Can Haines attract niche wedding market?
August 5, 2021
Weddings in Haines are going pro, and people familiar with local nuptials say it’s about time.
Summertime outdoor weddings are a long local tradition, but recent construction of waterfront pavilions along Chilkat Inlet have made them more convenient and seemingly more popular.
Add to that a national trend toward destination weddings, changing demographics and expansion of local lodging opportunities and some are seeing a new, niche market in the town’s tourism program.
“There’s definitely a market,” said resident Caroline Hankins, who is launching a business as a wedding planner. “We could have a wedding here every weekend next summer. I already have three.”
Hankins has lived in Haines four years and manages the Haines Senior Center. As a teenager, she worked for a caterer that put on “relaxed but fancy” weddings in rural settings around Stanwood, Wash., including ones held in old barns and along lakeshores.
“I like being creative and organizing things. I love helping people make connections. This (idea) has come from three years of thinking how can I stay in Haines and do something that I love.”
Hankins said she’s heard enough accounts of families getting frustrated planning weddings and others who scratched plans for weddings here for lack of local knowledge to have faith in the business plan she’s written.
She’s also interested in marketing the town as a wedding destination for brides like Roxie Fuller.
Fuller last month brought 20 wedding guests from Wisconsin after finding Haines during an Internet search. “She had been searching for where to have a wedding and she fell in love with what she saw online,” said Haines travel agent Randa Szymanski, who served as Fuller’s de facto wedding planner and officiated nuptials on the Chilkat Inlet beach opposite Pyramid Island.
Fuller said she chose to take her wedding to Haines after learning how pricey one in her hometown would be. “We wanted to have it feel quiet, slower and experience the amazing backdrop.”
Fuller reached out to Szymanski last fall. Szymanski sent her photos of possible wedding locations and suggestions for lodgings. Szymanski was familiar with weddings as she served a few years as the town’s go-to marriage minister when a former magistrate wasn’t interested in that part of the job of town judge.
For a week, the wedding guests rented cars, ate at local restaurants, and bought groceries, Szymanski said. “It was a very small wedding (but) it’s a good economic boost if we can encourage this type of thing.”
A wedding planner business is a good idea, as it’s difficult for someone coming into town blindly to know about local caterers, hairdressers, photographers, even things like where to get chairs, Szymanki said. “Most people are willing to pay for the extra help.”
Also, the expansion of bed and breakfasts and construction of the Aspen Hotel on Main Street means the town can accommodate an out-of-town wedding party in the middle of the summer, Szymanski said.
Heather Parker and Quinn Tracy of Juneau brought their small wedding to Haines aboard the ferry in summer 2019 because they “just think Haines is one of the most beautiful places we’ve been.”
They booked their event at a Chilkat Inlet pavilion, hired a Haines band and found a local baker to make a cake at the last minute. “Honestly, it seemed less stressful (than a Juneau wedding),” Parker said. “We played music on the ferry on the way up with our families. It was like a party.”
Deborah Marshall has been involved in organizing about 15 Haines weddings for friends since retiring to Haines after operating a successful restaurant in Juneau. “I call myself a wedding witch but I’m really a stage manager,” she said.
Marshall said her experience hosting events helped couples anticipate wedding needs as well as glitches. “I helped brides and grooms ask questions that needed to be asked. That’s important if the bride and groom are going to be able to relax at their wedding and their family isn’t going to be asked to do too much.”
Even for long-time residents, putting on a wedding can be taxing and stressful, Marshall said. “People don’t realize how much work goes into it. They have no idea. Sadly, a lot of families spend two days afterward cleaning up.”
Marshall said young couples today are more open to marriage than was a previous generation and they’re not averse to spending money on the celebration, so that bodes well for Hankins’ new business.
Also, there’s a need for someone in town to connect would-be brides with local wedding venues, cake-makers, musicians, busing companies and the like. “We have all these things available in town. We need a connector.”
Hankins said she plans to use wedding websites like The Knot and Wedding Wire to intercept wedding business already going to destinations up north. “I’ve been talking with wedding planners in Anchorage. They get a lot of business from people who want to get married in Alaska. I think Haines could do the same thing.”
She said her business will offer planning and organization for all kinds of local events, as well as “elopements,” defined as weddings planned just a few months out. There may be a market for even more spontaneous marriages, which sometimes come in the door at the magistrate’s office.
For last-minute weddings, Hankins said she could always take photos and make a cake herself. “I have experience in all these things.”