Can same-sex marriage revive Las Vegas’ wedding industry?

Teresa Jo Gifford, left, and Dawn Ellen Wise exchange vows at Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel.

The Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage throughout the United States was just a few days old. Dawn Ellen Wise and her partner of 13 years, Teresa Jo Gifford, were packed and ready to vacation in Las Vegas.

Wise thought it would be a thrill to get married in Las Vegas, having seen movies and TV shows about wild and memorable Vegas weddings, but she didn’t know if Gifford shared her feelings. So she kept quiet on the subject.

Lucky for her, Gifford spoke up.

“Hey, we’re going to Vegas,” Gifford said. “Do you want to get married there?”

It was decided. The Kentucky natives would have a Vegas wedding.

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Click to enlarge photo

The Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel celebrates the marriage of Teresa Jo Gifford and Dawn Ellen Wise on its marquee.

For the Las Vegas wedding industry, couples like Wise and Gifford offer hope for a better financial future after years of steady decline.

In the past decade, the city’s wedding industry has dropped by about 40 percent — a major blow considering the business generated about $2 billion for Clark County.

To stop the wedding free-fall, the Clark County Commission increased the marriage license fee to $77 from $60 with the intention of using the bulk of the extra revenue on marketing and advertising to try to restore Las Vegas to its marriage glory days. Meanwhile, in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling, the local wedding industry is expecting an infusion of business from LGBT couples.

But how much of a difference will same-sex marriage make for the industry’s bottom line? Opinions vary.

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According to a 2014 study by the Williams Institute at UCLA, as many as 3,570 same-sex couples in Nevada may choose to marry in the next three years. That could generate as much as $52 million in expenditures to the state and local economy in wedding arrangements and tourist activities such as lodging and food.

The study does not include same-sex couples who may travel to Las Vegas to get married. Christy Mallory, senior counsel for the Williams Institute, said the biggest help would be the potential $4.2 million Nevada stands to gain in sales tax revenue from same-sex marriages.

“It’s not just the businesses that have something to gain,” Mallory said. “What’s huge is that there’s money coming from out of state.”

Marriage on the decline nationwide

Las Vegas is not alone in the marriage decline. The U.S. as a whole has seen a progressive decrease in the number of weddings. The Pew Research Center found that in 2011, 51 percent of American adults were married, compared to 72 percent in 1960.

Kat Hertlein, a UNLV professor in the marriage and family therapy program, says the drop is due to several factors, including:

• Sometimes people see their parents in marriages that did not last, so they tend to do the opposite of their parents

• Benefits that used to be exclusive to marriages are now applicable for domestic partnerships

• Society puts less emphasis on having to be married to be a parent

• Society puts less emphasis on being married to live together

But there are skeptics who doubt same-sex marriages will be a cure-all for Las Vegas’ wedding industry.

Kathryn Hamm, publisher of Wedding Wire’s, says same-sex couples, just like plenty of straight couples, often want a romantic ceremony. The 24/7 party scene and infamous slogan, “What happens here, stays here,” does little to promote that.

“Las Vegas has the spas and really great entertainment, but that predominant marketing isn’t about romance,” Hamm said. “It’s about play and adult entertainment. I think any city that is promoting itself can be multiple things, but if there’s something popular and particular to that destination, it’s very difficult to sell something else counter to that.”

But Hamm stressed same-sex wedding ceremonies wouldn’t necessarily have to be Las Vegas’ forte.

“That’s not to say there isn’t a market,” she said. “There are opportunities for honeymoons and bachelor and bachelorette parties.”

Ann Parsons, marketing director of Vegas Weddings, said the city could specialize in vow renewals, as well.

“Seventy-five percent of the people coming to Vegas are married already,” she said. “We could become the vow-renewal capital of the world. That’s another untapped market that needs education.”

David Paisley, research director for Community Marketing Inc., a research-and-marketing firm that studies the demographics of the LGBT community’s economic impact, said Las Vegas should market not only to tourists but valley residents as well.

“If I was a hotel, I would market to my local community first because local people are more likely to get married in their home state,” he said. “I think Las Vegas is unique because it can have both.”

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Las Vegas is no stranger to LGBT marketing. In fact, it trailed only New York and San Francisco in last year’s Community Marketing Inc. survey on LGBT marketing.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority started marketing to the community in the early 2000s. The LVCVA connects members with LGBT events, on and off the Strip.

“The LGBT community was a little bit more recession-proof,” said Jim McMichael, LVCVA’s specialty markets manager. “They tend to have a propensity to travel.”

Between June 2014 and June 2015, LGBT travelers to Las Vegas spent an estimated $11.8 million, according to McMichael. And that’s just convention travel.

“Traditionally, gay couples have no kids,” Paisley said. “Anyone who doesn’t have children is more likely to travel.”

A 2014 survey by Consumer Marketing found that from 2013 to 2014, traveling increased by 32 percent among the LGBT community.

Bob Witeck, president of communications firm Witeck Communications, which specializes in the gay and lesbian consumer market, said the best bet for Las Vegas is for the city to understand same-sex couples’ behavior, regardless of what aspect of the wedding industry it chooses to emphasize.

“Oftentimes if they’re not partnered, gay people like to travel in groups,” Witeck said. “(Las Vegas is) the kind of spot that might lend itself to spending time together. It just gives enough entertainment options.”

Gaming companies like Caesars Entertainment and MGM Resorts International, which for years have marketed to the LGBT community, have reaped the benefits.

When Caesars Entertainment performed same-sex weddings at the Linq’s High Roller, it was a big hit. MGM is now in its sixth year of hosting Pride 48, the home of the LGBT podcasting community.

Even small-business owners have seen profits increase. Maria Romano, a licensed minister, has made it clear on her website that same-sex couples are welcome.

“You really have to put yourself in your clients’ shoes,” Romano said. “This is an important day and you really have to feel the love that they feel.”

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Hand in hand, Wise and Gifford frolic down the aisle and outside of Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel. Their white tailcoats flutter in the wind as they turn toward the chapel to read the flashing sign: “Married 7-14-15, Teresa and Dawn.”

The two share a kiss, while onlookers applaud and cheer.

“We were truly shocked at how we were treated,” Gifford said. “It’s truly different from Kentucky.”