Founded in a Maryland living room in 2006 by technologist and entrepreneur Tim Chi, startup WeddingWire helped bring the wedding industry into the digital age. Chi, who had been well versed in the problem-solving power of technology from his previous work co-founding and running higher education startup Blackboard Inc., created the platform to ease the friction experienced by brides- and grooms-to-be looking to hire photographers, caterers, florists and more. Prior to then, many recently engaged couples keen on planning their own weddings had to find and vet the vendors themselves, often relying on word-of-mouth referrals or local listings to do so. WeddingWire arrived, offering a digital vendor catalogue that contained the portfolios and contact information of thousands of different wedding service providers across the United States along with an extensive suite of free digital tools to help ease the planning process.
Over the next 14 years, the company’s simple but effective product would propel its meteoric growth, expanding its international footprint and merging with XO Group to from what is now the premier digital platform for all-things weddings, The Knot Worldwide, with Tim at the helm. As part of our Office Hours Q&A series on @AmericanExpressBusiness on Instagram, we asked Chi to share his insights the wedding industry and The Knot Worldwide – diving into how the pandemic has changed the landscape for weddings and what he expects to see in the future.
You’ve been at the helm of WeddingWire for more than fifteen years and now The Knot Worldwide for nearly two with the merger of XO Group and WeddingWire Inc., and have overseen the company through its dramatic growth across the globe. How has the wedding industry changed since you started, and how do you think COVID will have shaped its direction in the long term?
Wedding planning has absolutely become simpler, and more seamless and accessible with our digital offerings. Couples truly cannot pull off their special days without a team of wedding professionals—like cake bakers, caterers, florists, planners, photographers, etc.—so our initial goal when I founded WeddingWire in my pink living room was to make it easy to connect couples with these vendors to make wedding planning much easier. We then evolved to satisfy couples developing needs and produced a suite of digital tools: a checklist, budgeter, wedding registry platform, wedding websites for guest communication, and more. As far as how COVID-19 will shape weddings and wedding planning long term, I think there will be a continued increase in the digitization of wedding planning, working virtually with wedding vendors until that in-person element is necessary and really leaning into personalization to create a one-of-a-kind day that tells a couples story unlike anything else. We have seen couples lean into these quirky fun details that make a celebration feel uniquely their own, but what COVID-19 has shown us is that really anything is possible in weddings. At the heart of them all is love and a lifelong commitment—it’s what makes these celebrations unique to the couple that really creates an unforgettable experience for couples and their guests.
The Knot has been working with some vendors who have adapted by going digital, offering virtual site visits, at-home food tasting, and virtual consultations. Which of these outside-of-the-box offerings do you think will continue even as we emerge out of COVID?
While many vendor experiences are certainly enhanced by in-person interactions—like trying on wedding attire or tasting the food you’ll be serving your guests, for instance—what we’re seeing is that so much in the early stages of wedding planning can be accomplished virtually, especially when there’s really no other option. As a digital-first wedding planning company, we have seen this evolve over the years, but COVID-19 quickly showed us the emergence of new digital offerings that allowed couples and vendors to work together even if they aren’t face-to-face. After things return to “normal”—or what we once knew to be normal—for wedding planning, I do think there’s something to be said for an increase in research digitally and then taking those next steps with wedding pros in person. One area, which we’ve actually implemented on our wedding planning sites WeddingWire and The Knot, is touring venues virtually via our 360° Virtual Venue Tours. These give couples the most realistic experience next to physically standing in an event space in comparison to traditional photos and videos of a wedding venue, and allow couples to take a real-life walk-through of a venue property—completely virtually on any screen from home. While this has obvious benefits during the pandemic, we also see this as an immense time saver for both couples and venue business owners, and also a way for venues to get more engaged couples to “view” their space.
In addition to concerns about health and safety, couples looking to get married in the next few years may be looking to spend less than they normally would have due to a dip in the overall economy. How does that change the dynamics of the wedding industry for both vendors and couples to be?
To be honest, I’m not entirely sure we’ll see a dip in wedding spend post COVID. Much like in the 2008 financial crisis, couples note that weddings are oftentimes a once-in-a-lifetime occasion, and one that doesn’t necessarily follow economic trends. In 2008, we saw a small dip in wedding spend, but it quickly recovered. In fact, our recent COVID weddings research shows that most couples have postponed their weddings, most likely due to the fact that they want to celebrate it exactly how they originally planned with all of their guests in attendance. A majority of those who have postponed reveal they have no intention of altering their original plans and will be keeping their guest lists and budgets the same. From my perspective, what this shows us is the strength of the wedding industry and just how important these momentous life moments are. Celebrating a lifetime commitment with one's partner and those nearest and dearest to them is something that people look forward to for years, and it’s not something that we ever see declining in importance.
We have seen couples lean into these quirky fun details that make a celebration feel uniquely their own, but what COVID-19 has shown us is that really anything is possible in weddings.
Even after a vaccine is developed, uncertainty may linger as distribution and mass inoculation may take months after its initial release to occur. Are there signs you’re looking out for to indicate to you that we’re ready to return to where we were? Or are you thinking about things through the lens of ‘the new normal?’
While we are certainly prioritizing working with our vendors and couples to plan celebrations in accordance with local guidelines in their area, we do know that large scale wedding celebrations will return—it’s not a matter of if, but when. Currently, our priority is ensuring couples and vendors are equipped with advice and tips on how to celebrate safely—whether that’s moving forward with their original wedding date and a smaller guest list with healthy and safety measures put into place, or postponing their larger celebration to 2021. Even when a vaccine is developed, we anticipate health and safety measures to continue to be of paramount importance to couples and guests—including sanitizing solutions, social distanced seating arrangements, new event formats that provide entertainment other than packed dance floors, etc. As far as looking for signs to return back to where we were, I think for this we need to lean on our epidemiological and health experts. From their expert opinions and scientific data, the wedding industry can continue to adapt and offer new suggestions that make events safe and still enjoyable. The good news is that the average wedding planning cycle in the US is around 14 months. This means for newly engaged couples that are planning today, they likely will be looking into 2022 to celebrate their big day. Planning forward may give them more comfort that a vaccine will have both been developed and fully deployed by then.