Lauren Johnson and Jason Niedermier were just one of the couples lugging their suitcases into a “pop-up” marriage license bureau alongside the baggage carousel at McCarran International Airport on Tuesday.
Johnson, a 27-year-old IT consultant, and Niedermier, who’s 31 and in the Air Force, met on Match.com and now live in Columbus, Ohio. They’re planning to elope on Saturday at the Little White Wedding Chapel downtown — a plan that has the blessing of their family but only after they promised to send pictures and provide video evidence.
“We just wanted small, inexpensive. We just wanted to do it ourselves — not have all the drama,” said Niedermier, who booked much of the wedding vendors online while deployed in the Middle East. “We always talked about eloping anyway … and Vegas is just known for marriages.”
It’s the kind of response Las Vegas tourism officials want to hear after they’ve seen the number of marriage licenses tumble from more than 128,000 in 2004 to about 80,000 a year now, trends they attribute to a variety of factors including a decline in the marriage rate, the recession and more competition from other destinations. While Las Vegas is still king when it comes to tying the knot, officials don’t want to lose their edge.
The pop-up wedding license office — located in a repurposed room off the baggage claim and open during regular business hours from Feb. 9 through Feb. 17 — is handling about 20 percent of the clerk’s office license volume and helps visitors skip the trip to the courthouse downtown. It’s just one way the county is trying to make weddings as easy as possible.
“There’s a lot more competition out there now,” said Clark County Clerk Lynn Goya. “A lot of people realize it’s a great industry.”
A 2015 bill passed by the Nevada Legislature and sponsored by then-state Sen. Ruben Kihuen authorized Clark County to raise its marriage license fee by $14 to $77. The extra cash — more than $1 million a year — is flowing to an account the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority is using exclusively to beef up marketing of Vegas weddings.
That money is being used for digital advertising, partnerships with wedding-focused publications such as The Knot and a campaign in which couples married in Las Vegas give a firsthand account of their experiences. Since it launched in 2017, the enhanced wedding promotion website has 3.3 million video views and 138,000 downloads on the articles, which aim to showcase wedding options for every personality and budget.
“We did see a decline in marriage licenses, but we are starting to see that number stabilize to a more realistic number that’s more reflective of shifting demographics with millennials waiting longer to get married and marriages happening later in life,” said Cheryl Smith, LVCVA’s director of specialty market sales.
Although the authority said it can’t break out exactly how much people are spending per wedding on average, the industry brings in about $2 billion a year and creates thousands of jobs. Last year, couples came from 119 out of 195 countries in the world.
The authority has also done its own extensive market research, finding that there’s opportunity in a whole range of “romance travel.” That includes bachelor and bachelorette parties, destination weddings that include a group of people staying multiple days for the celebration, honeymoons and the newer trend of “babymoons” for parents-to-be.
The number of weddings on Valentine’s Day proper in Las Vegas varies widely depending on what day of the week it falls. In 2017, the holiday fell on a Tuesday and 574 marriages were performed; in 2009, when it fell on a Saturday, that number was 1,904, according to LVCVA.
But, Smith said, “I think love is in the air any day of the year in Vegas.”
Love is good for business
It’s not just weddings that are giving the Vegas economy a boost this week. On the eve of Valentine’s Day, the team at Nevada Flowers and Gifts in North Las Vegas was working at full speed trimming thorns from long-stem roses and packing their walk-in refrigerator with red and white bouquets.
Only Mother’s Day compares with this holiday, said Ana Luna, who’s run the shop with her husband for the past 13 years. It started out focused on Latino customers but has expanded more broadly.
Predictably, it’s the red roses that are the runaway favorite, and most of her customers are men.
“They ask for special things,” Luna said after tying a red ribbon around a massive, five-dozen red rose bouquet. “They want big arrangements. They always want to impress the love of their life. Always.”
And on a busy street corner in Las Vegas, a 49-year-old vendor named Guillermo had set up a display of giant teddy bears wrapped in cellophane and packaged with chocolates. He’d taken a few days off his job as a dishwasher to sell the gifts, the biggest of which were going for $70 each.
Every few minutes, a young man would pull up in the nearby parking lot or hop off at the bus stop in front of the display and pick out a product to buy in cash. As a person of faith, he said, the holiday resonates with him.
“I like Valentine’s Day because the concept of love is something beautiful,” said Guillermo, who’s originally from Mexico City. “Every person shows it differently. It’s not that they don’t have love, it’s that they’re distracted by other situations, but the love is always there. Really, I see it in their faces.”