Same-sex couples often experience discrimination from peers and even their own family members; when they come here to get married, it can be a highly emotionally charged experience. Pulling off same-sex weddings requires plenty of emotional intelligence.
By day Darryl Persello, 35, works with troubled youth as a probation officer for the B.C. Ministry for Children and Family Development. Dark-haired, tall and broad-shouldered, he is personable with a ready laugh, and exudes the poise and unflappability undoubtedly required for his challenging job. But on a recent Saturday, Persello, dressed casually in jeans, a T-shirt and sneakers, strode into a coffee shop on Denman Street to discuss his other gig, which couldn’t be more different from his nine-to-five role. When he’s not trying to keep young offenders on the straight and narrow, Persello is negotiating deals with caterers, pastry chefs and limo drivers as part of Vancouver’s newest industry: same-sex-wedding planning. To hear Persello tell it, it’s a simple, streamlined business. The majority of his clients are out-of-towners, coming up from the U.S. to get hitched, often alone or with a very small entourage. “In some cases, families are supportive but not financially able to come up. Other times, families are not involved and not supportive,” he says. That may be sad, but it’s got one big advantage: “We don’t have to deal with in-laws and families paying for this and that. A lot of times, the couple’s paying for the majority of stuff.” On July 8, 2003, B.C. became the second province after Ontario to legalize same-sex marriage. For quick-thinking Vancouver entrepreneurs connected to the lesbian and gay scene, tapping into this new sector was a no‑brainer. With its wildly popular annual gay-pride parade and with nearby Whistler hosting Winter Pride gay ski week, Vancouver already boasted an international reputation as a gay-friendly city. Adding same-sex marriage to the mix only heightened the city’s appeal. In fact, according to a recent survey by San Francisco-based Community Marketing Inc. (CMI), it’s top of the heap for gay travellers. For its eleventh annual GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered) travel survey, CMI surveyed more than 7,500 self-identified gays and lesbians about their travel preferences. Canada came out as the number-one country of choice, with Vancouver as the number-one city in Canada. B.C. played a major role in the legalization of same-sex marriage across the country. Its 2003 decision to legalize same-sex marriage put pressure on federal politicians to follow suit; that same year, the federal government, led by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, unveiled draft legislation that changed the legal definition of marriage to include the union of same-sex couples. In June 2005, the House of Commons passed Bill C-38, the Civil Marriage Act, and Canada became the third country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage. (Even so, the matter was not fully resolved until December 6, 2006, when Stephen Harper’s government put forward a motion to parliament asking whether the issue should be reopened to support the “traditional” definition of marriage. It was defeated.) In November 2003, Persello sat down with two friends, Anne Cochran and Sheila Robinson, and over a few glasses of shiraz they discussed the possibilities of cashing in on this new market. The booze worked; by the end of the evening, the trio had decided on a same-sex-wedding-planning business, which they cheekily named Two Dears and a Queer – or 2DQ. “I always say good ideas come with a nice bottle of wine,” jokes Persello. They weren’t the only ones brainstorming that year. Around the same time as Persello, Taylore Darnel launched her same-sex-wedding-planning business, Belles and Balls – now S’Wonderful Westcoast Wedding & Event Designers, with her life partner Daiana Leask. (Earlier this year, Leask left the business after her personal relationship with Darnel ended. Darnel is now in the process of rebranding.) Energetic and cheerful, the 40-year-old Darnel had organized a few weddings for friends and family, and, when B.C. made same-sex weddings legal, she figured she had what it took to make it work: organizational skills, a head for money and a passion for working with people. Darnel says that when she and Leask started their business back in 2003, “there were four or five other companies,” along with numerous individuals doing it privately. By and large, however, those other start-ups fell by the wayside as the realities of the job set in. “It’s not like you’re going out to the grocery store and organizing to buy a pizza and a drink,” says Darnel. The job not only takes organizational skills, a keen business mind and an eye for detail, but it also requires a heavy dose of tact and sensitivity. Same-sex couples often experience discrimination from peers and even their own family members; when they come here to get married, it can be a highly emotionally charged experience. Pulling off same-sex weddings requires plenty of emotional intelligence. It also means a big time commitment. Persello says he averages 10 hours a week on the business, on top of his day job, but has spent as much as 60 hours when things get busy. Persello and Darnel say theirs are the only two businesses in Vancouver that focus exclusively on the same-sex wedding market. (Darnel has organized services catering to the second- and third-wedding market and will plan straight weddings, but she markets only to same-sex couples.) Vancouver’s same-sex-wedding planners have one big plus on their side: very few countries in the world allow gays and lesbians to marry, let alone non-residents. (The Netherlands, Belgium, South Africa and Spain are the only others offering full marriage for same-sex couples.) While Persello and Darnel may personally feel outraged that homosexuals cannot legally marry in most countries across the globe, Vancouver’s progressive mindset, together with Canada’s marriage rights, mean we’ve claimed a huge chunk of the global market in same-sex weddings. [pagebreak]
B.C. has the largest number of same-sex marriages per capita in Canada, according to statistics from Canadians for Equal Marriage. Between June 2003 and October 2006, there were 3,927 same-sex weddings in the province, which has a population of 4.1 million. Ontario, with a population of 12.7 million, had 5,576 same-sex marriages over the same time period. (One interesting side note: while non-residents can marry without fuss in Canada, getting divorced is trickier. One partner must reside in the country for at least a year before they can file for divorce.) The majority of same-sex couples getting married in B.C. come from south of the border. In the U.S., only the state of Massachusetts allows same-sex marriage and then only for couples who live in a state (or another country) that allows same-sex marriage, unless the couple intends to reside in Massachusetts. Some states allow “civil unions,” which include some of the same rights and responsibilities as marriage, but only at a state level. In February 2004, San Francisco briefly handed out 4,000 marriage licences to same-sex couples, but those were subsequently invalidated by the Supreme Court of California in August of that year. Darnel recalls a visit in August 2004 to San Francisco’s first same-sex-wedding trade show, on the very weekend the city’s same-sex marriage licences were invalidated. “We landed and found out they revoked the 4,000 marriages,” she remembers. “And the place, you could have shot a cannon through it. That was when we encountered a little bit of not-so-friendly behaviour from some of the other vendors. Because we were saying, ‘Hey, you can come and get married in Canada.’” Darnel quickly employed her conflict-resolution skills – a must-have in the emotionally fraught world of weddings (equally important in same-sex weddings, where parents of spouses aren’t always thrilled to be there) – to smooth over the situation. Today Darnel estimates that about 60 per cent of her clients come from the U.S., with the rest coming from as far afield as New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong, Mexico, England and even Mongolia. Local clients from Vancouver are few and far between, making up one or two of the approximately 20 weddings she organizes every year. 2DQ’s Persello says about 98 per cent of his clients come from the U.S. Some want the bare minimum service: flying or driving in for a quick ceremony, then heading home the same day with little to no fuss. Those “quickie” weddings don’t involve much more than booking the marriage commissioner and a couple of witnesses for the wedding ceremony and possibly greeting the couple at the airport. For these, 2DQ has an express package. “That’s the Vegas style: fly in, do it and get the heck out. That’s $950, all in,” says Persello, as if he were reciting house specials off a restaurant menu. “We have our premium package for $2,400, which adds spa treatments and cake and champagne and limo.” Extra services are billed at an hourly rate of $75. “We’ll get people who say, ‘I want your basic, a limo for the day and a six-hour photography package. No cake, no champagne. Package that for me.’” Persello estimates his clients spend, on average, $2,000 per wedding, although he has worked with a budget as high as $30,000 – and that was for a party of 25. “Generally, the ones that are two lawyers, two doctors, two corporate guys or gals who don’t have kids, they obviously have a lot more disposable income to work with,” he notes. “They’re willing to look into higher-paid venues and will look at a bottle of Dom versus a bottle of Moet… In terms of what I do with the clients, it could be ABC or the whole alphabet, depending on what the clients want.”
The number of weddings 2DQ does each month varies, and from May to September things really rev up. Persello says his company organized one wedding in January, one in February, two in May, two in June and five in July. He also had five booked for August and four booked for this month. He won’t divulge exact revenue figures, but Persello says the company has doubled its clients year on year since its inception and he predicts doing more than 50 weddings next year. “If I did the business by myself, I could probably live off it and probably quit my job,” he says. “I do have two partners that I love working with. At this point we split the income, so it’s not enough to quit my day job.” Until recently S’Wonderful Westcoast Wedding’s Darnel maintained a day job as an administrative assistant with the Canadian Office and Professional Employees Union. When her contract ended in July this year, she decided to concentrate on her wedding-planning business full-time. With extra time to devote to her business, which did about 20 weddings last year, she expects to increase her client base this year. Unlike Persello, Darnel does not offer packages to her clients. “Just like somebody showing up at a location wearing the same dress as somebody else, I don’t want my clients to feel that they’ve picked the same package as 15 other clients because they happened to come across it,” she says. She charges an hourly rate of $55, plus a day-of fee for two people to be on hand on the wedding day, a rate that varies according to the clients’ needs. She also charges a mark-up fee on special items such as wedding favours. “Usually when people ask how much it’s going to cost for wedding planning, I say put 20 per cent of your budget aside,” she explains. “That’s the standard industry rate. If you’re planning on spending two grand on your wedding, you should immediately put aside $400 for wedding planning.” [pagebreak] Planning weddings is not her only source of income from the business. She also sells custom-designed invitations, and last year her company became the exclusive Canadian retailer for Renellie Inc., which sells the human figurines that sit atop wedding cakes. The toppers come in four ethnicities – Caucasian, Black, Asian and Latino – and are sold individually for mixing and matching. They are priced at $95 each.
By and large, clients find Persello and Darnel online. Persello says reciprocal links with photographers and vendors as well as listing on sites such as purpleunions.com, gayweddings.com and rainbowweddingnetwork.com all help drive business. Darnel does the same and says Google AdWords has worked well, as has listing on directories in various countries. “Ninety-five per cent of my business comes over the Internet,” she says. “I’ve had some awesome campaigns going that really drew in people.” Persello and Darnel aren’t the only ones making money in the same-sex-wedding industry: a wedding also means cakes, flowers, limos and often hotel stays. Angus Praught, president of Gayvan.com Travel Marketing, which offers marketing services to the gay and lesbian travel market, points out that “the majority of couples will come and include it into a holiday. That means hotel stays and, of course, food and beverage and shopping plus the air to get here and all the related things. Maybe they chose Vancouver over Seattle because they couldn’t do it there. We’re getting the benefit of the economic input into our tourism infrastructure plus our retail shopping and dining.” Phoenix, Arizona-based Lloyd Williams, a client of Darnel’s who married his partner Tony in Vancouver on February 24, 2006, for example, estimates he spent about $2,000 during his four-day stay in the city, in addition to the $2,000 he spent on his wedding ceremony. The fact that Canada allows same-sex weddings, adds Gayvan.com Travel’s Praught, makes the country more attractive to gay and lesbian travellers, regardless of whether they plan to get married. “High on the list of things [gay and lesbian travellers] consider, when considering where they want to go, is the political climate and the safety factor and how this destination treats its own people,” he says. “Canada has shown with the passing of our laws and anti-discrimination that it’s a very welcoming destination. That puts Canada high on the list of possibilities when making travel decisions.” This marketing opportunity hasn’t gone unnoticed by Tourism Vancouver. “We have used the fact that Vancouver, as with Canada, is one of the few places in the world where same-sex marriage is legally recognized as one of many reasons why Vancouver is a very attractive and welcoming destination for gay and lesbian travellers,” says Candice Gibson, manager of consumer marketing for the agency. When Vancouver picked up the number-one spot in the Community Marketing Inc. survey, she was thrilled. “In previous years, we’ve rated somewhere around number three, after Montreal and Toronto,” she notes. “I think Toronto, specifically, was pretty concerned that Vancouver had bumped them and Montreal down to take the top spot.” Gibson likes to credit that coup in part to her marketing efforts toward the gay and lesbian market – the only niche market currently targeted by Tourism Vancouver. Gibson estimates the agency devotes between 10 and 15 per cent of its direct-to-consumer marketing budget to promoting the city to gay and lesbian travellers. In 2006 it went so far as to run a “Win a Gay-Fabulous Wedding in Vibrant Vancouver” sweepstakes in conjunction with Tourism Victoria and Tourism Whistler. The grand prize was a $50,000 wedding package which included round-trip airfare to Vancouver, limo service for up to 10 people, three nights of luxury hotel accommodation, spa treatments, custom-made wedding bands, a ceremony in Queen Elizabeth Park, a string trio, a catered reception and a Vancouver-to-Alaska honeymoon cruise from Holland America Line Inc. The draw was promoted in the May and June issues of Passport magazine, a gay- travel magazine, and received 500 applicants. “We just felt that [Vancouver] is a legal and recognized marriage destination, and that we could use that information to promote something that’s different and unique about Vancouver,” explains Gibson. “Not only do we have a whole host of other things that make us a very attractive destination for the GLBT market, but we also have the wedding component.” The wedding was ultimately won by Greg Auseth and John Gabriel, a couple from Minneapolis, Minnesota, whose September 22, 2006 marriage was announced to the public in a press release from Tourism Vancouver touting the fact that “couples getting married don’t even need to be residents of Canada; a marriage licence and a civil ceremony are the only requirements to become legally married in Vancouver.” Darnel’s American client Lloyd Williams says that distinction was key to his decision to wed in Canada, rather than obtain a civil union, available in Vermont, New Jersey and Connecticut. “When we went to get the marriage licence, they didn’t say you need a gay licence; they just said you need a marriage licence, the same as anybody else getting a marriage licence.” Williams, 60, is an organizational psychologist who runs the Institute for Transformative Thought and Learning with his husband Tony, 41, who took his partner’s surname. The couple had had a commitment ceremony – or a “holy union,” as it’s called in the States – back home in August 2002. But Williams says it was important that they legally wed, although their marriage might not be recognized as such in the U.S. “Even though we had had a holy union here in America, it just didn’t feel complete to us. Being able to be married in Canada did allow that level of completeness.” Vancouver exceeded all of their expectations, says Williams. “People were clapping and cheering as we came into Canada,” he recalls. “The person at the airport in customs said, ‘Why are you here?’ And we said, ‘To get married.’ He said, ‘They’re here to get married!’ and everybody clapped and cheered.” At a restaurant before the ceremony, which took place in their hotel suite at the Westin Grand, the couple was treated to a free bottle of champagne. The hotel did the same and threw in chocolate-covered strawberries. “God, it was just wonderful,” Williams recalls with a sigh. He says he and his husband chose Vancouver as opposed to Montreal or Toronto because of its natural beauty and multicultural population. “It’s a very international city in terms of people from different cultures,” he explains. “I’m black; Tony’s white. I’m also part Native American and white. I come from all three cultures. So for us it was a natural choice.” It was also near Oregon, where he and Tony had met. The wedding was the Williamses’ first visit to Vancouver, but the couple now returns to the city two or three times a year, and they’re considering immigrating. “Even though we expected to be treated equally, I would say it was a shock to us how well we were treated,” Williams says. “Tony made a comment at one point: ‘This is the most normal I’ve ever felt in my whole life.’ And that made it worth every penny. It could have been $50,000, and I would have paid it.”