Businesses providing unique wedding venues

The Fresno BeeApril 12, 2013 

Brides and grooms in the Fresno area can say "I do" in front of sea lions or take a ski lift to a ceremony site halfway up a mountain.

These exotic-sounding locales are right here in the central San Joaquin Valley, part of an influx of new wedding venues in the area. Existing businesses are adding weddings to their services and new places are opening with weddings in mind.

The newcomers are driven by a perfect pairing: Couples are looking for someplace new and unique to get hitched, and the lucrative wedding industry is an attractive opportunity to businesses still stung by the recession.

"For a long time there was the same venues and there hadn't been a lot of growth," said Tracy Barnes, co-owner of the Premier Bride Wedding Center, magazine and bridal show.

Now that brides are looking for something different, owners of venues that may not have hosted weddings before are saying, "Hey, we have the space. We have the ability and we can make some money," she said.

In Fresno, the wedding industry is a $131 million business, according to research company The Wedding Report. The average cost of a wedding in Fresno is estimated at $27,837, though the biggest percentage of brides, 38 percent, spend less than $10,000.

China Peak Mountain Resort is one of the newcomers to the wedding scene. The business is gearing up for its second summer of ferrying wedding guests up a mountainside via ski lift. Couples can get married in front of an evergreen- dotted mountain with a view of Huntington Lake. Receptions usually happen outside in front of the hotel.

Although China Peak is best known for its skiing and snowboarding in winter, new owner Tim Cohee started promoting summertime activities when he bought the resort three years ago, said Tess Erdman, the resort's wedding coordinator and a photographer.

When the resort added weddings last year, it gained a new income stream from renting out the property, its restaurant's catering, rooms for guests, and rentals of tables, chairs and a sound system.

China Peak's entry into the wedding business came just as location trends were changing, said Shane McMurray.

"You're seeing more venues trying to get into the business because couples are trying to go more unique with their location," he said. "The weirdest thing I saw was an iceberg." That something different played a big factor in Robyn Brooks of Clovis choosing China Peak for her wedding this summer.

"One of my favorite parts of the ceremony location was that everyone rides the chair lift up," she said. "Talk about a photo op! Already can't wait to get all of the pictures taken up on the mountain." Another venue adding weddings is Chaffee Zoo, which has hosted weddings in the past. It's promoting its 7-month-old Sea Lion Cove exhibit as a place to get married. For a $1,500 site fee, a bride and groom can get married in front of the rocky pool with pelicans and sea lions in the background. And receptions can be held in the cove's viewing area, with tables set up in front of a glass wall with animals swimming through the blue and green water behind.

The list of unique places goes on.

The Clovis Castle on Auberry Road is booked for months. The building was dramatically remodeled to look like a castle, complete with a stone tower, courtyards and English gardens.

Rustic barns are popular for weddings, too. After getting phone calls from interested brides, Simonian Farms Old Town recently decided to market itself as a wedding site.

The 10-month-old Old Town includes a barn with an old West style town, complete with antiques and a shooting gallery. Weddings can be inside or outside, or on a patio overlooking a vineyard.

And the School House Restaurant and Tavern, which opened about a year ago at Highway 180 and Frankwood Avenue in Sanger, added two patios -- one with an outdoor fireplace -- and a grassy area so it could host weddings.

Some venues that focus on corporate events have seen a big drop in business, he said, and are expanding to include weddings and quinceaneras. Other longtime venues have put money into their businesses hoping to attract more weddings.

The Wedgewood Wedding & Banquet Center, formerly Grand Occasions, added an outdoor wedding ceremony area in 2011 so brides could get married and have the reception in one place. The covered ceremony spot features a water fountain and misters.

Engelmann Cellars already hosts weddings, but it is planning a tasting room with permanent restrooms that owner Bret Engelman expects will bring in more weddings.

The Yosemite Lakes Clubhouse in Coarsegold recently remodeled, including redoing the light fixtures and floors in the room where many couples hold their reception, after getting married in the gazebo overlooking the lake.

Some venues are new.

The Loft Events center on Fulton Street opened last year, booking mostly weddings, but also quinceaneras, anniversary parties, and one mixed-martial arts wrestling event that brought in a cage.

The owner wanted to bring a venue that could hold up to 400 people to central Fresno, said Kayza Hebrard, assistant to the owner.

The venue bills itself as a blank slate, a place that allows brides to choose their own caterers. Brides have decorated the room, which has a black tile floor, with dramatic pink lighting, draping fabric and couches arranged into lounge areas.

Weddings were part of the business plan when Moravia Wines opened almost a year ago on Bishop Avenue west of Highway 99, said Wendi Hammond, whose family started the winery.

The winery has already booked 13 weddings.

"It was part of a marketing plan we could put in place and capitalize on what seems to be a trend," she said. "We opened with the intention of creating a lovely outdoor venue surrounded by a vineyard." The venue charges a $350 site fee and has a minimum wine purchase.

Like The Loft, Moravia touts its flexibility and ability to host different sizes and styles of weddings.

"This way you can choose your caterer," she said. "You can have a barbecue (or) you can have a beautiful sit down dinner with steak and lobster."

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