U.S. Markets closed

Las Vegas battles 'love recession' as millennials stop getting married

Nick Allen
A Little White Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas - Corbis Historical

It is perhaps the most famous wedding venue in the world, where eloping desperados, and celebrities including Britney Spears, Frank Sinatra, and Joan Collins, have all tied the knot.

But after six months on the market A Little White Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas, scene of over half a million 10-minute ceremonies, failed to find a buyer. This week, the "For Sale” sign was taken down.

It was the most stark example of a so-called "love recession" that has hit Las Vegas, the self-proclaimed "Marriage Capital of the World," in recent years.

The number of weddings has fallen from 128,238 in 2004 to 74,534 last year. Annual revenue is down by an estimated $1 billion, to $2.5 billion.

The chief reason appears to be that millennials, saddled with student loans and exorbitant rent, no longer feel like running off to Sin City on a whim to get hitched by an Elvis impersonator.

Marriage rates in the US have also been plummeting for decades. Only 50 per cent of American adults are currently married, compared to 72 per cent in 1960. The average age for a first marriage has reached its highest ever point - 30 for men and 28 for women.

Charolette [CORR] Richards, 84, the owner of A Little White Wedding Chapel, had put it on the market for $12 million in April. She has run the chapel for over 50 years.

The chapel is actually a one-acre complex on the Las Vegas Strip with various wedding spots including the Tunnel of Love, where couples can be married in a pink Cadillac beneath a cherub-festooned canopy.

The Tunnel of Love in Las Vegas Credit: WireImage

According to the estate agent the chapel, which hosts 100 weddings a day at weekends, is still "very profitable". However, there was only one bid.

Ms Richards, known as "The Wedding Queen of the West," eventually decided the show must go on, and placed her retirement plans on hold.

She told The Telegraph: "This is where I belong. As long as I can stand up and say 'We are gathered here today to join you in holy matrimony' then I will do it.

"I love the people that come here to get married. And I love doing whatever will make them happy and remember their wedding day. 

If I couldn't do that any more I would feel I had neglected somebody. Oh gosh, what would I do if I wasn't here? I'd be lonely."

The decline of the Las Vegas wedding industry began before 2008, but the financial crisis exacerbated it, and it has cast a long shadow.

At the Clark County marriage licence bureau in downtown Las Vegas, the queues are less than they used to be. Couples have to appear in person at the bureau, pay $77, and present a picture ID, before they head to a wedding chapel.

Lynn Goya, the clerk of Clark County, told The Sunday Telegraph: "The recession hit us hard. The main demographic is millennials. We have seen a lot of millennials delay getting married. Like every generation they want a bit of financial stability before they jump into that wonderful pool, marriage, a house and so on.

"People are saying everyone's going to Hawaii now. But you do have to put that in perspective. They had 17,000 [weddings] last year. We're still outperforming everyone else, just not by as many multiples as before."

Almost five per cent of all marriages in the US still take place around the Las Vegas Strip, where numerous other chapels also operate.

The industry is working together to attract more couples, including promotional activities in the UK, one of the main overseas markets. Around 3,500 Las Vegas weddings involved British people last year.

They are also making it even easier to get married. Couples in China can now fill in the forms online. Hi-tech developments like live internet streaming of ceremonies, and potentially virtual reality, are new frontiers. Some chapels are translating their websites into different languages.

And, while A Little White Wedding Chapel is the classic template, many others on the Strip are offering increasingly bizarre gimmicks to drum up business, like the minister emerging from a coffin, ceremonies on a roller coaster, and "shotgun weddings" where the happy couple fire AK-47s.

Las Vegas is the self-proclaimed "Marriage Capatal of the World" Credit: Moment RM

As the flood of millennials slows much of the business is now older couples renewing their vows. Las Vegas is also trying to lure more upmarket weddings. Increasingly, people are bringing larger guest parties with them.

"We just a had a $25 million wedding and they had Bruno Mars perform," said Lynn Goya. "But it's the full gamut. We also  still have people coming in with change to pay for the marriage licence. About 10 per cent of weddings are couples who didn't decide to get married until they were here. That's a high elopement factor.

"And a lot of people still do choose to get married by Elvis because it makes them laugh. If you start your married life with laughter that's a good thing."

However, she said those hoping to ape Hollywood movie The Hangover, in which a character drunkenly marries a woman he has just met, will be disappointed.

"That's not real. It's illegal to get a licence if you're drunk," she said. "Even though its a fun industry we take it extremely seriously. If we think someone's not capable of making such a big decision we have to send them back.

"We had a couple recently that came in three times drunk, and we sent them back three times, saying 'come back sober'. Eventually they did, and they did get married."