by Cooper Levey-Baker

GETTING HITCHED IS BIG BUSINESS. How big? Well, it’s difficult to say. Local tourism agencies don’t specifically track wedding numbers since nuptials happen all the time in every venue you can imagine. It might be easy to find out how many ceremonies the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art hosted, but what about couples who tie the knot in their parents’ back yard, or on surfboards floating out in the gulf?

Wedding planner Bobbi Hicks, the membership chair for Weddings of Sarasota, a nonprofit trade group, estimates that Sarasota and Manatee probably host somewhere between 20 and 30 weddings each week and those ceremonies average maybe $20,000 per event.

Do the math. That’s a $26-million industry. And a big chunk of that money is increasingly coming from out of town, as destination weddings have become more common—including the now-legal same-sex ceremonies.

Michael’s On East co-proprietor Phil Mancini says destination events now make up roughly 75 percent of his company’s wedding catering business. Clients fly to Sarasota from all around the country, or even drive here from nearby destinations like Tampa and Orlando.

When those brides and grooms and their families and guests arrive, they spend big bucks. Unlike a traditional wedding in one’s home city, destination weddings are often full-weekend affairs. Rehearsal dinners that were typically reserved for a small selection of family and important guests expand into a large party when everyone is an out-of-towner. And the post-wedding Sunday brunch also has become a staple of destination weddings.

All those guests usually stay in local hotels, get their nails and hair done, shop, and sometimes find time to play golf and generally act like tourists.

 

Sarasota and Manatee host between 20 and 30 weddings each week, and ceremonies average $20,000 per event. That’s a $26-million industry.

 

“They’re certainly making a weekend of it,” says wedding planner Nicole Kaney, whose company NK Productions specializes in luxury weddings. Three-fourths of the couples she works with don’t live in the area. When they come, they bring groups that range from 50 to 300, with event budgets that range from $40,000 to $250,000. She personally produces 20 weddings a year; her team handles another 50.

Who are these lovebirds? Kaney’s clients typically hail from New York City, Los Angeles or Atlanta, but they often have some tie to Southwest Florida. Perhaps they grew up here, or their grandparents live here or their parents bought a second, third or fourth home in the area.

The other major reason they end up here? The beaches. Kelly Defebo, the director of sales for Visit Sarasota County, says 82 percent of destination weddings are beach weddings.

Another plus for this area: easy connections to major cities through nearby airports. “Someone from Atlanta can get here in two and a half hours for under $250,” Defebo says.

Kaney says another attraction is the region’s quality and variety of wedding venues. From modern event spaces like The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota and the Longboat Key Club to historical, glamorous spaces like the Ringling Museum and the Powel Crosley Estate, Sarasota and Manatee are home to a wider range of venues than even big nearby cities like Tampa.

Visit Sarasota County tracks destination wedding numbers as part of its meetings and conferences statistics. One of the organization’s major goals during its current fiscal year is to expand the meetings market, which includes increasing awareness of the region as a destination wedding hot spot.

Both Visit Sarasota and the Bradenton Area CVB have a space on their websites with all the basic data you need to get married here, including info on local venues, nitty-gritty details like how to get a wedding license and whether you need a permit to get married on the beach. (You don’t, but it’s recommended. Otherwise a stranger is free to plop down right in the middle of your ceremony.) ■

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