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2022 shapes up as wedding boom for Duluth

As the pandemic eases, more ceremonies with larger guest lists are moving forward.

Trying on wedding dresses.
Lisa Thompson reacts to one of the wedding dresses Christian Lane Bridal manager Rebecca Thompson showed her April 13.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Perhaps one of the surest signs that people are feeling less anxious about COVID-19 these days is a recent rush to the altar.

“They’re calling it ‘the wedding boom,’” said Mary Carlson, owner of Pure Event Planning and Design, who is expecting this year to be her biggest ever.

Mariah McKechnie, owner of Northland Special Events, agreed that 2022 is shaping up to be an unusually busy year for weddings and other large get-togethers.

“I think that the trepidation of the past two years has greatly subsided. Things are full steam ahead, in terms of gatherings and wedding planning,” she said.

Annette Lahr, CEO of Marry Me in the Northland, a firm with a team of several marriage officiants, said the number of ceremonies she has booked so far this year is running more than double what it was at this time in 2021 — a record year itself with 150 client couples served, or nearly a 40% jump in marriages performed, compared with the typical pre-pandemic annual average.

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Trying on wedding dresses.
Christian Lane Bridal manager Rebecca Thompson helps Heather Nordwall on April 13 with a prospective dress for her upcoming wedding.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Rebecca Thompson, manager of Christian Lane Bridal in Hermantown, said business at her shop has come roaring back in recent months, as customers search for the perfect wedding dress, and the promise of high school proms has driven sales, as well.

“We’re selling a lot of dresses here,” she said.

It’s a national phenomenon, according to Laura McKeever, senior manager of brand PR and philanthropy for David's Bridal.

Services have spent the last year trying to help couples change their wedding plans to fit with state restrictions, but not every niche of the industry has been able to operate with those restrictions.

“Across the country — including in our Duluth store — we are seeing an incredible uptick in activity as we prepare for the busiest wedding season in decades. We are thrilled to see couples all over the country getting ready to celebrate their magical moments,” she said.

“We know that planning timelines have been a challenge for brides, and it is something we have worked hard to manage and ensure that our customers are receiving dresses on time,” McKeever said.

McKechnie attributes the current surge of activity to people who delayed wedding gatherings at a time when fears of the pandemic dominated. She said many clients now seem to feel almost a certain sense of urgency.

“We’re to the point where there’s no more waiting, even if they can’t get the venue or the vendors that they want. They’re willing to make changes or accommodations because they just need to get married this summer after all that waiting,” she said.

But Carlson said the competition for popular Northland venues and services also has required patience for some couples, resulting in engagements of up to a year and more.

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Trying on wedding dresses.
Coleen Nordwall helps daughter, Heather, with the train of a dress at Christian Lane Bridal on April 13 as Cheryl Martin watches.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“If they find a venue that they love, and they for sure want a Saturday date, they are willing to wait for that perfect venue and that perfect vendor team,” said Carlson, also pointing to the often limited availability of a favored officiant, wedding planner, photographer, videographer or caterer.

McKechnie said flexibility can help shorten the timeline, though.

“Most traditional venues are fully booked on Saturdays. But I encourage people to consider other days of the week, because that availability still exists,” she said. “If what is important is that it happens this year or this season, then I may need to compromise my traditional mindset that my wedding has to be on a Saturday.”

McKechnie said she’s seeing many more Friday, Sunday and Thursday weddings this year.

Spirit Mountain had already booked nearly 70 weddings as of mid-April, with Dorothy Poppenhagen, co-director of food and beverage services, describing the year as “off the charts.”

“Business is booming for us,” she said. “People are just feeling more easy about being in large groups of people and being able to celebrate together again.”

Duluth’s Glensheen Mansion also has seen a lot of wedding inquiries. However, a restoration of the property’s formal gardens has significantly hindered its ability to host as many events or as large of gatherings as it has in the past, said Regina Christensen, the historic museum’s event operations manager.

While Christensen considers it unfortunate that Glensheen can’t accommodate all the couples who would like to wed there, she said, “When you have a historical property, restoration has to happen to maintain it so we can do 100 more years of weddings.”

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Trying on wedding dresses.
Cheryl Martin, right, records the scene as future daughter-in-law, Lisa Thompson, tries on dresses with Christian Lane Bridal manager Rebecca Thompson on April 13.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Glensheen already has a number of weddings booked for 2023 and has had inquiries about 2024 dates, Christensen said.

She said it’s a reflection of just how much demand there is for desirable local wedding venues. ”Duluth seems to be such a popular destination site for weddings that we should all be really busy for some time,” she said.

Lahr said the Northland’s multitude of scenic outdoor venues, which were a popular option during the thick of the pandemic, also remain a useful safety valve, allowing couples to plan weddings even when more traditional indoor spaces are unavailable.

Duluth saw a substantial increase in demand for outdoor wedding spaces in 2021, when the number of weddings the city’s parks system hosted jumped more than 50% from 95 weddings prior to the pandemic in 2019 to 144 ceremonies, said Parks Permit Coordinator Chris Severson.

Some of the city’s most popular venues include the rose garden at Leif Erikson Park and Enger Park, as well as the Park Point Beach House, “And almost every weekend — like Fridays, Saturdays and even Sundays — we have weddings booked out there now,” Severson said.

McKechnie said 2022 has marked a return to plans for larger weddings, too, with guest lists frequently topping 200.

“They are bubbling back up, in size and scope,” she said.

Lahr said her company is seeing some clients for a second time, as COVID-19 precautions ease.

Trying on wedding dresses.
Lisa Thompson uses a hand mirror to check out the reflection of the back of a wedding dress in a full-length mirror at Christian Lane Bridal on April 13.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Carlson said that during the height of the pandemic, couples faced a conundrum: “They were making impossible decisions. Do we choose to get married because we love each other? And do we do that at the risk of the health of our family and friends? That is just an impossible decision. Plus, there’s a lot of money associated with it.”

Lahr said some couples decided to dramatically downsize their plans, given the circumstances of the time, but now feel comfortable doing something more.

“We’re now getting couples who may have done an intimate elopement just as a legal wedding, and now they’re doing their big ceremony in front of family and friends, with a bigger shebang,” she said.

McKechnie predicts it will take a couple of years to work through the backlog of weddings before bookings return to more of a pre-pandemic level.

Carlson said folks have been through a lot these past few years.

“I think the struggles of the wedding industry was one of the most underreported stories during the pandemic. It was very difficult, and we are very lucky that in this market, it seems like most of our venues and vendor partners made it through. In some regards, it’s quite miraculous,” she said.

But Carlson sees brighter days ahead for folks in the wedding business and said she believes 2022 will be “our comeback year.”

MORE ABOUT LOCAL SMALL BUSINESSES
Have a business tip or story idea for The Memo? Send it to lbutterbrodt@duluthnews.com.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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