When Madonna Enterprises CEO Clint Pearce first started noticing new "agri-tourism" wedding venues sprout up across San Luis Obispo County—from barns, to ranches, to wineries—he thought that the Madonna Inn might be in for a natural loss of business as a result.
"They're beautiful venues. I'm thinking, well, we might be declining," Pearce told New Times.
But to his surprise, that never happened. Instead, the Inn's demand for weddings has shot up.
"It's just the opposite," he said. "We've seen our business grow at the same time as we've seen these venues grow."
To Pearce, this says everything about how popular SLO County is now, not only as an attractive place for couples from all over to come to say their vows, but as a general tourist destination.
"I just think our area is becoming very well-known," Pearce said. "Weddings is something our region has hosted for a long, long time, but it's a burgeoning market."
Several local wedding professionals who spoke to New Times agreed, and all said something similar to Pearce: Even in a more competitive market of wedding venues and wedding-related services, there is, somehow, still plenty of business to go around.
"It's been amazing to see the number of venues," said Anna Fergus, director of weddings and events at the 30-year-old Cliffs Hotel and Spa in Pismo Beach. "There's probably five times as many venues, but we've been lucky to stay consistent. With all of those other venues, our demand has stayed high."
- Data Courtesy Of Slocal, 2018-19 Annual Report
- SLO County tourism by the numbers 2018-19
As the industry thrives across SLO County, it's drawing more couples, families, and wedding guests from farther and farther way. According to professionals like Fergus, while the majority of area weddings are still either Central Coast couples or couples from the LA, San Francisco, or Central Valley regions of California, venues are increasingly booking out-of-state weddings and even international weddings, too. A shortlist of recent wedding clients hailed from states like Massachusetts, South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee, and Arizona, and countries like Australia, England, Scotland, Italy, and Germany.
"Our local demographic is only about 10 percent of our weddings," Fergus explained. "We usually have 10 percent local, 10 percent out of state, and the remaining 80 percent is divided between Southern, Central, and Northern California."
Each venue's percentage of destination weddings varies, in part because different venues appeal to different markets. For instance, the Higuera Ranch in SLO specializes solely in destination weddings—90 percent of its business comes from couples without any connection to the area. According to Higuera Ranch managing partner Kristin Pinter, attracting those couples from far-flung areas to the Central Coast is easier now than ever thanks to web searches and social media, SLO's widespread name recognition, and improved access to the SLO County Regional Airport.
"Marketing has probably gotten easier over the last couple years, for sure," Pinter said. "I'm getting a lot more inquiries about people curious about SLO."
Visit SLO Cal, the county's tourism marketing organization, is another powerful resource for wedding-related businesses. It uses industrywide revenues to invest millions of dollars into strategic marketing and advertising campaigns that have a global reach.
Officials at Visit SLO Cal told New Times that they don't keep track of data specific to the wedding industry—only to tourism as a whole. But the two sectors are closely linked, and SLO County's overall tourism numbers continue to surge each year.
In 2018-19, Visit SLO Cal says the county saw 7.5 million visitors, who are responsible for $1.81 billion in direct local spending. Travel and tourism account for nearly 10 percent of local GDP and 1 in 7 local jobs. Bed taxes eclipsed $40 million in 2018-19 for the first time ever.
While it's hard to say exactly what role weddings play in the overall tourism surge, industry members agreed that both are benefiting tremendously from the recent growth of the airport. As the county-owned airport continues to add service to new cities—most recently to Dallas, one of the busiest commercial hubs in the world—it opens up new markets and opportunities.
"Having those direct flights is just huge. It almost can't be overstated," noted Pearce, of Madonna Enterprises. "Dallas is a massive draw to have as a new source."
Even for Central Coast couples planning their weddings, SLO becomes a more competitive candidate when out-of-area family and friends can easily fly to and from the area.
"Just to avoid the LA traffic," Pinter, at Higuera Ranch, noted, "there are a lot of people using the airport."
Beyond the economic benefits that wedding tourism delivers to venues, hotels, caterers, and other services, the boon has even broader ripple effects. At Higuera Ranch, for example, which sleeps 24 guests, Pinter always provides incoming parties with orientation materials that encourage them to explore SLO County and check out what it has to offer.
- Photo Courtesy Of Sarah Kathleen Photography
- RANCHING From quiet, country locations like the Higuera Ranch (pictured), to beach resorts, SLO County offers a wide array of wedding venue options.
"We've really marketed as, 'Don't just come to these houses. This is a really cool place,'" she said. "We really encourage people to enjoy the place we live. We're proud of where we live."
Visits to SLO County for a wedding could trigger a trip to a Thursday Farmers' Market in downtown SLO, or a visit to a local winery or brewery. One type of ancillary service that a wedding group like this might use is Breakaway Tours Wine and Events, which specializes in wine tours. Owner Jill Tweedie told New Times that her wedding-related business is on the rise, usually in organizing pre-wedding-day outings or bachelorette parties. Recently, she was even hired to host an entire wedding reception as a wine tour.
"There were 40 or 50 people on a bus," Tweedie said with a laugh. "It was kind of like a mobile wedding reception—cost-effective!"
Wedding industry insiders note that all of the reasons locals love SLO County are the same reasons that people love to get married in it.
"The great wineries we have, the great downtown, beach, weather, great outdoor activities, unspoiled natural landscape," Pearce said. "People just love to come to our area." Δ
Assistant Editor Peter Johnson loves the SLO landscape. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.