Feature Article - October 2005
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Stunning Shelters

Planning and protecting outdoor structures

By Stacy St. Clair

Iconic outdoor structures can lead to more than just happy patrons. In some cases, they can glean additional dollars.

In Vienna, Va., for example, the gazebos at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens have become wildly popular wedding sites. The regional park—with its blossoming cherry trees, irises and wildflowers along Lake Caroline—hosts about 100 weddings a year, each one revenue-generating.

The gardens charge local residents $250 for a minimum two-hour rental. Bridal couples who want to have a rehearsal or live outside the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority's jurisdiction must pay more.

"This has become an increasingly lucrative business opportunity for places like ours over the last 20 years," Meadowlark Director Keith Tomlinson says. "The marriage industry is big business. It has grown exponentially for the last 20 years."

The demand has grown, in part, because of the organized manner in which the site is run. Couples must reserve the gazebo and atrium several months—sometimes more than a year—in advance.

All bridal parties must agree to park policies, including no alcohol or electronic music. They also are reminded not to trample through flowerbeds.

The reservation additionally guarantees that there will be only one bride on the premises at a time. The gardens even have a contingency plan for weddings parties that show up without a reservation.

While park officials cannot prohibit the crashers from entering the public gardens, they do try to keep them out of eye's view if another wedding is going on at that time.

An unexpected wedding party is sent to a secluded spot on the far end of the parking lot, out of view from the other bridal party. They may conduct their ceremony, but only after agreeing to park rules and paying entrance fees for all guests.

Overseeing a wedding hot spot, however, comes at a price. The park staff must dedicate significant amounts of time and energy to ensure things go smoothly.

"It's important to remember that doing it in an organized way is extremely management-intensive," Tomlinson says.

The hard work ensures the park does not become a wedding mill. Instead, the gazebos have become what they were always intended to be: cherished spots for both bridal parties and average visitors in a park dedicated to conservation, education and aesthetics.

"There is a delicate balance to having a place the public can enjoy and having a business in the park," Tomlinson says. "You definitely don't want a wedding to overpower the beauty of the park."