COVER

BANKING ON BLISS

Behind many a glowing bride lies a huge and lucrative industry

DEIRDRE McMURDY June 28 1993
COVER

BANKING ON BLISS

Behind many a glowing bride lies a huge and lucrative industry

DEIRDRE McMURDY June 28 1993

BANKING ON BLISS

Behind many a glowing bride lies a huge and lucrative industry

DEIRDRE McMURDY

Dina Elestheros has always known exactly what she wants—sweptup ringlets and a white, lacy dress with lots of beading and a long, white train. And on Sept. 5, when she floats down the aisle of a Greek Orthodox Church on her father’s arm, the 25-year-old Halifax accountant will finally live out her childhood fantasy. With 500 friends and relatives watching,

Elestheros will be followed by seven attendants—the women carrying floral bouquets and wearing matching ivorycolored silk dresses—as she meets her fiancé, Alex Kalorgropoulos, at the altar.

“Quite a few people have made cynical or negative remarks to me about marriage, but I can’t wait,” she says. “From the time I was little, I’ve imagined just how things would be on my wedding day.” Behind many a glowing bride, however, there is a huge industry that employs military precision to work its magic. And while the recession may not have rained on Elestheros’s wedding plans, it has further dampened a business already scrambling to adapt to shifting tastes and demographics. The stakes are high: the spinoff from just one traditional wedding involves a full roster of dressmakers, florists, caterers, limousine services, jewellers and other merchants. According to Toronto-based Wedding Bells magazine, put out by Key Publishers Co. Ltd., a typical Canadian couple of means spends more than $10,000 on a wedding, to which they invite an average of

140 people who buy gifts costing about $100 apiece. American humorist Dave Barry says that the industry’s motto is: “Your Wedding is Sacred. It Should Cost a Lot.” But those in the business say that the pressure for bigger and better comes from consumers—and that the demand remains durable, even in hard times. “The strong emotional content makes the bridal business exceptionally profitable,” says Toronto retail consultant John Winter. “People are willing to pay a premium for something special to mark a special event.” In fact, recession-era weddings can still be so pricey that in January one U.S. insurance company, Fireman’s Fund of Novato, Calif., introduced special wedding policies. For a premium of $115, the company will reimburse couples up to $1,000 if the wedding party must be reassembled in the event that photographs fail or negatives are damaged. The compensation is $2,000 if a wedding must be cancelled because of hurricanes, fire, crime, illness or

civil or military duty. “The policy,” notes Brian Cox, chief agent with Fireman’s Fund in Canada, “covers everything except a change of heart.” It is not yet available in Canada.

In targeting the bridal market, retailers are seeking more than just first-blush business. During their engagement, couples may select jewelry, furniture, tableware, linen and appliances for their new home—which can lead to lasting store and brand-name loyalty. With that in mind, retailers aggressively promote their bridal registries. The engaged couple registers with a store, then asks guests to buy gifts from a wish list of items. “The bridal business is crucial to us,” says Thomas Hart, national product manager for Henry Birks & Sons Ltd. of Montreal. “That’s when we establish a lasting connection with our customers and their families.”

Computers have revolutionized the business. A decade ago, William Ashley China Ltd. of Toronto became the first Canadian re tailer to computerize its registry, and the company has recently added color monitors that display the pattern and shapes of the chosen tableware. Even after the wedding, the com-

puter file remains open to allow the addition of items on birthdays or anniversaries. Although Ashley’s is privately owned, industry watchers estimate that it could have annual revenues as high as $40 million—the bulk from wedding-related sales. Of course, computers can only do so much. Ashley’s bridal consultant, Shanitha Muratori, says that the sales staff is trained “intensely” for about six months before dealing directly with brides. “You have to show them how to put their table together,” says Muratori. “There are also tips like using a gravy boat for cheese or chocolate sauce—not just gravy.”

Selling wedding gowns is labor-intensive, as well. Caroline Ingham-Rhodes, owner of the House of Traditions bridal salon in Victoria, B.C., says: “You have to understand the structure of a gown for alteration purposes. But even if a bride thinks she knows what she wants, it can take hours or days just to narrow down the choice.” Social skills can also be crucial. As banquet manager at the Vogue Hotel in Montreal, Marie Lou Coupai says that she is frequently asked to advise couples on lastminute points of etiquette.

“Especially in cases of mixed or second marriages, the manners can get tricky,” says Coupai. “With the emphasis on less formal society, people suddenly realize that they have no idea how to form a receiving line to greet guests.”

Many bridal businesses have fallen victim to the recession.

Marc Gagnon, marketing director for Wedding Bells—which shares the magazine market with Toronto-based Today’s Bride, published by Family Communications Inc.—notes that “there was a big boom in the 1980s where everyone tried to jump on the bridal bandwagon. Now, only a committed core remains.” But because some weddings take more than a year to plan, bridal experts suggest taking precautions against business failures. Warns Carole Stevens of the Wedding Council of Ontario:

“If you have to make a deposit on a dress or hall, make sure it goes into a trust account. And get that in writing.”

In a tough economy, many couples have become tough customers. Because many have been working for years, they are expected to cover much of the cost of the wedding themselves. For second marriages, in fact, parents often

play no financial role at all. “Your dad may walk you down the aisle and give you a nice gift, but that’s about it,” says Halifax-based wedding consultant Rossana Paolini.

Even recession-era couples sometimes call in bridal consultants—although not necessarily to stage-manage lavish productions. “First off,” explains Paolini, “we categorize everything in a seven-page budget and then set the amount firmly—there are lots of things you don’t need or substitutes that you can make with some planning.” In some cases, says Stevens, a 25year veteran of the business, cost-cutting can go too far. “There has been a real outburst of tackiness,” she says. “People are asking for cash right on the invitations.” Others in the bridal business say that, once the economy recovers, they are hoping for a strong resurgence in the demand for traditional trimmings. But for Dina Elestheros—and thousands of other brides dramatically realizing their dreams this summer—it is as if the recession had never happened.

DEIRDRE McMURDY