Love's still in the air

It looks like love really does conquer all - even a recession.

Those involved in Northeast Ohio's wedding industry say that future brides and grooms might be trimming a few costs here and there, but for the most part area lovebirds are forging ahead with weddings of a lifetime. "I would say we're as busy as ever with inquiry calls," said Tony Prusak, sales account manager at Marriott Cleveland East in Warrensville Heights, which typically hosts 30 or more weddings a year and is on pace to reach that number again in 2009. If anything, Mr. Prusak said, couples are slightly more cost- conscious, which typically translates into fewer guests and a stricter budget. ìPeople are still putting money into the food, and they're still putting money into the ancillary music," he said.

Couples still seem to be willing to spend what it takes, said Michael Ferrara, a planner and designer who specializes in weddings for Mayfield Heights-based Executive Caterers, for which he has worked for 26 years. Overall, he said, the recession has not affected the wedding trade as much as it has touched other sectors of the events industry. Weddings  and other social, personalized events still are strong. Indeed, Mr. Ferrara said 2009 is packed with weddings, which can range in size from 40 to more than 1,000 guests. "I've seen very little change in the weddings, overall," he said. "A wedding is a onetime event ... it's a once-in-a-lifetime thing." Mr. Ferrara agreed that brides- and grooms-to-be are looking for a little more bang for their buck, but recession or not, most love stories in Northeast Ohio still have a fairy tale ending.  "People get married no matter what the economic conditions are," Mr. Ferrara said.

Feeling the love

Northeast Ohio's love affair with weddings is abundantly apparent to vendors that don't work exclusively in marriages. They say that while parts of their businesses are feeling the effects of the recession, wedding work is holding strong.

"We have not noticed a change yet in the wedding business," said Michele Carothers, general manager of Shima Limousine in Mentor. But, she noted, the same can't be said for corporate work. "I'm surprised at how quickly it changed." Not surprisingly, weddings are providing a certain level of stability on what's become a rough economic road, according to Ms. Carothers. With a fleet of 52 vehicles, Shima provides transportation for about 1,000 weddings a year, and reservations already are coming in for 2010.

In Rocky River, Katie Pickard tells a similar story. She has been helping brides with their invitations since September 2007, when she opened up her specialty paper boutique, Paper Trails. "Our bridal season this year is the busiest it's ever been," she said. "I wouldn't say (the recession has) negatively impacted us at all." Ms. Pickard said people still are buying and looking into wedding invitations. "They're making small sacrifices that maybe add up dollar-wise," she said. By year's end, Ms. Pickard expects to have fulfilled at least 1,000 orders for wedding invitations. And while the retail end of her store has felt some pains of the economy, Ms. Pickard said the wedding side of things is going quite well: "Our invitation and special order business is thriving."

Reality check

While it's understandable some couples find themselves wrapped up in their nuptials, those who work with brides- and grooms-to-be know the wedding industry is not immune to the recession's reach. "We may see the effect once we sit down and start crunching numbers," said Kristan Dolan, coordinator, hosted events and catering at Progressive Field, where earlier this month there were 11 wedding events on the books for this season. Ms. Dolan said wedding events at Progressive Field, which take place primarily between April and September, booked up fairly quickly this year. But since plans are made once the next year's baseball schedule is released, most were scheduled right before the market hit bottom this fall.

Jim Frericks, co-founder and co-owner of Fairlawn-based Today's Bride along with his wife, Denise, has been a witness to the fluctuations in the wedding industry for more than 20 years. His seven- employee company produces a regionally focused wedding web site and publication that's distributed throughout the area twice a year.

In addition to the magazine and web site, Today's Bride hosts four bridal shows a year. The largest of the wedding shows is held in January at the I-X Center, and this year it attracted more than 200 wedding exhibitors and 2,488 brides were registered to attend with 10,000 guests. As for the recession's effect, Mr. Frericks said couples are shopping around a lot more; they're more cautious; and they may reduce the number of attendees. In turn, businesses are being more flexible and creative. "Businesses need to adapt to what today's bride wants and needs," he said.

Not always a pretty picture

There is one sector in the wedding industry, however, that is facing a cloudier picture than others, according to Mr. Frericks. "Photographers are getting pounded," he said. Amateurs with digital cameras can be blamed for part of that trend. "There are too many newbies," he said.

That's no surprise to Ken Cavanaugh, owner of Cavanaugh Photography in Berea, who didn't hesitate to say he has seen some of the recession's effects: "We kind of saw it coming." Mr. Cavanaugh, whose business shoots 60 to 70 weddings a year, said brides are seeking more value. "People are holding on to their money a little longer," he said. The studio has responded with retooled packages, bridal show specials and increased marketing, including a Facebook page and blog. And looking ahead to 2010, Mr. Cavanaugh already has a number of advanced bookings. "The most important thing is if you create a great customer experience, in the long run you're going to survive these times," he said.