Austin’s Wedding Business: The many people behing “I do.”

WEDDING BUSINESS…Devin Greaney…August, 2001

Virginia has its slogan… “Virginia is for lovers,” But Austin isn’t too far behind on those bragging rights.

Weddings are big business in the Austin Area. The 2000 census shows Austin-San Marcos to be the 38th largest metro in the country. A check of yellow pages advertisements comparing other communities of similar size shows when it comes to wedding oriented businesses, Austin leads in number of caterers, portrait photographers and disc jockeys. Raleigh-Durham leads in bridal shops, but Austin and Nashville tie for second place. Austin is 3rd behind Columbus, Ohio and Charlotte, North Carolina for floral shops.

Most see a happy couple, but many in Austin see customers. USABride.com says the average wedding costs from $12-$19,000. Though much in the way of jewelry and studio photography is done through national chains, small businesses have found niche’s providing the local flavor or specialties not filled by the big corporations. The local caterer, wedding planner and mariachi band is less likely to become part of the Fortune 500 with a spot on NASDAQ, but more likely to step out of the one size fits all mold.

Why so many wedding businesses?

Comparing similar sized areas, the Austin metro area has slightly less than average number of weddings for similar sized areas -9954 weddings in 1998. However recent census data of those locations confirms Austin has the greatest percentage 18- 34 year olds, prime marriage age. Austin is also by far the fast growing of similar sized metro areas.

“…all the business they can handle” is the way Rita Nowakowski, publisher of AUSTIN WEDDING PAGES describes the wedding business in the area. For 12 years, the quarterly magazine with a circulation of 16,000 has been underlined, hi lighted and dog-eared by couples taking the big step with ads for wedding businesses and others such as Realtors who see a new couple as opportunity.

Darin Starnes, manager of United Rental agrees the business is there. His location on West Anderson specializes in wedding accessories. One of his biggest challenges is “not having enough inventory for the larger events, trying not to turn down orders,” he said. Tables, chairs and linens seem to run out every weekend according to Starnes.

Photographer Brenda Ladd knows her competitors. That’s because, according to Ms Ladd, she trained many of them. “Twenty years ago when I got married I hired a commercial photographer. When I got the pictures back I just wept,” she said. The strict formula of the photographs did not capture the magic she remembered on her special day. “ I had never studied under anybody I just decided I had an eye for this,” and from the tears over her wedding pictures her business was born. With advertisements in many different publications, a website and twenty years of clientele, Ladd will be moving from her studio on South Lamar to a larger facility on South Congress.

In contrast, to use a photographic term, is Elizabeth Lopez and her business, Liz’s Lenzworks. Lopez works out of her home part time doing photography on location, which she prefers to a studio. Lopez’s state job is her primary source of income. A few years ago Lopez lost her camera in a burglary. In 1999 her teenage son, Dustin Miller, suprised her on her birthday with a Nikon N 60 and the words “go pursue your dream, Mom.” Lopez has found her niche’ by not offering packages and “I tailor it to there budget,” she said.

Crawford Shortt and his wife Lanora Davidson did not plan on getting into the wedding business when they opened Things Celtic, a store celebrating the Irish, Scottish and Welsh cultures. But once the store opened, customers began asking for wedding rings and costumes. Now every year the couple makes a trip to Ireland and Scotland to purchase jewelry because, Ms Davidson says, “you don’t want to go to a mall and get it prepackaged.” Weddings are cultural events, she says “that’s where you invite your family and ask what does your family mean to you,” she said. Mr. Shortt, a native of Scotland and his wife have found the meaning behind the imagery of the Scottish and Irish weddings and even how it relates to this part of the country. For example, since the early days of Texas, Irish-American and Mexican-American families frequently intermarried due to the common Roman Catholic religion. Some Hispanics come by the store to bring their Celtic ancestry to their weddings, she said. Couples come in from San Antonio, Dallas and Houston and the Internet to shop for wedding jewelry, outfits, stationary and china that is not available at department stores.

Getting away from department store fare is one thing Debra Taggart’s customers could do when she started her store, Double Takes, on West Anderson specializing in consignment bridal pieces. But selling new, used and consignment pieces was “like running three businesses,” Taggart said, so she elected to concentrate on only one area- new merchandise. However, “every now and then I have a bride who gets a wedding canceled or we make an exception,” she said. Like many businesses, Taggart has seen activity slow since recent economic uncertainty and layoffs.

When the Limestone building that houses the Clay Pit, an Indian Restaurant, was built at 1601 Guadalupe, the discussion around town was not hi tech layoffs, but the possibility secession from the Union. Since 1998 the Clay Pit has been serving Indian food and last year they began hosting weddings and receptions. With 15 weddings, only one of the couples hosted was Indian, according to Rajina Pradhan, who handles weddings and receptions. The restaurant serves both American and Indian food.

With so many in the matrimonial industry there are always challenges in marketing. Taggart says word of mouth has been most effective for her business, but bridal magazines and the Bridal Extravaganza help with those who have not heard of Double Takes, she says.

“I love guerrilla marketing,” says Brenda Ladd. For example the South Austin photographer may be busy enough to need more space, but not too busy to offer herself and her photography to a community project every year such as “Believe in Me,” The March of Dimes and Safe Place. In addition to the publicity she enjoys giving to the community. Traditional marketing such as the Austin Wedding Guide and Austin Wedding Pages as well as a website are also part of Ladd’s exposure(another photographic term) to the public.

Elizabeth Lopez also sees community involvement as a plus. She is involved in the Hispanic Women’s Network of Texas and uses her contacts to network her business. Lopez advertises in the Spanish language paper EL MUNDO with a phone number and an e-mail address. She also says being bilingual has helped her in gaining new business.

“We do mailers and of course our ad in the yellow pages…” Darin Starnes said. “We have a half page ad and that’s tremendous,” he said.

Visibility and proximity to many different churches has helped The Clay Pit along with ads in AUSTIN WEDDING PAGES that lets the public know about the upstairs reception area.

Things Celtic used the WEDDING PAGES and another publication, the AUSTIN WEDDING GUIDE. Sponsorship of a Celtic program on public radio helps identify the store with the Celtic culture.

What is Austin lacking in wedding services? Nothing according to Pradham “I think Austin defiantly has it all on the spectrum from places that charges $150 to $10,000 (to rent a reception hall)…Austin really does have it all,” she said. Brenda Ladd sees a need for more seamstresses, lighting experts, ice sculptors and “real cool cars” for rentals. Though not directly a wedding business “Austin could use another good camera store,” she added. Darin Starnes sees shortages of places for weddings “ the only thing we need more of is places to have events ….People have had to reserve 6 months to a year in advance.”

Lenora Davidson deals with a few renaissance festival weddings and those who specialize in making gowns from that period are hard to find.

Austin has prided itself as having a bit of individuality and even the sacred tradition of weddings has seen some of it. Ladd remembers a Chinese – Jewish wedding catered with Chinese food with the Hebrew cheer “Mazaltaf” printed on the side of the carryout containers. Rita Nowakowski of the AUSTIN WEDDING PAGES remembers a wedding with a safari theme. “The 1920’s style wedding was a real fun one,” Pradham from the Clay Pit remembered. Model T’s in front of the hall and 20’s music and clothing inside set the the theme for the retro couple. But does the couple now prepare for there first anniversary or there eightieth?

METRO AREAS SIMILAR IN SIZE TO AUSTIN (population in 2000 census) AND NUMBER OF WEDDINGS(1998 per state and county statistics)

Columbus, Ohio 10,931

Charlotte-Gastonia-Rock Hill, NC-SC 11,119

New Orleans LA 12,090

Salt Lake City-Ogden UT 14,004

Greensboro–Winston-Salem–High Point NC 9,591

Austin–San Marcos TX 9,954

Nashville TN 11,833

Providence–Fall River–Warwick, RI–MA 8,665

Raleigh–Durham–Chapel Hill, NC 7,874

Hartford, CT 10,677

Buffalo–Niagara Falls, NY 8,640

Return to www.devingreaney.com

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