Today is the first day that same-sex couples can wed in Washington, and the wedding industry across the state is poised to bring in millions of dollars in new revenue.
The Williams Institute, a national think tank at the UCLA School of Law, estimates Washington will see $89 million in wedding-related spending from same-sex couples in the first three years, and that doesn’t include tax revenue or spending by out-of-state couples who travel to Washington to wed.
But how much of that revenue Yakima County will see is up for debate.
Darin Clark, president of the Central Washington Bridal Show Association and owner of Entertainment Plus Disc Jockey Service, doubts the financial impact of Referendum 74 will be as great as predicted. As he prepares for the association’s January bridal show in Yakima, Clark says he’s seen little interest from local vendors in specifically targeting same-sex clients.
For one thing, there just won’t be enough of them, says Clark, who has worked in the wedding industry for 20 years and been president of the CWBSA for eight years.
As of Friday, nine same-sex couples had applied for marriage licenses in Yakima County, compared to hundreds in King County.
In conservative Yakima County, where R-74 failed 64 percent to 36 percent, some businesses may hesitate to reach out to gay and lesbian couples for fear of losing existing clientele.
“If a business goes after just the new same-sex marriage, there’s most likely not going to be enough to keep them in business,” Clark says. “If they gear themselves toward same-sex marriage ... the more traditional brides that don’t agree with that are going to avoid the vendor.”
That reality may drive some couples west of the Cascades to find vendors and hold ceremonies.
“The conservativeness of this area is going to hinder the economic growth that could come from this,” says the Rev. Bill Poores of Yakima’s Rainbow Cathedral Metropolitan Community Church, which welcomes churchgoers of all sexual orientations. “They are going to cause some people to go to another area where the services they want for their ceremonies are more readily available,”
Same-sex couples may prefer to travel to Seattle or Tacoma for a gay and lesbian bridal show rather than risk feeling uncomfortable at a traditional wedding expo.
“Even in very progressive areas, there’s still some uncomfortableness about picking up the local Yellow Pages and just calling someone and saying, ‘We’re gay!’” says Cindy Sproul, co-owner of North Carolina-based Rainbow Wedding Network, which holds 30 gay and lesbian wedding expos across the country each year, including Washington. “You just don’t know what response you’ll get on the other end of the phone.”
Sproul says even in gay-friendly cities, she sees customers at the expos who said they were mistaken for sisters at a traditional bridal show, or had to repeatedly answer questions about which one was getting married.
“The vendors just couldn’t wrap their head around, ‘Oh, this might be a gay couple,’ It’s just a whole different vibe,” Sproul says.
Sproul says she’s seen a 40 percent to 45 percent increase in interest from the wedding industry in Washington since R-74 passed last month. This spring will be the network’s fifth year holding a show in Seattle, but demand to have an earlier expo was so strong that the company is holding one in Tacoma for the first time in February. The show is already about half sold out for vendors, she says. The May Seattle expo has been sold out for months.
Businesses in the wedding industry will have to change their marketing approach to appeal to same-sex couples. But with the right marketing, even conservative areas like the Yakima Valley should attract same-sex couples for ceremonies and honeymoons, says Louise Chernine, president and CEO of the Greater Seattle Business Association, one of two gay and lesbian chambers of commerce in Washington.
“I think it needs a marketing plan,” Chernine says. Businesses in Yakima should benefit because of the Valley’s proximity to states without marriage equality laws. “You could be partnering with us in Seattle to say, ‘Well you might have a ceremony in Seattle but why don’t you take a honeymoon here?’”
Revenue opportunities go beyond wedding ceremonies. There are also opportunities in the legal and financial industries, Chernine says. “The new laws are very complicated, and there’s much greater need for” couples to seek legal advice to ensure their family and assets are protected.
Overall, Chernine expects R-74 to have a positive impact on Washington’s economy.
Businesses in places that have legalized same-sex marriages — nine states and the District of Columbia — are at an advantage in attracting same-sex employees looking for a more accepting place to raise a family, she said.
Poores, of the Rainbow Cathedral Metropolitan Community Church, says he’s seen some interest from same-sex couples in holding ceremonies in Yakima and knows of several area wedding vendors that are open to working at gay and lesbian weddings. But he thinks the area’s conservative values will keep more couples from marrying here.
Clark, the Central Washington Bridal Show Association’s president, has a different perspective. He thinks the Valley won’t see a big economic boost from same-sex marriages simply because if couples wanted ceremonies, they were already having them, regardless of whether they were legally recognized.
“Those of us who have been in the wedding business for years, this is nothing new for us,” Clark says. “These have been going on for a long time. They weren’t recognized by the government, but it was the same thing. ... I think everybody is making way too big of a deal out of this.”
Paul Napolitano, co-owner of Lin-Paul’s Bridal and Tuxedos in downtown Yakima, agrees. He says the shop has served same-sex couples in the past and doesn’t anticipate making changes to accommodate R-74.
“I don’t think it’ll change much of anything,” Napolitano says. “It’ll be a little bit more visible, maybe. We’ll have to wait and see.”
Clark has fielded questions from bridal show vendors and others in the industry who have legal concerns about the new law. R-74 allows religious institutions, churches and pastors to refuse to perform same-sex ceremonies. Businesses and public venues, however, can’t discriminate against same-sex couples under the state’s existing anti-discrimination laws.
Legal requirements aside, Clark and others in the wedding industry note that if a vendor’s marketing materials don’t have an inclusive vibe, they aren’t going to be hired by same sex-couples.
Same-sex couples will be looking for that inclusiveness, Clark said.
“That goes back to your website and your advertising material. ... If all you talk about is bride and groom, that will scare them away.”
While there may be some initial hesitation from businesses worried about losing traditional clients, Clark thinks others will rise up and provide the needed services.
“As a vendor of whatever, when there becomes a need, somebody is going to fill it. That always happens,” he says. “Whether it’s our vendors that are here now, if they don’t step up to fill it, somebody else will.”
Ultimately, time will tell whether R-74 becomes an economic boon or legal headache for the wedding industry.
“A year from now, it’s all going to be a moot issue. It’s not going to matter,” Clark predicts. “It’s not going to change anybody’s bottom line at all. As a disc jockey, it doesn’t matter if I’m at a traditional couple or a same-sex couple’s wedding, I can do one wedding that day.”
• Savannah Tranchell can be reached at 509-577-7752 or firstname.lastname@example.org.