Brides Bring Bucks to the Local Economy

By Beacon Staff

As engaged couples look for ways to make their weddings unique and memorable, they’re taking their nuptials and their pocketbooks further from home, and more and more frequently into the Flathead Valley.

The number of destination weddings has increased nationally by a staggering 400 percent over the past decade, according to a survey by the Conde Nast Bridal Group, which publishes Bride, Modern Bride and Elegant Bride magazines. Of the 2.3 million Americans expected to marry last year, approximately 16 percent of first marriages were destination weddings held outside of a couple’s home state, and a surprising 60 percent of couples celebrating second marriages opted for a site away from their hometown.

And, couples dreaming of a Western Montana wedding – often complete with rafting, horseback riding and other outdoor activities – have made the Flathead Valley part of that trend.

Flathead County Clerk of Court Peg Allison estimated that about 60 percent of the 1,100 marriage licenses issued by the county last year were to out-of-state couples. Allison said that’s in part because of destination weddings, and also because Montana allows double-proxy weddings where neither party has to be present to receive a marriage certificate. Several local planners and wedding-related businesses said destination weddings account for at least half of their business, while some said they amounted to as much as 75 percent.

Floral designer Nancy Waver organizes a bouquet out of purple and yellow stock, a popular wedding flower because of its fragrance.

Northwest Montana Wedding and Event Professionals (WE), a nonprofit association of local wedding and event businesses, and other local wedding industries are working to convince couples to bring their wedding plans, guests and dollars to the Flathead Valley. After all, the price tag for the average wedding is increasing, too: Last year’s per-wedding price tag was expected to approach $28,000, according to the Conde Nast survey. And local wedding professionals say Flathead destination weddings have budgets well above the average.

“We advertise throughout the country and keep working to raise the presence and draw people here, because it’s kind of the perfect situation,” Marc Rold, WE president and owner of Wild Horse Limousine, said. “People come here, share this beautiful place for a weekend, put thousands of dollars into the local economy to have the wedding of their dreams, and then go home.”

Wedding planners Shionagh Stuehler, of A Big Sky Event in Bigfork, and Tanya Neal Gersh, of Affair Excellence in Whitefish, said destination weddings – where the bride especially needs local help while planning from afar – comprise the majority of their businesses. Attracted by locations like Glacier National Park, Flathead Lake and area resorts, destination couples come with big dreams and big budgets to make their Western wedding a reality.

Gersh said her clients usually plan on spending anywhere from $80,000 to $200,000 on their wedding events, and about 75 percent of that budget is spent at local businesses. “They’re looking for a magical, outdoor Montana experience and something a little different then the standard country club weddings they can have back home,” Gersh said. “They’re usually professionals in their late 20s or early 30s who definitely have a much larger budget than most local brides; whereas a local bride might spend $500 on flowers for their wedding, my brides might spend anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000.”

Nancy Waver organizes a delicate arrangement of lilies at Mum’s Flowers in Whitefish. Mum’s Flowers schedules one wedding a week and can see their calendar full as much as a year a head of time.

For one wedding, Gersh transformed a family’s undeveloped Whitefish property from an expansive hayfield without electricity or water into a beautiful wedding site. A path and wedding site were mowed in the hay and covered with bright green sod. Guests enjoyed live music and beef tenderloin sandwiches at the reception held in a tent erected nearby, complete with a custom-built wooden dance floor. Photographers took photos from the air.

Colby Wood, owner of Eat Your Art, said destination couples often opt for artsier, and more expensive cakes, often buying one traditional wedding cake and another groom’s cake that reflects his interests. She’s made “rainbow trout” cakes accompanied by cake tackle boxes several times.

One of Stuehler’s weddings was a four-day event, including golfing, floats down the river, and fly fishing. “The economic impact on the community is huge when you think of all the things – lodging, food, entertainment, the actual wedding event – that go into these weddings. They’re looking for something to really express who they are, and they’re willing to spend as much as it takes to get it exactly right.”

6th Annual Wedding and Event Expo
Saturday, January 5
10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Hilton Garden Inn
Tickets at the door – $3