Not that long ago, weddings were held in churches, and receptions were held in reception halls, the latter meeting the basic requirements of dining tables, a dancing space, a kitchen, and bathrooms. Nowadays, it’s increasingly popular to rent bucolic locations, like an apple orchard or a vineyard, and stunning indoor locations, like a grand Masonic ballroom, or rustic sites, replete with indoor and outdoor lodging, a fully stocked bar and a winding river. There’s even a one-of-a-kind farm-to-table venue outside of Mondovi.

Economics

There are manifold benefits when non-traditional sites welcome weddings and receptions. One is diversification of income for the venue owners, which provides a stabilizing effect when the weather isn’t just right for growing grapes or when Masonic membership dips. An extra income stream can keep a business afloat through inclement weather of all kinds, keeping employees employed and the lights on. There’s also a broader benefit for the surrounding communities, because weddings and receptions draw attendees from afar, all of whom need to eat and someplace to sleep. Because these sites aren’t simply a spacious hall with four walls, but rather deliver one-of-a-kind qualities, they’re more likely to draw wedding parties from beyond the Chippewa Valley.

There’s also an economic benefit for the wedding couples and their families, because the national averages are $14,000 spent on reception venues and $1,900 on the wedding ceremony sites. These newcomers to the business of weddings are like the old Avis tagline, for they try harder, delivering fine sites for considerably less than the national averages.

Masonic Ballroom

You’ve likely seen the grand Masonic Ballroom on the banks of the Chippewa River in Eau Claire. Sheathed in white Indiana limestone with massive Doric columns heralding its entry, it’s built in the classic revival style and would cost $12.5 million to replicate today. Not only can wedding parties rent a $12.5 million Greek temple lookalike, but it’s economical.

Kati Wood, event coordinator for the Masonic Ballroom, said, “We offer a low rate to help couples create the wedding of their dreams without having to spend all of their savings. Our venue rents at $1,900 for ceremony, lounge, reception, and bride/groom suites. It’s $1,280 for a reception only or $1,000 for a ceremony only, with the lounge at an additional rate. An average wedding and/or reception at the Masonic Ballroom with room rental, catered meal, bar, and sales tax costs $50-$70 per guest.”

Not only is it a deal, but it’s a deal with pizazz.

“The venue is a historic 1927 building complete with dramatic columns at the entrance, a grand staircase, wall accents, and an impressive theater for the ceremony. Our Fireside Lounge is exquisite, with detailed crown molding and checkered terrazzo floor making it reminiscent of a 1920s London private club.”

The prices are kept low because of Mason values.

“The Masons’ deep values, traditions, and importance placed on family and community, are highlighted throughout each rental. The Masons hold marriage in high regard and offer exclusive use of the venue with only one wedding (event) per weekend and personalization in the details. The venue can accommodate intimate weddings or up to 500 guests in the ballroom. Couples are given two days to decorate and one to un-decorate, typically Thursday and Friday before a Saturday wedding and Monday to un-decorate.”

Weddings are aligned with Mason values, but they entered the wedding business after a query from a couple.

“Initially, someone came to us asking to use the building for a wedding. We realized we could use the funds to improve the facility. We already had a nice ballroom and space that could be used as a chapel, which simplified wedding parties using the facility.”

Up to a point, the Masons want to welcome more brides, grooms, and their families.

“We hope to increase the number of weddings at our venue going forward. We currently average 13 a year and would like to see 20. The Masons do use the building for their own meetings, events, and fundraisers, so we do not want to put too much strain on the building and staff.”

Whatever the number of weddings, it brings people to the Valley.

“Weddings with an out-of-state bride or groom have 25-50 percent of their guests coming from out of the area. Local couples have a smaller percentage, with 5-20 percent coming from afar.”

The Ballroom doesn’t disappoint.

“A historic building with unique, gorgeous, eye-catching details makes for a Cinderella wedding and has guests talking.”

However, the Mason Ballroom is more than a pretty face.

“It’s backed by welcoming, flexible, excellent, amazing, over and beyond staff, who are there from planning meetings to day-of support coordinating between DJ, photographer, deliveries, set-ups, and caterer. You have one location for both ceremony and reception without needing to turn over a room before you can move into the next phase. You have the peace of mind to have all the decorations in place before the wedding day to keep the couple present on the important step they are taking.”

And the usage fees were put to their intended use.

“Some changes were made to accommodate additional people in the building, such as increasing the quantity and upgrading restroom facilities and the elevator. Paint and decorations were added keeping with the historic feel of the environment while providing an elegant neutral backdrop for weddings.”

Cottage Winery & Vineyard

A strikingly different venue that also bests national cost averages for weddings and receptions is Cottage Winery & Vineyard, three miles from Menomonie.

Teresa Jorgensen, owner, said, “I wanted a special venue that aligned with Chippewa Valley pricing, not the Twin Cities pricing. My main package, which is the ceremony through the reception, is $6,300. That doesn’t include food. It’s called the Uncorked Romance Package.”

“Uncorked,” of course, refers to their winery, but also the abundant “romance,” brought about by changes the Jorgensens made to their site.

“Once we started excavating, the wedding sites suggested themselves. Our idea was to build a cute village scene complete with cottages. We did build a large pavilion to accommodate receptions. You feel like you’re in Europe, with the gorgeous countryside setting with the unique old-world style buildings. It’s very romantic and peaceful.”

Their guests agree.

“My favorite comment was from a father who told me that he really thought his daughter was a princess that day!”

If you want, you can be a princess chowing down on wood-fired pizza.

“The couple can also customize their wedding by choosing their own vendors, which allows for non-traditional ideas like a wood-fired pizza truck.”

Of course, there’s also a winery right there.

“Couples also get to add in a wine reception that makes their wedding day more unique.”

It’s a boon to area motels and restaurants with Menomonie nearby. With I-94 close, it’s easy access for traveling guests.

“About 50 percent of my weddings come from the Chippewa Valley, 25 percent come from the extended surrounding towns, such as Hudson, etc., and 25 percent come from elsewhere, such as the Twin cities, Chicago, Green Bay, etc.”

Jorgensen embraces them all.

“My true passion is event planning, and weddings create such romantic feel to the venue. I get chills every time I see how gorgeous the space is for weddings. Working in Eau Claire for many years, I knew there was a need for such a unique setting. The winery is the cherry on top.”

Others agree, as the Vineyard has been chosen by PBS, "Around the Corner with John McGivern," to be in their April 12, 2018, episode.

“They toured the grounds and fell in love with the architecture, colorful views, the layout of the wedding venue, and its village feel. They were impressed that we built everything and take care of it all!”

Dixon’s Apple Orchard

If you want fruit bigger than grapes as a nuptial backdrop, there’s Dixon’s Apple Orchard in Cadott. Like Jorgensen, Jim and Becky Mullane purchased the property purely planning to grow fruit.

“Initially, we intented to raise apples like we had previously in New Mexico. Once we started working on the property, we began to envision it as a wedding venue. So, we began to market it as a wedding venue as well and it was a hit!”

The choices they offer have drawn a full half of their business from beyond the Valley, all bringing dollars spent locally.

“Our property allows couples freedom to be creative and have fun designing their very special day. Couples can choose the island-on-the-pond venue or the woodland venue for their ceremony. We also offer the apple orchard setting, which becomes ever more beautiful as our apple trees grow.”

There’s fun for everyone.

“Our tractor-pulled wagons and horse-drawn carriage add even more to the day.”

There are options for the young and young at heart, too.

“The back patio area, including the fire pit, s’mores bar, kids’ area, lawn games, and roll-away bar offer so much for guests to enjoy as part of the reception. The compliment most heard is, ‘You have thought of everything.’ Couples are always so thankful that their wedding turned out above and beyond their expectations. Both couples and guests enjoy our family feel and the warmth and care from our family. We love what we do, and that flows into our couples and their guests.”

The Mullanes aren’t standing pat.

“We have made many changes and upgrades to the infrastructure and continue improving where we see needed. Creating that magazine or Pinterest-worthy venue takes creativity and new offerings. From our rustic accents to our groom shack to our bonfire areas, we’re always upgrading.”

WFU Kamp Kenwood

Wisconsin Farmers Union’s Kamp Kenwood is 23 sun-dappled acres on the shoreline of Lake Wissota, just north of Eau Claire. Its lodge, with a massive river stone fireplace, is large enough to seat up to 200 people. It’s also a bargain, with a Friday-Sunday rental beginning around $2,000. There are also sleeping accommodations for 92 people.

Brad Henderson, the facilities manager at Wisconsin Farmers Union, said, “In addition to the main lodge, renters can utilize our youth cabins and our cabin on Lake Wissota to spend the night. Renting our camp for the weekend allows guests to stay in one place for the whole weekend. With the ability to use our camp all weekend, couples with their families and friends will also hold the rehearsal dinner, groomsman or bridesmaid party, and the gift opening at our site.

Couples can also wed right by the glittering lake.

“We created a ceremony space with a gazebo and seating near the water.”

And the wedding party has usage of the big kitchen, too.

“Wedding parties can use our commercial kitchen or hire a caterer of their choosing.”

Hiring a caterer gives wedding parties flex in planning.

“As our renters are able to use catering and alcohol service of their choosing, these costs can be controlled by them instead of us.”

But the big draw is the lake lapping against nearly a mile of shoreline and a canopy of tall trees.

“The natural beauty of our setting makes it hard to leave. We boast 23 acres of mature trees and almost a mile of shoreline along the lake. It is a balance of youth camp charm and modern amenities. It is the adventurous brides and grooms who fill our rental calendar.”

It’s a calendar that fills quickly, as Kamp Kenwood also hosts youth camps.

“After our camps are scheduled, we only have 16-20 weekend dates available each summer. These typically are scheduled one to two years in advance.”

About a third of those slots are filled by faraway folks.

“It’s always interesting to hear from distant guests. About 30 percent of our wedding parties come from other Midwest locations. This last year, we hosted couples from Nebraska and Iowa.”

Farm to Fork Retreat

Another rustic possibility is Farm to Fork Retreat, four miles from Mondovi in the driftless hills. It’s set on a hill, half a mile from the road and has a 4,000 square-foot, seven-bedroom lodge, two glamping cabins, and a campground, so when a wedding party and its guests arrive on a Friday, they’re all set, as Farm to Fork Retreat also has a bar serving micro-brews and and micro-vintners. The food is also of the highest quality, as the produce is grown at the camp and all the dishes are made from scratch.

Dennis Anderson, manager, said, “It’s an eco-retreat with high quality food and drink in a natural setting. It’s very private setting. You don’t see any other houses. The closest place is a quarter mile away. There’s no noise and no traffic. It’s a half mile off the main highway.”

When you drive to the camp, you only have to bring two things.

“We supply all the flowers, food, preparations, everything but the officiant and photographer.”

Seeing to nearly every detail is demanding, but keeps the quality high.

“It’s a lot of work in prep, but I’m glad we’re deliver it all. We do everything because we tried catering one time and they arrived half an hour late and the food wasn’t of our quality. That reflects on us.”

The guests agree, with tips roaming into the thousands atop the standard gratuity. And the cost?

“We charge $7,500 base. I just signed a wedding last week for $17,500. That included liquor for 105 people along with everyone else.”

However, Anderson doesn’t sign all parties, passing on two last year, and initially, Anderson passed on wedding after wedding.

“People asked us for years if they could have a wedding here because it’s so pretty beside the Buffalo River. I kept declining, but one couple kept begging me all winter long. I wore down and said, ‘Yes.’”

That “Yes” entailed a lot of work.

“We didn’t have inside event venue space, so we rezoned, turning the horse barn into an event center, and got campsite and restaurant licenses, all of which took additional rezoning. One liquor license became available and it was the only license in our small township, but a full bar on site is really advantageous.”

So are their 19 acres.

“There’s hiking, a nine-hole Frisbee golf course and kayaking, as well as a five-acre field for games. Sometimes the band sets up outside.”

The hiking, river, woods, and field appeal to wedding parties that prefer nature’s bounty over bling, and 75 percent of the guests come from afar, from as far away as India and all over North America.

Anderson said, “I did a business appraisal, which required research, and I couldn’t find anything like us. We’ve only had two local weddings so far.”

Beside the Buffalo River, that’s a lot of business flowing into the Valley.

Adaptive entrepreneurs

These five venues thrive because of demographics. Whereas Americans marry later than they once did, it’s still the primary province of twenty-somethings: On average, American women marry at 27 and American men marry at 29, but many of today’s millennials marry with their own generational style. Just as each generation has had fashion preferences, from poodle skirts to bell bottoms to shoulder pads, many millennials have wedding venue preferences and thanks to some savvy, adaptive entrepreneurs in the Chippewa Valley, myriad businesses are benefitting. These venues don’t just bring business into the Valley. They also showcase its beauty, making it more likely first-time visitors will return. They also charge considerably less than national averages, benefiting wedding parties both local and from afar and proving that the Valley delivers surpassing value.

Brad Henderson, Wisconsin Farmers Union facilities manager, said, “With the ability to use our camp all weekend, couples with their families and friends will also hold the rehearsal dinner, groomsman or bridesmaid party, and the gift opening at our site.”

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Chippewa Herald editor

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