‘I do’: Local businesses have created a romance-based tourism boom with little help from the city
Even as snowdrifts cover local fields and our lakes sleep under the ice, members of a vibrant local industry are focused on the warmer months, when they’ll embark on yet another jam-packed season of serving a tourism sector many Kawartha Lakes residents have no idea exists. Unbeknownst to many of us, our area has become an enormously popular location for destination weddings, providing an experience that’s more memorable than an impersonal big-city event without the hassles and price tag of a tropical location.
“People go to Mexico or Cuba for a destination wedding, but it’s cost-prohibitive,” says Jason Friedmann, property manager at Eganridge Resort, Golf Club and Spa west of Bobcaygeon. Wedding parties who come to him are typically looking to make a weekend out of what used to be just a big day.
“Here they can have a barbecue, hang out with friends, go golfing. They might have a morning-after brunch on Sunday. It’s not just six or seven hours at a banquet hall and then you go home.”
Many weddings take place down the cottage roads few of us ever travel. About one-third of the couples wedding officiant Janet Grant marries are from out of the area. “They either have come up as a youngster to a family cottage or to a friend’s cottage, and they have a lot of sentimental ties here.” For instance, she does a lot of ceremonies on docks, “which gets interesting when they have dogs running around.”
Those of us who live here take beautiful scenery for granted, ranging from the rolling hills around Bethany — among the busiest area for wedding tourism with venues such as Iron Horse Ranch, Hollowbrook Highlands (the former South Pond Farms) and The Ranch Resort — to the lakes, fields and, farther north, rocky Canadian Shield. What’s ordinary for us is a huge draw for people from the Greater Toronto Area and other big cities.
“When they come up, they’re like ‘We’ve never seen so many stars!’” laughs Andrea Ross, who runs the Bethany catering company Heaven on Seven. Even though she only takes jobs within 20 kilometres of her home-based business, she easily books 70 weddings from May to November, turning down a further 10 or 15 inquiries a day. Ross estimates that 90 to 95 per cent of her clients are from outside Kawartha Lakes. Several grew up in this area and have moved to western Canada, but when it comes to their big day, they want to be back home.
Others come from much farther afield. Ross remembers getting a call from a woman she couldn’t hear very well. “I asked if I could call her back, but she said the reception would be the same because she was calling from a beach in Wales.” The prospective bride’s parents grew up in Scotland but had fallen in love with Bobcaygeon and built a house there. The caller went on, “Oh, and the groom’s from Dubai.” Guests flew in from all over the world.
Laura Hargrave’s business is similarly made up of far more outsiders than locals. Like Ross, the Cameron-area photographer is a preferred vendor at popular wedding venues, in her case, places like Sir William Mackenzie Inn in Kirkfield. Hargrave has also worked to incorporate keywords that help ensure her Photography by Laura Elizabeth website turns up near the top of Google searches. “Eighty per cent or more of my wedding business is from non-local clientele,” she says. They often also ask for portraits of extended family to take advantage of everyone being together.
From tent weddings in the yard to rustic-chic barns that can hold hundreds of guests to sophisticated small venues such as Lindsay’s the Pie Eyed Monk and Lindsay Lounge, there’s an ever-increasing range of locations to suit all kinds of budgets. “The affordability draws a lot of GTA people this way,” says Hargrave, but many who choose Kawartha Lakes are happy to pay top dollar.
“After going through COVID and everyone being locked inside their homes, now they want events,” says Ross. Whereas in the past, couples may have had an eye on a new car or big-screen television, now “They want the over-the-top wedding. They want to dance under the stars. They want memories.”
Coming to a rural area for a special wedding does bring a few surprises for city folks, of course. High heels sink into those verdant lawns; ankles turn on unexpected rock outcroppings. And, as Hargrave notes, guests wearing summer suits and minidresses often aren’t prepared for chilly evenings in May and June.
And then there are the bugs. Hargrave recalls the groom who ended up screaming as he tried to flee the mosquitoes descending at dusk, and has seen more than a few brides distressed by the grasshoppers that inevitably get stuck in their skirts at an outdoor ceremony. “You wanted nature,” she remembers thinking. “Well, here’s nature!”
Regardless of whether a wedding brings 20 guests or 200 to Kawartha Lakes, those visitors are spending big bucks at local hotels, resorts, Airbnbs, restaurants and stores. But this ever-growing economic powerhouse operates almost entirely outside of the municipal government’s support or influence. Unlike, say, Muskoka and Prince Edward County, the Kawartha Lakes tourism department does no wedding-oriented marketing, nor does it keep any statistics on the financial impact of the sector.
Individual vendors are left to promote themselves to prospective clients, many of whom later return for anniversary events, to explore further or even to settle. Lindsay’s Pie Eyed Monk won a 2022 award of excellence through the Lindsay + District Chamber of Commerce for its efforts to market wedding tourism; the work is paying off with 65 per cent of its wedding clients coming from outside the area while it also functions as a popular venue for local couples.
Hargrave has noticed venues starting to offer innovative packages for everything from proposals to elopements. Thrive Co-working Community, which aims to start hosting small weddings in 2023, is organizing the Kawartha Lakes Bridal Show in late January along with sponsors The Bridal Studio and Nisbett’s Clothiers as sponsors. (The Advocate is the event’s media sponsor.)
Despite the lack of official marketing and local profile, our area continues to be a hugely popular draw for couples planning destination weddings from the simple to the spectacular. And if we stop to see what we have going for us here, it’s really not hard to see why. “When I take a couple on a tour and I walk our grounds,” says Friedmann, “despite the fact that I’ve done it a hundred times before, I still think, ‘This is a really nice place to be.’”
Or, as officiant Janet Grant puts it, “Come on. You can’t beat Kawartha Lakes!”