After COVID slowdown, Las Vegas sees post-shutdown wedding ‘boom’

In a small, storefront chapel in downtown Las Vegas, Renato Garcia is surrounded by mask-wearing loved ones snapping cellphone photos, awaiting the person he is about to marry.

Janae Frazier, wearing a floor-length gown and a crown of sunflowers, meets Garcia at the front of the chapel. After exchanging vows, the newlyweds join the nearly 5 million other couples who have tied the knot in Las Vegas.

It’s a joyous moment. But for Arnold Garcia, owner of the Love Story Wedding Chapel where Frazier and Garcia were married, the last year and half has been filled with obstacles as the COVID-19 pandemic upended the wedding industry.

Janae Frazier and Renato Garcia participate in their wedding ceremony inside Love Story Wedding Chapel on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

As business closures shut down chapels and capacity restrictions limited large gatherings, many weddings were postponed or cancelled, while other ceremonies were held online or downsized significantly.

“I consider this essential — maybe not the large gatherings and everything else like that — but people are ... losing their jobs,” Garcia said. “They need their spouse for insurance and their spouse to be able to make decisions on their behalf.”

Despite the challenges, the Las Vegas wedding industry is bouncing back strongly in 2021, as social distancing guidelines ease and out-of-state visitors flock to Southern Nevada.

“Ever since we reopened after we closed for COVID, we've seen just a boom of couples coming to Las Vegas to get married,” Clark County Clerk Lynn Goya said in an interview with The Nevada Independent. “This year has gone great so far. We expect for the first time in 20 years, except for a couple exceptions [in 2014 and 2015], to be on an uptick.”

Signage at Little Church of the West Wedding Chapel as seen in Las Vegas late Wednesday night on Aug. 25, 2021. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

After the county clerk’s office issued roughly 73,000 marriage licenses in 2019 and 56,000 in 2020, Goya said her office is on track to issue nearly 80,000 licenses this year.

Alongside Goya, professionals from across the wedding industry came together on Aug. 25 for the fifth annual State of the Wedding Industry — hosted by the clerk’s office and the Las Vegas Wedding Chamber of Commerce — to discuss the performance of the industry in 2020 and share ideas for promoting wedding tourism in Southern Nevada.

Charity Griego, a licensed officiant who lives in Las Vegas, said she’s seen more small ceremonies amid the pandemic.

“So many people from all over the country had to cancel their large massive parties in order to elope here,” Griego told The Nevada Independent after the event.

A wedding chapel as seen in downtown Las Vegas late Wednesday night on Aug. 25, 2021. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Goya said the decline in marriages during 2020 was largely the result of losing international tourism. Tourists from outside the U.S. are still largely restricted from entering the country, and foreign couples typically make up 20 to 24 percent of the marriage licenses issued in Clark County, but that group accounted for just 3 percent of the licenses issued in 2020.

Despite that downturn, Goya said she thinks weddings helped bring tourists to Las Vegas during the pandemic. Last year, tourists accounted for 76 percent of the licenses issued in Clark County.

“People kept coming for weddings when they couldn't come for conventions or other things,” Goya said. “A lot of people have told me anecdotally that … weddings saved their business, or saved their income.”

An average of 4 percent of visitors say they come to Las Vegas to attend weddings, and wedding tourism in Clark County — which accounts for money that wedding attendees spend at hotels, restaurants, shows and more — had an estimated economic impact of roughly $2.5 billion in 2019, according to data from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. Wedding options vary widely in Las Vegas, from the plethora of small chapels and drive-through venues on the Strip, to extravagant packages at major casino resorts to a special Taco Bell-themed chapel.

The Marriage License Bureau as seen in downtown Las Vegas late Wednesday night on Aug. 25, 2021. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Garcia said he kept his chapel open throughout the pandemic, even as nonessential businesses were closed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

“You can't stop love,” Garcia said. “People are going to continue to get married.”

But Garcia said he’s “still on eggshells,” as Nevada faces a surge of COVID-19 cases fueled by the spread of the Delta variant

While COVID-19 remains present in Clark County, 2021 has still been a strong year for business for many in the Las Vegas wedding industry — including Jason Whaley, who owns a photo booth rental business and serves as president of the wedding chamber.

“Typically, our summer is our slow time, and we're just as busy this summer as we typically are during our busy time,” Whaley said. “In fact, July and August [have] seen about 180 percent of what we saw in 2019.”

During the conference, Goya noted that weddings this year are bucking a downward trend from the past 16 years. After the number of wedding licenses issued in Clark County peaked in 2004 with 128,250 licenses, the county saw an average decrease of 4,500 marriage licenses per year through 2020. 

Though the county last saw an uptick in licenses in 2014 and 2015 after same-sex marriage became legally recognized in Nevada in October 2014, Goya expects more licenses to be issued in 2021 than in each of the past two years.

“It's a great industry, and it's been really exciting after really working on this for seven years, to see the turnaround starting to happen,” Goya said.

Products are seen behind glass inside Love Story Wedding Chapel on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Griego hopes to soon join the millions of other couples who have tied the knot in Las Vegas. Just a few days before the event, Griego, who runs a theme wedding business with her partner Brian Mills, became engaged to Mills.

“It's an amazing experience that we're trying to wrap our head around, because we've been engaged for probably about three days right now,” Griego said. “The most amazing part of my wedding is going to be marrying Brian.”