By Lorraine Mirabella, The Baltimore Sun
8:26 PM EDT, May 17, 2013
The gay couples who've booked Rouge Fine Catering in Hunt Valley for their weddings have appreciated not only good food and stylish events, but something less tangible.
"They don't want to be with a caterer that is going to be judgmental," said Jonathan Soudry, Rouge chef and owner. "There is a lot of intimacy in the relationship between the caterer and the couple."
Soudry, whose business handles about 300 weddings a year, catered more than two dozen receptions for same-sex couples last year. But this year, thanks to Maryland's Jan. 1 legalization of same-sex unions, Soudry said Rouge's bookings for gay weddings could more than double. And he believes that bump will boost his wedding business overall.
For many offering wedding-related services from flowers to accommodations, the market in Maryland is expanding as gay couples now can stay in Maryland or travel to the state to tie the knot.
The additional business should prove lucrative if the findings of a University of California, Los Angeles study are valid. The 2007 study by UCLA's Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy looked at how same-sex marriage would affect Maryland's budget. It found that same-sex couples living in the state would boost wedding spending by $63 million over three years.
Neighboring Delaware, which this month became the 11th state to allow same-sex marriage, can expect $5 million in additional wedding spending over three years, according to a May report by the institute.
"Those states that have approved same-sex marriage are already seeing positive economic benefits," said M.V. Lee Badgett, the Williams Institute's research director, in a statement on the study released May 7.
According to a survey released earlier this month by TheKnot.com, a popular wedding website, couples spent an average of $28,427 on their weddings in 2012, 5 percent more than in 2011.
Before Maryland voters approved a November ballot question on same-sex marriage, Baltimore-based Atlantic Caterers had handled receptions for gay couples mostly for "commitment ceremonies," as opposed to weddings. But wedding reception calls started coming in soon after the election, said Kristin Olsson, wedding specialist and sales manager.
"That's when we started to see an increase in inquiries from same-sex couples," Olsson said. "It's been a 20 to 25 percent increase — more than I had expected. I was pleasantly surprised."
She depends on word-of-mouth referrals for much of the business from gay couples.
"They know we have experience doing same-sex weddings and are sensitive to the slight differences," such as using the term "honor attendant," instead of "bridesmaid," she said. "They know that you're accepting of them. That's the most important thing to anyone."
While many of the calls coming in are only inquiries, for weddings that will take place in about a year, "We have seen a marked increase in the number of bookings for weddings taking place," said Olsson, noting she was preparing for one this weekend. "So far, all the couples I've dealt with have been local couples, but others are doing [the planning] long-distance."
Those out-of-town couples planning Baltimore weddings are expected to help boost tourism, say city officials who see growing awareness of the city as a gay-friendly destination for vacations, weddings and honeymoons.
Visit Baltimore, the city's tourism agency, launched a micro-site, LGBT Weddings, on its website a day after last fall's vote. The site has had 15,000 visitors, "which in the wedding world is pretty good," said Sam Rogers, Visit Baltimore's executive vice president. "It's a very specialized area, but obviously there's interest in LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] weddings."
From those Web visitors have come 850 requests for the Baltimore LGBT Visitors Guide, which is featured prominently on the site. It also lists hotels and reception venues that are not only members of Visit Baltimore but certified as gay-friendly.
Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group LLC, which operates Hotel Monaco in Baltimore, has long worked to lure LGBT guests and devotes a section of its website to hosting LGBT ceremonies and receptions.
Since passage of Maryland's same-sex marriage law, "we've definitely seen an uptick in couples interested in hosting their event with us," said Joe Pagone, Hotel Monaco's general manager. This year, "we have hosted a couple of LGBT weddings, and we have quite a bit of interest for future events. We always worked well with the LGBT community and are known for that."
He said he expects future business to be significant.
Same-sex marriage in Maryland "keeps couples — that unfortunately had to leave the state to get married — here, where they can have more people attend," Pagone said.
Rouge Catering also expects to see its gay wedding business grow.
Soudry said he has seen an increase in reservations for catering and in final contract signing. And the couples tend to spend more on average for their weddings, he said.
Maryland's new marriage-equality law has brought some unexpected benefits, Soudry said — including spillover business from couples from Washington, where gay marriage already was legal.
"I would assume that is happening because it's more cost-effective to get married in Baltimore," he said. "The vendors are more reasonable and the caterers are more reasonable than in D.C. We're seeing a nice overflow from that."
Often, his gay clients remain sources of business long after the wedding day, coming back to plan corporate or family events, he said.
"It's only the beginning of the relationship," he said.
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