July 6, 2017

Vermont’s elusive brand a draw for wedding couples

Carly Ward prepares a table display at the Mountain Top Inn and Resort in Chittenden, a popular wedding destination. PHOTO BY PETER COBB

As destination weddings have become more popular, can Vermont wedding professionals compete with such enticing locations as Hawaii, Florida, Las Vegas or Europe, or even with the rest of New England? One way is to promote the “Vermont brand.” That’s a difficult idea to define, but wedding planners seem to agree, the brand helps sales.

“People want what we have here. Our natural landscape draws visitors and locals to our thousands of acres of forest and mountain terrain to ski, board, bike and hike,” said Judy Risteff, owner of the Vermont Wedding Association, a trade association that represents wedding professionals and venues. Her association is holding a trade show July 13 at the Killington Grand Hotel that connects couples to vendors and helps wedding professionals refine their operations.

Khele Sparks, general manager at the Mountain Top Inn in Chittenden, one of the state’s top wedding destinations, said their take on the brand is “rustic elegance.” The main wedding venue there is a barn built five years ago. Ninety percent of the weddings at Mountain Top, he said, are for out-of-state couples.

The barn isn’t the only draw to the resort, he said. “You come to Vermont for a weekend experience” which, at Mountain Top, includes hiking, kayaking on the Chittenden Reservoir, horseback riding and cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter.

Steven Karnes, co-owner and publisher of Vermont Bride magazine, said barn weddings are “unbelievably popular right now.” He agreed what wedding couples want is “the Vermont wedding experience,” especially the beauty of the state.

Charlotte Callahan, weddings and events manager at The Equinox, a golf resort and spa in Manchester, agreed the Vermont experience is key, but said the experience is somewhat different from one venue to another. What Equinox sells, she said, is “Vermont elegance” which includes the mountains and the famous foliage but also has golfing, tennis and a spa. Callahan estimated 98 percent of the weddings at the Equinox are for tourists.

One important draw for Vermont is that many of the venues are located within a fairly short distance from Boston and New York City.

“In three to fours hours you can get an experience that you can’t get in the city,” said Ronda Berns, vice president for tourism at the Vermont Chamber of Commerce.

Another draw is the four seasons. “Every wedding is different depending on the season,” said Laura Conti, marketing director for Mountain Top. Some prefer winter, some foliage, others the summer or spring. According to Conti, destination weddings happen during all 12 months.

No one is certain how extensive the destination wedding business is for Vermont, but clearly it is a multi-million-dollar operation. According to Vermont Vital Statistics, there are more than 5,000 weddings a year in Vermont. There is no total for the number of destination weddings, but the data show for about 40 percent of the weddings, one or both of those getting married are from out of state. It is also difficult to determine if the wedding business is growing or shrinking.

Risteff said there was a steady increase in the number of Vermont weddings from when she started her business in 2001 until 2010, when the total number of weddings peaked. She said that according to Vermont Vital Statistics, there were approximately 6,000 weddings in Vermont in 2009 and 2010, but only 5,136 in 2015, and that some of the drop likely was from a decrease in the number of destination weddings.

There are several reasons for the five-year decline, she said. The advantage Vermont got from civil unions in 2000 is no longer an advantage, as gay marriage is legal everywhere. Another reason, she said, is other states around Vermont have closed the gap and are marketing similar weddings. In addition, the drop in the economy had an impact.

Risteff said the decline seems to have ended and the total number of weddings is holding steady at 5,000. In fact there was a slight increase from 2015 to 2016.

Berns said it is difficult to put a revenue tag on the wedding industry because revenues include more than the wedding itself; money is spent by the guests at farmers markets, shops, restaurants, skiing, snowmobile tours and more.

“The vendors at the Waitsfield farmers’ market notice when a wedding is in town,” she said. She said the total revenues generated by destination weddings could easily exceed $100 million a year, but a hard total is difficult to determine, not only because revenues are greater than just the wedding, but also because some guests and couples fall in love with Vermont and return.

“Often the destination wedding is the first touch of Vermont. Once here, many of the guests and couples come back for more,” Berns said. She agreed the Vermont experience is key, but warned neither the industry nor the state should take the success for granted. She said the Vermont wedding industry was ahead of the other regions marketing their states’ beauty, but other areas, with similar settings — the Berkshires, New Hampshire, Upstate New York — are catching up.

“The Vermont mystique goes just so far. Other states saw what we were doing and have copied our model. Definitely the competition has gotten better. We can’t take the Vermont experience for granted.” The other states near Vermont, especially New York, she said, spend much more on advertising.

Whatever happens with competition, the wedding planners here agree, Vermont has something to sell.

“Vermont is home to over 100 wooden covered bridges. Some of the many romantic rituals are to honk your horn, make a wish and seal it with a kiss as you pass through the bridge. If you love Vermont, you love it all,” said Risteff.

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