COVID didn’t actually do the wedding industry dirty


Hayden Bailey

Marriage counselors, Johnny and Robin Hughes, laugh in his office.

Hayden Bailey, [email protected], Arts and Features Writer

At the Ridge in Marshall, North Carolina, the Blue Ridge Mountains surround the venue while Marta Santamaria runs a tight ship. 

For 35 years she has dedicated her life to the wedding industry. Santamaria founded and owns two wedding locations: The Ridge and The Venue. 

“My job is to make sure the facilities are running smoothly and up to par so the general managers can function accordingly,” Santamaria said. 

The Venue finds itself submerged in the hustle and bustle of downtown Asheville. Here you will find where more rehearsal dinners and wedding receptions take place. 

“It’s like an octopus. My hands are in every aspect of the business. But I love it, I would not have it any other way,” Santamaria said. 

Over the years, the wedding industry has changed. Things that once were important do not appear as important today, Santamaria said.

“People are more about quality and not quantity,” she said. 

The normal etiquette for a wedding used to be inviting everyone you know and having the biggest party you could, Santamaria said. 

“I think now brides are more conscious about making it more meaningful. They focus more on the special parts of the event and how to make it very memorable,” she said. 

Today, the world can present itself as a very scary place. Since the pandemic, life has changed dramatically, and people are more aware than ever things can change in the blink of an eye. 

“People panicked because they don’t know what is going to happen. Brides want to get married sooner rather than later, before things could change again overnight,” Santamaria said. 

The state of the world and this mindset of people might have contributed to the large increase in weddings this year— the most since 1984, according to Wedding Report. 

Interestingly enough, the number of weddings predicted to happen this year are only 0.93% more than in 1984. Although the time passed in between these years only saw numbers around the 1 million range, compared to the 2022 and 1984 2.5 million range. 

Santamaria said the lingering COVID-19 sentiment has become a long-term ordeal and might be a factor in the rise of weddings this year. 

“During COVID, everything was shut down and postponed, but we continued to book events,” she said. 

The issue didn’t lie with the lack of weddings or business, it had to do with how each of Santamaria’s facilities handled the situation. 

“We continued to book events, it was just all about how things were handled internally,” she said. 

Santamaria refers to her team and all of her employees as “magic makers.” While navigating the pandemic, she encouraged them to be flexible and to be a comfort to the brides. 

“I don’t think the wedding industry stopped, to be honest with you. I don’t think people stopped the fact that they were going to get married,” she said. 

A significant difference in the wedding industry proves to be one that currently affects everyone, an increase in price. 

“Labor is a lot more difficult to find. The hourly rate definitely has gone up. The cost of living has gotten so high. Therefore, we have to increase our rate as well,” Santamaria said.

A large amount of dedication goes into training managers and team members correctly so guests can have nothing less than the best. 

“We invest an intense amount of training into our managers to set them up to run an event on their own,” she said. 

Santamaria’s second facility, The Venue. (Gabrielle van Heyking)


A bride since Aug. 13, and one of the many weddings this year, Savannah Kelly sips on her Carmel Latte with Oat Milk as she talks about how she knew her fiancé was the one for her. 

“I’ve been with Jon for a year and half. If you’re ready to get married why wait?” she said, laughing. 

For her, a lingering COVID mindset didn’t influence her decision to get married this year. 

“I love Jon and I just want to marry him,” the 22-year-old said. 

The couple met at Ingles in Leicester where Jon Penland, Kelly’s now husband, worked. A friend introduced them, a friend who actually had a crush on Jon herself. Turns out, Jon couldn’t keep himself from falling in love with Savannah. 

“We literally talked for two weeks and then started dating,” Kelly said. 

The two got engaged in March, sealing the deal at a beautiful venue in Burnsville. Savannah shares some of the hardships running parallel to all of the happiness. 

“The hardest part is not having enough time and you feel very stressed when you choose to get married this quickly. You feel like you have to get it all done at once,” she said. 

Kelly brings with her some health issues. As a Type 1 diabetic, she was waiting for someone to come along who would be willing to support her. 

“I know it can be a giant burden. We went through a time where I was really sick, and I wasn’t sure how he was going to respond to it. But he was so sweet and so kind, and I just knew I wasn’t going to be a burden to him. I knew I could spend forever with somebody I knew was going to take care of me and wouldn’t leave when things got super hard,” the bride said. 


Johnny Hughes, pastor of 40 years, has experienced the good and bad of people’s relationships. His title of pastor also includes marriage counseling, a job he has become very good at. 

Hughes said he’s been married to his wife Robin Hughes for 37 years. In fact, their wedding day was in June of 1984. 

“I think the drop of marriages since 1984 is because our culture hasn’t honored the commitment of marriage. For the rise of weddings this year, I think COVID had a lot to do with that,” Johnny Hughes said. 

Robin Hughes smiles at her husband, talking about how much she enjoys helping him with marriage counseling. They have even done some long-distance counseling through video calls. 

“I love to pop in and talk. I think a perspective not just from a pastor but from a couple that’s been married for a while is helpful,” Robin Hughes said. 

She has a degree in social work and said she believes this education has helped her in this area of her life and more. 

“My mom always talked about how God allowed that to be used in working with people and in ministry,” the pastor’s wife said. 


For Nicole Luka, owner and lead planner of Wedding Connections, this year marks her first in business on her own. She has been involved in the wedding industry for six years and originally started out as a personal assistant to one of the most reputable planners in Asheville, Marta Santamaria.

“I was under her wing for four years and I ended up being the in-house wedding planner for both The Venue and The Ridge. I am still in very good standing with them, even with navigating leaving and opening my own business it was incredibly important for me to maintain that relationship,” Luka said. 

She talked about the vendor world and how reputation proves to be almost everything. Nicole counts her first year in business as a big success, having booked 14 events already. Her success doesn’t stop there either. She’s earned many awards, including WeddingWire couples’ choice awards, Charleston Weddings and Carats and Cake.

“The Carats and Cake award was a wedding featured in their magazine. It’s a prestigious wedding magazine,” the planner said. 

Luka does a lot of weddings in Charleston, which she loves. For her, she said the sky’s the limit. 

“My main goal with my business is that I bring my clients’ vision to life. I make sure that I get every detail nailed to a tee. When they walk in, I want them to feel blown away,” she said. 

Luka also values the relationship between her and her clients. She wants it to be everything they could have dreamed of. 

Luka’s entrance into the wedding business began in her college years at Montreat College, when she was asked to write a paper about opening up her own business. 

“Out of nowhere I decided to do wedding planning. I actually enjoyed writing the paper so much, my professor encouraged me to reach out to some wedding planning companies in the area and see if there were any opportunities available for me,” she said. 

From here Luka became a personal assistant to Santamaria and then grew to opening up her own business. 

“My favorite thing about owning my own company is being my own boss. It is so incredibly rewarding,” Luka said. 

She loves creating each event, knowing each one will be completely different. Nicole tries to always provide an out of the box experience, encouraging her clients to have such a mindset as well.

“You can do 200 different weddings and none of them will ever be the same. That is what I absolutely love,” she said. 

When talking about the expense of weddings, Luka said the most expensive vendor might just be the florist. 

“Some florists have a minimum of $8,000,” Luka said. 

She recounts a wedding she planned at The Ridge when she was having a floral detail meeting with the client and florist. Luka had prepared for this, to be on her toes, ready to answer any question. 

The meeting was going great. Luka felt confident and then out of the blue, her eyes caught the total amount due for the flowers. 

“It was $60,000. They started asking me questions, but I just lost my wording,” she said, laughing at the memory. 

Luka has worked at The Ridge with one of the thriving Asheville florists, Daria Krasnov. 

“I love getting to be a part of their special day. Every wedding is different and it’s so fun to create the special arrangements and bouquets for each individual bride,” Krasnov said, smiling just talking about it. 

She has big plans to open up a franchise and find more designers willing to work with her. Krasnov said she would especially love to teach them how to do European style flower arrangements. 

“That’s my passion. It’s more of an organic, classy and romantic style people, especially in Asheville, don’t do,” she said. 

Luka attributes the high number of weddings this year to COVID. An increase of 24% marks the rise from 2019 to 2022. 

“I honestly believe that because of COVID, the wedding industry has just boomed. We are no longer doing micro-weddings that consist of 50 guests or less. Now, I am experiencing 200 plus,” she said.

The Ridge ready for a wedding ceremony. (The Ridge)