Fewer going to the chapel

The number of marriage licenses issued in Clark County dropped in 2007 for the third straight year to just under 107,000, the lowest number since 1996.

A variety of factors get the blame: the economy, gas prices, national trends in marriage and family, international competition, and a fracas over a rogue wedding chapel that was forcibly closed in October.

But just because weddings are down doesn’t necessarily mean the wedding business is down. Some in the industry point to increased traffic and new opportunities, and there’s evidence that Las Vegas’ share of the national wedding market is holding steady.

At the same time there’s a fair amount of pessimism.

"I’m disappointed," said Cliff Evarts, who owns two chapels downtown and is spending $3 million to build a third. "I believe the number of weddings in Vegas should track the number of visitors to Vegas."

Through October 2007, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority recorded 32.9 million visitors, a slight increase over 2006.

Weddings, however, are in a precipitous slide.

There were 106,789 marriage licenses issued in Clark County in 2007, down from 112,531 the previous year.

That’s a 5 percent drop — and a 15 percent plunge from 2004’s all-time high of 125,967.

Those numbers don’t tell the whole story, said Joni Moss, a wedding consultant who’s also on the board of the Nevada Wedding Association.

"Let’s not forget renewals of vows and commitment ceremonies," she said, noting that those aren’t recorded as marriages. "That’s big business … but we can’t call anyone and get a number for those."

At the Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel, vow renewals make up 40 percent to 50 percent of the business, said owner Ron DeCar.

"I can’t say that my business is down," he said, adding that the past few months have actually been pretty good. "My business is relatively the same or better than last year."

He sees economic factors challenging chapels. For example, he includes gasoline cards in some of his packages to entice people to drive here to get married.

Chapels in casino-resorts on the Strip, meanwhile, are feeling the heat from increased competition in the Caribbean, Hawaii and Mexico, said Alan Feldman, spokesman for MGM Mirage.

He said none of the chapel managers were surprised to hear that marriage license sales were down.

"We’re feeling it," he said, although the downturn wasn’t universal. MGM Mirage’s Monte Carlo and Mandalay Bay chapels had increased business because of new offerings and a remodeled chapel, respectively.

Renewals and commitment ceremonies are a good way for a chapel to diversify, "but we also have to be realistic that they represent a fairly small number when it compares to the mainstream weddings," Feldman said.

"We’ve got to continue to get the word out. Las Vegas has the ability to do the wild and wacky ceremonies that other locations can’t offer," he said.

"We still think that in terms of coordination, ease of access to services, Las Vegas is still the best place to be."

Evarts said he has heard from a number of people who feel a pinch in their business.

"I haven’t heard from anybody who’s doing gangbusters," he said.

He and others in the industry worry about local chapels getting a black eye because of the attention surrounding the Las Vegas Garden of Love chapel, which had its business license revoked late last year.

For years the chapel was accused of roughshod, hypercompetitive tactics and dismal customer service.

Now that it has closed, couples who had reservations there find themselves flailing about to save their arrangements.

That ugly scenario is further smudged by the fact that a number of weddings at the Garden of Love were improperly witnessed, and the Clark County clerk’s office advised some couples to get another marriage license to make sure their unions are legitimate.

And Evarts is still waiting for the city of Las Vegas to propose new rules for handbilling outside the marriage license office, where most of the Garden of Love complaints originated.

"The city did the right thing, but they need to finish the job," Evarts said. "We’re going to have to rebuild the wedding industry from scratch."

Las Vegas’ downward numbers also could reflect a larger trend: Fewer people across the country are getting married.

The annual marriage rate hovered at just above 10 people per 1,000 throughout the 1970s and ’80s, but started falling in the late ’80s. In 2006, the rate was 7.3 people per 1,000, the lowest rate in 86 years.

People are marrying later and divorcing less often, said David Popenoe, an emeritus scholar at Rutgers’ National Marriage Project. People are also cohabitating without marrying at much higher rates.

If the Vegas wedding industry wants to boost its business, it should focus on more than just its image, Popenoe suggested.

"What they’ve got to work on is getting more people married across the country," he said.

Though weddings are down, a higher percentage of U.S. marriages are taking place in Las Vegas.

In 1985, for example, Clark County had 59,496 weddings — about 2.4 percent of the 2.4 million weddings recorded nationally.

By 1995, that percentage had grown to 4.3 percent. And in 2005, Clark County’s 121,282 weddings made up 5.4 percent of the 2.2 million weddings across the country.

Social trends and population growth are probably behind those numbers, Popenoe said.

"You have fewer people being married under traditional auspices. People are having their own self-designed ceremonies," he said.

Also, "the place is growing so fast, you’ve got more people of marriageable age all the time."

Contact reporter Alan Choate at achoate@reviewjournal.com or (702) 229-6435.

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