When “I do” still means “No you can’t”

CLA members in the wedding venue business have been hit hard by the pandemic , and in Wales continuing restrictions continue to frustrate businesses while competitors are beginning to fully-function again in England. CLA Cymru brought a business toughing it out together with their local MS
IMG_2599 (3) Rebecca Evans.JPG
Rebecca Evans is the Senedd Member for Gower and also the Welsh Government's Minister for Finance

“We’re still losing business, and by the time we can operate normally, it may be too late for us,” says Lynne Pearce. She and her husband Viv run Ocean View, a farm-based wedding venue in the Gower peninsula overlooking the Burry Estuary and Carmarthenshire. A magnificent place to get-hitched. Couples have the place to themselves, catering and accommodation and a devoted team to make their day special in the countryside.

“But the Welsh restrictions still go on. Despite Freedom Day in England, here – in the Welsh countryside – we still have social distancing, masks and a cap on numbers. ‘Still no dancing,” Lynne explains. “Working within the current rules, reluctantly we have to turn-down bands – in case the guests might be tempted! What’s a wedding without a dance?”

“In the past more than half our business came from England, often they’re couples who met at nearby Swansea University – or families from London who want a get-away weekend-wedding down the M4.” In Wales, we hope further easements of the restrictions will take place on 7 August. “But they might not!” Lynne gasps. “Through the Welsh team of the Country Land & Business Association (CLA Cymru) and others, we’re getting our message across.”

Couples see that the rules are easier in England, so they think, “we’ll get married there.”

Lynne Pearce from Ocean View, a wedding venue business run from a farm on Gower

“We are being more cautious in Wales,” Gower Member of the Senedd (MS) Rebecca Evans is listening sympathetically to Lynne and Viv. She’s visiting to hear the Pearce’s story first-hand as the local MS. Ms Evans also has an inside track as the Welsh Government’s Finance Minister. “Everything depends on how the summer goes in tackling the virus,” she says. “Backward-steps would be damaging, demoralising and would create much more uncertainty.” Ms Evans is optimistic that Wales is “moving at the right pace in the right direction.”

Lynne and Viv’s frustrations are deepened by the local authorities’ applying the same guidelines as those applied to pubs, restaurants and nightclubs. “I know who they are, I know what they’re eating, I know where they’re sleeping,” Lynne explains, “and we’re able to agree our wedding guidelines with clients in advance.”

“We can currently operate at just under half guest capacity, taking advantage of our largely open aspect, but unlike enclosed venues like pubs and clubs, we’re not open to the general public. Our guests are largely families – all of whom are concerned about staying-healthy and not putting others at risk. I find myself becoming a social worker having to console brides about the impact of all this on their day. And – if their day does still go ahead – I’m some sort of Covid police officer too!”

“We hope to see more opening-up by 7 August, but by then the main part of the season’s over. It takes weeks to plan a wedding. The uncertainty, inconsistency and the cost of no business continues to bite hard.”

The business crisis is compounded by a pre-Covid pandemic planning permission condition that the Pearce’s robust and bright 200-capacity event marquee be replaced by a permanent structure. “It could cost up to £750,000,” Viv explains. “We had bookings well-ahead and into 2023 offering a sound business model for this. But, thanks to the pandemic, we’re left with a gaping hole, continuing costs and uncertainty about when cash will come in, short and long term.” Viv is a third generation Gower farmer. He still runs a flock of ewes grazing on the meadow below the venue, and also on the nearby salt-marsh. Like many Welsh farms, not so long ago his livestock succumbed to bovine tuberculosis (bTB). Urgently the Pearces needed to diversify to survive. They converted several outbuildings to holiday cottages and then old milking parlour became a wedding ceremony space. “bTB and then Covid 19 have been a double-whammy.”

“The ERF (Emergency Resilience Fund) is there to support businesses in the crisis,” Rebecca Evans MS says. “We introduced business rates relief grants, discretionary grants – and we have a capital investment grant to support long-term growth such as the permanent wedding venue building.” Rebecca adds, “It’s been a very difficult time for everyone and a real game-changer for government, business and the whole community. Looking ahead, we’ll be looking to modify the business support system to move away from crisis-management and towards longer term sustainability.”