Viva Las Vegas! The City's $2 Billion Wedding Industry Is Back

Jul 24, 2021
Originally published on July 27, 2021 9:00 pm

Brendan Paul has got the look. The dyed black pompadour. The bedazzled suit. The sunglasses. He's an Elvis impersonator and, on a recent Wednesday, he's guiding two young women – Jess Sandoval and Alana Stroebel – through some special vows at the Graceland wedding chapel in downtown Las Vegas.

"Jess, I want you to look Alana in the eyes and say, 'I promise to always love you tender and never leave you at the Heartbreak Hotel," Paul said, while laughing.

This is the eighth wedding he has performed today. Las Vegas is in the midst of a wedding boom as the nation's vaccination rates rise and the United States begins to recover from a grueling pandemic. The surge is bittersweet for Paul. He has a tough time singing these days. He contracted COVID-19 last October and has some lingering symptoms.

"I find myself short of breath," he said. "But you know what? I'm alive. If that's my worst thing — I can't hold a note as long as I used to — I'll deal with it."

This summer he's being forced to deal with it. After having to lay off employees last year due to the pandemic, he's now performing dozens of ceremonies on weekends.

In fact, the entire $2 billion wedding industry in Las Vegas has rebounded in a big way since March, when vaccines became widely available and casinos began increasing capacity. By June, about 340 couples were getting married every single day here, according to the latest available data from the Clark County clerk's office. That's more than double compared to last year and is even higher than pre-pandemic levels.

"We've just been bombarded, but it's good," said Clark County clerk Lynn Marie Goya.

She says roughly 18,000 people are employed by the industry in southern Nevada. It's a bedrock part of the region's economy, along with tourism and gambling.

"We have so many different options on how to get married that it just permeates throughout the local economy," she said.

That economy took a big hit during the early days of the pandemic. Casinos and businesses were shut down, and weddings plummeted too. In April of last year, they were down by 96%. But now business is booming. It should also be noted that COVID-19 has boomed in recent weeks, as well. The number of hospitalizations doubled, according to state data, but it now appears to be tapering off. Clark County just brought back a mask mandate for employees working in crowded indoor spaces.

Las Vegas weddings appeal to the adventurous

But the uptick in new cases didn't dissuade couples such as Shannon Santos and Greg Daly. They drove out to the city from Detroit.

"We wanted an adventure," Daly said. "We wanted to do a road trip and spend real quality time with each other rather than the fuss of a traditional wedding."

They got married on a recent Wednesday at a small chapel in downtown Las Vegas. They each wore small angel wings. One black pair and one white pair.

Randy Rathbun and Sophia Heid pose in front of the Clark County Marriage License Bureau in downtown Las Vegas. They plan to hold their wedding ceremony in a helicopter flying over the city.
Nate Hegyi / Mountain West News Bureau

"We like cosplaying at home," Santos said. "We thought of an angel, devil, fairy kind of thing."

Randy Rathbun and Sophia Heid are planning to get hitched in a helicopter flying over the city. They met a couple of years ago on a dating app.

"I know friends who have been married from dating websites so I thought I'd give it a try," Heid said. "Obviously he gave it a try, too. And voila. We're in a helicopter."

She says the pandemic brought them closer together. There was no proposal. They were walking around a mall last August and just decided together to tie the knot. Heid loves how caring her soon-to-be husband is. He's got a big heart, he's kind, and:

"He has a really nice butt," she said, with a laugh. "I really like that part too."

Heid and Rathbun will soon join the more than 37,000 couples who have gotten married in Sin City this year.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

: 7/27/21

An earlier version of this story misspelled Brendan Paul's first name as Branden.

Copyright 2021 Nevada Public Radio. To see more, visit Nevada Public Radio.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

After a pandemic slump, business is booming again in America's wedding capital, Las Vegas.

Nevada Public Radio's Nate Hegyi reports.

NATE HEGYI, BYLINE: Brandon Paul has got the look - the dyed black pompadour, the bedazzled suit, the sunglasses. He's an Elvis impersonator. And right now he's guiding two young women through their vows at the Graceland Chapel in downtown Las Vegas.

BRANDON PAUL: I will never step...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Laughter) I will never step.

PAUL: ...On your blue suede shoes.

(LAUGHTER)

HEGYI: This is the eighth wedding he's performed today. And Paul looks a little tired. His voice is raspy. But after the women are married, he still cues up the big finale on the chapel sound system.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A LITTLE LESS CONVERSATION")

PAUL: (Singing) Woo - a little less conversation.

HEGYI: Paul is singing karaoke-style over the song. Then he jumps up on to a pew.

PAUL: One more kiss - give her a kiss.

(CHEERING)

PAUL: Yes. Come on, everybody. Here they are.

HEGYI: When he's alone, Paul tells me that singing is tough these days. He had COVID back in October. And he has some lingering symptoms.

PAUL: I'd find myself short of breath. And I'm going, OK. But you know what? I'm alive. And if that's it, whatever. If that's my worst thing, I can't hold the note as long as I used to, I'll deal with that.

HEGYI: Paul is going to have to deal with that because his chapel is super busy this summer. After having to lay employees off last year, now on some weekends, he's performing dozens of weddings in a single day. It's repetitive work. But he still loves it.

PAUL: I don't care if I sing "Viva Las Vegas" 20,000 times. When I watch the people - viva Las Vegas - screaming - the guests are like, yeah, it's awesome. So I get off on that.

HEGYI: Graceland Chapel isn't alone. The numbers of new weddings and marriage licenses issued in Clark County are higher than both last year and even before the pandemic. Things really ramped up beginning in March, when vaccines became readily available and casinos increase their capacities. By June, about 340 couples were getting married every single day in the Las Vegas area.

LYNN MARIE GOYA: We've just been bombarded. But it's good.

HEGYI: Clark County Clerk, Lynn Marie Goya, says, weddings are a $2 billion industry here, employing 18,000 people.

GOYA: We have so many different options on how to get married that it just permeates throughout the local economy.

HEGYI: That economy took a big hit during the early days of the pandemic. Casinos and businesses were shut down. And weddings plummeted, too. In April of last year, they were down by 96%. But now business is booming.

And it should be noted that COVID has boomed in recent weeks, too. The number of hospitalizations doubled but appears to be tapering off. Clark County just brought back a mask mandate for employees working in crowded indoor spaces.

Still, Randy Rathbun and Sophia Heid came here from Minnesota to get hitched. They're doing it in a helicopter.

SOPHIA HEID: Who do you know who's ever married in a helicopter?

HEGYI: Heid has dyed purple hair and tattoos. Rathbun is quiet and wearing a cowboy hat. They met a couple of years ago on a dating app.

HEID: I've had a couple cousins married on dating websites. I know friends who have been married from dating websites. So I thought I'd give it a try. And obviously he gave it a try. And voila. In a helicopter we are.

HEGYI: She says the pandemic brought them closer together. There was no proposal. They were just walking around a mall last August and decided together to tie the knot. Heid loves how carrying her soon-to-be husband is. He's got a big heart. He's kind. And also...

HEID: He has a really nice butt. I really like that part, too. I just really wanted to put that in there.

HEGYI: Well, you're going to have that on National Public Radio.

RANDY RATHBUN: Good. Good.

HEID: (Laughter).

RATHBUN: It's good advertising.

HEGYI: Heid and Rathbun will soon join the more than 37,000 couples who have gotten married in Sin City this year.

For NPR News, I'm Nate Hegyi in Las Vegas.

CHANG: That story comes to us from the Mountain West News Bureau, a public radio collaborative.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VIVA LAS VEGAS")

ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) Viva Las Vegas. Viva Las Vegas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.