The average wedding in North Carolina cost $29,500 in 2019, according to The Knot, the world’s top wedding planning website. That number dropped to $19,000 in 2020, with the majority of weddings scaling back on guest lists and other amenities, but weddings this year and in the years ahead are expected to creep back up toward that 2019 figure.
The venue typically takes up a good chunk of that figure — couples in the Tar Heel State spend an average of $10,500 on their wedding site. The engagement ring comes in next ($5,900), followed by the food, the band, the photographer and the dress.
Usually, the wedding planner and the venue are a bride and groom’s first big decision (after the engagement ring, of course). From there, though, each decision can have a trickle-down on the local economy. Even outside of the event-related expenses, when a wedding is hosted in Sanford, out-of-town guests need a place to sleep (hotels). Guests need to eat before and after the ceremony (restaurants). Men and women need things to do while in town (golf courses, downtown boutiques, local breweries).
While the total economic impact on Sanford and Lee County hasn’t been studied, a 2018 study by the Reg Murphy Center for Economic and Policy Studies found that the wedding industry in Glynn County, Georgia (a coastal area that is only slightly larger than Lee County) generated roughly 300 jobs, $7 million in labor income, $16 million in economic output and $8.5 million in total value added.
Florist Katie Thomas, owner of KatieDid Florals in Sanford, moved to the area from Danville, Virginia, recently and officially transferred her business in 2019. Her business focuses almost solely on weddings, and even in her short time here, she’s seen the industry grow rapidly in Lee County.
“We’re seeing just so many new venues in these last few years, both in Lee County and in the surrounding counties,” Thomas says. “These new venues beget so much business locally. The more venue choices we have — and the more venues we have that appeal to different tastes — then the more couples we’ll bring in.”
While many couples from this area are choosing to stay close to home for their wedding, the big impact is coming from out-of-town couples from Raleigh, Cary and all over the state who are looking for more intimate, rural settings and those looking for more “bang for the buck” over more pricey venues in larger cities.
The growth is keeping Thomas busy. If she wanted, she could book a wedding every week at this point. While flowers may not take priority over the dress or the venue, they’re definitely a Top 5 “must” on the average bride’s list, she says.
“Flowers mean different things to different people,” she says. “For me, it’s my way of bringing joy to your wedding day. When I design for a couple, it’s different every time. The season, the venue, the couple’s tastes, their favorite colors … they all play a role in what we choose.”
The trickle-down effect is visible with Thomas’s business, as she tries to always include local growers during peak flower months. When those aren’t available, she also grows her own blooms.
“My goal is for my couples to walk into their reception area for the first time and have that A-Ha moment,” she says. “We’re doing a lot of outdoor weddings in Sanford, and flowers can definitely become the focal point in those ceremonies. When we get it right, the couple never regrets spending on flowers. I’ve never had a couple say, ‘I wish we’d done fewer flowers.’ They just bring a special element to a wedding — they’re a memory that will last the rest of their lives.”
Capturing those memories is the role of a wedding photographer, another “Top 5” must-have for couples who’ll be looking back on those photos for the rest of their lives.
Alicia Hite shot her first wedding 11 years ago, and her business has grown in recent years right alongside the local wedding industry. Today, Hite shoots about 35 to 40 weddings in a year. Of those, roughly 25 are here in Sanford.
The importance of a seasoned, talented event photographer cannot be overstated, Hite says (and not just because she’s a seasoned, talented event photographer). The role is not something a couple should just hand off to their best friend who happens to have a good Nikon with a quality lens.
“You’re hiring all of these vendors to make it a perfect day, so you want a photographer who’s going to capture every detail and every memory,” Hite says. “It’s not just shooting the bride and groom, it’s getting shots of the invites, the ring box, the details in your wedding gown. I pick up on those things when I shoot a wedding — you don’t have to tell me, because you have more important things to worry about.”
Hite understands that when couples look back on photos of their wedding day, they’ll also be looking for photos of grandparents who maybe have since passed on or children who have grown. Hite says she makes sure to capture as many off-the-cuff, non-posed moments as possible. A laugh from grandma. A smile from dad. Happy tears.
According to The Knot, the average wedding photographer will cost you about $2,400. The website, heartofncweddings.com, has that figure between $3,000 and $4,000. Hite says a good photographer will work hand-in-hand with florists, caterers and other wedding vendors to get the perfect shots.
“You do enough of these, you eventually become a team,” she says. “We’re all in this together.”
The growth of the wedding industry in Lee County has not been lost on local business leaders. Sanford’s Tourism Development Authority recently created a wedding venue directory on its VisitSanfordNC.com site, and the TDA’s executive director Wendy Bryan says weddings have become one of Sanford’s biggest draws for out-of-towners.
“We have a large number of wedding venues considering the size of our county. And a lot of them are rural venues — which are extremely popular right now, especially during the pandemic when more and more people want that outdoor space,” Bryan says. “Another thing that became popular was these micro-wedding packages, because guest lists had to be reduced. These were a hit for a lot of our venues. And of course, when our venues are busy, our vendors are busy. Everybody’s working together and supporting each other, and we want to be here to support them.”
Businesses you wouldn’t necessarily associate with weddings are benefiting also, says Meg Moss, Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce executive director. Sanford has a growing number of Air BNBs. Rental businesses are more in demand. Deep River Sporting Clays is hosting more groups as part of wedding packages. Groomsmen and bridesmaids are shooting golf or taking a kayak down the Deep River with Endor Paddle. Downtown Sanford’s The Chocolate Cellar has all sorts of gifts for wedding guests.
But another big factor in Sanford’s recent popularity is its location, Moss says. Being smack dab in the middle of a coastal state with great year-round weather is good for business.
“Being well centered is a big part of it,” Moss says. “A lot of our couples and guests are coming here from the beach or the mountains … meeting in the middle. We’re being recognized as one of the nation’s top micropolitan areas (No. 5 on a recent national list), and just the name ‘Sanford’ is getting a lot of positive attention lately, whether it’s because of our new jobs, new housing developments or, now, its wedding venues.”
Sanford will align itself as even more of a wedding hub on Aug. 15, when the TDA hosts its first Carolina Classic Wedding Showcase at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center. According to Bryan, more than 60 vendors are signed up to showcase their venues and skills for prospective brides and grooms from all over the state. The event will also feature a fashion show, information sessions, set-up wedding scenes and a chance for a wedding or honeymoon giveaway.
“We hope this is the first of many,” says Bryan. “Our goal is simply to promote tourism in Lee County, and we’ve found that promoting our wedding venues and vendors is an excellent way to do that.”