Salem is eager to resume big events, but labor and supply challenges loom

Determined not to let their planned wedding day be disrupted by the pandemic, Sara Foreman and Alex Younger found a venue in at a West Salem home, keeping to the June 2020 date they set long ago. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

When Oregon’s pandemic restrictions lifted on July 1, Meagan Morris said it didn’t take long for the calls to start.

“My inbox flooded almost immediately,” said Morris, the event reservation manager at Willamette Heritage Center.

After 16 months with hardly any events, the historic mill and museum in central Salem is now almost entirely booked on weekends through the end of the year, Morris said – and other desirable dates are going quickly.

Though private gatherings and events were allowed in Marion and Polk counties under prior Covid restrictions, their size was limited, and the number of people who could be in a venue shifted week to week as counties moved between risk levels.

That made planning difficult.

“Before restrictions lifted, people were really hesitant to gather,” Morris said. In her line of work, July 1 was “the big green light to go ahead and start planning.”

Not every venue operator has been so overwhelmed, but Salem events businesses said they’re seeing a steady return of customers planning weddings, club meetings and nonprofit fundraisers.

And while the return of business is welcome, some said they’re seeing new challenges with labor and food supply, vendor availability and customer timelines.

Debbie Ego, owner of Salem company Events Planned Perfectly, said she normally books weddings about a year out. But on Memorial Day, she had a couple inquire about her services for an August ceremony.

“We’re getting a lot of last minute because they just didn’t know when they could start planning it,” Ego said.

Ego said planners like her can return to their work with relative ease. But while venues are eager to open up, she foresees labor shortages being the main problem for vendors trying to feed large groups of people.

“They’re happy to open up, but if you can’t staff it, you can’t service it,” she said.

Staff shortages so far haven’t impaired operations for Salem-based Willaby’s Catering, owner Jacob Williamson said, but hiring workers has been more of a challenge than usual.

His business is seasonal and relies mostly on part-time workers during the busy summer months, so turnover was routinely high.

Between last-minute bookings and fewer people on payroll starting the season, “I’ve had to hire far more people this year than normal,” he said.

Williamson said he’s raised pay to $18 to $20 an hour to staff events.

“I think people disappeared from the hospitality industry to go into other industries,” Williamson said. “Everyone else was able to somewhat stay open. Those people who worked in hospitality all their lives had to go find something else.”

For catered meals, meat has also been hard to come by. Williamson said his company faced “a pretty disastrous chicken shortage” due to supply problems at Tyson.

When meat companies produce less because of their own labor problems or Covid outbreaks, large grocery chains and institutional buyers like universities typically get first pick on what’s available.

“We find it very difficult to get those things in massive quantities. As soon as trucks come in from farmers and ranchers they go out to other people and I’m left with either very expensive protein products or just not any at all,” he said.

Supply challenges are especially tough for caterers, he said. If a construction crew has to postpone a job a week because they’re waiting on lumber to arrive, most clients will understand, even if they’re not thrilled.

But a wedding can’t be postponed because a truck of steaks didn’t show up as promised.

“We’ve promised these people a great service and great hospitality 12 to 18 months ago and we have to follow through,” he said.

Rachel Redinger, a Salem wedding planner, said she’s had some couples who postponed 2020 weddings seeking to reschedule for this summer.

She said communication with venues and vendors over last-minute issues has been difficult at times – like a recent event where a venue didn’t inform Redinger or the bride that the chairs she’d reserved for an outdoor ceremony were for indoor use only.

Redinger attributes that to the shift “from doing nothing for almost a year (to) it just being so overwhelmed and crazy.”

“It just seemed like so long ago that I was able to plan something, so I feel like I’m trying to stay in the loop as much as my couples are,” she said.

Deepwood Museum and Gardens has seen more event inquiries, wedding and events manager Elizabeth Basalto said. Some come from people who have struck out at other venues with their preferred dates, because Deepwood is available for weekday rentals.

“A lot of people I think are sick of being locked down and ready to get out and celebrate life again,” Basalto said.

At the Salem Convention Center, general manager Chrissie Bertsch was the only employee for over a year as the venue – and associated Grand Hotel – laid off most employees. The jobs shed were among the first major pandemic layoffs in the Salem area, announced early last April.

Bertsch said July and August events are still slower than typical, but fall dates are filling up.

“Now we’re just getting a ton of inquiries about people ready to move forward,” she said.

The convention center now has about eight employees, she said. That’s far short of their pre-pandemic head count of 75, but Bertsch said they’re hiring more as they get ready for larger events on the calendar.

Major nonprofits that typically hold fundraising meals at the center have booked 600-person dinners for November and December.

“September through December are very, very busy,” Bertsch said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.