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Is Charleston's booming destination wedding industry pricing out locals?

MUST CREDIT: Mic Smith Photography LLC  Charleston destination weddings (copy)

The Charleston area's charm has fueled a booming destination wedding industry. File/Mic Smith Photography LLC/Provided

Pick practically any weekend of the year and the Charleston area is likely playing host to more than 100 weddings.

That includes January, February and even July — months that would be considered the off-season in other towns.

In just a few years, the Charleston area has emerged as a top destination to tie the knot, creating a lucrative, year-round industry with vast opportunities for small and locally owned businesses. 

At the same time, the surge in popularity has made it more challenging for local couples to celebrate their own nuptials. The most popular venues and services are often booked two years out or more, according to local wedding planners. And while venues and businesses are multiplying to meet the demand, prices keep climbing.

The average Charleston wedding cost more than $29,000 last year, up $1,000 since 2014, according to the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. 

Total spending on nuptials in the Charleston area was $197 million, more than five times the $37 million impact a 2010 study said the cruise ship industry has on the local economy.

Meg and Robbie Fischer, Mount Pleasant natives who got married in town earlier this year, felt like they were paying higher costs because of the area's reputation as a wedding hot spot.

They started with a wedding budget of about $25,000. The bride said they used personal connections to cut costs on the catering service, flowers and the venue. Still, they spent more than they planned.

"I felt stuck between a rock and a hard place," she said. "Robbie and I wanted to get married in the place we grew up, which is now just a wedding destination for so many that don't necessarily have a personal tie."

On the other hand, some in the industry say it is possible to have a budget-friendly wedding in Charleston as long as couples are willing to get creative. Stuart Howe, owner of the private events firm Pinnacle Charleston, said he's helped some couples stay below a budget of $12,000.

"If you're flexible, we can do all kinds of things," he said.

'Recession-proof' profits

Destination weddings didn't arrive in the Lowcountry by accident.

During the Great Recession, many large companies cut back on corporate events and out-of-town retreats, shrinking a key source of revenue for local hotels.

To help stabilize the industry, the visitors bureau began marketing Charleston as a destination for weddings in cities across the country. The thinking was, even if couples from out of town didn't host their events in hotel ballrooms, they'd still likely bring in large groups of friends and family who would need a place to stay. 

"It's something that's pretty much recession-proof," said Perrin Lawson, deputy director of the CVB. "People are going to get married regardless."

Many other businesses caught on to the trend. 

Lauren Fox worked mostly as a corporate events planner until the recession, when she decided to focus on weddings with her own company, Fox Events.

"I saw that there was a lot of potential in a market that was growing," she said. 

Almost five years later, it's still growing. About 6,900 weddings were held in the Charleston area last year, 700 more than 2015 and 900 more than 2014.

"There's enough business to go around really for everybody," she said.

Elaine Savarese became a florist for similar reasons. She bought Frampton's Flowers about five years ago and began catering mostly to destination weddings. 

"If I moved to another city, I wouldn’t have the year-round business," she said. "I’m in the right place to do what I’m doing, and I’m really grateful for it."

For richer, for poorer?

Lowcountry wedding planners say out-of-town couples now seem to outnumber locals who get married here.

"I don't know what local folks do," Howe said, adding more than 90 percent of his clients live elsewhere.

"It's becoming more and more of a destination," Fox said. "A lot of times, that means the bride and groom don't even have ties to Charleston."

She said destination weddings also tend to have higher budgets, ranging from $50,000 to more than $100,000.

Those costs can add up quickly for couples with less to spend. Venues are the priciest aspect, with popular sites such as Boone Hall Plantation renting for more than $7,000. Prices don't typically include tables, chairs, food or decorations. 

Jenn Romano, who lives in Charleston, got married in 2014 at Lowndes Grove Plantation, which is on the Ashley River on the upper peninsula. She and her now-husband decided to set their date in February because the venue was discounted at an off-season price. It would have been about $3,000 otherwise, she said.

"A $3,000 rental cost to just be at the house would have never worked for us since there was so much more to rent to make it an event space," she said.

The venue currently rents for more than $4,000, even for a small wedding on a Saturday in February.

Fox and Howe said many couples can cut down on the venue price by holding weddings on Sundays or weekdays. It's also cheaper if the guest list is short, they said.

Shay Monroe of Mount Pleasant had made all the arrangements for her Sunday ceremony when she and her now-husband decided to call it off and elope to Jamaica instead. She said they spent a week at an all-inclusive island resort and remodeled their house for what it would have cost them to have their wedding at Boone Hall's Cotton Dock.

"It was so much simpler," she said. 

Savarese, the florist, said couples with their hearts set on having a Charleston wedding shouldn't be discouraged. She arranges flowers for about 150 nuptials a year, and while most are high-end, she's seen plenty on the other end of the spectrum.

"People can definitely have a wedding here on all different budgets," she said. "It might take some compromises, but in no way do you have to spend X number of dollars to have a wedding in Charleston."

Reach Abigail Darlington at 843-937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.

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