East's rural wedding industry ''faces crisis' amid pandemic

Emily McVeigh pictured at Kenton Hall, Debenham

Emily McVeigh, who has created a wedding venue business at Kenton Hall near Debenham has faced a host of challenges in lockdown - Credit: Phil Morley

East Anglia’s previously thriving rural wedding sector has taken a severe battering from the pandemic and needs help, countryside lobbyists have warned.

Turning ancient barns and picturesque country buildings into wedding venues has been a lifesaver for many farms and rural businesses as well as giving the buildings a new lease of life - but it's been hit hard by Covid.

Country Land and Business Association (CLA) senior economist Charles Trotman said the crisis has had a massive consequences for the industry. 

He called for targeted government support as weddings are postponed once again as the UK prepares to emerge cautiously out of its third lockdown.

“The impact on a very vibrant, thriving sector has been absolutely huge and what we are seriously concerned about is the longer term impact on the industry,” he said. 

“There will be no easy way out of this and the industry and the government will need to work together to put together a clear and targeted financial package to support businesses now and in the short to medium term. What we don’t want to see is a vibrant, thriving sector fall apart because of a lack of government understanding of the sector requirements.”

Many rural businesses in the East of England have diversified their traditional farming enterprises to broaden their assets — and some have chosen to transform redundant farm buildings and barns into spectacular wedding venues.

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The CLA argues that while all hospitality sectors have been hard hit by the pandemic, the wedding industry — which is worth £14.7bn a year in the UK — has often missed out on the raft of financial packages available, with support not tailored to their needs.

Emily McVeigh, of Kenton Hall Estate near Debenham, explained the challenges her family’s business has faced during the pandemic. 

In recent years, the estate has been developed into a successful and diversified rural business with four main strands. It runs a productive arable farm and Longhorn cattle herd producing high-quality beef, a wedding venue, glamping site, and cookery school.

The estate hosts weddings from May to September and the glamping site is also popular with hen party groups.

“Both the hen parties and weddings are within the weddings business and both parts have been heavily affected,” she said.

When the first lockdown began in 2020 Emily promptly contacted all the couples who had booked their big day at the estate. 

Most were happy to move their booking to 2021 in order to ensure they could still have their big celebration at the estate — which meant Emily didn’t have to incur the costs of setting up the marquee and opening the venue.

But the continued uncertainty surrounding the pandemic in 2021 has presented further challenges. 

“When you’re planning a wedding most people need a year or two years to plan ahead and as a business, from a cash flow perspective, we are also looking a year or two years ahead, so it’s challenging,” she said.

“We watch the news and understand the latest developments at the same time as everybody else,” she added. 

“We have been speaking with our couples as early as possible and we reassure them where we can. It’s about managing expectations and emotions that add to the business side of checking terms and conditions and cancellation policies.”

She has been very open with couples and speaks to them on the phone as well as by email to keep the communication channels open, she said.