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Some Northland couples ramp up wedding spending as economy improves

Brittany Swanson (from left) of Duluth and her grandmother Darlene Swanson of Aitkin look at a wedding dress worn by Jenny Barnes of Esko at the booth for the Princess Bride store during the Duluth Bridal Show at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center on Saturday in Duluth. The dress is a Maggie Sottero design that sells for $1,649. (Clint Austin /

If the nation's economy is improving, one measure might be the difference between a violin solo and a string quartet at a wedding.

In recent years engaged couples "were hiring solo violin instead of quartet, or duo instead of quartet," musician Michelle Gribbon said. "Now almost every booking is quartet again."

Gribbon, founder of the Sound of Strings quartet, was speaking Saturday amid the hubbub of the 24th annual Duluth Bridal Show at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. Hundreds of brides-to-be were accompanied by moms, sisters, girlfriends, future mothers-in-law and, yes, a smattering of dads and grooms-to-be. They checked out 150 vendors offering everything from the gowns to wear to the limousines to ride, from the people to officiate at the wedding to the musicians to entertain afterward, from the photographers to capture the memories to the places to go for memorable honeymoons -- any imaginable aspect of a wedding.

It all looked beautiful and enticing, but future brides and their entourages were considering the possibilities with a view to their budgets.

"Trying to find things that are in your budget is hard to do," said Cassie Kozumplik, 24, of Virginia, who was getting a head start on her Jan. 5, 2013, wedding.

Casey Hurst, who is preparing for a late summer wedding, said she was being careful about her choices.

"We obviously want all of our family and friends to be able to attend, so to do that on a budget we have to work at it," said Hurst, 27, a nurse who lives in Duluth.

So choices have to be made. An example, Hurst said, is the wedding gown. Prices range "from $99 to unimaginable." She'll probably end up spending more than $99, Hurst said, but it would be "nothing outlandish. ... It doesn't have to be a name brand."

Annette Mega, co-owner of Princess Bride and one of the vendors at the show, said bridal gowns in Duluth top out around $2,000. Informal bridal gowns sell for $400 to $600, she said. But in recent years, some brides were looking for even less expensive alternatives.

"They were buying even some bridesmaid dresses that were available in white or ivory instead of an actual bridal gown," Mega said. Those cost between $150 and $300, she said.

"They definitely cut back," said Mega, who has been co-owner of the business for 21 years. "And they are starting to ramp up again. But there are still conservative people. But, yes, we are seeing other people ordering pretty expensive dresses."

Gribbon, pausing after the quartet played J.S. Bach's "Sheep May Safely Graze," said she also was noticing the ramping up after a series of off years. "When the economy went (in 2008), some people had already hired us so we were OK for that year, and then it went less and less, and 2011 was the worst," Gribbon said. "And now it looks like it's coming around."

Sound of Strings already has almost as many bookings for 2012 as it played in all of 2011, she said.

Larry Birkhofer, owner of Escape Limousines and Sedans for 15 years, also is noticing a difference. During the past few recession years, people would wait before hiring a limousine to make sure they could afford it, he said.

"It was more last-minute bookings instead of further-out bookings like we normally have," Birkhofer said. "And now we're feeling it coming back. They're booking out a lot further now instead of the last minute."

Still, his company -- with its 12 employees and five limos -- stayed busy during the difficult years, Birkhofer said. Rental prices vary depending on the size of the vehicle and when it's needed. A higher-end amount would be $700 for two hours.

Tracy Lundeen, producer of the bridal show throughout its 24 years, said it appeared attendance would be up about 20 percent from the normal of 2,000, and a couple of dozen exhibitors had to be turned away.

The recession years didn't hurt the wedding business in the Northland, Lundeen said, but it may have made consumers more budget-conscious.

"People have been marketing harder," he said. "People planning weddings have been more creative, and asking more questions and getting the most out of their money."