With a large variety of venues, incredible beaches and an infusion of cultural experiences, the Tri-Counties are in demand as a wedding destination for couples from around the nation and the world.
“I went to school in San Luis Obispo and fell in love with the area then. When planning our wedding, we looked at venues from ballrooms in San Francisco to wineries in Napa to forests in the Santa Cruz mountains, but nothing felt special enough for our wedding venue until we started looking in SLO,” said Marissa Johnson who, with her husband Drew, celebrated their marriage at Oyster Ridge in Santa Margarita.
Johnson’s story is one that resonates with many young couples who went to school in the Tri-Counties, vacationed here with their families or visited as a child and then decided to return for their wedding.
Couples are likely to come from nearby Los Angeles or Orange counties for weddings in Ventura County. But for weddings in Santa Barbara and SLO counties, they might travel from as far away as Texas, New York or even Europe.
While some of the couples have small family weddings with 10-20 people, others are attended by a couple hundred guests who then rent rooms and wine and dine in the area for an extended weekend vacation.
Data from The Wedding Standard, a community of wedding industry professionals, as well as a blog and magazine resource for the region, estimated that during the wedding season — from March to October — SLO County hosts about 50 weddings a week with an average of 125 guests per wedding.
Each guest stays for an average of two days and spends about $200 a day in the area, producing around $90 million for the region’s economy. Add this to the $63 million average spent on weddings during a season, and it places the economic impact of the wedding industry in SLO County at $153 million annually.
Those numbers are on the conservative side, said Cameron Ingalls, publicist at The Wedding Standard, who spearheaded the data research and compilation.
“I’ve seen over the past decade, this place really blow up as far as transforming into a wedding destination,” Ingalls said, noting that the numbers The Wedding Standard compiled were intentionally moderate so it wouldn’t appear to be inflating prices; the actual number of weddings a week is probably closer to 75 or 100, he said.
A 2016-17 profile study by Visit Santa Barbara, a destination marketing organization for the city of Santa Barbara, the South Coast and surrounding areas, found that visitors who were attending a wedding in Santa Barbara or the South Coast spent about $33.3 million in the area during their trip.
Michelle Carlen, the tour organization’s executive director of sales, said that amount is a third of the total economic revenue produced by a segment of traveler data it tracks that includes conferences and events.
“(The wedding industry) is definitely a significant industry in our area,” she said, noting that many visitors initially make plans to visit the area for a wedding and extend their stay into a vacation.
In SLO County, Samantha Josette Ward, wedding planner and photographer at Samantha Josette events, said $60,000-$80,000 is the average price range for destination clients she serves. But there are high-end wedding planners who only book weddings over $100,000, she said.
In Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, Meg West, owner and planner at Events by M and M, said about 15 percent of her clients are locals, 45 percent are from Los Angeles County or Southern California and about 40 percent are from Northern California or another state.
“We’re very lucky to be in this industry in Southern California,” West said. “For us, Santa Barbara is in our backyard, and we love it for its beauty. But it’s actually a destination for most people.”
West, who placed the average destination wedding cost she sees around $40,000-$60,000, noted the diversity of venues in Santa Barbara ranging from “luxury, five-star hotels to modest mission style.”
Ventura County has some nice locations as well, she said, but Santa Barbara has a wider range of options, many that come with a higher price tag depending on the wedding services the couple selects, number of guests, and if they are including hotel stays.
For the Tri-Counties, beautiful weather, nearby beaches and plentiful activities such as wine tasting make it a popular wedding destination. So does the variety of venue prices, with some high-end places renting for tens of thousands of dollars and others booking for much less because they are smaller or publicly-owned.
Katie Schutte, a wedding planner at KB Events Santa Barbara, said that Santa Barbara has unique selling points.
“It’s done a good job of being a good location to travel to — not just in typical tourist ways, but it has arts and culture,” she said. “It’s got a little bit of something for everyone.”
Accommodations and food are good, and diverse venue options help couples find an aesthetic location that meets their budget. Expanding transportation options, such as the Santa Barbara Airport and train routes with easy access from Los Angeles, has made the area more accessible that it was five or six years ago, she said.
In San Luis Obispo County, Ward said about 90 percent of her business is comprised of destination clients — many returning Cal Poly alumni.
Although SLO and Santa Barbara share many similarities, she noted, SLO is less well-known, less busy and has more venue options than Santa Barbara. From beachside resorts to wineries to barns, there are “a lot of options clustered into one small area.”
A current wedding trend is integrating local culture into the wedding plans, Schutte said. This might include anything from planning a wine tasting event for the bridal party, serving local wine or beer or purchasing chocolates or cookie bags from local shops for placeholders and party favors.
Nicole and Coby Peterson, who were married at the Old Mission Santa Barbara and had their reception at the Four Seasons Resort the Biltmore Santa Barbara, are both from Orange County but met in Santa Barbara during college.
“We incorporated a lot of local food and drink into the wedding day, including locally-caught halibut and locally-grown strawberries,” the couple wrote in an email. “Some favorite parts of having a Santa Barbara wedding are beautiful scenery, culture and history, as well as having an excuse to come back every year.”
• Contact Annabelle Blair at [email protected]