In Joanna Fairchild’s basement in Oak Bluffs, not far from the laundry, are shelves crammed with all sorts of island wares for brides and grooms: unusual tablecloths, shabby-chic vases, as well as baskets filled with Chilmark Spring Water, Scrubby Neck soaps, Martha’s Vineyard Sea Salts, and other island-made products that would make just the perfect wedding favor.
Fairchild, a former public relations and event planner in Boston, morphed into a wedding planner when she moved full time to Martha’s Vineyard 11 years ago. Like many year-round residents, she quickly realized that outside of tourism, the wedding biz “is the business on the island.”
Particularly in the spring and fall, “the shoulder seasons,” you can’t drive across the island without noticing all the wedding tents — from the rolling hills of Chilmark to Farm Neck golf course in Oak Bluffs. The Steamship Authority buses are filled with young men carrying tuxedos over their arms, and on late Saturday nights in Edgartown, the bars are jammed with young women in cocktail dresses.
From the innkeepers to the Chamber of Commerce to the local cabbies on the island, you will hear the same boast: Martha’s Vineyard is the second-most popular destination for a wedding in the country, behind Las Vegas.
This widely repeated point of pride isn’t exactly true. Nancy Gardella, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, readily owns up to propagating that claim, but laughs when she hears it repeated back to her.
“How could anyone really know that for sure?” she asks.
What Gardella does know for sure is that business is booming. Traffic on the wedding links on the Chamber’s website is up 27 percent in the last two years, and a recent Chamber survey of all the venues, vendors, churches, and officiates showed an increase of upward of 20 percent in actual business the last two seasons, she says.
Leslie Hurd, publisher of four destination wedding magazines, including Martha’s Vineyard Wedding, says the Vineyard is among the top five spots in the country. She notes that it was given the highest, “platinum” distinction, by Grace Ormonde Wedding Style magazine, considered by wedding planners to be the last word in elegant weddings.
The Vineyard has been a destination for weddings for decades, says Deborah White, owner of Seaside Celebrations, a rental company that has been providing tents and supplies to these events for 30 years. But in the past, those weddings were just for people who had summer homes on the island, she says. After President Clinton and his family began coming to the island, in the early 1990s, “it exploded into celebrity-type weddings, and the wedding boom took off.”
Linda Black, the new editor of Martha’s Vineyard magazine’s Island Weddings, says the glamorous image of the island as a playground for the rich and famous provides the name recognition, but it is its pastoral and seaside landscape and the charm of “an era gone by” that make most couples decide to get married here.
A recent development, she says, is that now brides and grooms who have had no prior connection with the island are starting to choose the Vineyard for their wedding.
John McCarron, part-time cabdriver for AAA Taxi, reports picking up a couple from Chicago at the airport this season who were looking for a wedding venue though they had never been to the Vineyard before. “They had no idea where they were.” He spent the day driving them all over the island, so they could pick a spot. “And that’s not uncommon,” he says. “It’s happening more and more.”
Once, most weddings that weren’t in private homes were held at the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown, The Beach Plum Inn in Chilmark, or The Lambert’s Cove Inn in West Tisbury, says Lambert’s Cove co-owner Scott Jones, but now the scope of venues has widened and the business is spreading out.
The Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust rents four of its properties for weddings, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum rents its lighthouses, the Allen Sheep Farm in Chilmark is always in demand, and the Sailing Camp in Oak Bluffs has become a popular spot. Susan Stephenson, co-owner of the Seawitch, a 58-foot ketch moored in Vineyard Haven, says she saw at least a 20 percent boom from the wedding business last year. Not just weddings and honeymoons, but rehearsal dinners and bachelorette party cruises.
Although individual vendors voice disagreements as to the exact nature of the boom, they all agree on the critical role of the Internet. At Big Sky Tent and Party Rentals, owner Jim Eddy says, online wedding magazines, blogs, and social media drive the demand. “Brides come to us with their Pinterest pages, show us what they want and we rent it to them.”
Neither the Chamber of Commerce nor the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, charged with managing development on the island, has calculated exactly what it means dollar-wise to the island economy.
No one is even certain just how many weddings take place each year, in part because licenses do not have to be issued in the town where the wedding takes place, and in part because so many weddings happen in private backyards. Estimates range wildly, but start at 300 per year.
Christopher Scott is executive director at The Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust, which owns and maintains many historic properties on the island. He willingly took a stab at illustrating the impact weddings have on the economy: Multiplying an average wedding size of 150 people by an average per-person cost of $200 led to an average $30,000 per wedding expenditure — which many in the industry would consider extremely conservative.
In September, the busiest month for weddings, estimates range from 25 to 50 weddings per weekend. That would be $3 million to $6 million in revenue for September alone, going to the caterers, musicians, photographers, florists, officiates, wedding coordinators, and venues, he says, and doesn’t even count the money guests spend on hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, ferries, car rentals, taxis, restaurants, and bars.
“When people come to the island for a wedding, they aren’t coming for just a single day,” Scott points out.
Because it’s expensive and inconvenient to get mainland goods and labor to the island, most of the wedding revenue stays local, says musician Mike Benjamin, who makes his living playing both the celebrity events, like the Seth Meyers wedding in September, and at the smaller venues that stay open year round for islanders.
Benjamin, who once wrote a letter to the editor of the Martha’s Vineyard Times to encourage support of the wedding industry, says, it has become vital to life here. “The money gets evenly spread to dozens of contractors who pay their people fairly. It’s a fairly unobtrusive industry that isn’t depleting any of the island’s resources.”
And unlike other places where he’s played weddings, Manhattan for example, Martha’s Vineyard vendors have each other’s backs, he says.
Which is why Fairchild encourages her brides to use local bands and florists, and why her basement is stocked with local table favors.
As glamorous as the island may seem, it’s a short tourist season. Year-round residents struggle. “Nearly everyone who lives here year round has to have two jobs to make ends meet,” says Fairchild. “Anything that brings people to the island — whether it’s a winter elopement or engagement in front of a fireplace at the Harbor View or The Charlotte Inn — is good for all of us.”Jan Brogan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.