Love and business in a pandemic: Bundy wedding venue’s story
On a hot autumn week where maximum temperatures are flitting around the 30 degree mark, the air in the grounds of one of Bundaberg's boutique wedding and function venues is markedly cooler.
The Rosedale Rd property, in myriad shades of green, is quietly tucked away from the hustle and bustle of a dusty landscape, parched from the outgoing season.
Bunya pines spiral into the sky, as owners Ian and Sandy Hatton speculate on the age of the giant trees, 80 years, perhaps.
It's the rows of trees that give the venue its name - Into the Grove.
Mr Hatton recounts a story of a backpacker who happened upon them and felt like she was home again.
"There were backpackers going past, they just wanted to get some water," he said.
"They pulled in and the girl, she's from one of the Scandinavian countries, and she walked in and said 'this place is so much like home' and I thought 'how good is that? To be compared to somewhere like Europe'."
The Hattons had heard that the region lacked high-end wedding venue options when they decided to start their business six years ago.
The property, Pinegrove, has been in Mr Hatton's family for more than 20 years.
Overlooking the bunya pines, the same ones that - for a moment - brought a curious backpacker back to Europe by happenstance, the Hattons say the same scenery further south is setting couples back $40,000 or more.
"This is the part where you've got to go to Maleny to get something like this," Mr Hatton says.
While the property had played host to a handful of weddings in the past, the Hattons were the first couple to exchange vows officially on the grounds.
They didn't accept help when setting up their own ceremony. Thinking if they were going to be doing this as a business, they had to get it right.
Seventy weddings later, they've got it sorted.
"We've had people come up from Brisbane who have said 'this place is fantastic, I never expected it to be like this', and we had a group from the Gold Coast who said they'd been to venues on the Gold Coast who said this far surpasses down there... that's what we want to hear," Mr Hatton said.
In fact, about half the weddings hosted by the Hattons come from outside of Bundaberg.
The pair work hard so that couples can walk away at the end of the evening without having to worry about packing up.
"I have a master's degree in business and I wash dishes," Mr Hatton laughs, with the jubilance of someone who loves every aspect of what they do.
Into the Grove also hosts corporate events and a cocktail party of 100 people is coming up soon.
The property is surrounded by farms and features a rotunda surrounded by greenery, an outdoor dance floor that doubles as a giant chess and checkers board, a pole-free marquee imported from New Zealand and a fenced rose garden where the Hattons exchanged their own vows.
A room in the couple's home provides a space for brides to get ready.
Thirty-three couples are booked in to tie the knot there this year.
"It's just grown year after year and this year is probably our biggest year because so many had to move due to covid," Mrs Hatton said.
The covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the wedding industry, with the Hattons cautiously optimistic about what the future holds but also calling for more government support.
"At the moment, if you asked us how the industry is going, we can't really tell you because it's a mixture of last year's and this year's," Mr Hatton said.
With bookings for weddings often made 12-18 months in advance, crunching the numbers on 2021 isn't quite enough.
"This year is very busy but we need to see the business comes back next year in 2022," Mr Hatton said.
Bookings for 2022 and 2023 are coming in off the back of what the couple calls the "love season", the period between Christmas and Valentine's Day when loved-up couples are most likely to pop the question.
"We know now our busiest time for appointments and people making decisions is between Christmas and Valentine's Day - it's called the love season," Mrs Hatton said.
"I think we've probably booked 10 or 11 just during that period alone, for 2022."
"So what we now need to see, is during the year that the numbers keep on coming."
The Hattons are waiting to see what happens during the rest of the year, if more than 30 weddings get booked in, they'll be doing better than anticipated. Twenty-two bookings will keep them going.
Extra income goes back into the business and there are plans for water features, a church and additional concreted areas.
"You've got to have plans and our plans are there, we just need to have surety of where we're going, that's all and covid's not giving it to us," Mr Hatton said.
The plan for a church was one of the ideas the Hattons had to temporarily hold off on because of the pandemic.
Border closures can mean one to two empty tables at weddings.
"There's a big push within our industry at the moment for the government to recognise that what they're doing is killing our industry," Mr Hatton said.
"It's a $4 billion industry that you cannot turn on and off with a switch.
"If you're a hotel, you may not be able to put anybody in your hotel this weekend, but next weekend you will.
"If you're a bride, if we cancel your wedding tomorrow, you're not going to have it the following weekend, you're going to go another 12 months to do it and that means the business needs to carry all that again and we already carried it for 12-18 months, so that's nearly two-and-a-half, three years, that's a long time between pay packets."
The Hattons say those in more marginal business spaces in the industry will struggle to make ends meet. They say they're lucky because they work themselves without having to hire staff.
They provide all the services clients need to have the weddings they want, and in doing so, enlist the services of other locals including photographers, drivers, florists and musicians.
"We don't know what tomorrow's going to bring," Mr Hatton says.
Mr Hatton says he wants to see more assistance from the government, including the extension of JobKeeper.
A body representing the industry, ABIA Weddings Australia, has been advocating for the government to look at multiple factors facing providers.
According to ABIA statistics, there is a danger of a skills shortage and concern over the subsequent cost to train new employees.
The body is also seeking support to address the lack of confidence among wedding couples that could affect the industry and is undertaking a survey to be presented to the Federal Government.