A Closer Look at The Strip’s Famous Wedding Industry
As I make my way through the door to escape the sweltering afternoon heat, I walk past the small front patio, littered with half-consumed cans of Budweiser, still dripping with fresh condensation that suggests they hadn’t been sitting in the desert sun for very long.
This isn’t a frat house or a backyard barbecue, though. I’m at Graceland Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas and I’m here to witness an Elvis-themed wedding ceremony.
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It’s only 1 p.m. but the chapel lobby is already full. I spot two women in white and a smattering of men in tuxedos. I quickly learn that there’s one wedding in session already and two parties waiting in line to walk down the aisle next. The ceremony only takes fifteen minutes – no muss, no fuss, but a surprising amount of emotions, or so I’m told.
I meet with Rod Musum, the Vice President at Graceland, who promptly whisks me into the chapel to witness the second wedding of the day. They officiate anywhere between five to ten ceremonies per day, he tells me, and despite the endearingly campy nature of the proceedings, there’s rarely a ceremony that goes by without a plethora of emotions and a few happy tears shed.
An Influx of Millenials
“We’ve started to see a lot more millennials in the past three to five years and I think that’s attributed to a few different things,” Rod says. “Millenials are very experiential and I think the Las Vegas chapel wedding experience is something unique to write home about.”
Las Vegas is the wedding capital of the world, Rod tells me. Anyone from anywhere around the world who wants to have a wedding and doesn’t want to invest thousands of dollars for a wedding but who still wants a unique experience tend to book far in advance and take the planning seriously. Across the city, you can get married starting at $199 and can go all the way up to $1000 depending on location and experience.
Not a Booze-Fueled Sitcom Episode
The chapel business in itself is not cheesy – it’s an emotionally driven, fun and intimate experience. “I think back in the ‘90s and early 2000s, especially with the Britney Spears experience in the middle of the night and what you see in The Hangover, that pop culture representation is a complete misconception. It just doesn’t happen in Vegas. The chapels are not even open late into the night – they used to be open 24/7 but that was years and years ago. Now you can only get a marriage license up to midnight.”
It wasn’t always the unique, emotion-fueled experience though. The fact that ceremonies must be booked in advance doesn’t stop couples from getting creative. Dee Dee Duffy has been in the wedding industry for over sixteen years. As the owner of Graceland Wedding Chapel, she’s seen her fair share of wild incidents and when she heard me speaking to Rod she rushed in to share her own version of a Las Vegas-based sitcom.
“This beautiful girl comes in… she was wearing a gorgeous white trench coat and just looked like a total class act,” she starts, her eyes glimmering with mischief as this nugget unfolds. “It was just her and her fiance, and the minister. All I remember is that she said she wanted to start with the doors closed.”
During a ceremony, the bride is inside the chapel already, the music starts and she walks down the aisle. That way there’s a sense of privacy from the main entrance.
“For some reason, she just wanted to be behind the doors. So the music starts, I open the doors, she takes off her trench coat – and she is butt-naked walking down the aisle! By that time it was too late for us to do anything and most of our officiants, then, were real ministers. This minister’s eyes almost popped out of his head!”
Dee Dee says that reputation persists, and although the Las Vegas chapel industry reputation is changing, they still get all kinds of crazy requests, including handfuls of couples asking if they would marry them in the nude.
“We don’t do that!” Dee Dee urges.
A Shift in Priorities
Rod and I make our way back to the main chapel and watch a spirited couple say their vows, while it’s broadcasted on Facebook Live for friends and family from afar to witness online.
A lot has changed for the wedding business, Rod tells me, as we watch the couple dance to the tune of Viva Las Vegas, and not just the fact that each ceremony is live streamed on Facebook.
“In 2018, there were 75,000 marriage licenses issued in the city of Las Vegas, which is significantly down year over year,” he says. “Millenials are just not getting married – they’re traveling and looking for memorable experiences instead.”
While Las Vegas as a whole may be down by 20,000 marriage licenses over the past ten years, millennials are still coming more and more to the chapels – but not necessarily to get legally hitched. “Millenials have been coming in to do an Elvis-themed committal or a ‘just for fun’ wedding, be it couples or groups of friends.” Rod says, “They come in, get dressed up and anticipate the full Las Vegas experience – just without the legally binding contract.”
Many millennial couples also will come to elope. A lot of couples at Graceland opt to surprise their friends and families by bringing them out to Las Vegas on vacation and don’t clue them into the wedding experience until they’re en route to the chapel itself. According to Rod, that’s the best way to do it. He suggests booking a service late in the day (because you know you’ll be out late the night before, let’s be real).
“I promise you, when millenials do it and get into it, when they get back home they will say the Elvis-themed ceremony was the highlight of their trip – unless of course they won a jackpot on the strip. It’s just unique and fun, whether it’s two people or thirty people.”
As Rod walks me out, we watch from the side as the newlyweds and their friends excitedly file out of the chapel, pick up their still-chilled cans of Budweiser from the patio and shuffle into various town cars and limos to keep the celebration of love going into the evening. Viva Las Vegas!
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