Gary Schaeffer dreamed of golden Italian sunshine, succulent tomatoes Caprese and picture-perfect vistas.
In May 2009, when he was set to marry for the second time, he wanted to spend a little less -- or more specifically, spend differently on an event more focused on himself and his wife-to-be.
"I had done the big wedding and gone and spent too much on other people," said the retired Goldman Sachs exec.
His first wedding in 1991 at a chic hotel in Florida now called the Boca Raton Resort had run him $65,000 -- complete with a 14-piece black-tie orchestra featuring half of the Miami Sound Machine, two videographers, multiple photographers and 135 guests. A similar second wedding in New York would have run him six-figures, easy, he says.
So the second time around, instead of spending all that cash catering to relatives and guests, he booked an 18-day trip for two to Italy's Amalfi Coast, and hired a photographer to document the excursion. Total cost: $65,000.
Such "staged elopements" -- weddings where the couple escapes with little more than an officiant, a photographer and the bride in her dream wedding dress -- are becoming increasingly popular. The nuptials are extravagant, often involving fortnight-long peregrinations, but subtract the big guest list and the elaborate party, and they still price out cheaper than traditional weddings.
This latest wrinkle on weddings has ridden higher on the coattails of the destination wedding trend. While destination weddings made up just 5% of the market in 2000 and 16% in 2006 according to Conde Nast Bridal Group, today they make up a whopping 20% of the market, notes Mintel Market Research, with Jamaica and Italy tying for the top international destinations.
The recent economic downturn has spurred couples to look for cheaper ways to tie the knot. Those who want to avoid the déclassé implications of getting hitched in Las Vegas can still pare down costs by ruthlessly trimming guest lists, taking advantage of all-inclusive deals, or piggybacking the honeymoon on top of the ceremony. But these extremely scaled-down formal elopements allow couples to spend funds that would have gone toward making the day special for others on making their wedding special for themselves.
The Evolution of an Idea
Reflecting on his decision, Schaeffer said the pitch idea was a pretty easy sell with his then-fiancee Michelle, who also was getting married for the second time. "I said, 'We could do something like that in New York City, or let's go on a destination wedding -- you and I,'" he said. "Just the two of us could go on a journey, just a true expedition."
The pair had each dealt with the burdens of throwing large weddings before.
"We had grandma and had the ambiguous relative with the oxygen tank," Schaeffer said. "We had the one with the hole in the throat and the one with the clavicle notch. Michelle had a relative have a heart attack at her first wedding."
This time would be different. "We don't need to do it with anybody else," he said. "We don't need to impress anybody else. At the end of the day, it was for us."
"There comes a point when you say, 'What would Nancy and Harry say if there's no shrimp on the buffet?'" Schaeffer said. "Nancy and Harry can drop dead as far as I'm concerned. Then you get the phone call: 'Don't forget the food allergies, don't put me at Cousin Mark's tablet, don't seat me next to the band.' "
Rather than catering to the logistics of a massive party, Schaeffer was able to focus on the beauty of his nuptials. These staged elopements, after all, aren't performed by Elvis and toasted with Bud Light. The goal is to create a classy event without the external frills.
So he hired Johanna Jacobson, an L.A.-based photographer specializing in small destination weddings. Jacobson said the couples she works with are focused on maximizing their enjoyment during the wedding and creating a great environment -- which then leads to fantastic photos.
"My couples generally are small two- to 10-person weddings, who splurge on my photography services but select a high luxury destination such as the Amalfi Coast," Jacobson said. "The destination alone creates a beautiful backdrop, so they tend to spend very little on decorations, using the natural sights and sounds."
Picturesque is how she cast Schaeffer's wedding trip -- which featured shopping sprees in Naples, top-notch hotels and restaurants and a private driver named Pepe at the couple's beck and call.
"I'm anal compulsive when it comes to travel and food, and if this were filmed as a TV show, this would be one of the most acclaimed shows," Schaeffer said. "This is what people dream of having in their lives."
A Way to Take Control
Kirsten Welter, who lived in California when she married two years ago, also found a staged elopement was right for her and her then-fiance. The pair were married in idyllic Marina di Lesina on the Adriatic, close to the groom's hometown of Imperiale in southern Italy.
"We wanted a smaller wedding with only the people who are closest to us here," Welter said. "Honestly, it sounds kind of mean, but by having it in Italy, we could invite everyone we had to invite to be polite from the states and know that only our good friends would actually make the trip."
Also, by escaping from the peanut gallery of opinions, the couple felt they could take more ownership over their choices.
"We really wanted to be able to decide everything for our wedding from the food to the music to our clothes, and I feel like in the States, too many people would have had a lot to say and would have wanted their opinions not only heard, but also followed," she said.
"We had all seafood -- it was a million courses," she said. "It was fantastic food from marinated to fried to grilled and everything in between seafood. That was one part that was important to us because we both wanted food that we love."
Welter figures that a traditional wedding in the U.S. would have run at least $35,000, whereas the whole trip and Italian nuptials came to $20,000 total. Plus, a quick jaunt to Tunisia for the honeymoon was geographically easy and allowed the couple to continue the fairy tale.
"The wedding ceremony was outside on the beach at sunset, something I've always dreamed of," Welter said. "I would say that one of the most important things for both of us was the photography -- we both considered that, along with the food, to be the most important aspects of our wedding. Weddings are so often remembered by food, and we both knew that the pictures would be some of the best memories we would have of that day."
An End to Excess -- in a Sense
No one would accuse these couples of skimping on their staged elopements, but the cost savings are still significant.
The 2011 average cost of a destination wedding is $21,582 with airfare, whereas a traditional American wedding during the recession 2010 was still between $24,000 and $27,000, according to Mintel.
All the glitz that goes into weddings leads to hefty expenses, but there's nothing like a financial crisis to catalyze a paradigm shift in how people plan weddings and allocate their finances.
"Today, the young people getting married -- it's rare to find the old school belief that the bride's parents throw the party," Schaeffer said. "It's the bride and groom and both sets of parents. You have to ask: Is this is a person's down payment on a home? Is this is a person's college education? is it appropriate to put your a-- on the line ... for a seven hour party?"
The next question, Schaeffer says, might be a simple one: "Hey, you want to go to Aruba or Maui instead?"