April 17, 2024

Inside the Northern Michigan Wedding Industry

Vendors talk trends, costs, and tips for the big day
By Art Bukowski | Feb. 3, 2024

Northern Michigan and weddings go together like beaches and sand. Our region is again poised for another extremely busy year for those tying the knot—and for the thousands of people who work jobs that support the happy couples.

Beyond saying yes to the dress, some of the biggest wedding to-dos (and budget items) revolve around choosing vendors, from florists to DJs and everything in between. Northern Express reached out to some folks in the industry to see what’s new, what’s tried and true, and what’s next in 2024 and beyond.

Planning: Meaghan Kenny of Fox & Fern Events

Meaghan Kenny started Fox & Fern Events in 2016, and her company has quickly become a go-to resource for northern Michigan weddings. Because they are a full-service outfit, the business takes on only 16 or so weddings a year, spending at least 200 hours on each.

According to their website, those services include “budget planning & oversight, timeline creation & management, a custom planning checklist that is continually updated throughout your planning, full event design, guest services … venue & vendor selection and management, and full event production.” Fox & Fern’s full-service packages start at $12,000, but it’s highly customizable.

Kenny says the focus from a planning perspective these days is all on the guest experience, arguably more so than ever before. A great band, great food, and a great setting give those attendees something to remember. She loves the challenge of bringing it all together with her trusted partners in the industry.

“For us, being able to put together a day that flows really well, with vendors we trust and love and are proud of, is really fulfilling,” she says.

As far as wedding trends go, Kenny says she’s seeing people planning further out than ever before. Three recent clients contacted her before they even got engaged, something she saw perhaps once a year previously.

And if it can even be described as a trend, the focus on local foods and farm-to-table offerings is stronger than ever. “It’s really important to our clients who are bringing their friends and family here,” she says. “They want to highlight all the best that our area produces, which is great.”

Looking ahead, Kenny expects many more years of making dreams come true in the Grand Traverse region, a place she feels will only grow in popularity. “I don’t think we’re ever going to hit a plateau; it’s going to keep going,” she says. “People just love coming up here.”

Venue: Rose Gallagher of Bay View Weddings at Gallagher Farms

Bay View Weddings at Gallagher Farms is one of the numerous stunning wedding venues in the region. It’s on a working farm, with rolling hills, neatly planted orchards, and views of Grand Traverse Bay. In short, it has a lot of the things people are looking for as a backdrop for their northern Michigan nuptials.

The family has been farming in the region since the 19th century (with four generations on that property in particular), and they take tremendous pride in representing the local farming community while providing a gorgeous venue at which to create lifetime memories.

“It’s a humbling experience,” owner Rose Gallager says. “We’re very honored and we feel privileged to be able to take a lot of the hard work and sacrifice that it’s taken to maintain this property for so many years, and then also shape it in a way that allows people to have these wonderful experiences.”

Guests generally have glowing feedback.

“They tell us it’s breathtaking,” Gallagher says. “They step back and they’re really in awe of the natural beauty of northern Michigan when they are on the farm. Their breathing slows down, and they’re able to enjoy every moment.”

Gallagher has noticed a number of trends in the industry, including a growing number of Friday weddings that allow couples to get the stressful day out of the way and then enjoy a wedding weekend.

“There’s a lot of natural anxiety or stress that leads up to a wedding day,” she says. “So they like to enjoy their beautiful day and then relax the rest of the weekend with their family.”

Fridays and Sundays—and any day of the workweek—hold another appeal. Though not the case at Bay View Weddings, many venues price these days lower than in-demand Saturdays. Reception venues can easily be one of the biggest budget items, especially if they’re also providing catering, linens, or other must-haves, so couples can often save by picking a less busy day.

Gallagher is also seeing couples wanting to do more together before the traditional “first looks,” perhaps a walk or coffee before things the wedding fun kicks into high gear.

Photography: Sara Highway of Exposures by Rah

Speaking of first looks, let’s talk photography.

Sarah Highway has always enjoyed getting a great shot, and she’s been shooting weddings on a professional basis since 2011 (full-time since 2017). Her business has grown leaps and bounds, and she’s enjoying every minute.

“Documenting people’s greatest days and greatest times of their lives is an honor, and it just doesn’t get old,” Highway says. “You get to be around that high energy, those good feelings, people are at their best. Sometimes they’re at their worst, or they’re very emotional, but it’s just such a high you get to ride…it’s exhausting and so worth it.”

Brides magazine reports wedding photography costs range from $1,000 to $50,000, with the average between $2,500 and $4,000. Highway doesn’t pin down a price point, noting her pricing is variable based on what the couple wants. She schedules a Zoom with every potential client to better discuss their needs, then irons out a package from there.

“That way I can know them and get to know what they need rather than me trying to push a cookie-cutter package that isn’t right for them,” she says.

Highway and nearly everyone else interviewed for this story tells us she’s already booking into 2025, part of a larger trend of folks planning further ahead. In her world, plenty has stayed the same—the need for full day coverage, etc.—but one thing that’s becoming hot is social media content.

“People have really started to want to add video onto it, and they’ve also started wanting a specific social media content creator, someone who is going to look at TikTok trends and social media trends a month, two weeks, or a week before and really see what is trending in wedding TikTok and recreate those trends,” she says.

On the flip (phone) side, phone-free ceremonies (sometimes called “unplugged ceremonies) are also becoming more popular, Highway says. Couples don’t want their official photos marred by a sea of smartphones being held in the air, though a middle ground—a photo moment where the wedding party poses for the crowd—can help everyone get what they want.

Flowers: Kalin Sheick of Sweetwater Floral

What’s a wedding without that pop of color in those photos? Kalin Sheick of Walloon Lake’s Sweetwater Floral will tell you that splashes of bold color are actually among the things coming back into style after years on the sideline.

“For a few years there, we were doing mostly all neutral toned colored weddings, so a lot of whites, a lot of greens, which is beautiful and classic for a reason,” she says. “But I’m seeing a lot of our couples really leaning in towards saturated, bright, fun colors, which just makes the whole day more fun.”

She’s glad to see it. “It’s really beautiful, especially with northern Michigan as the backdrop,” she Sheick. “Everything is already so green and lush, and the natural landscape we’re surrounded by up here is so stunning that having a really saturated fun color palette pops off it so well.”

No matter your color scheme, flowers are expensive these days, Sheick tells us. The cost of growing, shipping, and maintaining these live and very perishable goods can be daunting in today’s economic climate, and those costs get passed on to the consumer. The price per stem is around 25 percent higher than it was just in 2019, she says.

“People grossly underestimate the cost of flowers,” Sheick says. “They are incredibly expensive, and there’s no florist out there that’s robbing people or retiring as a multi-millionaire. Flowers are a living, breathing product, and there’s a lot that goes into making them look beautiful and presentable for our clients.”

Sheick says transparency and her clients’ comfort with their total spend are of the utmost importance as she puts together a plan. Her clients spend an average of $6,500 between the flowers themselves and her services, but plenty spend far less or far more.

“Labor is expensive, and having a talented team is expensive and so worth it, but I’m really passionate about our clients feeling comfortable with the amount of money they’re spending with us, whether it’s $500 or $50,000.”

No matter your budget, she believes a good florist will help you get the most bang for your buck. Start by eliminating boutonnieres and other wearables, she suggests, then think about maximizing impact.

“If you want to save money, just remember to spend the money where people spend the time,” Sheick advises. “If you’re having a 20-minute ceremony, let’s not blow the entire budget at the ceremony. People spend the most time at the reception, and people spend the most time sitting down to a meal or at the cocktail hour.”

Music: Scott Perry of 2Bays DJs

Scott Perry, founder and co-owner of 2Bays DJs, loves his job, in part because he can bring the energy that people need after what often is a grueling run of planning and rehearsing.

“The thing that keeps me coming back year after year is the moment where, when I arrive at the party, everything goes from the planning phase to the real deal,” he says. “People are wound up or excited about the whole thing, but when the DJ arrives, everyone kind of breathes a sigh of relief and realizes the party’s actually happening and they can all let loose.”

2Bays DJs does about 150 weddings a year, mostly in northern Michigan. The company has different pricing tiers depending on DJ experience, which allows for a bit more affordability if necessary. The lower end of the range starts out around $2,000.

“The toughest part of COVID for us was keeping our momentum from beforehand, and we wound up bringing on a lot of new people. We then recognized that it’s very challenging to get some new people up to the level of service that the 15-year veterans can deliver, so we split our pricing,” Perry says. “We’re trying to provide services for some of the budget-minded people.”

Perry says that while couples are always different—some will let the DJ do their thing, others will provide a list of must-plays and don’t-plays—a trend he’s seeing is people going for songs that are special to them, regardless of their popularity.

“More and more, it seems like people are looking for their own bespoke custom experience,” he says. “They’re ditching a lot of the overplayed wedding songs and are leaning more into the things that make them tick as individuals, which I think is really special.”

Need some inspiration? The folks over at Brides have a list of the top wedding songs from each year going back to 1960 (which was “At Last” by Etta James). They also offer a list of the 100 best songs for the dance floor—fittingly, the top pick is “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” by Whitney Houston.

 

Photo by Sarah Highway, Exposures by Rah

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