Weddings big business for island

Bradenton Herald — Call it the Love Boat.

Jill Chandler-Fisher and Orca Fisher’s vessel is not as big as the famous TV cruise ship, however.

It’s cute, classically romantic and a little more churchy.

The Fishers are owners of the “Floating Chapel on the Bay” — a classic-looking church with stained-glass windows, cathedral ceilings, old-fashioned pews that seat up to 100 people and a steeple that’s as blue as the sea. It comes complete with a wrap-around deck, a bridal suite and twin engines to carry it through the Intracoastal waterway.

“The beauty of being able to cruise up and down the Intracoastal has literally stopped traffic,” said Jill Chandler-Fisher. “People get out of their cars. They wave, take photographs.”

The chapel, based at the Cortez dock, is bound to pull in more wedding traffic with the third annual Anna Maria Island Wedding Festival Sunday . The vessel will be docked at the Tortuga Inn Beach Resort during the event.

Weddings are big business for area companies — large and small — who benefit from Anna Maria Island’s white sand beaches and the vibrant sunsets that make for picture-perfect wedding memories.

“This area of Anna Maria as well as Sarasota — they both kind of vie to be the wedding capital of Florida,” said Jill Chandler-Fisher. “I’m kind of floating between both of them here.”

The Fishers will showcase the floating chapel during wedding festival, which is expected to attract 500 to 700 guests this year. The event is touted to be one-stop shopping for brides-to-be planning their dream wedding. They get to meet with nearly a 100 wedding pros — from bridal wear specialists, florists and photographers to hair stylists, caterers and DJs. The festival will include 14 to 15 locations around Anna Maria, with guests being transported via trolley and limousine to visit each group of vendors.

“By the time they are done here, they will have everything that they need,” said Deb Wing, executive administrative assistant of the Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce, which is hosting the matrimonial extravaganza.

Plus, they will have a chance to win more than $10,000 in prizes — which, in this economy, is icing on the cake.

Those looking to get married on the floating chapel soon may have to wait until May. The Fishers have 27 weddings to host through April. They’ve had the chapel since the beginning of this year. Phil Henderson, the previous owner, operated the chapel in St. Petersburg for about five years before he retired recently. The Fishers were so taken with it that they just had to have it.

“The beauty of the chapel is that it combines the tradition of a church setting, if you will, along with being able to cruise — a one-hour or two-hour cruise on the Intracoastal,” said Jill Chandler-Fisher.

Average cost of renting the vessel: $1,700. Packages start at $700 and go up to around $3,000. The price includes a wedding coordinator, rehearsal time, a cruise on the water, the Fishers officiating the ceremony and optional music, silk flowers and affordable la a cart wedding reception service on the deck.

Besides weddings, the chapel offers vow renewals, anniversary parties and memorials.

Some couples book their special day long in advance. Nov. 11, 2011 is already taken for lovebirds wanting to have 11/11/11 as their wedding date. Valentine’s Day 2011 is booked, too.

“We are thrilled,” Jill Chandler-Fisher said. “This offers a great way to partner with the wedding planners or the wedding vendors because we are primarily the ceremony. So of course we are all working together for anyone’s reception or lodging or other requirements.”

Word of mouth has helped the wedding festival grow in attendance and notoriety. In its first year, 300 people showed up. Last year, it was 500.

“Now with all the modern technology that we have with Facebook and Twitter and fan pages and everything else, word is getting out even more,” Wing said.

The impact of the local wedding industry can be seen almost every sunny, warm weekend on the beaches as couples share their vows on the sand and/or have a reception at one of the island’s seaside restaurants such as the Sandbar. The business, owned by Ed Chiles, hosts 200 weddings a year. It’s been a hot spot for grooms and their brides since the 1920s, said Janice Bergbom assistant wedding/special events coordinator for the Sandbar.

“It’s really unique on the West Coast of Florida, people get married just steps from the pavilion on the white-sand beach,” she said. The sunset in the evening is fire in the sky — it’s absolutely gorgeous. It’s a fabulous, romantic place to have a wedding.”

The cost of a Saturday wedding at the Sandbar averages between $7,500 to $8,000. Wedding parties and their guests range from 50-60 people. The Sandbar can comfortably seat 160 people under its pavilion.

The BeachHouse, also owned by Chiles and located on the south end of the island, hosts about 300 weddings annually.

“Weddings are a big hit for the island,” Chiles said, noting that the economic impact is not just with restaurants, but all the island businesses, including hotels, spas, etc.

Chiles attributes part of the wedding boom to wedding photographer Jack Elka, who he said coined the island “The Wedding Capital of Florida.”

“At first, everybody laughed at that a little,” Chiles said. “But we have kind of grown into that. About 60-70 percent of the weddings here are destination-point weddings.”

It’s those destination weddings that have couples coming back to the Anna Maria again and again to celebrate anniversaries, renew vows and vacation with the kids.

“They become generational visitors,” Chiles said.

published Feb. 22, 2010

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