Utah's DIY Wedding Industry

UB Insider #11: The Industry Built Around a Walk Down the Aisle

About this episode:

Utah has a robust wedding industry, with the sixth highest number of weddings in the nation, but has one of the lowest wedding spending costs. In this episode of UB Insider, Utah Business’ Adva Biton talks about some of the ways the state’s culture and some unusual circumstances lead to that discrepancy. Subscribe or download this episode on iTunes and Stitcher.


Lisa Christensen: Hello and welcome to UB Insider. I’m Lisa Christensen, online editor for Utah Business magazine. If the wedding invitations no doubt populating your mailbox or fridge weren’t any indication, we’re just getting into the thick of the wedding season. Here in Utah we have the sixth highest number of weddings per capita and a pretty substantial industry to cater to all of those blushing brides and grooms. Here to talk to us a little more about the wedding industry in Utah is Adva Biton, assistant editor at Utah Business magazine who wrote a feature on the subject for our June issue.

Adva Biton: Hi again Lisa.

Lisa Christensen: How’s it going?

Adva Biton: Not too bad.

Lisa Christensen: Good. Glad to have you. So Adva, you write in this story that while Utah is among the top states in terms of per capita weddings, we’re actually pretty far down on the list when it comes to the size of the wedding costs.

Adva Biton: We are. Although, you know, it’s interesting. The wedding industry, like healthcare, is one of those few industries that can get away sharing virtually no financial information with its consumers. Nobody knows, really, how much weddings cost or what they’re supposed to be paying. It’s only when you need it that you, kind of, find out. There’s a lot of rating sites out there that help you find somebody that can make the wedding of your dreams, you just have no idea how much it’s going to cost you until you talk to them.

The wedding industry is a $60 billion industry across the nation. Even when you look through studies to find averages, the numbers are pretty well spread across the board. The Deseret News claimed in 2008 that the wedding industry made about $200 million in the state. But the wedding report site claims now that it’s a $7 million industry. And while we might just be spending a ton more on weddings now, it still feels like that’s a pretty astronomical change in eight years.

Lisa Christensen: $700?

Adva Biton: Yeah. $700 million.

Lisa Christensen: That is quite the change from $200 million up to $700 million.

Adva Biton: Yeah. So somehow we’re spending $500 million more in the past eight years, I guess. Or we just don’t know how to report on this because nobody shares the financial information. But insofar as the actual average wedding costs in the state, it’s also pretty hard to put down.

According to a 2014 study released by the wedding site, The Knot, Utah has an average wedding spend of about $15,250 per wedding. That number in Utah is also put as low as $9,800 in some studies like the Thumbtack studies and as high as about $25,000 in others like the wedding report. The average wedding nationwide is put at either $31,000 or $12,000 depending on what study you look at. So as you can see, there’s a pretty big spread there. One thing does seem to be fairly constant though. No matter what study you look at, Utah still ranks towards the bottom if not the very bottom in the terms of wedding costs. Even though we have the sixth most weddings per capita in the nation, we’re still managing to keep that cost down.

Lisa Christensen: So what are some of the reasons behind the cost discrepancy?

Adva Biton: First of all, there’s a lot to consider here. The cost of living in Utah is lower than other states, so it makes sense that you’re paying more in Manhattan, which The Knot has an average of $76,000 a wedding, by the way, than you would be in Utah. But there’s a lot more that goes into it than that.

I was fortunate enough to talk to some great sources while researching this article. Michelle Leo Events, who’s a six time best of state winner talked with me. As well as Diamond Rentals, Red Butte Gardens and Jackie Erickson of Jackie Lynn Photography. Most of them had a lot to say about our wedding industry in the state, and a lot of it really boils down to culture. The dominant religion here has a lot to do with it, as well as Utah’s creative culture and cost conscious culture.

Many people told me that there’s less of a tradition here of hiring professionals to do everything at your wedding. That’s just not how things usually go. So if you’re not hiring professionals, then a lot of times you’re just cutting a lot of those costs out. Furthermore, a lot of the wedding essentials that cost a lot across the nation don’t apply to a lot of weddings here. Like, ceremony sites cost an average of nearly $2,000 elsewhere in the US, but if you’re getting married in your local temple here, you’re not paying that.

Lisa Christensen: So you mentioned a couple of different things that tie back to the predominant religion, the LDS religion and the culture that accompanies it. What does that effect have on weddings?

Adva Biton: Well, because of the LDS religion, many weddings in Utah just don’t look like the weddings you see in movies or online. A lot of people are getting sealed in their local temple and then having a reception at their ward house. While a quote unquote traditional wedding will include things like a band, catering, alcohol and the likes. An LDS reception just won’t have that. It will be an open house.

The biggest costs in a wedding are often venue costs which are noted, I think, at an average of about $14,000 per spend in The Knot’s study. Those are totally eliminated if you’re having an open house. Alcohol, which is another pretty big ticket item is also taken care of. So it’s interesting because you’re sort of also comparing apples and oranges if you really think about it. But it is deeper than that. Utah also has the lowest age of brides and grooms in the country, at about 25 for men and 23 for women. Utah also has some of the largest average family sizes. That means a lot of young people not yet established in their careers are getting married, and families have to make sure there’s enough money to go around if all their children get married.

On average, a bride’s parents foot at least 43% of the bill. So if you’ve got 5 daughters and you want to pay 43% of all of their weddings, you might not be looking to break the bank on daughter number one. And lastly, if you’re not looking to do an open house, or you’re not really worried about costs or whatever, there’s still a huge DIY culture in this state. There’s a lot of creativity here. We have a lot of cottage industries, a lot of craft bloggers and a lot of creative people. Look at the success of our local maker’s markets and the DIY Festival. People here just love to make things. And with the ascension of Pinterest, that DIY wedding seems closer and more professional looking than ever.

Lisa Christensen: Yeah. It’s interesting that you should mention the lower cost associated with the predominant culture here. I got married about a year or so ago, and when I was wedding dress shopping, there were often similar styles of dress for people who were having temple weddings and people who were not. And even though the ones for people having temple weddings had more material associated with them because of the LDS culture’s high priority on modesty, they were often a few hundred dollars less than the ones that were not made for LDS brides.

Adva Biton: That’s really interesting. I remember you told me that there was a lot of DIY in your wedding, as well.

Lisa Christensen: Yeah. And that was again, it seemed to be just a cultural thing. It wasn’t even something that I thought about until you brought up the subject of the wedding culture and about how these wedding planners were talking about how the DIY culture was making things difficult. So in what ways do the wedding planners and other professionals in the industry have to kind of navigate around that cultural thing?

Adva Biton: Well, first of all, we’ll talk a little bit just about DIY culture. That is a big part of Utah culture. And when I talked with Michelle Leo Events, they mentioned that since the economic downturn in about 2008, along with people being more and more addicted to Pinterest, which I think launched in 2010, people have been looking to do more DIY in their own events. It would make sense that there’s a big stronghold here in Utah, what with the culture of creativity existing anyway. But people are looking to make their own centerpieces, flowers, their own invitations with like, brush script that they learnt online, or their own photo booth props, whatever you can think of. They don’t think of hiring professionals to do things that they think they can do themselves. In all fairness, that trend has been on the downswing nationally.

As the economy continues to recover, people have kind of re-embraced their laziness. A lot of 2016 trends mostly have to do with personalization and glamour and pops of color and stuff like that. You’re seeing a lot less mason jars and burlap these days. But for us, insofar as the professionals, it is difficult for them, but they do exist alongside the trend. A lot of people, when they start DIY, they have no idea what the costs are associated with those things. Brooke Ware, a woman that I interviewed at Diamond Rental was saying that people just don’t have any idea how much things cost, and that she wishes Pinterest would put price tags on things. Just because they’re on Pinterest doesn’t make them free. So they will come in and rent things and they’ll just be shocked by how much chairs and linens are, or they won’t realize how much they actually have to get, like hot holding or serving dishes or that kind of thing if they want to DIY the food. And DIY doesn’t actually mean easy, either.

I spoke with a month-of coordinator at Michelle Leo Events and she was telling me that a lot of these brides start to get really overwhelmed with everything that they thought that they could do without any professional help. So they end up tossing the whole tangled mess at her and she kind of detangles it and makes sure everything is ready for their weddings. Also, Michelle Cousins, the lead designer and owner was telling me that they’re really used to local brides wanting some kind of DIY element in their weddings. The destination brides? Not so much. But local brides often want to showcase at least a little element of their own creativity even if they have a wedding planner designing and implementing anything else.

Lisa Christensen: So between the DIY culture and the professionals, there’s kind of a middle ground of hobbyists. You know, say you have a friend or a cousin who has a nice camera, but isn’t necessarily a professional photographer. What kind of an impact does that have on the industry?

Adva Biton: So this was actually kind of fascinating to me. Because of the creativity here, and the cottage industries and everything else, you end up with a lot of people who find that they can make a mean Instagram picture and decides that that makes them a wedding photographer. They don’t know anything about the industry, but they want to take pretty pictures of women in gowns and they say they’re available for a fraction of the cost of a professional. Jackie Erickson, the photographer I spoke with says she loses a ton of her business to people like this. I think the main thing to remember with hobbyists is just kind of the buyer beware mentality. They are literally people with a hobby. They will charge next to nothing because they want the experience or because they just feel like doing it. But that means you’re getting the work of someone who just feels like doing it. That’s just what it is. It’s kind of like, can they bake the cake of your dreams? I mean, it will probably be the cake of their dreams, and if that lines up, that’s great. But if it doesn’t, you’re stuck with that cake for your wedding. The hardest thing I’ve heard over and over is that it messes with the perception of how much hiring a professional costs.

If you have the choice between an $800 photographer and a $5,000 photographer, you’re probably going to want to go with the $800 one. And even if you don’t like that, like, let’s say you look at that $800 photographer’s shots and you don’t like what you’ve seen of their pictures, you might say, hey, can I get you for $800 for my bridal shots and my engagement shots and I’ll hire someone else, like an actual professional for my wedding ceremony and reception. So then you’ve got a couple of things going on there. Then you might have pictures that don’t really match, they’re not really the same quality or look, plus you never got to know your wedding photographer before you actual day. Maybe you’re ok with that, and maybe you’re not. But the bottom line here is you’re going for cheap. You’re not going for any sort of professional assurance. So you’re going to get what you paid for. And that might not be professional because you’re not hiring a professional.

This forces people to have to lower their prices, like the actual professionals. Because even if you don’t like that $800 photographer, now it’s in your head that you can hire an $800 photographer. So people will start to balk at having to pay that $5,000. So photographers or bakers or wedding planners from California or Portland or Seattle or Denver might laugh at some of the prices we have going on here. But you’ll still hear people complain about those prices because they’re not comparing it with California and Colorado. They’re comparing it with hobbyists they’ve seen.

Lisa Christensen: You mentioned that Utah’s also the site of a lot of destination weddings. How is that different for the wedding planners, the photographers, the bakers, what have you, and what kind of a discrepancy is that with the bulk of our residential weddings?

Adva Biton: Well, as I heard from a lot of people, Utah is super attractive as a destination wedding spot. I mean, we’ve got mountains, we’ve got breathtaking state and national parks, and it just costs so much less here for all of the reasons we’ve discussed. So let’s say you’re from California and you’ve saved up $80,000 for a California wedding and then you come here. Well generally people will still spend that $80,000, they’ll just be a lot happier with how much further their dollar stretches here.

Furthermore, a lot of those things you see here with the age and the budget and things like that, that just doesn’t exist with destination brides. They usually come in and they’re usually older. I heard the youngest ones are about 26 going up to clear over 35. They’re more established in their careers. Their budgets are higher because, like I said, they’ve saved for a wedding in their home states which is almost always higher than a wedding here. Some of the figures that I heard were that if a Utah wedding starts at around, or averages around, let’s say $25,000 to $30,000, a lot of destination weddings start at $60,000 to $80,000 and go up clear over $200,000. But then destination weddings aren’t really known for being cheap.

Lisa Christensen: No. But that’s still a huge discrepancy.

Adva Biton: Yeah. Well, you know, it’s going to be really interesting. Because as I said, as the economy recovers and people start looking at weddings on Instagram and seeing things that look different from theirs, I’ve heard that people, even in the state have started wanting that glamour. So I guess we’ll kind of find out as to whether that makes any changes in our average wedding spending or not.

Lisa Christensen: Yeah. We’ll have to watch that and see what the future holds.

Adva Biton: Maybe that’s where that extra $500 million in the past eight years has come from. Who knows.

Lisa Christensen: Well, thanks Adva for talking about this today. You can read more about the local wedding industry in Adva’s story in our June issue. Thanks to Pat Parkinson for production help. You can tell us what you think at or on our Facebook, Twitter or Instagram pages. You can also download episodes of our podcast on iTunes and Stitcher. Thanks for listening.