Gay couples a boon to Las Vegas weddings biz

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Ray Huntington and Atrau Stoller celebrate their marriage on the High Roller.
Ray Huntington and Atrau Stoller celebrate their marriage on the High Roller. Photo Credit: Caesars Entertainment

On June 26, the world's tallest observation wheel glowed in rainbow colors in Las Vegas as Caesars Entertainment celebrated the Supreme Court's ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.

Like many Las Vegas resort companies, Caesars was prepared for the ruling. Long before marriage equality became the law of the land, long before the Ninth Circuit Court struck down Nevada's ban on same-sex marriage in October, the company had been offering same-sex commitment ceremonies in its chapels and marketing to LGBT guests.

In fact, according to Gwen Migita, vice president of corporate citizenship for Caesars Entertainment, Harrah's Resort Southern California was the "first gaming company in the U.S. to offer same-sex legal ceremonies."

Today, thanks to the Supreme Court's recent ruling, same-sex couples from all 50 states can wed in Las Vegas chapels and have their marriages recognized when they return home. And for Las Vegas, that is a good reason to celebrate.

The "marriage capital of the world" is already an extremely popular destination for weddings of all kinds. Downtown is packed with chapels where lovers can tie the knot in the company of Elvis, in front of a minister or without getting out of their limo. On the Strip, casinos offer all-inclusive packages from private elopements to elegant parties. The Aria's wedding chapel will even live-stream your wedding online so family and friends can watch from far away.

The wedding chapel at the Aria.
The wedding chapel at the Aria.

The Clark County Clerk's office granted its first same-sex marriage license on Oct. 9, 2014, and the first gay couple to wed in Las Vegas was state Sen. Kelvin Atkinson and Sherwood Howard, who married just an hour later. Since then, the clerk's office has issued more than 2,600 licenses to same-sex couples, according to Clark County Clerk Lynn Goya. After an early spike following the October ruling, Goya said the numbers have been fairly consistent, with 4.5% of licenses going to gay couples.

That means same-sex weddings have the potential to be big business in Las Vegas. In 2014, Clark County issued 80,737 marriage licenses, the vast majority of which went to out-of-state couples who pay for hotel rooms, meals and entertainment along with their actual nuptials.

"The thing about wedding tourism is it's actually a very good industry for the local economy," Goya said.

Already 2015 is on pace to beat last year's number. "It is the same-sex couples that are making the difference," added Goya. And now that the Supreme Court has legalized gay marriage in all 50 states, Goya expects the number of same-sex couples walking down the aisle in Las Vegas to grow.

"Wedding tourism brings in about $2 billion a year to Clark County," she said. Even if the percentage of licenses going to gay couples holds steady at 4.5%, that's a $90 million annual impact.

"It's very good for us," Goya said. "It's very good for Clark County."

Atrau Stoller, left, and Ray Huntington were married at the Flamingo in October.
Atrau Stoller, left, and Ray Huntington were married at the Flamingo in October.

Michael Dimengo, CEO of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada, said companies like MGM Resorts, Caesars Entertainment and Las Vegas Sands Corp. have long worked to accommodate and market to gay visitors. He sees welcoming same-sex weddings as "almost an extension of that or a completion."

Aria hosted its first same-sex wedding in October at the casino's Fireside Lounge, followed by dinner at Jean-Georges Steakhouse and festivities at Hyde nightclub.

Colleen Kestel-Raidnae, director of weddings, said the Aria chapel staff has prepared to host same-sex weddings, completing a training session with the Gay Weddings Institute and revising its verbiage to be more inclusive.

"Not everything says 'bride and groom,'" she said. "We're a lot more gay-friendly than we've been in the past."

While there are currently only a few same-sex weddings on the chapel schedule, Kestel-Raidnae expects to see more booked in 2016, since many are planned six to 12 months in advance. The chapel hasn't made any dramatic changes to entice same-sex couples to wed there because, Kestel-Raidnae said, gay customers don't want to be singled out.

As some have told her, "I don't feel like I'm planning a gay wedding; I'm planning a wedding."

For those who don't want to wait for a spot in a packed casino calendar, Las Vegas' independent chapels may provide a welcome alternative. Looking forward, Dimengo said he expects to see a spike in the number of gay weddings in Las Vegas as long-term couples finally have the right to marry.

In fact, Dimengo himself is one of those people. He's been with his partner for 19 years. "We've talked about it informally," he said of tying the knot. "My partner is waiting for a proposal."

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