Las Vegas Woos Wedding-Vow Renewals as Quickie Marriages Decline

Las Vegas Woos Wedding-Vow Renewals
An Elvis impersonator sings to Beth Cates and Erik Berntsen, center, as they get married in the back of a pink Cadillac at the Little White Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas. Photographer: Rick Gershon/Getty Images

The quickie wedding, long a Las Vegas tradition for love-happy Nevada tourists, may be the latest casualty of the worst recession in decades.

Fewer couples flock to the Southwest’s Sin City to pledge their fidelity to an Elvis serenade these days as tough economic times lead some to postpone marriage or shun the rite entirely.

“If you don’t have a stable job, it’s hard to say, ‘Let’s get married and start a family,’” Diana Alba, clerk of Nevada’s Clark County, said in a telephone interview. Her office issues marriage licenses for couples who wed in Las Vegas.

The slump is prompting some of the city’s more than 60 wedding chapels to focus on husbands and wives seeking to renew their vows and to commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples who can’t legally wed in Nevada, Alba said. It also means lost revenue for the county, which charges $60 for a license, with $25 steered toward domestic-violence programs, Alba said.

Clark County marriage licenses have dropped from a 2004 peak of 128,250, according to the county’s website. In 2010, 91,890 were handed out, down 28 percent in six years.

“Just because there is a decline in marriage certificates, there isn’t a decline in love,” Charolette Richards, owner of the Little White Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas, said in a telephone interview. “There are people today that are renewing their vows more than ever.”

Keepsake for Couples

So much so that the county is considering producing keepsake certificates for couples reaffirming their matrimonial commitments -- for a fee, Alba said. Including Las Vegas, the county hosts more than 90 wedding chapels.

“If we did 1,000 annually, and we charge say, $45, that would still be some revenue that we didn’t have before,” Alba said. Her office gets a handful of calls each week from people asking about the procedure.

Richards, who in 1987 married movie stars Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, said she’s noticed an increase in vow renewals in the last few years. The recommitment ceremonies now make up about a third of her clientele.

Her business, which opened in 1946, offers drive-through service in its “Tunnel of Love.” Britney Spears and Joan Collins also have had weddings at her chapel.

Marriage in general has been on the decline as more people postpone weddings to put educational and career advancement first, or opt to live together without the formalities. U.S. Census Bureau data show 54.1 percent of adults were married in 2010, a decline from 57.3 percent in 2000. The median age of first marriages has risen to 28 for men and 26 for women in 2009 from 23 and 20, respectively, in 1950, according to the bureau.

Economics Role

“Economics have always played a role in people marrying,” said Sharon Sassler, a demographer at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

“Because it is harder to attain a stable middle-class status, people are deferring marriage or deciding to live together without marrying,” Sassler, who studies families, said in a telephone interview.

Cliff Evarts, founder and chief executive officer of chapel operator Vegas Weddings, said the economy has had a significant effect on the city’s matrimonial business in the past few years.

“Gas prices, airplane ticket prices, all those things impact people’s ability or desire to come to Vegas,” Evarts said. The desert city sits about 270 miles (430 kilometers) northeast of Los Angeles and about 2,500 miles west of New York.

Gasoline futures have climbed as much as 83 percent since the end of June 2009, the last month of the longest recession since the Great Depression. Contracts for August delivery rose 3.21 cents yesterday to settle at almost $3.15 a gallon on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Tourism Peak

About 37.3 million people visited Las Vegas last year, compared with a peak of 39.2 million in 2007, according to the city’s Convention and Visitors Authority. The recession began in December of that year.

The drop in visits is “tied to the broader recession,” Kevin Bagger, the authority’s senior director of marketing, said in a telephone interview.

The national jobless rate reached a 26-year high of 10.1 percent in October 2009. After sliding to 8.8 percent in March it rose to 9.2 percent last month. From the end of 2004 to the end of 2007, the rate averaged 4.8 percent.

Evarts said he has urged county officials to begin offering vow-renewal licenses, since 78 percent of the city’s annual visitors are married.

Change Focus

“We really need to change our focus from weddings to vow renewals,” he said. “We then are marketing to over 30 million customers a year as opposed to marketing to only 200,000 visitors a year.”

Evarts said he is meeting with Alba, the county clerk, and matrimonial-industry representatives on July 28 to discuss issuing such licenses. Alba said the certificates under consideration would be optional, not mandatory, and would display the couple’s original wedding date.

“We want it to be something fun, another fun reason to come to Las Vegas,” Alba said.

“There is a market among tourists, particularly those from foreign countries, who want to come to a government agency and get a certificate that contains an official seal and that says Las Vegas, Clark County, Nevada,” she said. Making it official policy may take months, including two county board meetings.

Chapel operators may benefit, Evarts said.

Reinventing Las Vegas

“There’s a real opportunity for Vegas to reinvent itself as the vow-renewal capital of the world,” Evarts said. Already-married couples recommitting themselves represent 5 percent to 10 percent of his business, he said.

Dianne Schiller, owner of Las Vegas-based Renta-Dress & Tux Shop, which provides wedding and formal wear, said her business has dropped by 15 percent from two years ago, prompting her to stock more gowns in the lower $150 range.

“People are spending way less,” Schiller said. “If it’s volume over quality, I don’t care as long as my doors are open and I’m in business still.”

Schiller said she caters to people who are getting married for the first time and “a lot of vow renewals.”

The state’s history as a nexus for matrimonial rites of passage dates back almost a century.

In the 1920s, Reno, in northern Nevada about 220 miles northeast of San Francisco, became a destination for wealthy women seeking a quick divorce, particularly after the state changed its law to reduce its residency requirement to three months. By 1931, the mandated in-state time fell to six weeks, said Eugene Moehring, who teaches history at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. The women would live on dude ranches or in Reno apartment houses, he said.

Revenue Generator

“It was a way to draw more revenue and visitors,” Moehring said by telephone. “Once they went to Reno, clubs opened catering to them, very posh places, because they had a lot of money. That’s when Reno really got on the map.”

During World War II, the state began attracting couples seeking a quick marriage, traveling to Reno from Northern California and to Las Vegas from Southern California to wed.

“No one knew whether they were going to live or die,” Moehring said.

The ease of getting a marriage license built the popularity of Las Vegas for quick weddings. No blood test or waiting period is required, according to the Clark County website.

“Applicants must be a biological male and a biological female, at least 18 years of age, and no nearer of kin than second cousins or cousins of half-blood, and not having a husband or wife living,” according to the county’s website.

Drawing Celebrities

Over the years, celebrity marriages in Las Vegas have fueled the city’s popularity as a launch pad for matrimonial bliss. Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow, Cindy Crawford and Richard Gere, and Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton all married in Vegas chapels.

“It’s part of the entertainment of the city that people can come here for a quick marriage,” Stephen Brown, an economics professor at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, said in a telephone interview.

Vow renewals are a new phenomenon, Moehring said. “Nobody was doing that 15 years ago.”

Richards, who has owned the Little White Wedding Chapel for 53 years, said the economy has brought couples together.

“Let’s face it: They’ve lost their homes, they’ve lost their jobs, but they haven’t lost each other,” she said.

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