I don't: The decline of Las Vegas quickie weddings

Image: Little White Wedding Chapel
Amanda and Albert Burton await their marriage certificate as Albert's mother looks on after the two married at the Little White Wedding Chapel earlier this year in Las Vegas. Fewer than 92,000 couples married in or around Sin City last year. The last time the city of drive-through wedding chapels married fewer people, it was 1993.Julie Jacobson / AP
/ Source: Business Week

The quickie wedding, long a Las Vegas tradition for romance-besotted tourists, may be the latest casualty of rough economic times. Fewer couples have been pledging their love in Sin City as the number of visitors has fallen and some couples postpone marriage or shun it entirely. “If you don’t have a stable job, it’s hard to say, ‘Let’s get married and start a family,’ ” says Diana Alba, clerk of Nevada’s Clark County, whose office issued 91,890 marriage licenses last year, down 16 percent from 2007.

Dianne Schiller, owner of Renta-Dress & Tux Shop, a wedding and formal wear store in Las Vegas, says her business has dropped 15 percent from two years ago, forcing her to stock more inexpensive gowns. “People are spending way less,” Schiller says. Adds Cliff Evarts, founder of chapel operator Vegas Weddings: “Gas prices, airplane ticket prices, all those things impact people’s ability or desire to come to Vegas.” Some 37.3 million people visited the city last year, down from 39.2 million in 2007, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

The slump is prompting the 90-plus wedding chapels in the county — where there are no requirements for blood tests or a waiting period — to shift their focus to husbands and wives seeking to renew their vows and “commitment ceremonies” for same-sex couples who can’t legally wed in Nevada. “Just because there is a decline in marriage certificates, there isn’t a decline in love,” says Charolette Richards, owner of the Little White Wedding Chapel, which offers drive-through service in its “Tunnel of Love.” Richards, who in 1987 married Bruce Willis and Demi Moore and has hosted weddings for Britney Spears and Joan Collins, says recommitment ceremonies now make up about a third of her business, a big increase over prior years. “People today are renewing their vows more than ever,” she says.

At $60 for a marriage license, Clark County has lost some $2 million in annual fees from weddings since the peak in 2004. Now the county is considering official certificates for couples renewing their matrimonial commitments, which could help make up some of the difference, Alba says. “If we did 1,000 annually and we charge, say, $45, that would still be some revenue that we didn’t have before,” she says. The certificates under consideration would be optional and would display the couple’s original wedding date. “We want it to be something fun,” Alba says. “There is a market among tourists, particularly from foreign countries, who want … a certificate that contains an official seal that says Las Vegas.”

Chapel operator Evarts is lobbying local officials to issue the certificates. Since 78 percent of visitors are married, he says, it’s smart to shift the focus away from weddings. That would allow companies such as his to market to some 30 million potential customers a year, as opposed to the far smaller number of single visitors. “There’s a real opportunity,” Evarts says, “for Vegas to reinvent itself as the vow renewal capital of the world.”

The bottom line: As the economy suffers, Las Vegas is seeing fewer quickie weddings, but at one chapel vow renewals now make up a third of business.