Marisa Bello always dreamed of getting married under the stars, and she wasn’t about to let a global pandemic stop her.
So back in March, when her home state of Nevada started shutting down to minimize the effects of the coronavirus outbreak, she and her fiance, Luis, made plans to drive across the state line into Utah and elope.
They got married on April 3, and the Bellos set up a laptop camera to stream the wedding online so friends and family could follow along.
There were vows. There was dancing. There were tears. And, yes, it all unfolded under the stars.
“It wasn’t exactly how we imagined it, but it was intimate and wonderful anyway,” said Marisa Bello, a Catholic school principal who lives in Las Vegas. “Since we couldn’t celebrate with everyone in real life, we just wanted to do something that would bring love into everybody’s living room.”
The Bellos aren’t the only couple to pivot to a virtual wedding since the pandemic began. Across the country, a growing number of lovebirds are deciding to get married now.
As more couples take this approach, some can’t-miss strategies have emerged.
Slay the technology
Perhaps the most important step in organizing a virtual wedding is making sure the virtual part works. This means nailing the technology, at least as best you can.
Many couples who have gone the virtual route have gravitated toward running the event on Zoom, a Web-based platform that many businesses are using to facilitate videoconferencing.
The benefit: The technology fosters intimacy and camaraderie by displaying small video boxes of everyone in attendance.
The downside: Sometimes sound can be a problem.
One way to avoid hiccups is to do a dress rehearsal before the event.
Maryssa Souza, owner of Save the Date! Weddings & Events in Sonoma County, California, was wishing she had done just that after she helped two local clients who got married in their backyard.
During the event, the photographer’s wife managed the technology and had to pause before the ceremony and mute everyone’s microphones to avoid background noise.
“The audio was better than expected, but [considering it was] the first virtual wedding we have experienced, there is always room for improvement,” Souza wrote in a recent email. Because the wedding took place on such a warm and sunny day, the photographer set up a giant umbrella to shade the equipment so the devices would not overheat, she added.
As virtual weddings become more prevalent over the next six months, couples may need to start thinking about production from a different point of view, said Genevieve Roja, founder and principal at Lily Spruce, a wedding planning company in San Bruno, California.
“What we’re talking about basically is TV production,” she said. “Each of these is a show.”
Embrace the rituals that matter most
Just because a wedding isn’t taking place in a traditional setting doesn’t mean the bride and groom should abandon wedding traditions that are important to them.
For some, this has meant virtual bachelor and bachelorette parties that include toasts, roasts and, in some cases, dancing. For others, it has been a virtual cocktail hour between the ceremony and reception.
For Lauren Picard, it was a Zoom bridal shower on April 11, about a month before her small and private in-person wedding ceremony in Ronan, Montana.
The shower was thrown by Lauren’s mother, Debbie Picard. She recruited 20 women in all, including grandmas and great aunts who had never participated in a video conference until that day. Once the old-timers had been trained in the new technology, each participant shared a memory of Lauren or a piece of advice for a happy marriage.
“It was really special because everyone got to hear what Lauren has meant to them through the years,” said Debbie Picard, who lives in Lolo, Montana. “There were quite a few tears shed, and it definitely touched Lauren’s heart with all the heartfelt sentiment.”
Rajat Dewan and his bride, Jill, chose to include a different tradition in their virtual wedding: live music.
The Dewans live in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and were married May 15. As part of the ceremony, they welcomed Erin Zindle, who performed the love song “Medicine,” which she normally sings with a band called The Ragbird. The song was originally written for mandolin, but Zindle played it on the keyboard. Family members who logged in from all over the world — India, New Zealand, Luxembourg, England and Italy were all represented — appreciated the touch.
“It was different [because it was virtual], but it was also familiar enough that people enjoyed it,” Rajat Dewan said.
Get a witness (or 10)
Most current shelter-in-place orders allow for small groups of people to congregate in the same place at the same time, so long as attendees are wearing face coverings and standing at least 6 feet apart. This means some couples are inviting a handful of close family members and friends to witness the festivities in person.
The Bellos certainly did this, shuttling roughly 10 people from Las Vegas to Utah for their ceremony at The Springs in Toquerville, Utah.
Two other Las Vegans, Brittany and Daryl DuPree, took a similar approach. This couple got married May 1. To pull it off, they met up with about a dozen family members at a local park, where they had a friend act as wedding officiant and walk them through the ceremony.
The park was near Brittany’s mother’s house, so Brittany put on her wedding dress in the backyard.
During the ceremony, Brittany walked down a makeshift aisle with her father. He held one end of a 6-foot-long streamer, and she held the other. Afterward, they went back to Brittany’s mother’s house and set up in the driveway to receive friends for a drive-by toast.
“In so many ways what we ended up doing was perfect because it was crazy, and that’s exactly what we’re like,” she said. “I had to let go of all the stuff I couldn’t control and just appreciate what we were able to do.
“The next day one of my aunts wrote me and said she loved the wedding because it was simple and genuine, and it focused on what mattered most.”
Provide physical mementos
Jordan almonds. Yarmulkes. Beer cozies. Bottle openers. These items all are popular wedding favors — at least they were before the coronavirus turned the wedding industry upside down.
Virtual weddings can incorporate physical favors, too. Newlyweds just need to get creative.
That’s what Genny and David Velazquez, residents of Stamford, Connecticut, who tied the knot May 9 in Florence, South Carolina, did.
The couple had been planning their big day since late 2018, and Genny spent most of last year handcrafting blue-and-white ceramic coasters as favors to commemorate the occasion. When they decided to pivot to a virtual affair, the couple decided to distribute the favors anyway.
The duo gave out about 100 of the favors to friends and family members who formed a car parade past Genny’s parents’ house after the virtual ceremony, which was held in a local church.
Genny will save the rest to distribute in person when the pandemic is over.
“I’m not going to mail them,” she said. “As I see people, I’ll give them out and that way I’ll make sure I get to see everyone who would have been there.”
Other couples have reached out to guests with different physical trinkets.
Jenna Miller, creative director of Here Comes the Guide, a website with resources for wedding planning, said some almost-marrieds have sent guests care packages that include non-perishable hors d’oeuvres, little cupcakes and splits of sparkling wine.
She added that other virtual wedding care packages have created physical books composed of photos and testimonials that guests submitted ahead of time.
“People are getting very creative — there’s really no limit to the kinds of things you can put together,” she said. “Anything you can do to make guests feel more involved in the day is going to add to the sense of intimacy and connection.”
Hold space for guests
Since most guests can’t attend virtual weddings in real life, it’s important to welcome those who show up in virtual space, and provide different opportunities for them to celebrate before, during and after the main event.
Souza, the wedding planner, said her virtual wedding clients invited guests to prepare remarks to share during the reception, and several attendees did just that.
The DuPrees, from Las Vegas, kept their virtual chapel running after the ceremony had ended, and members of Daryl DuPree’s family ended up spending a few hours catching up among themselves.
“Some of these relatives hadn’t seen each other in years,” he said. “It was like they had a mini-reception without us. It was one of the most natural pieces of the whole experience.”
In some cases, offering guests a chance to interact virtually can lead to humorous encounters, too.
Lani Mesmer and her husband attended the Velazquez wedding reception while sitting by the pool at their home outside Orlando, Florida.
At one point, knowing most of the other guests were from the Northeast — where it was snowing in some places — Mesmer and her husband turned around so their pool and palm trees were behind them, with their kids swimming in the pool.
One of the other guests noticed immediately and took issue with the fact that the couple was enjoying such paradise.
“[He said,] ‘Who are the Mesmers? That’s not very nice!’” Mesmer said. “I’ll always remember the feeling of sitting by my own pool drinking a margarita while ‘attending’ a wedding in South Carolina!”
Consider a renewal down the road
While a virtual wedding makes a statement that love trumps coronavirus, online nuptials don’t have to be the only statement in a couple’s narrative of commitment.
The DuPrees, for instance, already are planning a “weddingversary” party for May 1, 2021, at which they can celebrate their first anniversary in person with all the people who participated in the virtual event this year.
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The Dewans will throw an in-person party as well — perhaps even in India, where Rajat Dewan is from.
Jill Dewan, who was eight months pregnant at press time, said she viewed the virtual wedding as one step in a multipart process.
“Our intention all along was to have a more traditional ceremony and reception after the baby is born,” she said. “We did the virtual thing. A more formal wedding in real life at some point [in the future] will only give us more to celebrate.”
Matt Villano is a writer and editor based in Northern California. He and his wife celebrate their 16th wedding anniversary June 28.