Las Vegas wedding chapels deal with love recession

Eriess Davis didn't want a traditional wedding: No conservative music and rows of unfamiliar guests. She wanted A Little White Chapel, in glitzy Las Vegas.

Wearing a mini-dress, David marched with her boyfriend, clad in black jeans, through a set of gold elevator doors, and into a waiting room where they could buy garters, memory books and bride and groom baseball caps.

For her, Valentine's Day 2011 was the perfect date.

"It's the day of love," said Davis, 23, as she and Matthew Jacobs, 23, waited for a minister.

It may be. But there's not much of it going around these days for wedding chapels in a city known for quickie marriages. There's a love recession in Las Vegas.

Fewer than 92,000 couples married in or around Sin City in 2010. The last time the city married fewer people, it was 1993.

Nevada wedding professionals and officials insist the decline is not a reflection of Las Vegas' waning popularity. Instead, they blame the foul economy and the ebbing interest in marriage.

"The volume is down," said Joni Moss, a longtime Las Vegas wedding planner and founder of the Nevada Wedding Association, a business group. "The number speaks for itself. And people are just spending less."

In Nevada, 85 percent of all marriages start in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, and almost five percent of all marriages in the U.S. are held near the Las Vegas Strip's neon marquees and smoky gambling halls.

Marriages peaked in Clark County in 2004, when 128,250 couples tied the knot. Fewer people said "I do" in each subsequent year.

Local governments, which issue marriage licenses, are feeling the effects.

Clark County made more than $7 million at the peak in 2004. Last year, wedding-related revenue fell to roughly $5.5 million. Coupled with declining property taxes, the wedding bust is a real bruise, the county says.

"It is a major part of the tourism," County Clerk Diana Alba said.

To help offset declining revenue, Alba's office stopped offering 24-hour wedding licenses in 2006, she said.

"The marriage demographic is aging," she said. "The baby boomer generation is all getting old. Marriage goes in and out of fashion and I think right now it is not as fashionable to get married."

In good years, weddings pump $643 million into the local economy, said Alicia Malone, a spokeswoman with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. About 1 million people visit each year to attend a wedding.

To make up for the wedding downturn, chapels are encouraging long-time couples to renew their vows and promoting commitment ceremonies for gay grooms and brides. Gay marriage is prohibited in Nevada.

At Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel, business was up 20 percent in 2010 compared with 2009 partly because of the chapel's outreach to already married couples, said Brian Mills, general manager.

The chapel offers the kind of wedding frills Las Vegas is famous for: couples can get married by "Alice Cooper," "Tom Jones," and "Marilyn Monroe," among other celebrity impersonators.

In the most popular package, the bride can roll down the aisle in a vintage 1964 pink Cadillac driven by an Elvis Presley-lookalike. That package starts at $777.

But there's only so many ways chapels can try to offset the marriage crash.

The national marriage rate has been on the skids since at least 2004, according to data from the Pew Research Center and the Census.

The Pew survey says marriages are on the decline among all groups, especially low-income couples. In 1960, two-thirds of all 20-somethings were married, Pew found. Only 26 percent were in 2008.

The lure of Las Vegas wedding has long been tied to the state's streamlined wedding laws. Neither blood tests nor waiting periods are required in the city and marriage licenses can be had between 8 a.m. and midnight.

"We figured since we were coming here for vacation, we might as well get married," said Joe Schiebert, 50, who wed Christina Schiebert, 42, on Valentine's Day in Las Vegas. The couple was visiting from Oklahoma.

"It's an easy day to remember," she said.

That may help explain why other prominent days, such as New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, are among the most popular wedding days in Las Vegas.

The second-most popular are triple digit dates that are supposed to be lucky, say June 6, 2006 or Oct. 10, 2010. This year, Nov. 11 — 11-11-11 — could result in thousands of new Las Vegas marriages, wedding officials said.

Valentine's Day is more a game of chance. Of the past five Valentine's Days, the most popular wedding year was 2009, when the holiday fell on a Saturday and 1,796 couples married in Clark County.

There was a time not too long ago, however, when getting married in Las Vegas was in fashion.

Frank Sinatra wed Mia Farrow on the Las Vegas Strip in 1966. Elvis and Priscilla Presley tied the knot Vegas-style in 1967. In 2004, Spears, then 22 and wearing a baseball cap, briefly married a childhood friend.

Davis, of Charleston, S.C., wanted her wedding at the same chapel where Spears wed. So, she rounded up her mother, a best friend, her boyfriend and his mother for the trip.

"Vegas is supposed to be a big party," she said. "Everyone gets married in Las Vegas."