Millennials shaking up the Lehigh Valley's wedding industry
By SARAH M. WOJCIK, The (Allentown) Morning Call
Nov. 18, 2017
ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) — When Parkland High School sweethearts Ashley Scheffler and Naveen Bhasin tied the knot in September, they wanted a celebration highlighting their vastly different roots: Catholicism and Sikhism.
Starting on a Wednesday, the couple began to weave their families' cultural histories with a sangeet ceremony, in which bride's hands were covered in intricate henna tattoos. A Sikh ceremony took place on Friday, and was followed by a traditional Catholic wedding that Saturday.
The Upper Macungie Township couple wanted what so many in their generation are after: a wedding experience distinctly their own. But where does a couple hold a reception to bridge their cultures?
That desire is forcing longtime venues in the Lehigh Valley region such as Blue Mountain Resort to play up their strengths and is giving nonprofits such as the Rodale Institute in Berks County an unexpected revenue stream.
"People want a very unique wedding that sets them apart. We were able to have our own very unique twist to ours.
— Naveen Bhasin
It also is luring entrepreneurs who are transforming old barns and iconic buildings into niche venues.
The Bhasins chose the ArtsQuest Center in South Side Bethlehem. For them, the spot perfectly reflected the modernity of their relationship and the industrial history of the Lehigh Valley.
"We really wanted to bring something modern because we appreciate the modern aesthetic and we needed something different to bring everyone together," said Ashley Bhasin, 28.
The venue could hold their massive 300-person guest list, was able to serve traditional Indian cuisine and showcased industrial history with the magnificent view of the imposing, rusted Bethlehem Steel blast furnaces.
"People want a very unique wedding that sets them apart," said Naveen Bhasin, 30. "We were able to have our own very unique twist to ours."
It's not only existing venues catching on to the trend — new developers are creating venues understanding the importance of a standout location.
Developers Mark Jaindl and his son Zachary are turning the former Lehigh Valley Trust Company building in downtown Allentown into an events venue called Vault 634.
Vault 634, expected to open in the spring, will highlight the building's intricate late 1880s architecture, including a stained-glass domed ceiling and polished marble, to create an opulent feel.
Meanwhile, developer David Jaindl, Mark's brother, wants to remake the Mary Immaculate Center, a stately stone seminary perched atop of a ridge in Lehigh Township, into an events venue with hotel rooms and a spa.
Kristen Rinaldi, editor of Lehigh Valley Style magazine, said there's plenty of demand in the Valley for both Jaindl venues — and more.
That's all thanks to millennials, those born roughly from the early 1980s to late 1990s.
Millennials now outnumber baby boomers and, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center, are getting married later — 27 for women and 29 for men.
And this generation is willing to spend more on weddings than any other, according to The Knot, an online wedding planning website.
The company's 10th annual Real Wedding Study, which surveyed about 13,000 brides and grooms across the country, found that the average wedding in 2016 cost $35,329 — the highest price tag since the The Knot began gathering such data. The figure is a $2,688 increase over the previous year.
The Knot attributes the cost increase to the growing emphasis on the desire for personalized, memorable experiences. The venue was the costliest expense for couples, according to the study with an average of $16,107 going toward securing the perfect locale.
"It's obviously a huge market that's not going away," Rinaldi said of wedding business.
The pursuit for the perfect locale is amplified by social media — be it the endless inspiration from Pinterest boards or the need to have photo backdrops as impressive as a couple's Instagram hashtag is clever.
She equated it to a nuptial arms race where the bar is set higher and higher.
Rinaldi, who publishes a wedding-themed issue each January, said the Lehigh Valley, after being behind the times when it came to unconventional venues, has been catching up in the last five years.
In search of an experience
The pristine farmland at the Rodale Institute, a nonprofit conducting organic agricultural research in Maxatawny Township, began hosting weddings in 2012 at the insistence of eager couples, according to Ali Lynn, the institute's wedding and events specialist.
The nonprofit could no longer ignore the potential for revenue.
The period barn on the property was renovated, though climate control was ditched in favor of the rustic charm that first attracted couples. Lynn said about 95 percent of the celebrations on site include the ceremony.
"They come here because they don't want a cookie-cutter wedding," she said.
"I knew we were getting married in a barn. I was dead set. I'm wearing cowboy boots. I'm being comfortable. Everything for us is rustic, country.
Abigail, 33, and Zachary Stevens, 35, are case in point. They met at a Bethlehem bar when Zachary Stevens approached his now wife at the jukebox.
He requested the same Jake Owens country song she picked only seconds before. They bonded over the music genre, attending countless concerts. Zachary Stevens popped the question in a cowboy hat on an Austin, Texas, vacation while horseback riding.
"I knew we were getting married in a barn. I was dead set," she said. "I'm wearing cowboy boots. I'm being comfortable. Everything for us is rustic, country. That's how we live."
The Stevenses, who live in Upper Macungie, transformed the Rodale barn with DIY creations and rented period decor from Antique Dreams in Berks County for their Oct. 7 wedding — the last of the 2017 season at the Rodale Institute.
Leather boots was the dominant footwear. The reception consisted of food, drink, nonstop dancing and little else. The entire experience was, for their guests, unmistakably Abby and Zach.
ArtsQuest, also a nonprofit, has hosted weddings for about 15 years, according to Susan Drexinger, vice president of hospitality and food services.
But not until the opening of the ArtsQuest Center in April 2011 did the organization have a dedicated spot for such occasions.
"Today, celebrating a wedding is about blending families, cultures and experiences," Drexinger said. "I think guests and clients are looking for locations that represent who they are."
The nonprofit angle carries another lure for millennials, who can be more self-conscious than previous generations about where their money is spent. Dollars spent at such an organization go toward its mission.
Lynn said for some clients this isn't just a bonus — but a deciding factor in selecting the venue.
"Weddings can be so expensive," she said. "So knowing it goes to a nonprofit is, for some, money well spent."
"Couples want to be some place that can be remembered. They want a place where not all of their friends have gotten married.
— Casey Keller, Blue Mountain's wedding and events sales manager
For years couples at Blue Mountain Resort kept asking to be married on a terrace overlooking the Kittatinny Ridge instead of the faux rock and water feature the venue had designated for nuptials.
So a year and a half ago, Carbon County resort added a delicate pergola on the terrace and arranged seating so guests can see the couple against the majestic backdrop.
Blue Mountain, in the wedding business for decades, had not fully embraced the mountain charm drawing couples. But the pergola along with renovations and additional staff boosted the number of weddings from 50 a few years ago to 85 this year.
"Couples want to be someplace that can be remembered," said Casey Keller, Blue Mountain's wedding and events sales manager. "They want a place where not all of their friends have gotten married."
Keller said one of the lessons learned was how much geography played a role in their success. ArtsQuest and Rodale have seen the same benefits, event staff say.
The Lehigh Valley, a midway point between major cities, makes it a perfect compromise locale for couples whose families span states. And as a region with several universities, the area offers a lifelong nostalgia for those who spent their college years here.
The reasons to marry in the Valley have never been lacking and, it seems, now neither are the venues.
Information from: The Morning Call, http://www.mcall.com