INDIAN RIVER COUNTY – With June the traditional month for tying the knot, a wave of weddings continues to find Indian River County’s beaches this spring, as word of mouth and marketing efforts bring to fruition the dreams not only of committed couples but the business community as well.
Costa d’Este Beach Resort, opened in 2008, estimates fully half of the hotel’s business is now wedding related.
Vero Beach Hotel and Spa, which opened its first rooms a year before Costa d’Este, says it expects to host 80 weddings in the coming year.
With luck, the economic benefits could be as enduring as the nuptials.
Tourist officials are hoping the influx of not only young couples but their 20-something guests could provide a much-needed stream of youthful visitors to Vero in the future.
The swelling reputation of Vero as wedding destination is part of a statewide trend, as Florida is now the No. 1 U.S. wedding destination, according to industry sources.
Nationwide, destination weddings, where family and friends travel to an exotic location for an intimate weekend- long celebration, add up to a whopping $16 billion segment of the wedding industry at large.
That number, from 2009, was up $3 billion from 2008, and way up from the 2001 number of only $3 billion.
Destination weddings are thriving in a down economy, largely because they can end up costing less than weddings at home, which tend to be far larger.
Of that sector, the Caribbean is still the favorite place to fly everyone off for the party.
But last year, Florida suddenly overtook both Las Vegas and Hawaii as the No. 1 domestic wedding destination.
Cities and towns along the coast stand to capitalize on lower air fares and less security hassles to steal more wedding business from the Caribbean.
Vero’s two luxury oceanfront hotels, which opened here in the past four years, happened to position themselves at the crest of the wave.
In 2009, with Costa’s Monica Smiley leading the way, hotel representatives and related businesses joined chamber officials in launching an initiative to bring the business of weddings to Vero.
The council and hospitality executives reached out to wedding planners in Orlando and Tampa. Meanwhile, the smaller boutique hotel, Caribbean Court, with its built-in caterer and a stunning restaurant, Maison Martinique, hit points south: Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and Palm Beach.
Not that all the weddings are from out of town. Lauren Melillo, the catering sales manager at Vero Beach Hotel and Spa, says that 50 percent of her wedding business is local.
With any luck, the out-of-towners may one day be locals, too.
As tourist officials position their budgets to target more brides- and grooms-to-be, they remain well aware that a destination wedding typically turns into destination tourism later on.
Anniversary weekends could ultimately turn into family vacations down the road. And that goes for not just the lucky couple.
A wedding puts Vero on the radar of every guest who attends. The trickledown could continue for decades, as some may choose to live here as well.
Meantime, Vero’s wedding-related businesses are booming.
“I’ve doubled my business this year over last,” says Cindy Goetz, 42, a makeup artist.
She credits her success in part to the chamber’s marketing campaign.
An art school graduate who sold Mary Kay Cosmetics for 20 years, she launched herself as a makeup artist about a year and a half ago.
Today, she counts among her 400 clients one local celebrity of sorts: Mardy Fish’s newlywed sister, Meredith Fish Mackey, who models on the television game show, “Deal or No Deal.”
“She was a bridesmaid at another wedding I did and liked my work,” says Goetz. Mackey used Goetz for her own recent wedding, held at Windsor.
This June, Goetz has booked bridal makeup packages for three out of four weekends, up threefold over last year.
Translating matrimonial bliss into dollars – discreetly – is the name of the wedding game.
While residents visiting the hotels’ bars and restaurants may see a steady stream of brides posing for photos, staff is making sure each bride believes the town is hers alone.
What no one wants is some place that looks like it mass-produces weddings, says bride Amanda Orocio.
Orocio, 29, a doctor from Fort Lauderdale who married fellow doctor Kris Orocio, 28, drove around the state to visit possible wedding destinations.
“We wanted a boutique hotel that could accommodate our guests, something intimate with a personal touch,” says Orocio, whose wedding party for 110 guests at Costa d’Este lasted five days.
“We only had a short amount of time to spend with our guests. Why not spend it with the most important people, in an idyllic environment like Vero Beach?” asks Orocio.
“We’re running ads on www.Visit- Florida.com,” says Susan Hunt, director of tourism for the chamber.
Vero’s ads link into the state’s tourism development campaign.
Hunt says the chamber also advertises in a bridal guide created by the Visit Florida website.
The ads have generated a bridal database used to e-mail brides-to-be directly. In addition, a chamber-sponsored website, www.ComeDiscoverLove.com, “gives you everything you need for planning a wedding from A to Z,” says Hunt.
In its inaugural effort to target the wedding market, last May the tourism board organized a familiarization tour, or “fam tour,” for about 30 to 45 wedding planners from across the country.
Traveling to Vero Beach at their own expense, some from as far away as Hawaii, the wedding planners met with representatives of local spas, florists, restaurants, caterers, hotels, and banquet facilities.
An assortment of businesses participated, from all over the county.
There was a welcome reception at the Vero Beach Hotel, followed by an after-party at Captain Hiram’s Resort in Sebastian.
The group met for breakfast at Mulligan’s, traveled the lagoon aboard the River Queen, and toured the various hotels.
Costa spent $3,500 trying to impress the wedding planners, says Smiley.
The return on investment was good: Smiley says the “fam” resulted in bookings for three weddings at Costa generating $150,000.
And the economic impact is widespread.
Orosio’s April wedding at Costa cost about $45,000, said the bride, who along with her groom, just graduated from medical school.
The couple, now doing their residencies in New Jersey, also spent $5,000 for a 110-guest rehearsal dinner at Joey’s Bistro on Miracle Mile.
Orosio used a list of service providers recommended by the hotel, hiring local photographer Angela Tappen, hairstylist Lindsay Nafzigger, makeup artist Goetz, the cupcake shop Frosting for the cake, and Mystique Floral, which is Miami-based but has a Vero Beach office.
The Orosio wedding party also spent time in Costa’s spa, and paddled rental ocean kayaks off the beach.
Although Vero Beach Hotel’s Melillo says she was pleased with the outcome of last year’s “fam” tour, for now she is focusing on her company’s own wedding marketing initiative: a corporate relationship with Virgin Holidays, a travel company in the United Kingdom.
Melillo also advertises on www.TheKnot.com, a widely popular online wedding source.
It was word of mouth that sealed the deal for Nicole Riley Seiner, 30, who heard about Vero Beach as a destination wedding location from a co-worker: a physician in the hospital ER where Seiner and her new husband, Jonathan, work as nurse anesthetists.
“I want to have a wedding there every year!” jokes the bride, so memorable was her week-long party for 40 at the Vero Beach Hotel and Spa.
Seiner readily broke out the expenses – Rehearsal dinner and reception: $10,000. Flowers: $1,400, through the Pink Pelican Florist in Sebastian. Cake (two of them), $260, from Frosting. Video production: $2,300, from Key Moment Productions.
Seiner too used Goetz for makeup, and the bridal party’s hair was done by Nafzigger. Kayaks – apparently a local wedding staple – came from Woody’s Rentals.
And although the hotels tend to use their own planners, there is apparently still room for competition.
The Event Firm International, based in Miami and owned by Fé Domenech, is rumored to be opening its doors this month on Beachland Boulevard, in the space formerly occupied by J Rans, the recently closed men’s store.
Event Firm International has ties to Costa d’Este, Smiley says, and was the wedding planner for Nahib Estefan, son of Gloria and Emilio Estefan who own the hotel.
Meanwhile, members of local clubs including Windsor, John’s Island and the Moorings, are hosting more and more out-of-towners’ weddings. A veteran Vero caterer turned wedding planner, Melissa Patrick, co-owner with Elizabeth Mahon of Panache Weddings and Events, says she has seen a marked increase in out-of-town couples hiring her for Vero weddings through Google searches.
With so many moony-eyed couples taking over Vero’s beach, it only seems that there’s something in the water.
“What’s happened,” says Goetz, “is that we finally have resorts that can accommodate brides and their weddings.”