Wedding bells ringing more quietly


POSTED: Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Wedding bells are still ringing in paradise, but more quietly these days as the economic downturn takes its toll on finances.

Destination weddings booked by couples that fly to Hawaii from out of state, in particular, have been hit hardest.

In January, only 6,526 visitors arrived by air to Hawaii to get married, a 20.1 percent drop from the same month a year ago. Among domestic visitors, there was a 13 percent drop, and among international visitors, a 25.1 percent drop in those coming here to get married compared to a year ago.

“;We're slow,”; said Kathy Porter of Aloha Bridal Gallery. “;With destination weddings, it's slow.”;

Porter said the slowdown for her started toward the end of last year. By now, she's usually booked for the summer, but not this year.

The shutdown of Aloha Airlines in early April resulted in brides coming here without invited family members and guests because they couldn't afford to pay higher airfare.

Porter's packages, which start at $296, cater to couples who come to Hawaii looking for the basics — a minister, two fresh flower lei, 10 professional photographs in a keepsake album and a wedding certificate.

If the couple wants to hold the wedding on the beach, they now pay an additional $20 for a permit due to new enforcement by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, which started in August.

Susan O'Donnell, president of the Oahu Wedding Association, said some brides are postponing plans, or scaling back.

That means fewer guests for the reception than originally planned, foregoing extras like a live band, and simpler floral arrangements and table settings.

“;If they haven't committed to booking something, they may have second thoughts about having it all,”; said O'Donnell, also owner of Aloha Wedding Planners of Honolulu.

O'Donnell said she is encouraging brides to move forward with their plans by helping them find creative ways to have a simpler, though still elegant, wedding.

The number of destination wedding inquiries started to drop off in August, according to O'Donnell, right at the same time that DLNR began enforcing permits for beach weddings.

“;Then as quick as a blink of an eye, you had this rollover of financial downturns,”; said O'Donnell.

In 2008, visitors who came to Hawaii to get married dropped 16 percent compared to 2007.

Those in the wedding industry, however, say lower airfares help boost the numbers of brides and grooms coming here to tie the knot.

Porter said when airfares went down this month, she got three last-minute bookings back to back.

“;We've always known there's a direct correlation with airline fees,”; said O'Donnell.

Karen Russ of Weddings of Hawaii, says she still fields plenty of phone calls from mainland brides. Many of her brides decided to ditch elaborate plans back home, and fly to Hawaii instead for an intimate wedding combined with a honeymoon.

Tanna Dang, co-owner of The Wedding Cafe, said local weddings are still going strong despite the economic downturn, with attendance at her free Wednesday workshops at about 200 per week.

She estimates the cost of an average local wedding at between $25,000 to $30,000.

Brides may delay a wedding to build up more savings, she said, but most won't give up the wedding of their dreams.

They also may scale back. Instead of a Vera Wang dress, for instance, they may opt for Paloma Blanca at half the price.

O'Donnell said vendors are finding new ways to market abroad by going on to Facebook and Twitter, for instance, to reach out to more brides.


Decline in isle weddings

The number of visitors flying to the state with marriage in mind is dropping in numbers:

Total Air Visitors6,5268,172-20.1
Domestic Visitors2,9093,343-13.0
International Visitors3,6174,829-25.1
Total Air Visitors120,233143,207-16.0

Source: DBEDT