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Gay marriage is a gift for Southern California wedding industry

Merchants who catered to same-sex couples even before Proposition 8 was overturned may be best positioned to tap the millions of dollars up for grabs.

July 16, 2013|By Adolfo Flores
  • Natalia Homyak, second from left, and Sonia Luna, with their son Santiago, 2, meet with event planner Doyle Borden at their Cheviot Hills home to go over designs for their September wedding.
Natalia Homyak, second from left, and Sonia Luna, with their son Santiago,… (Gina Ferazzi, Los Angeles…)

Lisa Phillian has been a one-stop shop for hundreds of gay couples who wanted to tie the knot even before gay marriage was legal in California.

Want to say "I do" on the beach? No problem — she's a wedding planner. Need a marriage license? She's also a notary and authorized by Los Angeles County to issue them. Want a special ceremony? She can even do that — she's an ordained minister.

Phillian is one of scores of professionals in Southern California's wedding industry who have been uniting gay couples even when it wasn't legal to be married. They may be among the best positioned to tap the millions of dollars up for grabs after Proposition 8 was overturned, allowing gay marriage to resume in California.

"Everybody wants a little piece of that gay money," said Phillian, who has offices in Rosemead and Palm Springs. "It's going to really open up the wedding business."

Longtime gay-friendly businesses like Phillian's are hoping their track record will give them a competitive edge when gay couples plan their weddings.

Before gay marriage was legal, these merchants oversaw thousands of celebrations, often called commitment ceremonies. Much like weddings, they included services, dinners and honeymoons — but without the marriage license.

Quiz: How much do you know about California's economy?

Commitment ceremonies have been held for decades in the United States. Historian Lillian Faderman, author of "Gay L.A.," said the first public same-sex wedding between two men was performed in 1968 by the Rev. Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Community Church of Los Angeles.

After New York and other states began legalizing gay marriage, couples in California would travel there to get a marriage license, then return and celebrate with their friends and family.

About 37,000 same-sex couples are expected to marry in California over the next three years, potentially generating $492 million in revenue for businesses, according to the Williams Institute, a think tank at UCLA School of Law that studies lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues.

The state could also get a $40-million infusion from wedding-related tax revenue over the next three years after the U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act and denied an appeal to a ruling that struck down Proposition 8, which in 2008 banned gay marriages in California.

Gay marriages generated about $259 million the first year they were legally recognized in New York City, according to the city's marketing and tourism office. In 2013, weddings are expected to be a $53.4-billion industry nationwide, according to the Wedding Report, a research company that tracks the number of weddings and costs. The company expects a boost from same-sex weddings but doesn't have any estimates.

To market her services, Phillian lists herself on websites such as Equally Wed that target gay couples. Thousands of businesses, including jewelers, videographers and musicians, market themselves to same-sex couples on similar sites.

Phillian is now fielding as many as 25 calls a day from lesbian and gay couples planning to marry, compared with about three a week she used to get for commitment ceremonies.

"I'm getting calls about venues, photographers and flowers," Phillian said. "Now we're doing dream weddings."

She'll have to spend less time marketing to potential clients compared with other wedding businesses that are just now vying for gay couples' attention.

Even in cities like West Hollywood, where about 40% of the population is gay or lesbian, hotels didn't specifically target same-sex couples beyond hosting the occasional reception.

Now, said Andy Keown, spokesman for West Hollywood's tourism department, local hotels are scrambling to market to gay couples who are planning wedding receptions and honeymoons.

"We knew there was going to be a decision, but nobody knew what it was going to be," Keown said. "Now everyone is trying to play catch-up."

The London West Hollywood hotel recently launched a "One Love" wedding package that includes a ceremony in an English garden, a three-course dinner prepared by chef Gordon Ramsay's team and a night in one of the hotel's suites. It starts at $25,000 for 125 people.

Not to be left out, the Chamberlain West Hollywood hotel is offering wedding receptions for up to 50 people beginning at $125 for lunch and $150 for dinner per person.

There are differences in the way that same-sex couples pay for and plan their weddings compared with straight couples, according to a nationwide survey of 1,948 people conducted by the Knot, a wedding site, and the Advocate, a gay news outlet. For instance 86% of gay couples pay for the majority of the wedding themselves, compared with 40% of straight couples.

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