a wedding, not having those shared is kind of like losing advertising. 

And a lot of times smaller weddings allowed couples to spend more lavishly on other areas, since there were fewer guests. Fireworks weren’t unheard of, for instance, Kelsy says. 

Being a photographer during the COVID-19 pandemic means taking a ton of precautions, Butch told City Pages. If one of them, or both, got COVID-19 themselves, that would shut down their business for a few weeks. And it’s unknown whether that couple would rebook with them after that. 

But The McCartneys, like other sources interviewed, are hopeful for the future. “I think people will still have big, beautiful weddings,” Kelsy says. “After COVID, people will really see the value in celebrating life.” 

This year, those celebrations are more likely to happen, but be a little more subdued. But once COVID is largely behind us, the flood gates could be ready to open.