Marriage or bust: Why are Charlottesville weddings so dang expensive?

Illustration by Robert Ullman Illustration by Robert Ullman

About an hour before sunset, Jen Fariello climbed to the top of a grassy hill with her camera. She looked through her lens down on the bride and groom exchanging vows under a rustic moss-covered altar with 10 rows of white chairs neatly arranged in a romantic countryside garden at Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyard. And in the background, a panoramic view of the Blue Ridge Mountains in misty, muted light. She waited for the moment when the sun sunk below the clouds to get the perfect shot. Click.

“It’s the quintessential picture of the Blue Ridge,” says Fariello, who has been a wedding photographer in the area for more than 15 years. “It captures what’s so beautiful about Charlottesville. It’s so simple and natural.”

Local wedding photographer Jen Fariello has been capturing brides in picturesque Blue Ridge settings for over 15 years. She has also seen the local wedding industry develop from intimate, country ceremonies to opulent affairs. Photo: Ron Dressel
Local wedding photographer Jen Fariello has been capturing brides in picturesque Blue Ridge settings for over 15 years. She has also seen the local wedding industry develop from intimate, country ceremonies to opulent affairs. Photo: Ron Dressel

It’s also the quintessential picture of a idyllic and fabulous high-end wedding. Fariello took the image in September 2011 soon after Pippin Hill opened. “I was the first person to climb up on that hill and shoot that,” she says.

Earlier this year, Brides magazine made a list of “the dreamiest spots in the country to say I do,” and named Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyard one of the top 50 romantic wedding venues. The short write-up on Pippin was paired with the iconic image Fariello took back in September 2011. The other high-end venues that made the cut were the Beverly Hills Hotel, New York Public Library, Bellagio in Las Vegas, Sundance Resort in Utah, as well as exclusive beach resorts from Miami to Maui. Just the other week, it was even rumored that celeb couple Jennifer Aniston and Justin Theroux exchanged vows at a quickie wedding ceremony at Pippin Hill—the perfect locale for a celeb couple looking for a private and exclusive wedding off the beaten path and out of the limelight from the paparazzi.

Last year there were 924 weddings in Albemarle County, and the local wedding market was valued at about $28 million, according to The Wedding Report, a research group that collects wedding industry statistics and trends. Charlottesville’s wedding industry has exploded in the past four years, and its value is becoming comparable to bigger, more notable markets for destination weddings, such as California’s Napa Valley area, where last year there were 1,041 weddings bringing in $37 million.  In the Southeast, Charleston, S.C., is the most sought-after wedding destination, playing host to 2,925 weddings last year worth an estimated $72 million, according to the report. While Charleston’s market is almost three times Charlottesville’s, several wedding experts in the area told me that Charlottesville takes the No. 2 spot for wedding destinations in the region, because of its beautiful Blue Ridge backdrop and plentiful venues from wineries to historic estates.

“I think everyone is talking about Charlottesville and Charleston on the East Coast,” says Lynn Easton, co-owner of Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyard and owner of Easton Events, with offices in both Charleston and Charlottesville. “Our reputation is going to continue to grow and so is demand… Charlottesville has a bright shiny future ahead of it for the wedding world.”

After living in Central Virginia for almost four years, I knew that Charlottesville was a hugely popular wedding destination, but having never planned a wedding myself, I didn’t realize it was so expensive. How did a wedding venue in little, ol’ Charlottesville, Virginia, get on the same playing field as the infamous Bellagio and the Beverly Hills Hotel? And, if the rumor is indeed true, how did a high-powered Hollywood couple like Aniston and Theroux choose a spot in Appalachia?

I am a young woman who has friends getting hitched left and right. Also, at the age of 26 (the median age women are getting married these days), I can see myself tying the knot in the next few years. As I venture into the wedding world, watching friends and family get married, I’m starting to wonder how much of a wedding I can actually afford as a 20-something journalist. And, in the end, I keep coming back to a question that TLC and a whole pile of magazines and blogs keeps asking me: Is a wedding—one day of the year—really worth shelling out a year’s salary for? Or, as wedding professionals say, is it really priceless?

  • BrideToBe

    I am actually getting married in Staunton, by the priest from my Charlottesville church, because Charlottesville is SO expensive! I am spending 1/3 for my reception venue what I would have spent in Albemarle!

  • Amy

    This is not Appalachia. Otherwise, this is a well researched article that flows quite nicely while packing quite a lot of information in.

    • marissa hermanson

      You’re right, Amy! Appalachia starts a little farther west. Need to refresh my geography ha ha.

  • Marley

    This is a well written and interesting article! It’s amazing to think that someone may not be able to afford getting married in the place they grew up– but certainly important to think about! Informative and relevant topic

  • Suzie

    Good article! I also was surprised how much we spent on our winery wedding here in C-Ville. (When we started planning, I think we thought we would save money getting married off the beaten path….we were wrong!) However, me and husband live, work, and met here, so we wouldn’t have wanted to get married anywhere else! Looking back 5 years later, it was a wonderful wedding and worth every penny!

  • Cvilleweddings

    There is no way the average here is ~$50,000. I’ve been to countless weddings in the area, many at the UVA Chapel, where you can deduce that the couple spent closer to $15,000. It’s not hard. Don’t overspend on a venue. Don’t get talked into a coordinator. Do a lot of work yourself and skip the parts that no one cares about anyway.

    • marissa hermanson

      Hi Cvilleweddings, The average wedding in the area is actually $30K, according to wedding report, but the average winery wedding is much more since those venues have a pricier tag attached to them.

      • Cvilleweddings

        Thanks for the response. I really enjoyed the article. I would question the methodology of those weddingreport facts. Check out the fine print on their research–I think companies like that, as well as area venues–have a vested interest in making you think people are spending small fortunes on weddings, on average. And of course I realize that many people DO spend small and even large fortunes on weddings.

        • marissa hermanson

          I’ll definitely poke around and find out what their deal is.

          Another interesting thing I found out while talking to these brides is how once certain vendors heard it was for a “wedding” price points suddenly went up.

          • cakelady

            I just had to comment on this one…as a wedding vendor (cakes), if a vendor charges more for a wedding, it should only be because there is more work involved…not just because it is for a “wedding”. Photographers that have to deal with posing drunk family members, scoping out perfect spots for first looks, editing for 20+ hours after the wedding. Florists who have to make dozens of mock ups, change flowers at the 11th hour because the bride changed her mind, etc. And not to mention, the hundreds of gumpaste flowers that a cake designers has to create by hand to match the bridal bouquet. So yes, there may be a higher charge if it is a wedding, but not without good reason…and trust me when we do events or other parties, the amount of back and forth with the client and the endless drawings and mock ups and emails and phone calls, is just not there.

      • Aftonbride

        Maybe if you want to be at one of the three expensive ones — King Family, Veritas, or Pippin Hill Farm. There are lots of choices. We picked one that is less and even renting the extras to bring in has us spending less.

  • Aftonbride

    Would be interesting to read about why so many people/venues jump into weddings and try to charge what the places/people with decades of experience charge.

  • Bill

    this is curious: “Last year there were 924 weddings in Albemarle County, and the local wedding market was valued at about $28 million.” Does the 924 number include weddings in the City? Weddings in the City with receptions in the county or vice versa? Does the “local wedding market” include multiple counties? If so the $30,000 figure (per wedding) would be off.

    • marissa hermanson

      Hi Bill, The stats are referring to only to Albemarle County, since that’s where a majority of the venues that are marketing themselves as “wedding” venues — the estates, historic properties and wineries. It’s funny though, I compared Albemarle to Nelson County, because Nelson is just as beautiful and has just as beautiful properties, but Nelson’s market is way cheaper and they definitely don’t bring in the amount of money that Albemarle does. It would be great if downtown C’ville could get some bigger venues and hotels to host weddings.

  • Casual reader

    Got married last year. The wedding industrial complex is insane. One photographer we met with and LOVED then handed us his price sheet and it would have cost nearly $6,000. Even a beginner photographer that was suggested to us (in her second year of doing wedding photography) was charging $3,000. If you’re looking at wedding websites and magazines to tell you what you NEED, you’re going to spend an assload of money. Read them for inspiration, tell them to go f*%k themselves, and then do it the way you want to do it for cheaper.

    • Patience

      $6,000 for someone with decades of experience, a second shooter, an assistant, and a full day of coverage doesn’t seem out of line. The problem is when new professionals think they should be similarly compensated despite their lack of experience.

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