Saturday, March 28, 2009

Brides kiss goodbye to dream weddings

NEW YORK - The recession in the United States also hits the wedding industry, as companies go bankrupt, taking down dreams of brides with them. Couples are scaling back on items such as champaigne and chocolate fountains, a sector expert says, while some unlucky couples have to change original wedding plans due to rising bankruptcies in the sector

Connie Banks was planning a "bride’s dream" at Tuscany of Garden Oaks, a Houston banquet hall with ceilings painted to resemble the Sistine Chapel. Then the hall’s owner filed for bankruptcy.

Banks, whose family paid $22,000 for the space and catering, was suddenly left with no place to put the 250 people on her wedding list.

"I still feel guilty my parents lost all that money," said Banks, a 24-year-old teacher who found a new venue at the additional cost of having to change the date to a Friday from a Saturday this June. "I also feel guilty guests will have to take more time off from work to attend a Friday wedding."

The $60 billion-a-year U.S. wedding industry is contracting along with the rest of the economy, said Millie Martini Bratten, editor-in-chief of Conde Nast’s Brides magazine in New York. Couples are scaling back on champagne and chocolate fountains, and business failures by florists and caterers are forcing changes in plans.

Love in the time of economic recession
"People don’t time when they fall in love with the economic cycles," Martini Bratten said. "But when times are tight, we do see a pull-back in spending."

The average cost of tying the knot in the U.S. fell 24 percent last year from 2007, to $21,814, and slipped in the first quarter to $19,196, according to Wedding Report, a research firm.

The number of vows exchanged will probably drop this year because every economic contraction since 1945 has been followed by a decline in weddings, said Shane McMurray, the firm’s chief executive officer. He said there were 100,000 fewer in 2002 than 2001, when the U.S. was in a recession for eight months.

The economy has shed about 5.1 million jobs since December 2007, the most in a post-World War II slump, according to the Labor Department. The U.S. jobless rate is 8.5 percent, the highest since 1983.

Wedding industry unemployment can’t be calculated because photographers, dress makers and others usually don’t limit their work to one kind of event, McMurray said. "Ninety percent of wedding vendors are small businesses, so these folks are obviously struggling."

In Manhattan, couples are downsizing by opting for cocktail parties instead of sit-down dinners, said Amy Aversa, owner of Sweet Basil Catering in New York.

"It’s definitely forcing caterers to get more creative," said Aversa, who estimates her average client is spending 30 percent less this year.

To trim the budget for a September reception, Aversa said she’s using fewer fresh flowers in centerpieces and filling empty spaces with candles and photographs.

She’s also getting more requests for cupcakes rather than multilayered bridal cakes.

For Margarita Lambos in Charlotte, North Carolina, the cost of the shrinking economy was $6,200. Lambos paid cash in advance when she ordered a $4,000 Swarovski crystal-embellished Ines Di Santo gown for her walk down the aisle. Then the recession claimed another victim: the bridal boutique that had her money and her dress.

"Their bankruptcy almost ruined my wedding," said Lambos, a 26-year-old stay-at-home mother. After La Bella Sposa closed in June, Lambos said she contacted the designer’s Toronto studio and, parting with $2,200 more, was married in August in her "dream dress."

The bridal store couldn’t survive a pullback in discretionary spending, said Rick Mitchell, the owners’ bankruptcy lawyer.

Searching for a second-choice wedding location
"People don’t necessarily need an $8,000 wedding gown to get married," Mitchell said.

In Houston, after Tuscany of Garden Oaks closed and owner Titus filed for bankruptcy, Banks reserved her second-choice wedding location, Chateau Polonez. She said she thinks her situation "turned out on the better end" of the spectrum.

Minute Maid Park, home of baseball’s Houston Astros, was the site of weddings for 33 other brides left without reception spaces by Titus, which also owned Bella Terraza, another venue that shut down.

The recession hadn’t begun when Laura McCormick, a stay-at- home mother in Middle Township, New Jersey, posed for pictures with her wedding party in March 2007. McCormick, 28, said she paid Celebrations Studios $4,000 and still doesn’t have a professional photograph of the event.

Company becomes unable to pay photographers
Celebration Studios was low on cash as business started to slow and couldn’t pay photographers who took pictures around the time of the McCormick wedding, said Jeffrey Herrmann, Celebration Studio’s attorney. The company closed in January 2008.

Katharine Atkinson, a 29-year-old grant writer in Portland, Oregon, has mailed save-the-date cards for her August wedding at the Portland Classical Chinese Garden.

Because her father, a home-builder, hasn’t made a sale in eight months and her mother and stepfather lost their jobs, she said, she’s concerned about what she’ll be spending."It feels uncomfortable for me to be in a celebratory wedding mood," she said in an e-mail. "It didn’t take long for the glow of being newly engaged to wear off."

Re print from Bloomberg

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