When Jordan and Kristin Collins married in Jackson Hole on a beautiful October day in 2018, they didn’t know for sure where the ceremony would be until a few hours ahead.
Schwabacher Landing was in their plans, but “it almost didn’t happen because there was a bear sighting the day before,” Kristin Collins said.
Their wedding planner (and officiant), Virginia Powell Symons had a couple of places in mind and kept an eye on the Schwabacher situation, Collins said. Ultimately that scenic spot was a go.
“She had a can of bear spray on her just in case,” Collins said.
With a traditional wedding — the kind with dozens of guests, a venue booked long ago, limos, a bar, a catered meal, a band and such — potential last-minute snafus like a change of location would have people tearing their hair out.
But the wedding party for this young couple from Centerville, Ohio, consisted of just the bride and groom.
Instead of a big to-do where they live they’d decided to elope to Jackson Hole — a place neither had ever been but both had admired from photos — and host an event back home for friends and family.
“It was a bit more personal, a lot more romantic,” Jordan Collins said of their Jackson nuptials. “It made the day just about us and not trying to please a bunch of other people.”
He and his wife are part of a trend in the wedding industry, including in Jackson Hole.
“In the past five years elopements have just blown up,” said Symons, who owns Vibrant Events of Jackson Hole. “It’s a really amazing way to have the unique, special, incredible experience without all the hullabaloo.”
If the term “elope” conjures up for you a picture of two people running away to get married in secret, that is, in fact, still the primary dictionary definition. But in everyday conversations, someone who says “elopement” is probably talking about a tiny wedding far from home.
“Elope appears to have become shorthand for ‘small destination wedding,’ ‘wedding that is not financially insane,’ or ‘wedding that allows us to not invite all the people we would rather not invite,’” Merriam-Webster online says in its “Usage Notes.”
That’s not to say that the families are excluded.
“Most people, at least the people I do, are still throwing a really big party back home,” said Ashley Merritt of Ashley Merritt Photography. For eloping couples coming to Jackson, she said, the thought is: “This is kind of our honeymoon. We’ll stay here for a week, and then we’ll go back for the big shindig.”
The secrecy element seems to have disappeared, too. The Collinses told people in advance. Bob and Kirsten Pacca, a couple from the western suburbs of Philadelphia who married in Jackson Hole last fall, made sure their parents were OK with an elopement even though they are both over 50.
“My mom said, ‘Oh my gosh, just go, that would be fantastic,’” Kirsten Pacca said.
“Elope” these days doesn’t translate to no frills and no planning. Kristin Collins wore a gown (with hiking boots) and had her hair done, for example. If you Google “elope in Jackson Hole” you’ll come up with photographers, event coordinators, inns and other businesses offering their elopement services, and not just bare-bones options.
“We put together a really lovely package with photographs, flowers, hair and makeup, sometimes a specialty getaway vehicle,” Symons said.
The Paccas were surprised at how many elopement packages they found when they started researching.
“We’re trend setters and we didn’t even know it,” Bob Pacca said. Not that the definition of elopement is a concern. “We just did what we wanted to do,” he said.
Among those in Jackson with elopement specials is the Inn on the Creek. For about $200 you get a licensed wedding officiant, two witnesses, bridal flowers or sparkling wine and cider. Pictures on the website point out nice places at the inn to exchange vows.
Innkeeper (and Jackson Town Councilor) Hailey Morton Levinson, who performs some of those ceremonies, said the inn sees maybe a handful to a dozen elopements each year. Usually it’s just the couples, though some brides and grooms bring best friends or parents.
“We had two women get married, and they jumped in the creek afterward in their dresses,” she said. Another woman who married at Inn on the Creek found her wedding dress at Browse ‘N Buy. “It was a beautiful dress, and it fit perfectly,” Morton Levinson said.
People who elope may start planning well in advance or do the whole thing on short notice.
“We have one tomorrow, and they called us last week,” Morton Levinson said earlier this month.
“I’ve had elopements I’ve worked on planning for a year or more,” Symons said. “I’ve also had people contact me six weeks out. Some years ago someone called at 7:30 in the morning and said, ‘I’d like to marry my girlfriend today. Can you make that happen?’”
Sarah Seymour-Neeb, owner of Gild the Lily Too, a Jackson florist, must sometimes come up with bouquets on short notice. Once she had just 24 hours.
“It might be an unexpected bit of work that wasn’t already on the calendar, but they’re usually simple and not terribly involved,” she said.
For her and people in the business, elopements can be a nice contrast to the fancy full-blown affairs.
“In a big wedding you might drop off all the flowers at the bridal suite and then move on to the reception,” Seymour-Neeb said. “I might not even see the bride that day or even meet her if it’s all been done over phone calls and emails.”
With an elopement “you get the opportunity to actually see them face-to-face. It’s nice to have that opportunity for more of a connection.”
Modern-day elopements are motivated by a variety of reasons. Cost is one. According to a 2018 Real Weddings Study by The Knot, a wedding planning site, the national average cost of a wedding is $33,931.
“Everyone is charging an outrageous amount to do weddings,” Jordan Collins said. “It’s a minimum of $10,000 to $15,000 to have a small wedding. It’s absurd.”
“That’s just the venue,” his wife said.
Money aside, Seymour-Neeb sees a desire for simplicity and authenticity.
People want to get away from a manufactured event, she said.
“They’re going somewhere special, just the two of them, or they bring in just a small amount of people, and they can get a special and personal day rather than have the attention focused so much outside themselves,” Seymour-Neeb said.
She’s had some unusual requests, like the all-black flowers order from a couple who were “into Goth.” That was tough on short notice, so Seymour-Neeb put together a bouquet of velvety browns, deep purple and navy.
“It was the best I could do, but they loved it,” Seymour-Neeb said. “She wore a black dress and a black fur stole. The flowers went really well with the dress.”
When Bob and Kirsten Pacca eloped they flew in on a Tuesday and married the following afternoon. They’d enjoyed many adventures in Jackson Hole together.
“We’ve skied here, we’ve hiked there, we’ve rafted there, we’ve paraglided there,” Kirsten Pacca said.
They tied the knot at the top of Rendezvous Bowl on Sept. 25, just the two of them.
“Weddings are not about what you wear, who else is there or how things are decorated,” Kirsten Pacca said. “We wanted to get married, not throw a wedding. … We really just wanted it to be about the two of us in our favorite place and really enjoy that day without worrying about who’s sitting next to who.”
The bride and groom both had been married previously in traditional weddings, and neither was interested in, as Bob Pacca put it, another “dog and pony show.”
They both wore jeans, Kirsten Pacca topping hers with a bright jacket. In her first wedding she had a “big dress” — “something you spend a lot of money on that you’re never going to wear again” — and later donated it to a theater company.
This time, she said, “I loved the idea of getting a really special jacket, something I could wear throughout the rest of my life.”
Symons planned this wedding, too. Pete Muldoon, who like Morton Levinson is ordained through the Universal Life Church, performed the ceremony. Merritt, who was there to take photos, did double duty as a witness, with Symons serving as the other.
That’s not unusual. Symons said the photographer, herself if she’s not officiating, the hair and makeup artist, the tram operator or random bystanders are “usually the folks who end up signing as witnesses for elopement weddings.”
Actually she did triple duty for the Paccas as their on-site bartender, mixing up a Manhattan and a cosmopolitan for them to toast their union.
“While Pete was marrying us she was making cocktails,” Bob Pacca said.
Though Muldoon is mayor of Jackson his availability as an officiant is an offshoot of running his business, Jackson Hole Production Company, and playing in the band Major Zephyr. He’s involved with a lot of weddings, including elopements
“For someone looking for a really intimate ceremony this is a great place for it,” he said.
As for doing the honors for the couples, “I really love it,” he said. “It’s a big and important, meaningful step in people’s lives. Witnessing that is something really special.”
The emotion can be contagious.
“I often fight back tears, especially if they are,” he said. In the Paccas’ case, “they were laughing, they were crying; it was really obvious how important it was to them. I was laughing and crying right along with them.”