When Sheryl and Nate Santee got engaged in September, the Houston couple decided on a lavish Valentine’s Day wedding in front of 300 of their loved ones. But then the coronavirus struck, forcing them reconsider their plans.
“Initially, I wanted to wait until 2021, but I was sure of my decision, and I didn’t see the point of waiting anymore,” Nate says. “With all of this stuff going on, tomorrow isn’t promised. We should just go for it and do it.”
Then Sheryl received a text message from her mother about The Post Oak Hotel at Uptown Houston’s virtual wedding offering. “It was a surprise because The Post Oak Hotel was the first hotel we looked at when we wanted to have our larger wedding,” Sheryl says. “Since I was younger, every wedding that I’ve attended, the bride and groom always had their wedding at a hotel. I wanted to do the whole hotel thing.”
Even though the couple had toured the luxury hotel before COVID, they came in two days later to see the space for the virtual wedding. One look cinched their decision. “It looked like some type of fairy tale to me,” Nate says. “When I think about a wedding, I think of that type of ambiance.”
As the future of COVID remains uncertain, people are no longer waiting out the virus to tie the knot. Instead they are turning to micro-weddings, or smaller-scale affairs with 50 people or less.
Micro-weddings aren’t new. But in the age of COVID, when large groups aren’t permitted to congregate, these types of nuptials have seen an uptick. Savvy hotels have added on a virtual component to enable family and friends from near and far to partake in the festivities. The Langham, New York, Fifth Avenue, for example, recently debuted The Essential Langham Wedding, a package that includes a room for up to 25 attendees, an officiant, a two-hour photo shoot, a champagne toast, cake, a night at the hotel and, of course, teleconference services for virtual guests.
The Post Oak came up with the idea for virtual weddings in mid-March. “All events, gatherings and events went to a standstill,” hotel manager Steven Chou says. “Weddings that were planned for the spring and early summer were just canceling left and right at a fast pace. So we looked at ourselves, our events and sales teams, and asked: What could we do to adjust to the times and be sensitive to the pandemic, but at the same time allow people to celebrate this life event?”
The hotel found its answer. The Post Oak has hosted six virtual weddings (with another planned in July), and continues to field inquiries. “The feedback has been exceptional,” says Leo Hamel, the hotel’s director of special events. “I think it’s something we will continue to do down the road and make it an offer for people, even after [the pandemic] is over.”
The Santees managed to pull off their June 6 wedding in two months. “It’s crazy because we were planning this at the time of the pandemic, we had nothing — no dress, no tuxedo, no bridesmaid dresses, nothing. And we just went ahead with it,” Sheryl says.
“We barely had the people who would be in the wedding picked out,” Nate adds.
The two quickly got to work. At the time, local ordinances mandated that gatherings could not exceed 10 people, which would include everyone from the pastor to the photographer. So the couple had to pare down the in-person invites. As the wedding day grew closer, the law loosened to allow a capacity of 30 in the typically 90-person space, so the Santees invited the maximum, making it one of the larger virtual weddings the hotel has hosted. Typically, they have 15 to 20 guests, Hamel says.
“The hardest part was trying to find my guys tuxes because everything was closed,” Nate says. Because no shops were open, he ended up getting himself a custom-made white tuxedo with the jacket collar, lapel, cuffs and bowtie in a deep aquamarine hue. And eventually, he found a store that was otherwise closed but willing to outfit the groomsmen in tan tuxes with black bowties and pocket squares.
“It was so funny, I kept saying, I’m the bride and you’re getting a custom-made tuxedo,” Sheryl says. “I need to go that route.” But she had better luck searching online and found a dress. Then when the stores reopened, she swapped that for a mermaid gown that flowed like her long black locks and veil.
Thankfully, the hotel did a lot of the heavy lifting for the ceremony. It provided a wedding planner to guide the pair through the process. The Post Oak also converted a meeting room into a livestream-ready venue with white fabric cascading from the ceiling and crisscrossing into X’s against a wall and two ample arrangements of artificial white orchids and hydrangeas flanking an altar.
Cameras were strategically placed to capture everything from the exchange of vows to the champagne toast with speeches from the wedding party to the newlyweds cutting the cake (the cake and bubbly were included in the package). The Santees had a prior rehearsal so they knew where the cameras would be ahead of time.
To personalize their wedding, the couple used their own officiant and brought in an R&B singer to perform while Sheryl walked down the white aisle dotted with white pillar candles. They also were able to select songs for the bridal party’s entrance (“Why I Love You” by MAJOR.), their first dance as husband and wife (“Spend My Life with You” by Eric Benét) and the father-daughter dance (“Daddy” by Beyoncé), all of which they squeezed into the 1.5 hours they had in the space. The two provided photos for a slideshow that virtual viewers watched during the intermission between the ceremony and the first dance.
“Even though we were going to do it differently, I still wanted to make it special to give the feel of a traditional wedding,” Nate says.
The hotel’s audiovisual team handled all of the livestreaming and provided Nate and Sheryl with a downloadable edited video and raw file. All the couple had to do was send out a link to their family and friends two days before the big day. Several hundred tuned into the livestream from all over the country, including New York, Houston and Kansas City.
Even though the virtual attendees couldn’t be there in person, they found ways to celebrate on their own. Sheryl’s friends got dressed up and had a watch party on a local bar patio, sipping cocktails while following the nuptials on an iPad. Nate’s co-workers huddled in the break room at work to see the ceremony live. Virtual attendees sent their well wishes in the livestream chat, which Sheryl and Nate read later that evening.
The virtual wedding package (which costs a reasonable $3,000) includes a night in an Executive Suite overlooking the city and boasting amenities like a marble bathroom with Acqua di Parma toiletries. It also comes with a mimosa breakfast the next morning via room service or in the hotel restaurant.
The Santees added a couple of days to their stay, but they want to honeymoon in Bora Bora or the Maldives once travel restrictions ease up. They also plan to return to the Houston hotel soon. “Maybe a two-month anniversary,” Sheryl says with a laugh.
According to Hamel, all of the brides and grooms who took advantage of the package were locals, some of whom had weddings planned out of town. “The very first one we did, they made it a little weekend and they stayed a couple extra nights. They had a small dinner for six people after the wedding in our restaurant,” he says. “They were supposed to get married in Vegas, so they were very pleased to be able to do something and have fun with it.”
But the virtual wedding was more than just a novelty for the Santees. “During an uncertain time, we were able to still share our certain love for one another with everyone without putting them at risk during this whole pandemic,” Sheryl says. “It was special because of everything that’s bad going on right now, we were still able to bring something positive to life.”