Wedding Crashers: Saying 'I Do' in Public

A new wedding trend trades "walking down the aisle" for a walk on the wild side.

SmartMoney

It's not every day that Morag Stewart and Kevin Eggan plan a covert operation. But on a recent morning in Breckenridge, Colo., the pair put together a series of mysterious directions -- take the lift to the top of the mountain, look for the guy in the red jacket -- that ultimately led 80 of their friends and family to a clearing in the glades. It was a logistical nightmare, but the payoff was big: It was their wedding.

Have you been to a wedding in the woods lately? Or watched a couple tie the knot in the middle of a shopping mall? A small but growing group of intrepid couples are ditching the dulce de leche cake filling and glitzy chandeliers for something a bit more, well, impromptu. They're paying an officiant $300 to marry them in front of a prized painting at an art museum or asking a photographer to capture them whispering "I do" in a botanical garden before the security guards come running. The trend, once limited to a few postrecession penny-pinchers, is now flowering into its own full-fledged wedding-industry niche. Mary Beaty, an officiant in New York, says inquiries for these so-called elopements or guerrilla-style weddings have doubled in the past few years, while Jerry Schwehm, a minister in New Orleans, is now performing three times as many as he did five years ago. "Many of my clients run away from the traditional, scary wedding planning," says Kim Coccagnia, a wedding photographer in Beacon, N.Y. "They want small and intimate."

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Given the lackluster economy, you can't blame couples for skipping the usual to-do in favor of a simpler -- and ideally cheaper -- affair. Indeed, the average cost of a wedding totaled $25,600 last year, down 11 percent from the prerecession high. And with more couples footing the bill themselves, there's less pressure to "do what family expects," says Beaty. Then there's the demographic trend: The average marriage age is now 28 -- up from 25 in 1990. Three-quarters of these couples live together first, which many say dials down the importance of emulating Mom and Dad's traditional wedding. That's particularly true for some longtime same-sex couples in states that now sanction civil unions. "We didn't want to make a huge deal out of it, because we've been together for almost 10 years," says Tasha Moss, who recently married her partner at a nature center in Chicago.

But just because a couple skips the chapel doesn't mean the planning process gets any easier. It can be tough to find pros, like photographers and clergy, who are willing to bend the rules, and pulling off a ceremony in a public place without drawing the wrong kind of attention (read: hostile security guards) is no easy feat. Couples who start down the guerrilla path to save may also find that costs add up surprisingly quickly: Despite paying zilch for their ceremony spot, Stewart and Eggan ended up spending close to $30,000 on their Colorado wedding. How? By flying in their favorite Boston band to play at a local bar they rented out. Says Stewart: "It was better than paying $80 a plate at some reception hall."

In some ways, stealth weddings are a throwback to the early 20th century. Back then, couples often said vows at home and then simply went to dinner. It wasn't until the 1950s that the bridal industry emerged and started wooing brides with fantasies of white weddings, says Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, a History. Of course, now couples don't blink when the $54 billion industry tells them to spend a year planning an event that lasts six hours -- and costs as much as a new car.

When graphic designers Carrie and Martin Gee got engaged, they decided to plan a formal affair in the gardens of the Boston Public Library. But as the questions about centerpieces and wedding favors started to stream in, they began to reconsider. "We looked at each other and asked, 'Is this really worth the stress?'" says Carrie. The Gees forfeited most of their library deposit and, several months later, walked into the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. (Coats hid Carrie's dress and Martin's tux.) With five family members, they stood in front of Vincent van Gogh's Starry Night and said their vows. "People realized what was going on and started applauding," Carrie says.

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Of course, trading vows in front of a Dutch master isn't usually quite as simple as all that. The best guerrilla weddings, pros say, require plenty of coordination. Couples typically start by scouting a potential locale to see if it could feasibly host a ceremony. Often, they find that if they pick a slow time like, say, 2 p.m. on a Friday, there's less chance of getting caught. Then they must track down an officiant who'll agree to an unsanctioned event. As the date gets closer, couples choose whom to invite (less than a dozen people tends to work best), what instructions to give guests (arrive in groups of two to avoid suspicion) and what to say, should staffers ask questions. In Colorado, for example, Stewart and Eggan set up a group rate on chairlift tickets by claiming they were having a family reunion. "They kept telling guests, 'Don't ask any staff where the wedding is,'" says Jennifer Ballard, the couple's photographer.

There's a good reason for caution: Some venues don't allow impromptu ceremonies. The Museum of Modern Art, for example, does not permit weddings and says couples will be asked to leave if they're discovered. Disney World also bans them -- unless it's an official "Disney Wedding," which can cost more than $65,000 for a customized affair (Cinderella's crystal coach: optional). And it's not just venues that object to the idea; more-traditional folks may find that reciting vows in front of a large group carries more weight than a private ceremony, says Rachel Sussman, a marriage therapist and the author of The Breakup Bible.

Even the best-planned event can hit a snag. Ericka Tucker and Drew Tompkins set up a webcam at their ceremony at Los Angeles's Union Station, so family could watch via the Web. But when security guards spotted the couple's laptop, they cut the ceremony short. (A Union Station spokesperson says the courtyard where the ceremony took place is available for weddings but costs $6,000 to rent.)

Couples also run into problems with family over the ultrasmall guest list these affairs typically require. "It didn't matter that my mom's cousin happens to live in Chicago," says Moss, the Windy City eloper. "We didn't invite her." To soften the blow, Moss and her partner, Mel Morelli, arranged postwedding family dinner parties in several cities. Other couples have used a similar strategy and report that it can help soothe hurt feelings -- as well as jack up the bill.

Ultimately, wedding pros say, a successful guerrilla wedding often comes down to one thing: realistic expectations. Beaty, the officiant, says she recently found herself placating a bride who got mad when she heard she couldn't haul a portable arbor into Brooklyn Bridge Park. Says Beaty: "I don't think she understood the idea of being quiet and discreet."

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