By: Kelcie Grega
Graceland Wedding Chapel in downtown has been the site of numerous celebrity weddings over the years — Jon Bon Jovi and Billy Ray Cyrus, to name a few, both were married there. The chapel even offers a package in which couples are married by an Elvis impersonator, in addition to more traditional weddings and vow renewals.
Chapel owner Dee Dee Duffy said business was steady — but the chapel could handle more weddings. And that is a sentiment shared by others in the local wedding industry.
Las Vegas, long considered the “Wedding Capital of the World,” isn’t hosting as many nuptials as in years past. In 2004, Clark County issued 128,000 marriage licenses. In 2018, that number was down to 74,534.
“We are busy, but could we be busier? Absolutely. Were we busier at one time? Yes, we were,” Duffy said. “We would love to figure out a way to make Vegas exciting and cool again (for weddings).”
County Clerk Lynn Goya, who has long been concerned about the decline in marriage licenses, said the wedding tourism industry makes up 4% of the visitor volume in Las Vegas and generates $69 million in annual tax revenue.
“Everyone’s hair should be on fire,” she said. “It’s an international brand that continues to struggle. I don’t intend to see it die under my watch.”
Goya helped establish the Wedding Tourism Fund to market Las Vegas’ wedding industry. A $14 fee is charged for each marriage license issued by the county. The money is used in a marketing program under a joint venture with Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. The Wedding Tourism Fund had more than $3 million as of December 2018.
Goya attributes Las Vegas’ decline in marriage licenses to competition, including destination weddings in tropical locations such as Hawaii. She is also seeing a larger demand for bigger, more traditional weddings — not the stereotypical 15-minute ceremony highlighted in movies like “The Hangover.”
“We haven’t really been marketing effectively for the last 20 to 25 years,” Goya said. “This brand of the drunk wedding by Elvis you regret later needs to change … first of all its illegal to marry someone drunk, although it makes for a good movie. … We need to market the image that actually happens.”
This decline is prompting those in the wedding business to brainstorm ways to draw more people here.
Some wedding chapels, like Graceland, offer renewal packages — although those ceremonies are not tracked through the clerk’s office. Viva Las Vegas Wedding has themed ceremonies such as Beach Party (get married in swim attire) or Intergalactic (for outer space enthusiasts).
Wedding planner Jodi Harris of Sight and Sound Events has seen many changes in her 25 years in the Las Vegas wedding business. She’s seen couples drop traditions like the garter belt and bouquet toss, or replace sit-down formal dinners for food stations where guests serve themselves.
“I’m seeing a lot less formality and more of a party atmosphere,” she said.
And Las Vegas still remains a great place to host a party, Goya said. In 2018, about 80% of Clark County marriage licenses were issued to visitors.
“When I ask my clients, why Vegas, they say it’s because they don’t have to worry about entertaining their guests for the weekend,” Harris said.
Some, like Harris, says the decline in marriage rates could be attributed to the millennials, who are staying single longer than couples from previous generations and are somewhat slower in forming households, according to the Pew Research Center.
But Goya said millennials weren’t killing the wedding industry; they are just changing it.
“They’re waiting for that right person,” she said. “They’re actually making very good decisions. If you look at marriage and divorce statistics, their marriages are more stable; baby boomers are the ones getting divorced.”
Goya said millennials wanted to have a different wedding-day experience than their parents and were opting for a more authentic experience. They are drawn to a more “vintage Vegas” setting, meaning the chapels in downtown are a huge draw.
Goya said weddings have helped build the community. Now, it’s time to show the world more of what Vegas has to offer.
“We are a great bargain over most destinations, we are the wedding experts,” she said. “Those things are why people come to Las Vegas.”