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June 14, 2010 | last updated December 1, 2011 6:47 am

Business proposals | Weddings prove an attractive additional revenue stream as the recession batters leisure businesses

Photo/Tim Greenway
Photo/Tim Greenway
Jeff Maldonis, general manager of The Red Barn at Outlook Farm
Photo/Tim Greenway
Leslie Cottrell, general manager at The Danforth inn in Portland, hopes weddings will generate more revenue for the inn
Photo/Tim Greenway
The Red Barn at Outlook Farm

On the website for The Links at Outlook, a golf course in South Berwick, visitors can click on information about tee times, greens fees and, just under a video showing the layout of the course, a photo of a blushing bride and a link titled "Request a wedding package."

Jokes about golf courses as better suited to escaping marriages than entering them aside, weddings now make up a sizeable chunk of business for The Links, after one of the toughest couple of years in recent memory for Maine golf courses. The site has booked 48 weddings this year to be held in The Red Barn at Outlook Farm, a 15,000-square-foot structure overlooking the golf course that boasts chandeliers and fireplaces alongside its rustic post and beam construction.

While the pro shop sat empty during last summer's unrelenting rains, revenues from weddings continued to stream in, says Jeff Maldonis, general manager of The Red Barn. "It definitely complemented our business, as family-owned and operated, to host weddings and receive deposits when the building across the parking lot wasn't collecting a cent," he says.

The Red Barn hosted 65 weddings last year, a bit higher than this year's pace, but couples seeking bookings for next year — and even a few latecomers planning a wedding for later this year — continue to call, Maldonis says. "It's back where it used to be," he says of the inquiries.

Weddings have proved an attractive revenue stream for businesses seeking to boost earnings or offset losses in their core operations, particularly hotels, which saw sales drop 11.6% last year, according to the Maine State Planning Office. Occupancy at Maine lodging establishments dropped to a meager 55.1% in 2009 from 60.4% in 2008, while revenue per available room fell to $51.33 from $57.99.

Both the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport and Maple Hill Farm Bed & Breakfast Inn and Conference Center in Hallowell for the first time organized and hosted their own bridal shows this year.

"Last year, weddings saved a ton of people, a ton of properties," says Greg Dugal, executive director of the Maine Innkeepers Association. Couples are expected to bump up spending this year and more innkeepers are looking to get in on the market, he says. "It's become highly lucrative at a time when you're not sure your leisure business is going to come through." (Dugal, a notary who officiates wedding ceremonies, also shared his personal impression of the frenzied lead-up common to modern weddings: "I'm absolutely amazed at the number of parties that are required before," he says).

The typical engaged couple in Maine paid $16,848 for a wedding last year, a far cry from the average of $21,993 in 2007, according to WE tv Networks Wedding Report, a market research survey. But engaged couples are predicted to increase spending for their nuptials to $17,231 this year and to $19,397 by 2015. The estimated market value of all that wedding-related spending in Maine this year? Nearly $170 million, according to the report.

Institutional knowledge

At The Danforth inn in Portland, General Manager Leslie Cottrell learned, with just days to spare, that she had lost her chef for a weekend wedding booked at the inn in early June. So, she mentally prepared to spend the Friday prior to the couple's scheduled bliss prepping food and "running around like a Tasmanian Devil."

Luckily, her background in event planning taught her how to balance the demands of a wedding with the day-to-day operation of a business. Weddings can be a great source of revenue for lodging establishments, provided growth is kept in check, she says. "It can be challenging to not take into account that the phone keeps ringing when you're trying to prepare a dinner," she says.

Weddings make up just a small portion of revenues for the inn, which added catering services after being purchased last April by Kimberly Swan of The Swan Agency Sotheby's International Realty in Bar Harbor. "Eventually we'd like it to be a nice chunk of the revenue of the inn," Cottrell says.

The Danforth, a stately nine-room inn with a private garden, will host six to eight weddings this year. It can accommodate just 45 guests for a seated dinner, which aligns well with couples' desire for more intimate weddings, she says. "The trend is definitely to smaller events, not to the budget per se," she says, though brides and grooms remain cautious with their spending. Rather than host 200 people, couples are seeking more personal touches, such as the pair who recently brought in a photo booth for guests to ham it up during their reception, Cottrell says.

A more intimate environment was just what the Harraseeket Inn sought to provide in January, when it organized its own bridal show for the first time. The one-day event attracted about 60 brides and 25 vendors. "Brides really enjoyed the smaller setting," says sales director Melissa Brady. "It was more manageable. They didn't feel like they were cattle being herded through."

Another trend? Waiting until the last minute to book. The Danforth is still receiving requests for this September and October, an unthinkable position even a year ago, Cottrell says. "People, first of all, know vendors and venues are not as busy as they used to be. So they have the ability to play it close to the wire," while other couples have just now managed to save enough money to reserve a venue, she says.

Wedding planning procrastination has made its way north, as well. At the Blair Hill Inn, an eight-room inn and former gentleman's farm in Greenville that overlooks Moosehead Lake, innkeeper Ruth McLaughlin is working with a bride who plans to marry in August. The inn has booked four weddings this season, business that easily boosts revenues by 10% or more, she says.

Weddings have been part of the operation for more than a dozen years, experience that has taught McLaughlin clever touches, such as offering to set up a pitcher of lemonade for the inevitable early-arrivals looking for a cocktail. Guests can quench their thirst, while the bride and groom avoid the expense of extra alcohol. She points out the importance of "setting boundaries" in helping couples to plan a day charged with emotion and high expectations. "Start at a reasonable number that you can comfortably handle," she advises would-be wedding venues. "Because the last thing you want to do is do one and fall on your face."

New territory

The Links at Outlook in South Berwick got into the wedding business almost by accident. It all started 10 years ago after the facility set up a tent pavilion to host a golf event for 150 people. Attendees and their friends and family members liked the spot so much, they inquired about hosting weddings there. A flower garden soon followed, and then it was time to decide what to do with an old barn on the property.

Rather than renovate, the family tore down the old barn and replaced it in the fall of 2007 with the far larger, more elegant Red Barn at Outlook Farm, boasting a 4,000-square-foot ballroom, bridal suite and veranda overlooking the golf course. The aging cupola, however, was salvaged, according to general manager Maldonis. "Kind of like the wedding business," he says. "You do something new with something old." As for the something borrowed? A multimillion-dollar loan to fund the project. At the time, "The 'R' word or the 'recession' word wasn't even used," he says.

Hosting events was always part of the long-term plan for The Links at Outlook, but the family has been happy to see weddings making up such a large part of their revenues, says Maldonis. More than 65% of The Red Barn's revenues come from wedding events, and the venue can accommodate 230 guests for a reception. About half of the couples who book the site live out of state, drawing business to the golf course it would have missed out on otherwise.

While Maine's rocky coastline and camera-ready outdoor scenes rouse many a wedding fantasy among brides beyond its borders, actually planning the big day from afar requires a bit more pragmatism. That's why Emilie Sommer, a Portland-based wedding photographer, plans to launch "Love and Lobster" later this month, a blog designed to help out-of-state brides prepare for their wedding day in Maine.

The blog will provide nuts and bolts information, like how to get a marriage license and the best justices of the peace, as well as features on vendors and venues and fashion and design recommendations ("There's more than pine trees and Adirondack chairs for themed invitations," as she puts it.) Of the 48 weddings her studio, emilie inc., booked last year, 83% were couples from out of state, 60% of whom held their ceremonies in Maine.

Similar numbers reveal Maine's popularity as a wedding destination in at least two popular coastal towns. In Camden, 27 of the 41 marriage licenses issued last year were to non-residents. In Bar Harbor, 120 of a total 148 marriage licenses were signed by couples from away.

General information about Maine as a wedding destination is available on the Maine Office of Tourism's website, but its efforts to attract out-of-state engaged couples amount to a print ad in Bridal Guide magazine. The ad has generated a number of leads, which the office follows up on by sending out travel planners and maps.

Sommer says her studio is on track to shoot its usual 50 weddings this year and she's still receiving inquiries for August and September. "Our clients aren't splurging on things like albums up front," she says, and while she hopes many will order such extras for anniversaries, she doesn't count on the revenue.

Back in the early 2000s, when serious recessions seemed like quaint relics of the past, "I couldn't get anyone to do a wedding or a bus tour to save my life," says Dugal of the innkeepers association. But now, memories of the stock market's nosedive fresh in their minds, lodging establishment owners can't discount any extra revenue potential as leisure and corporate bookings continue to take a hit. "The Dow Jones seems to have an effect on telephones too," he says. Companies may still be putting off their annual meeting dinners or awards banquets, but starry-eyed couples will only wait so long to tie the knot. "That market is back."

Jackie Farwell, Mainebiz senior writer, can be reached at jfarwell@mainebiz.biz.

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