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Same-Sex Sells

In a challenging economy, wedding vendors are hopeful that wedding bells for gay and lesbian couples will mean a surge in business

by Elyse Beaudoin on August 31, 2011

On Aug. 7, the large ballroom window at Birch Hill Catering Co. illuminated a decadent wedding expo. In the corner of the room, melted chocolate rolled smoothly over the tiers of a fountain. Near the front, models sported classic gowns and tuxedos. A young man in the hallway handed out peach-flavored champagne with berries floating on the surface. In another ballroom, buffets of gourmet food wrapped around extravagant floral arrangements. Friendly faces offered free samples and brochures: photographers, bakeries, DJs, travel agencies, priests, resorts, entertainers, and finance companies all in a row.

It was like any other wedding expo. The only difference was the abundance of same-sex couples, a new market that many New York businesses are looking to reach. Between an engagement and a honeymoon, a typical wedding affects more than a hundred businesses directly and indirectly, including companies not normally thought about when watching a couple exchange vows. Nationwide, the wedding industry is an approximate $47.2 billion sector, but there has been a lull in recent years, and companies are eager to invite fresh faces.
“The Same Love, Same Rights Wedding Expo was the perfect way to reach out to the gay and lesbian community,” says Michele Ody, the office administrator at the Old Daley Inn Catering Co. in Troy. “It was time well spent. Our sales manager met many nice couples and has since taken them on tours and begun the process of getting them booked.”

The Old Daley Inn has been involved in the wedding industry for more than 35 years. It was one of more than 40 regional businesses invited to the first ever Capital Region gay and lesbian wedding expo. The Rainbow Wedding Network, the expo coordinator, was founded in 2000 by couple and co-owners Cindy Sproul and Marianne Puechl. It started as the first national gay and lesbian gift registry. The Rainbow Wedding Network has since hosted more than 50 Same Love, Same Rights wedding expos in 19 states and has an advertiser base of more than 7,000 businesses.

“The company’s mission remains to serve as a bridge for gay and lesbian couples and their allies to access the resources they need to successfully plan their weddings, free from discrimination,” wrote Sproul and Puechl on the About Us page of RainbowWeddingNetwork.com.

So what does the addition of approximately 62,000 same-sex marriages in the next three years mean for the New York state economy? In May, the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), a rogue legislative committee consisting of Democratic Sens. Jeff Klein, Diane Savino, David Carlucci, and David Valesky, produced a report on the potential economic benefits of passing the Marriage Equality Act.

In the report, IDC claims that the state stands to generate about $284 million in revenues from same-sex wedding services, tourism, and marriage fees. When calculating sales and New York City hotel occupancy taxes, revenues climb to about $310.5 million. This $26.5 million tax boost does not factor in hotel occupancy tax for Albany County. The government also hopes to save about $80.1 million on social programs including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Safety Net Assistance, Family Health Plus, and Supplemental Security Income for the Aged, Blind and Disabled. Eligibility for these programs is less likely in the event of a marriage. All of these financial statistics helped sway the state Senate’s Republican majority into passing the Marriage Equality Act. So far, there are no specific plans to use this projected additional revenue in expanding the economy further.

“We have to wait and see what we have for a budget next year,” said Rich Azzopardi, Sen. Jeff Klein’s press secretary. “People in the industry are very excited.”

The legalization of same-sex marriage in New York state is expected to increase both inbound and outbound travel. Not only will there be an increase in honeymooning couples leaving out of New York, but more than 41,000 out-of-state same-sex couples are projected to travel here in the next three years to tie the knot.

“We want to make New York a destination for equality,” says Azzopardi.

In addition to the travel industry, businesses that are directly connected to the LGBT community will be heavily affected. Some LGBT businesses have already seen increase in revenue. Christopher Broughton, co-owner of GayAlbanyOnline.com, a website designed for Albany’s gay and lesbian community, was also invited to the Same Love, Same Rights Wedding Expo.

“Before the passage of marriage equality in New York state, we would typically get one to two inquiries a week from businesses looking to partner with us,” says Broughton. “Now we see one or two a day. This has enabled us to launch an online wedding guide, and a wedding announcements section.”

Not all businesses are feeling these immediate effects. For companies specifically geared toward weddings, it may be too soon to see the impact of the Marriage Equality Act, which went into effect on July 24.

“I think some of the projected revenues are exaggerated,” says Ody. “For many, the desire to be married is primary and the party afterwards is a simpler affair. It’s not to say that we are not booking weddings, but they are coming in like all weddings do.”

Windham Mountain Wedding Resort, another attendee of the wedding expo at Birch Hill, had similar sentiments to those of the Old Daley Inn. “We’re not sure if it was a success yet,” says Erika DeWitt of Windham Mountain Wedding Resort, “It was our first Same Love, Same Rights Wedding Expo and we have not seen any immediate interest in our venue.”

Even if the same-sex wedding industry reaches the levels that the IDC has predicted, will the revenues last? Changes in societal standards have led marriage numbers to drop about 32 percent since the mid-1980s. From 2005 to 2010, the U.S. wedding-industry revenues plummeted by $20.3 billion.

The average age of a same-sex couple looking to marry is around the mid-40s. At the Same Love, Same Rights wedding expo, there were only a few couples in their 20s. The majority of those same-sex couples getting married have been waiting a very long time to do so. With the floodgates open to this middle-aged surplus market, it’s hard to imagine that these revenues are sustainable.

“For the first couple of years there will be a burst of same-sex weddings,” says Azzopardi. “Eventually you’ll see a leveling off.”

In the meantime, many businesses, large and small, that cater to weddings are hopeful that the Marriage Equality Act will boost their revenues, especially if they reach out to and gain visibility in this new marketplace. When Linda Mussman and Claudia Bruce, longtime partners and also co-directors of Time & Space Limited in Hudson, tied the knot on midnight the day same-sex marriage became legal in the state, it was a high-profile moment in the local gay and lesbian community—and their vendors shared the spotlight.

“It was very exciting,” says Regina Simmons, a Hudson baker who did the couple’s wedding cake and has baked cakes for more same-sex weddings since then.

For Jeanne Goldman, owner and operator of the Rosery Flower Shop in Hudson, which flies the rainbow flag on the front of its building, the Mussman-Bruce wedding brought home a slice of the business she had already been doing for destination weddings. “We have been doing them all along,” she says. “We’ve done a lot of Cape Cod weddings” for local couples who picked up their flowers from her shop before heading east. “Linda was the first legal one in New York that we did, and we’ve done a couple since then.”

And while the increase in business has been modest, Goldman hopes it will continue to be an upward trend. “We’ve had a a lot of inquiries,” she says, and she speculates that a few last-minute sales she has made recently were for gay weddings. “The city of Hudson has become more open to gay business and gay social life. . . . We’re hoping to see an incease in our wedding business. I’m sure the holiday seaon is going to bring quite a few more.”