Photo by Krystal Ramirez

Rescuing a Dying Institution

Wedding professionals are uniting for the first time to boost the stagnating matrimonial industry

It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and the groom eagerly stands at the altar of a nearly empty wedding chapel. Tommy is middle-aged, wears a short-sleeve bowler shirt and stands with his eyes locked on the entrance, where his bride will soon walk to his side.

The lights go up. Music cues. She emerges. Elvis, clad in a black-sequined jumpsuit, escorts her down the aisle, cooing “Love Me Tender.”

“There is a niche for everything … but for people to think that we can’t give them a beautiful traditional wedding here is misleading.”—Joni Moss-Graham, LV Wedding Connection

The couple traveled to Las Vegas from Philadelphia. They’ve been married for 30 years and decided to come to the Wedding Capital of the World to celebrate.

“We’re here to renew the vows of Tommy and Francine,” Elvis says.

“It’s Frances,” she corrects.

“Tommy and Frances,” Elvis repeats, without skipping a beat. They exchange rings, pose for pictures and exit the chapel doors, smiling.

Then, the employees scurry. They swap out a few of the flower arrangements and decorations. Elvis changes into a suit. The next bride is in the lobby, primping her hair in the reflection of a stained-glass window, patiently waiting for her matrimonial time slot.

Across the Valley, a couple is getting hitched in the romantic Primrose Courtyard nestled in the garden at the Wynn Resort. Candles line the aisle. Their family and friends gather as the minister says a few words. They share their first kiss as husband and wife.

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Renta-Dress Krystal Ramirez

Renta-Dress

Although Las Vegas has been deemed the premier go-to destination for tying the knot, the wedding industry has seen a steady decline over the past decade. Since 2000, the number of marriage licenses issued in the county has dropped almost 40 percent, according to Clark County Clerk Lynn Goya. While the economy is bouncing back and last year saw a record number of visitors, the nuptial market has remained stubbornly static.

Marriage, they say, is a dying institution.

But hope is not lost. The downward trend sparked a feeling of solidarity among wedding professionals. After being elected to her position, Goya worked with the State Legislature to increase the marriage license fee by $14 to $77 (a $3 processing fee is included), with a plan to funnel the additional funds into marketing wedding tourism. Goya reached out to chapel owners, photographers, planners and others in the business to form the Las Vegas Wedding Chamber of Commerce, with the mission to unite and revitalize the local wedding industry.

All of these efforts have raised the question: How can the Las Vegas wedding industry bounce back?

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Las Vegas’ wedding industry has been tied to tourism since the city’s beginning, according to Goya. It only took six weeks to establish residency in Nevada, something needed in order to obtain a divorce. While catching “the train to Reno” became the euphemism for a swift end to a bad marriage, Las Vegas took the opposite approach. It did away with blood tests and waiting periods in exchange for “I do’s.” In 1942, the Strip’s first free-standing wedding chapel, Little Church of the West, was built.

The streamlined process turned the city into a wedding destination. “A lot of Hollywood stars were using Las Vegas to get married, because it was too far to go somewhere else [if they didn’t want to wait],” Goya says.

Today, 82 percent of marriage licenses are issued for out-of-state couples (25 percent international); last year, Las Vegas issued licenses to people living in 164 of the 195 countries in the world, according to the county clerk.

When the recession hit, everyone in the industry felt the impact. The number of licenses peaked in 2004 at 128,238. By 2010, that number had slumped to 91,896 and Clark County lost $2 million in revenue, according to news magazine The Week. Since then, the number of licenses issued has hovered between 80,000 and 90,000, Goya says.

For business owners such as Dianne Schiller, who runs Renta-Dress and Tux on Sixth Street, times were tough during the downturn. “My business was wrecked,” she says. “Wedding chapels felt it. Wedding coordinators felt it. Photographers felt it. ”

Dianne Schiller, owner of Renta-Dress, browses her inventory of wedding dress rentals. Krystal Ramirez

Dianne Schiller, owner of Renta-Dress, browses her inventory of wedding dress rentals.

Schiller’s mother opened Renta-Dress and Tux in 1991, and she took over in 2008. During the recession, Schiller expanded the store’s formal wear offerings, but today more than half of her business deals in weddings. An average week draws between five and 10 couples to her shop each day, and the majority of her customers are international tourists.

Although business has improved, “it hasn’t gone back to what it was,” Schiller says.

By the time the recession ended, the city’s economic and entertainment landscape had changed. The nightlife industry grew to mammoth proportions. Places such as Hawaii and Mexico were now competing with Las Vegas as exotic wedding destinations. You still saw brides-to-be waiting on some chapel’s corner, but you saw far more women donning tiaras as the nightlife industry attracted more bachelorette (and bachelor) parties. They came to town to sow their last wild oats, but went elsewhere to commit.

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Forty-two million visitors come to this remote strip of desert annually to experience something they won’t find anywhere else in the world. Downturn aside, what makes Las Vegas so attractive to engaged couples is the sheer variety of ceremonies that’s possible here. The concept of the “quickie” wedding is still alive, but Goya says many people are booking chapels months in advance. While many love kitsch, they could also have a traditional ceremony at a hotel chapel or in Valley of Fire, where no one would guess from their photos that they were in Las Vegas. Wedding packages can be as affordable as $300 or as expensive as $1 million. Unlike Maui or Cancun, Las Vegas provides couples a wedding uniquely customized to their desires without the hassle of planning.

Joni Moss-Graham and husband, John Graham, on their wedding day.

Joni Moss-Graham and husband, John Graham, on their wedding day.

“People want something different,” says Joni Moss-Graham, who co-owns LV Wedding Connection with her husband, John. “They can do a wedding in front of a volcano. They can do a wedding on a helicopter. They can dress up like Marilyn Monroe, where back home in Idaho that wouldn’t happen. Whatever they want to do for their wedding, they can fulfill here.”

Moss-Graham has been in the wedding business for 36 years. LV Wedding Connection organizes everything from entire weddings with long guest lists to private ceremonies with an officiant, hosting around 50 events a month.

“If you’re not a people person, this isn’t for you,” says Moss-Graham, who teaches an eight-week introductory course on wedding planning at the College of Southern Nevada. “You have to be a coordinator, a consultant, a mother, a sister, a psychologist. When a bride is walking down the aisle, you are the last person helping her. I’ve had to walk brides down the aisle when they were too nervous to walk.”

Moss-Graham champions Las Vegas’ selling power in the wedding market. Even with the license fee increase, the cost to get married in Las Vegas is competitive compared to other cities, she says. Beyond the ceremony, the plethora of entertainment options makes Sin City an ideal destination. Grandma and the kids can go to a Cirque show while the bridesmaids dance the night away at a hip nightclub and the groomsmen shoot craps. You can have a completely traditional wedding without spending months figuring out place settings and floral arrangements.

A helicopter wedding with the help of LV Wedding Connection.

A helicopter wedding with the help of LV Wedding Connection.

“People [outside Las Vegas] have this concept of The Hangover weddings,” Moss-Graham says. “There is a niche for everything … but for people to think that we can’t give them a beautiful traditional wedding here is misleading.”

Goya brings up The Hangover wedding phenomenon, jokingly assuring that Las Vegas doesn’t issue marriage licenses to drunks. “The press keeps promoting the really tacky things,” she says. “These chapels aren’t tacky; they’re vintage and custom and lovely little chapels.”

Conveying that message to the masses is the goal. The $14 fee increase, which went into effect in August, is expected to raise more than $1 million a year. Earlier this month, the Clark County Commission struck a deal with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority to create a partnership to market the Las Vegas wedding industry. The first outlay of funds is currently going toward research from which the LVCVA will develop a marketing plan. One vital question: How should the city sell itself to the world and get more people to come here to seal the deal?

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In one day, Ron DeCar might be Elvis, Merlin, King Arthur and the Grim Reaper. “You might have a pink Cadillac wedding and then right after that, a gothic scene where you gotta bring out the coffin and the tombstones,” says the owner of Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapels. “Then you go into a Camelot wedding. Put up the banners—Merlin comes out.”

As one of the largest freestanding chapels in town, Viva Las Vegas is known for its themed weddings. When it comes to putting together a customer’s dream show, DeCar and his team do not skimp. For the right price, they will tear down and build new sets to create a couple’s fantasy wedding. The main chapel can facilitate an aerialist act during the ceremony. They offer every theme package, from intergalactic to vampires to rockabilly.

Ron DeCar marries a couple at VIva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel. Krystal Ramirez

Ron DeCar marries a couple at Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel.

“I’ve married [people dressed as Mr. and Mrs.] Potato Head before,” DeCar says. “I’ve had all sorts of crazy mascots up there with me.”

Viva Las Vegas has five wedding locations: the main chapel, a smaller chapel, a gazebo, a garden and a 1950s diner. Themed weddings make up a quarter of its business. On a good Saturday, it can host 40 weddings, but on “number holidays” such as November 11, 2011, DeCar’s business explodes. “We did 36 [consecutive] hours of weddings, more than 230 ceremonies that day,” he says.

When Viva Las Vegas first opened in 1999, DeCar originally saw it as a place for married couples to renew their vows and do something less traditional than the first time they were married.

Many of the chapels have seen requests for vow renewals grow over the past years, and some people, such as Cliff Evarts from Vegas Weddings, believe the vow-renewal market could be one of the keys to Las Vegas’ connubial future.

“If you ask people what Vegas is known for, weddings are going to be in the top five,” says Evarts. “‘Weddings have a huge psychological impact on the promotion of Vegas, but it doesn’t have a big financial impact.”

For Evarts, capitalizing on Vegas’ matrimonial notoriety is a no-brainer—it’s simply a matter of finding other angles. Of the millions of visitors each year, the majority of them are already married, he says.

In 2011, Evarts supported a campaign by then-County Clerk Diana Alba to make semi-official vow renewal certificates issued by the county available for customers who may want keepsakes. However, the idea was quickly abandoned after meeting opposition from chapel owners, who usually provide that service in-house.

“When a bride is walking down the aisle, you are the last person helping her. I’ve had to walk brides down the aisle when they were too nervous to walk.”—Joni Moss-Graham, LV Wedding Connection

“If Vegas rebranded itself from the Wedding Capital of the World to the Vow Renewal Capital of the World,” Evarts says, “it would tap into a huge market of people who never really thought of having their vows renewed, but then think, what a great opportunity to get my vows renewed in Vegas.”

Another untapped market? Millennials, the fastest-growing segment of the population applying for marriage licenses, according to Goya. She points out that many millennials live together before getting married, and are known for seeking out unique experiences, including their nuptial choices.

“What we’re finding is they love vintage Vegas,” she says. “They love the mid-century modern, which is one of our key architectural elements. They love the whole Rat Pack era.”

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While the question of how the Las Vegas wedding industry can get its groove back remains unanswered for the moment, it hasn’t stopped the Wedding Chamber of Commerce from buzzing. As they wait for the results of the research study, the chamber members are working together, turning former competitors into allies.

In the short term, members are holding networking events and working together to combine services and create special packages for couples. In the long term, they will be working with public and private organizations to uphold the city’s title as the Wedding Capital of the World.

“It’s a very rewarding, emotional industry, but you’ve got to have the passion for it. Some people think it’s easy. It’s not easy,” Moss-Graham says. “But to stand back and say I got to be part of somebody’s life-changing day is an amazing reward for your profession.”

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