Nikki Wells and Barbara McNickles, a 40-something lesbian couple from Ohio, didn't think of themselves as economic trendsetters when they got in their car and drove to Connecticut on a chilly day in March last year.
They just wanted to get married.
Wells, who owned her own title search company, and McNickles, an executive with the Arby's restaurant chain, had been together as a couple for three years and had dreamed of making their relationship legal. But they didn't decide to schedule their ceremony in Connecticut until a gay friend showed them pictures of his own wedding, with the scenic falls at Kent Falls State Park as a backdrop. Inspired, Wells and McNickles quickly went to the website of a minister specializing in same-sex weddings in Connecticut, booked rooms at the nearby Cornwall Inn and then headed east, enjoying what they later called a "perfect" wedding stay in Litchfield County.
"It wasn't simply that the falls were so beautiful the day we got married," Wells says. "The people of Connecticut were very welcoming and would buy us desserts in restaurants and get so excited when they heard we had traveled all the way from Ohio to get married. It never occurred to us that we would meet such nice people."
Memories like that — and the favorable buzz about Connecticut in national and even international gay and lesbian circles — have turned into a windfall for the state's hospitality industry. On Oct. 10, 2008, the Connecticut Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, and since then an estimated 2,500 gay and lesbian couples have traveled here to be joined, generating what one economist calculates has been a $40 million stimulus for restaurants, hotels, wedding photographers and caterers.
"They're coming from all over — Texas, Georgia, California, Australia, and of course a lot from New York City," says Ira Goldspiel, owner of the Inn at Kent Falls bed and breakfast in Kent, who says that his room bookings have increased by as much as 15 percent as same-sex couples have flocked to Connecticut to get married over the past two years.
"Most of these couples are looking for the same thing — a romantic setting for their wedding like Kent Falls, Macedonia State Park or the Housatonic River views at Bull's Bridge," Goldspiel says. "And it's fantastic because they come with their friends and book two or three rooms for a weekend. For us, this has been a great boost in a generally down market during the recession."
Connecticut's boom in same-sex marriages has generally slid under the radar of mainstream attention because, inn and restaurant owners say, gay and lesbian couples tend to select remote, unconventional locations for their ceremonies. Many of the inns that advertise on the Internet for same-sex weddings are themselves gay-owned. The hot spots include almost anywhere in Litchfield County and romantic seaside locations like Westport and Mystic.
But small, rural inns with good word of mouth on gay and lesbian websites aren't the only ones to benefit. Mainstream wedding planners are also receiving their share of requests to handle same-sex marriages, business that usually comes in over the transom without deliberate attempts to reach the gay market.
Candice Coppola is the creative director of Jubilee Events, a Cheshire party and events company that stages about 30 events a year for corporate and private customers. Coppola says that Jubilee expects to handle at least five same-sex weddings next year, with clients typically spending $30,000 for a ceremony, reception and catering.
"Most of our same-sex wedding clients have been men in their mid-30s, very successful, who want a small, intimate wedding for between 50 and 100 guests," Coppola says. "They tend to pick unconventional locations like beautiful French restaurants or an outdoor setting, with the emphasis a lot more on the aesthetics than a formal environment, but they spend a lot on really great food and wine. The same-sex segment has definitely expanded the wedding business in Connecticut. It's something that states that don't recognize gay marriage just don't have."
Connecticut appears to enjoy several advantages over the other locations where same-sex marriage is now legal — Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Iowa and Washington, D.C. Unlike Massachusetts, the state has no waiting period for marriage after a marriage license has been obtained, sparing out-of-state couples an expensive wait once they've arrived. A reputation for friendly license service at town clerks' offices, scenic views and easy travel from major transportation hubs add to the appeal.
"Ease of access from major airports in New York, Hartford or [Stewart International Airport in] Newburgh is a definite plus for couples flying in," says the Rev. Sara Henderson of Pawling, N.Y., who maintains an information-filled website, http://www.gaylesbianweddings4u.com, and says she has married about a hundred same-sex couples a year since the Connecticut Supreme Court decision two years ago. "Couples from Texas or Georgia come for a weekend to get married, bring their family and friends, and fall in love with the beauty here. It's a huge boon for the state."
Calculating the economic impact of the same-sex wedding market in Connecticut is educated guesswork, but few doubt that the combined spending of both in-state and out-of-state couples has been a powerful multiplier for the hospitality industry. Figures provided by the state Department of Health show that 3,832 same-sex couples have filed marriage licenses since Connecticut legalized it two years ago.
Lee Badgett is an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts and research director at the Williams Institute, a California think tank that studies gay and lesbian economic and legal issues. In a study last year, Badgett concluded that in-state couples in Massachusetts spent an average of $7,500 for same-sex weddings, a figure she expects to be similar in Connecticut. That would come to about $30 million for 4,000 weddings. But Badgett said that this figure represents only what the couples spend themselves — not the added spending by family and friends traveling to Connecticut.
Badgett says that a conservative estimate for spending for all same-sex weddings would therefore come to about $40 million.
"This is a bright spot in an otherwise dismal economy," Badgett says. "One of the things we know happens in a recession is that people stop spending on expensive vacations or delay getting married. But many gay and lesbian couples have been waiting all of their lives to get married and Connecticut's timing on legalizing same-sex marriage was perfect for this."
And perhaps there's more economic impact to come. Henderson says that, after a joyful wedding weekend in Connecticut, out-of-staters often vow that they'll move here for good.
And that's exactly what's happening for Nikki and Barbara McNickles. Barbara just accepted a promotion to manage the 12 Arby's restaurants in Connecticut, and the couple moved here from Ohio over the weekend.
"After listening to me rave all year about how wonderful Connecticut was during our wedding," McNickles says, "my boss knew that I wasn't going to turn the offer down."
News information specialist Cristina Bachetti contributed to this story.