LAS VEGAS – On Las Vegas Boulevard, nestled between a motel and tattoo parlor, sits what may be the most famous marriage site in the world: A Little White Wedding Chapel.
Charolette Richards, the chapel’s owner and an originator of the 10-minute wedding ceremony, estimates that more than 50,000 weddings have been performed there since 1991, including ceremonies for Frank Sinatra, Judy Collins, Bruce Willis, Michael Jordan and Britney Spears.
But the Las Vegas quickie wedding is not the rage it used to be. Richards, ready to retire at 86, put the chapel up for sale in April but then changed her mind.
The numbers still sound impressive — there were 74,534 marriages performed in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, in 2018, according to Lynn Goya, the county clerk. But that figure is down 42% from the record 128,238 marriages in 2004.
The sale of the most iconic chapel in Las Vegas, accompanied by fewer people marrying in Las Vegas, raises the question: Can an industry whose hook is being stuck in the past flourish in the future?
All you need to get married at the chapel, or anywhere in Las Vegas, is $77, a photo ID and proof that you’re at least 18.
It was Richard’s entrepreneurial ingenuity 68 years ago that led to the creation of the famed one-stop-shop business model, which became the standard on the Strip.
But marriage rates in the United States have dwindled significantly in the past decade. Shifting social values coupled with the burdens of student debt have made tying the knot for millennials unfeasible or unappealing, and sometimes both.
Las Vegas also is facing challenges from outside the industry.
The ease of becoming an officiant through online sites has opened the door to couples looking to friends and relatives to oversee their nuptials. Engaged couples looking to avoid the high cost of renting a venue can arrange for a volunteer to conduct a low-key wedding on a beach or in a park.
“I don’t know what the longevity of the wedding industry is,” said Ron Decar, 61, owner of the Viva Las Vegas, an Elvis Presley-themed wedding chapel. Although he was wearing his full Elvis get-up, complete with a bedazzled jumpsuit and black pompadour, his tone was gravely serious.
Let’s do it again
The chapel’s numbers and revenue have been decreasing each year for more than a decade, Decar said. It’s being kept afloat by capitalizing on the current saving grace of the industry: vow-renewal ceremonies, which make up half its business.
The city’s tourism industry markets renewal ceremonies aggressively. If millennials aren’t getting married, the reasoning goes, why not persuade their elders to wed again?
“People want to do something fun the second time around,” Decar said. “You know, people worry what their mom will think, but when you’re renewing, the pressure’s off. It’s all about fun.”
Back at Richards’ chapel, she touts the facets of her operation: a flower shop (once the biggest flower shop in Las Vegas, she said), a tux and gown rental department, a limousine fleet and multiple marriage sites in addition to the main altar.
She draws attention to her favorite touches: a mural that depicts frogs kissing, corkscrew-shaped topiaries and a plastic life-size, horse-drawn carriage. “Everything I love is love,” she said.
Dee Dee Duffy, the owner of Graceland Wedding Chapel — the home of the first Elvis-themed ceremony, she adamantly maintains — agreed that the concept of their seven-minute ceremony might seem dated but insisted that it still is relevant. The key, she said, is to respect the sincerity of the event, even in this most saccharine environment.
“We never treat couples like numbers,” Duffy said.
Needing a new image
Overcoming the quickie stereotype is the chapels’ greatest challenge. Industry professionals agree that widening perceptions of Vegas weddings will prove essential in the quest to capture younger markets.
Daniel Vallance, director of operations at the Little Church of the West, is capitalizing on that initiative.
His operation, modeled after a 19th-century church in an old mining town, was built in 1942 and is thought to be the oldest standing structure on the Strip. It’s atypical of the Vegas wedding site in that in addition to walk-ins, it books weddings as far out as two years in advance, an enviable anomaly in a difficult time.
People getting married who are in their 30s “don’t want to spend 50 bucks to get married by a fat, drunk Elvis,” he said. “They want something more elegant, and that’s the approach we take and have taken for 76 years.”
The simple act of making its website available in different languages has helped a lot, he said.
“You want to know what the future of the wedding business is?” Vallance said. “Listen to the brides and be receptive to what they want.”