Many businesses have been affected by the global pandemic over the past couple of years, but especially those that are in the business of hosting or providing venues for “large gatherings,” such as weddings. The cancellation and postponement of wedding celebrations has been a huge disappointment, not only to couples planning to celebrate their marriage, but to those offering wedding services.
Northbrook Farm is one such business, which when the pandemic hit in 2020, had a full season of weekend weddings booked.
Fortunately, with the help of the Orillia Area Community Development Corp. (CDC), Northbrook owners, Chris and Laurie Orser, were able to turn the challenges created by COVID-19 into an opportunity for their small business.
Located on a 10-acre rural property in Severn Township, Northbrook Farm, with its century farmhouse, pond, perennial gardens, and an abundance of trees, has provided the ideal setting for weddings and other events since the Orsers started the business in 2016. The farm has been in the family since Dr. John Drinkwater, Chris’ great, great, great grandfather settled on the property in 1832.
“After we hosted a wedding here for a friend’s daughter, we realized the opportunity to move into a new business venture,” explained Chris and Laurie, who previously owned Elite Awards & Gifts in Orillia.
After achieving zoning approvals, the first thing the couple did was add a large, permanent event tent to the property, allowing them to host up to 150 people per event. Their business idea was a good one – they have been fully booked with weekend weddings from the end of May to the third weekend in October each year since. That is, until COVID-19 came along.
“Everything in 2020 was cancelled,” said Laurie. “We postponed to 2021, thinking that by then things would be fine.”
Even though many of Northbrook’s clients agreed to wait out the pandemic to enjoy their wedding at the venue they chose, some cancelled.
“We had to refund quite a bit of money, leaving us short, with no revenue coming in,” added Chris.
Meanwhile, the Orsers were in the process of developing upgrades needed to support their growing business. To maintain and build the business, an enhanced washroom facility was required, as well as improvements to the infrastructure, including walkways for accessibility and landscaping throughout the property.
When they approached traditional lenders for support, they were told they did not qualify for a loan.
“It was disappointing. Even though we could very well bring 150 people into the Orillia area every weekend, along with the support we provide to our vendors, accommodations, and other businesses, it looked like we wouldn’t be able to get the financial support we needed.”
This changed when the Orsers accountant suggested contacting the Orillia Area CDC.
Staff at the CDC helped Northbrook Farm access the federal government’s Regional Relief and Recovery Fund (RRRF), designed to help businesses cope with and recover from the pandemic.
“The process with the CDC was awesome,” said Chris. “It’s the easiest help we’ve ever received. And the application process was very simple, thanks to the CDC’s guidance.”
The funding allowed Northbrook Farm to proceed with plans to develop a permanent washroom facility and complete the planned upgrades to the property.
“This was the silver lining of the pandemic for us,” said Laurie. “During the COVID-19 shutdown, we had the time to get things done that we wouldn’t be able to do during a normal wedding season. With the loan through the CDC, we were able to complete the upgrades that we needed.”
“The new washroom facility is a big step up for us – we can now offer a more complete package to our clients,” added Chris.
The way wedding services are offered at Northbrook Farm is what attracts many of its customers. While their package of services offers a full day of wedding activities, including the ceremony, reception and guest activities on the property, clients are free to custom-design their wedding using their choice of décor and vendors, such as caterers and photographers.
“We have had very intimate rustic weddings here as well as fancy dinners with gold cutlery,” explained Chris.
“One of our most memorable moments was when a bride arrived in a white carriage pulled by white horses,” said Laurie. “It was so amazing to see horses and a carriage coming up the driveway. I thought about how many times Chris’ ancestors would have come along the same driveway with a horse and carriage.”
“The property is timeless,” said Chris. “People find it very peaceful,” added Laurie. “The most frequent comment we get when people arrive is, ‘Wow, the pictures do not do this justice.’”
The Orsers are looking forward to getting back to a regular and busy wedding season, while also hoping to increase bookings during the week for corporate and other special events. They are always keeping in touch with what their clients are looking for and adapting. Their next project is to create a space for woodland ceremonies.
“It’s something that couples want and is becoming very popular – an opportunity to get married surrounded by the forest,” said Laurie.
“Now that we’ve been able to get through the recent challenges, we look forward to welcoming back our clients to enjoy a perfect wedding day or special event here. The assistance we discovered through the CDC helped us so much – the timing was perfect.”
For more information about Northbrook Farm visit northbrookfarmweddings.ca or contact (705) 326-1955.