For Martha’s Vineyard Locals, Weddings Help Pay the Bills

On a typical weekend in the spring, summer and early fall, Martha’s Vineyard transforms into a wedding haven, with tall white tents dotting green lawns and rolling farm fields that often overlook the scenic shoreline. Situated off the coast of southeastern Massachusetts, the Vineyard has become a popular destination for couples seeking a scenic seaside escape for their nuptials.

The Vineyard’s economy runs largely on tourism and the wedding industry is big business. In its most recent report, Island Weddings Magazine noted that in 2018 42 percent of the weddings hosted on the Vineyard exceeded $75,000, and 2 percent of them cost more than $200,000. (Nationwide, wedding costs averaged $24,723 in 2018, according to the Wedding Report; they reached $30,000 last year, according to the Knot.)

Jim Eddy, the owner of Big Sky Tent and Party Rentals in Edgartown, estimates that they work on 10 to 20 weddings each weekend during June and September, the busiest months for weddings on the island. He estimates that there are about 30 weddings happening on the island each weekend in those months.

No one can say exactly how many weddings are held on the island each year. Couples aren’t required to get a marriage license in the town where they wed (though they must apply within the state). “It’s through incidental knowledge that we hear about all these weddings going on,” said Carolina Cooney, the executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce.

Couples are drawn to the Vineyard’s beaches, quaint villages and vast wildlife reserves, and more often than not, there is a family connection to the island. This was the case for Molly Tilton, 26, an art teacher from Sandwich, Mass., who was married in Edgartown this August at a cost of around $70,000. Her husband’s family owns a house in Katama, a neighborhood in Edgartown. “It was like a vacation where all my closest friends and family were taking over the island,” Ms. Tilton said.

While the Massachusetts island provides a charming backdrop for a picturesque wedding, life on the Vineyard is not always a celebration for some year-round residents who make a living bringing these grand weddings to life.

Often out of view for all these events are the local workers who hoist tents like sails and run the weddings like a tight ship, doing all the prep work and serving, then dismantling and cleaning up long after guests have left. They witness all the extravagance from a different perspective.

“I work the half-million to million-dollar wedding bracket,” said Aubrey Sirois of Aubrey Maria Designs, a floral design company in Edgartown. Ms. Sirois, 40, initially came to the island to work to pay for college and has now lived there full-time for about five years. This year, she did flowers for about 60 weddings and elopements on the island.

In the course of her work, Ms. Sirois and her team of 10 have learned to improvise. She once recalled getting the wrong head count for boutonnieres. “So I had an employee take a speaker wire out of their car and use it to wire an orchid to make a boutonniere,” Ms. Sirois said. She learned tricks like this, she said, from the tight-knit community of island wedding workers. “I really appreciate the camaraderie,” she said.

This sense of community is also why Willy Nevin works hard to stay on the Vineyard. Mr. Nevin, 30, was born and raised on the island. In addition to his job as a credit analyst at Martha’s Vineyard Bank, he works for Buckley’s Gourmet Catering on the weekends, earning $35 an hour before tips, to help pay his rent. Buckley’s Gourmet Catering was hired for 20 weddings this year, and Mr. Nevin worked seven of them. “I want to make it work because I do love living here,” he said. “My whole family lives here.”

But living on the Vineyard can be challenging for many locals. The island’s year-round population of about 20,000 swells to around 90,000 in the summer, according to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. The surge of tourists during peak season often leads to traffic jams, packed sidewalks, and long lines everywhere from the grocery stores to the gas stations. These inconveniences are bearable, Mr. Nevin said. But the flood of seasonal residents has also raised the cost of coastal living, which has made it difficult to find affordable housing.

In July, the median home sale price on Martha’s Vineyard was $1.3 million, according to LINK, a multiple listing service that provides real estate data for the island. And about 60 percent of the housing stock is now made up of “seasonal vacant homes,” according to the National Association of Realtors 2021 Vacation Home Counties Report.

Besides dealing with housing challenges, workers have also felt disheartened by the seemingly limitless wedding budgets. Ms. Sirois said her clients sometimes spend “$20,000 to $40,000 to $50,000 on wedding flowers and they’re composted the next day.” While the large budgets let her stretch herself creatively, she said, the numbers are “kind of insane.”

Waste is also an issue for local residents. Eva Faber, 29, and her girlfriend, Lexie Roth, 36, started Goldie’s Rotisserie, a catering business with a food truck, in 2021. “I don’t live in that way,” she said, referring to how flowers and “plastic trinkets” are routinely discarded at the end of the weddings they cater. How she currently lives: in a 16-by-16-foot barn that she and Ms. Roth outfitted with windows, electricity and an outhouse.

Ms. Faber recognizes that the Vineyard functions as a business draw. She estimated that weddings and related events make up around half of their business: they book two or three weddings per year and often work welcome parties, rehearsal dinners or brunches. For full-service wedding catering, they charge about $125 to $200 per person and about $5,000 to $30,000 for private events.

But after paying for expenses like staff, kitchen rent, and food costs, Ms. Faber said their income “just supports the high cost of living” and being able to get through the winter when business is slow.

While she said she feels lucky to have any housing at all on the island, it is difficult working from morning until past midnight and then “coming home from these events and wanting to shower and be comfortable and being faced with your own means.”

“The reason I want to go through all this madness to live here is the same reason people spend $10 million on a wedding here,” Ms. Faber said. (She said she worked a wedding years back rumored to have such a budget.) “It’s a special place.” Ms. Faber said. Even so, she added, “I wouldn’t live here if my family wasn’t here.”

Tom Ellis, 33, also grew up on the island and has tried to remain there into adulthood — working first as a wedding bartender and then as a wedding photographer, in addition to his work as a filmmaker. “It’s home,” he said. “It’s hard to describe what home feels like but that’s it.”

He sees the island’s numerous visitors as a blessing and a curse. “Tourism is kind of a poison pill for most economies,” he said. But, he said, “given the way things are, weddings are almost entirely positive for the island economy. The wedding vendors, they’re all able to survive the winter.”

His partner Liz Volchok, 30, worked for the Island Housing Trust as the affordable housing development manager from February 2021 to December 2022, but the cost and unpredictability of their own housing became too much to deal with. “The irony wasn’t lost on anybody,” Mr. Ellis said, and they decided in January to move to San Francisco, another high-rent area, where he said he’s finding a much larger inventory of available housing.

For some couples getting married on the Vineyard, going off the island for vendors can be a way for them to save money, too, since these businesses may charge less for their services because of lower operating costs.

“You’re maybe getting a better price,” Ms. Sirois acknowledged, “but these local vendors are making sure their employees can pay their mortgage.”

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