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For Richer or Poorer
Published Wednesday, July 28, 2010 7:00 am

Wedding bells may still chime, but the "cha-ching" sound of mounting bills seem to be ringing louder in couples' ears as they plan their wedding day. Recession-bruised brides and bridegrooms looking for cheaper nuptials aren't the only challenge facing NH's wedding industry, though-there are also fewer customers to go around.

Between 2005 and 2009, the number of marriage licenses issued in NH has steadily declined from 9,488 to 8,499, according to the NH Department of Vital Statistics. What's causing the 10 percent drop isn't clear. The number of women of prime marriage age in NH has not declined, says Ken Johnson, senior demographer at the Carsey Institute at the University of NH.

U.S. Census figures show that nationwide, the number of marriage licenses dipped from 2.23 million in 2005 to 2.16 million in 2008, according The Wedding Report, a national statistics and market research Web site for the wedding industry. And that national decline is estimated to have continued in 2009, with the number of weddings dropping to 2.15 million, according to The Wedding Report.

Regardless of the cause, the recession and the decline in the number of marriages in NH is a double-whammy for the state's wedding industry. For years, weddings have been cash cows, with couples forking over tens of thousands of dollars for their trip down the aisle. There are also plenty of "reality" shows littering cable TV to feed the wedding-excess mania-Bridezillas; Say Yes to the Dress; Rich Bride, Poor Bride; and Platinum Weddings, to name a few.

But today's lovebirds have less with which to feather their nests. While there are some areas where brides refuse to scrimp, they are finding ways to make the wedding day fit their budget and their dreams. Kristina Hathaway, editor of NH Wedding Magazine, says the down economy is prompting people to shop around more than ever for the best deals on everything from venues to votive candles.

That's brought more bad news for the industry. The average amount spent on a wedding nationally dropped from $26,450 in 2005 to $19,581 in 2009, according to The Wedding Report; and while the amount spent for NH weddings shot up from $23,331 in 2005 to $28,200 in 2007, it plummeted to $21,785 by 2009. The silver lining for NH is that it's still above the national average.
Karen Aherns, wedding coordinator for The BALSAMS Grand Resort Hotel in Dixville Notch, questions whether such figures take into account all the expenses for a wedding. "Is that with the ring, the dress and the flowers, or just for the venue?" asks Aherns, who knows that while the range of wedding venues across the state provides options for all budgets, it's the peripheral costs that add up. (The cost of a wedding at The BALSAMS depends on the packaging, ranging from $75 to $200 per person for the venue alone.)

"At the end of the day, a bride still wants a good product, whether it's beautiful photos, or fine wine. Maybe she has this dream dress in mind that costs $5,000 and she won't settle for anything less. If that's the case, then she'll scale back on music, or seek out an unusual venue that's a little off the beaten path," says Hathaway, who also produces bridal shows primarily in Southern NH.

Although the trend toward intimate weddings is undeniably strong, Hathaway says dream weddings come in all shapes and sizes, and are still the ultimate goal. But the nuptials budget may alter that dream.

Receptions on a Dime

The days of church weddings with social hall receptions seem to have gone the way of the dowry, as NH brides tend to fall into one of three camps: intimate backyard/outdoor weddings that showcase the state's natural beauty; unconventional venues; or resorts where a wedding planner or coordinator comes with the price tag.

Because The BALSAMS is a seasonal resort, wedding bookings are limited to about 17 a year, says Aherns.

"Creating packages is part of what we've done to compensate for the economy," says Aherns. "We're booking many more intimate weddings than we have in past years, and we have a lot of brides negotiating for discounts, asking if they go for a Sunday or Friday will they get a better rate, which they won't. We charge the same rate, no matter when you have the wedding."

Savings will accrue, however, with some thoughtful planning, says Aherns. "There's a lot of ‘a la carting'-people picking and choosing the amenities they want," she says. "There are other noticeable trends that are economically driven-people doing their own music on iPods for the reception and ceremony, people opting not to decorate in the dining area and generally cutting back on décor, keeping things as simple as possible."
John Oudheusden, who runs the Promises to Keep event center in Derry, says late bookings is a trend in an industry that, for years, was all about advance booking.

At the end of April, he was just starting to see bookings for August. While out-of-state bookings continue to be strong (Boston brides find NH a much more affordable option over local settings), more small specialty venues popping up in neighboring towns means more competition for business.

"We have been here 25 years-even longer, as a restaurant. My father started the business, and I've really focused most of our energy on weddings. We came up with a ‘Winter Wonderland' package for couples willing to schedule weddings between January and March. That was successful because we were able to add more vendors into the package, which included DJ, cake, centerpiece, flowers, photographer, chair covers, tax and gratuity for one price," Oudheusden says.

He also offers a food minimum, rather than a guest minimum, which allows more flexibility in planning a reception around the food. "Food minimums help because people aren't getting the kind of attendance they hope for. They plan a big wedding of about 200 and only 150 people come," Oudheusden says. "We say to expect anywhere from 10 to 15 percent of guests not to attend, but more and more we're seeing a 25 percent gap, which could also be tied to the economy. People are thinking about the expense of attending an event, buying an outfit, traveling, buying drinks, giving a gift."

That may be at the crux of another recent trend wedding planners are picking up on: The "weddingmoon," an industry-wide phenomenon centered around destination weddings and couples booking a resort venue where they can come early and stay on for several days following the ceremony. Hilary Thurston has been a wedding planner for The Inns & Spa at Mill Falls in Meredith for five years, and says the weddingmoon is an economically driven trend that's gained real momentum in the past few years.

"Generally, couples will come in a day before the wedding, get comfortable, have a more relaxing experience on their wedding day, and then stay for the wedding night and even a few days more," Thurston says.

While most couples still take a traditional honeymoon, having a wedding venue double as a destination has put NH on the wedding map, says Tai Freligh, who oversees the state's do-it-yourself wedding planning site, which links to the state's official Travel and Tourism home page. Part of a three-pronged effort to boost travel and tourism, the wedding site launched about a year ago and has been attracting wedding traffic from around the country.

"Whether it's people who grew up here or who have only visited New Hampshire, we're hearing from a lot of people who fell in love with the state for one reason or another and really want to have their wedding here," Freligh says. "We're a value-added state because of our geographical diversity-mountains, beaches, lakes. We can fill just about any request for scenic venue."

By browsing www.weddings.visitnh.gov, couples in the throes of wedding planning can create a free account, send out requests for price quotes, and even send invitations.

Such resources are ideal for budget-conscious brides, says Hooksett-based wedding planner Diana Ma, who also has an office in Littleton. "Anything less than $25,000, you may want to do as much of the planning yourself as you can," says Ma, who launched Diana Ma Weddings & Events about a year ago. "In reality, a planner can do a lot of negotiating for a bride because we have connections with so many vendors. Having a planner is smart, but if you're really working under a tight budget, a planner would be frivolous."

Dress for Less

Budget is exactly where seasoned wedding professional Cathy Furze of Country Bridals, a bridal salon in Jaffrey, starts when working with a new client. "You guide your bride to dresses that fit within her budget, otherwise you will be adding frustration to what's supposed to be a joyous event," Furze says.

As trends go, Furze says these days there are two extremes in bridal wear: Rush orders and those carefully planned at least two years out. On just one recent day in April, Furze says she had four brides come in looking for gowns for a July wedding, and two more brides whose
calendars were marked for 2011 and 2012 respectively.

"I get the other kind of extremes, as well," says Furze. "I had one bride come through who says she was spending 95 percent of her budget on the reception and meal. ‘Show me your discount rack and I can find a dress that will suit me,' she told me. Meanwhile, other girls will come in looking to spend thousands on a gown because they want the dress to be the focal point."

Maribeth Watkins McCue, owner of Under the Veil bridals in Manchester, opened her doors in February. Acutely conscious of the fragile economy, her goal is to provide a boutique experience and alternative to chain bridal stores with merchandise that won't break the bank.
Her gowns, exclusively manufactured by Romantic Bridals and all custom fitted, range from $225 to $800. She also offers tuxedos and a limited stock of consignment formal wear, including wedding, prom, and mother-of-the-bride fashions.

"I don't mark up very high. With the economy the way it is, I want people to be able to afford the dress they want," says McCue. She pulls a stunning gown from the consignment rack, pulling at the train to show off the fine details of the Watters designer label dress that had been purchased originally for a garden wedding that never happened.

"This is a $3,500 dress, and I'm selling it for $600," says McCue, explaining that when she decided to leave the nonprofit world and launch her own business, she looked for a unique opportunity. She is proud to be the only bridal shop in Manchester. Working with a limited advertising budget, McCue relies on word of mouth and social networking-the store's Facebook page is always up on her computer-to market her services, which include limited accessories, all contributed by local cottage industries. She has also partnered with local restaurants to mount bridal fashion shows for the dinner crowd.

"I'm learning that once a woman is engaged, she immediately starts to look at dresses, and once she's settled on a dress, that sets the theme for the entire wedding, whether it's formal or casual or romantic or modern," McCue says.

And thrift is not just a state of mind. More prospective brides are going to Goodwill Industries, which has a revolving selection of second-hand gowns at its outlets. Spokesperson Michelle Smith says successful promotion through pre-prom and wedding season fashion shows held across New England have resulted in sales of thousands of formal gowns-including many gently used wedding dresses.

"Our stores aren't like going into a bridal shop; you never know what you're going to find in the Goodwill store. That said, there is a definite uptick in our wedding business," says Smith.

"People are coming in, not just for dresses, but they're getting creative and thrifty as they shop for linens, plates, silverware-just about anything they need, they can find here."

Diamonds and Photos are Forever

While brides and grooms may be nickel-and-diming many aspects of their wedding, they don't seem to be holding back on the bling. After nearly 20 years in business, Helen Rage, manager at Charles Rage Jewelers in Salem, says if anything, people seem to be spending more on wedding jewelry. "All the young kids are buying larger diamonds. It's like they need the big diamonds with the more expensive settings. They're trying to keep up with their friends," says Rage.

That's not to say you can't get the sparkle for less. Greg Germanton of Gem Jeweler in Derry says his second-hand estate jewelry selection has never been larger. "When people come in looking for wedding rings, they can compare our selection of new merchandise against the charm of something antique and may find something that will save them 50 to 75 percent."

Germanton says vendors continue to roll out more affordable jewelry, offering cluster settings that mimic a larger-carat diamond. Increasing demand for unique settings is also boosting his custom-designed jewelry business.

Diamonds aren't the only thing that last forever. So do the photos from the big day. But wedding photographers are starting to feel the pinch too. Kerry Mattson of Portsmouth-based Mattson Photography had a banner year in 2009, but noticed a dip in bookings this year. She says people may be holding back until their personal economic situations stabilize. "I still have a balanced mix between people looking to spare no expense, and those calling for quotes to comparison shop and spend the least amount of money," she says. Even bargain shopping, brides can expect to spend about $2,000 for photos.

But some people decide to rely on friends and family to play photographer for them. "So many people think they can just grab a digital camera and call themselves a wedding photographer. You need more than a good camera.

A lot goes into shooting a wedding," Mattson says. "The last place people should be scrimping is on photos. It's the one thing that lasts, long after the ceremony is finished and the party ends."

And while most of the cake doesn't make it past the reception (traditionally, just one piece), the cake is often the centerpiece. Jennifer Wojtaszek, general manager for Frederick's Pastries in Amherst, says she sees her share of orders for smaller wedding cakes, but there are still people dropping big bucks for elaborate showstoppers. "Last weekend we had two 300-person cakes and this weekend, we have several smaller ones. No matter what size, it seems like couples aren't scrimping on cake. It's a big part of the tradition," Wojtaszek says. Her cakes start at $4 per person, with plenty of options for indulgence. She credits the Food Network's cake-baking programming for customers' creative requests.

Paul Brown, owner and executive chef at Madeleine's in Concord, is a relative newcomer in a fairly saturated market, yet word-of-mouth advertising has tripled his wedding business in the past year. "We're not advertising cakes anymore, we're so busy," Brown says. For competitive reasons, he does not disclose his sales, but says his French specialty recipes and statewide delivery are solid selling points.

Littleton florist Emily Alberini of EH Floral Studio says the most notable trend in her business is interest in local growers. "More couples than ever are trying to avoid a big carbon footprint by requesting local flowers in season to support the local economy rather than importing. Another trend I see is a lot of clients deciding not to do flowers for moms and dads, and being careful about spending. They do without bouquets or boutonnieres, which is definitely an economic choice. People aren't feeling pressure to do what's traditional anymore," she says.

At the other end of the spectrum, Carrie Scribner of Dutch Bloemen Winkel in Jackson specializes in imported florals. "We use more Dutch and European blooms and mix in local seasonal when available, but our style has a distinctive European flair, which is a real selling point," Scribner says. "Brides today are looking for something different, and that's what we offer." In recent years, she says brides are more informed and generally spend about 15 percent of their total budget on flowers. "Weddings are still one of the most important parties people throw. We know so much money for weddings is normally tied up in people's stocks, which have been hurting, so naturally we see a down trend in the past year or so in what people are spending," Scribner says.


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