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Our very small big day

A typical wedding here costs up to £20,000, so is it any wonder one in three couples now opt to have more intimate, less costly nuptials abroad? Three people tell Kerry McKittrick why they and their loved one opted to wed in another country.

Published 05/05/2015

Belfast couple Dawn Hargy-Louden and Dave Louden
Belfast couple Dawn Hargy-Louden and Dave Louden
Jo and Tony Millar decided to get married abroad
Beach ceremony: Jo and Tony Millar got married in Thailand

Saying ‘I do’ in Northern Ireland can cost a whopping £20,000-plus with some wedding receptions here entertaining over 100 guests as part of the new couple’s nuptials.

It’s hardly surprising then that more brides and grooms-to-be are downsizing their big day, and opting for a more intimate wedding — and saving themselves thousands of pounds in the process.

And many betrothed couples are choosing to plight their troth overseas rather than have a traditional wedding at home. New research has revealed one in three couples are set to travel abroad for their wedding day, according to findings by foreign exchange provider, Travelex.

Instead of an expensive do in an hotel with scores of guests, the new Mr and Mrs are paring it down and tying the knot with just their most intimate friends and family present.

Some are even choosing to get married on their own with just a couple of witnesses asked to stand up for them at the last moment. We talk to three local couples who believe all you need for a love match is a small party and each other.

Jo Millar (39) is an administrative support worker and is married to Tony (37) who works in PR. They live in Belfast with their daughter Isla (3). She says:

My family moved from the north of England to Australia when I was 13 and that's where I met Tony. Tony was on a working holiday and had landed in Perth that morning from Northern Ireland - we actually met later that evening. He had been in Thailand for six weeks before and had big plans to travel all over Australia. He was supposed to be heading off on a road trip with his friend for a few weeks, but there were sparks between us, so he only got as far as Darwin - then came back. We decided to meet up in Melbourne at a later date to see if there really was something between us, as we had only ever spent those few weeks together. When we met again, we knew that our relationship was serious. We went back to Perth together for eight months before returning to Belfast 11 years ago.

We got married three years ago and knew we didn't want a traditional wedding, certainly nothing in a church, as neither of us are religious. All we cared about was the people who were there and the party. We didn't want rigid, set-up photographs or the kind of big do that has become really popular both here and in Australia.

We chose Thailand because it's so relaxed and we both loved it, although we'd never been there as a couple. We saw it as kind of a middle point for both families as my parents are still in Australia and we knew the people who would make the effort to come out to Thailand were the ones we really wanted to be at our wedding.

There were about 22 of us altogether on the island of Koh Samui. We chose a small boutique resort with its own private beach - it was so small that we were able to pretty much take over the whole resort.

We got married in the beach in the afternoon - it's much cooler then as a nice breeze comes in. After the ceremony, we had drinks at the pool bar and then a posh barbecue in the banquet room of the hotel. After dinner we went down to the beach for fireworks followed by a disco.

Everything was so casual and relaxed. We had a wedding planner who worked at the resort in Thailand and we organised everything with her via email.

It was lovely and an absolutely perfect day. We did have a party a month later back in Belfast - at AM:PM on Botanic Avenue. That was all about drinks and dancing with a bit of a buffet and it gave me a chance to put my dress back on. My parents even surprised me by arriving the night before, too - I hadn't expected them to come the whole way back from Australia.

It was a lovely party, but during the month in between the wedding and the party I had forgotten I would have to get back into my dress again and had been eating and drinking like nothing else.

We had a brilliant day and would do it all again tomorrow. Between the wedding in Thailand and the party afterwards in Belfast, it was actually a lot cheaper than having the traditional church ceremony and hotel reception. The total cost, including the bash in Belfast, was around £8,000.

I think weddings have gotten a little out of control. They cost a fortune and you end up doing things because that's what's expected of you, not because it's what you actually want. We didn't even have wedding favours and our cake was just a single tier because we've been to weddings before where no one eats it."

Paul Stafford (46) and his wife Leisa Stafford (46) are both  hairdressers and live in Belfast with their children Joanie (13)  and Ava (12). He says:

We got married in 1999 so we’ve been married for 16 years. We had been working in Bangkok in Thailand when Leisa decided to have a dress made. It was a beautiful 1950s slip dress and when she came back with it she told me she was going to save it for our wedding, so I asked her when we were getting married.

From that moment on we started thinking about it. We always knew we were going to go away for our wedding, but it was assumed rather than a big decision.

We were already going to New York on a holiday that year and, as our departure date grew closer, we started talking about getting married over there. We found out what the legal requirements were and got our paperwork sorted out. Closer to the time, we started telling people what we were going to do it, but we didn’t invite anyone to join us. Lots of people wanted us to have the big celebration here and made a fuss. I was actually quite surprised at the reactions from some of our friends and family, but we’ve always been very independent. We didn’t want any pomp or ceremony, and we weren’t concerned about what our respective families thought.

As it got closer to the time, though, people did become more supportive about our decision, and we got some beautiful gifts before we went.

On the day we went to City Hall in New York. There was another couple sitting waiting to get married, so we asked them would they be witnesses for us if we were witness for them. It was all very simple.

After the ceremony we went to the River Cafe — the management were expecting us and were so good. We enjoyed some very nice drinks.

We had a limo for the day so we drove about a bit and asked random people to take our picture — the guy who served us cocktails, people in the street, the limo driver and so on. We toured the city and stopped off at a few landmarks.

We then went out for dinner at Le Cirque 2000 which was recommended to us by three chefs at home.

It was amazing — Donald Trump was sitting nearby and sent over his congratulations.

After dinner, we went for a walk down Madison Avenue and then went back to the hotel to let people know it had happened — it was a long time ago — we had to notify them by fax. The cost, including flights, was just under £10,000.

We did end up having a huge party when we got home. We hadn’t planned it, but our staff at the salon wanted to celebrate with us and they actually organised it.

We had live bands playing and invited 200 guests — about 500 came, so it was great fun. It was a great thing to do and we would do it all over again.”

Dawn Hargy-Louden (31) runs children’s arts charity Building Bards. She lives in Belfast with her husband, Dave Louden. She says:

Dave and I were friends for a long time before we got together. He used to work for the Queen’s Film Theatre and I did my degree in drama at Queen’s. One day, he asked me out for coffee at a Starbucks and it all went from there.

We got engaged three years ago on our fifth anniversary.  Originally we wanted to do the traditional wedding, and were all set to start booking things for a winter wedding about two weeks before Christmas at Malone House in Belfast.

Just before we went ahead with it, though, we went to a wedding fair and it was awful. People kept giving me the hard sell for things I just didn’t want. They would tell me that my day wouldn’t be perfect if I didn’t have things like monogrammed soaps as wedding favours.

The other problem was that people kept tutting when I told them my date, particularly photographers. They complained that it would be too close to Christmas or that the lighting would be bad.

That whole show really put me off. We had chosen that particular date because it was what we wanted, yet lots of people were telling me it was a bad idea. I was being told what I should have, instead of what I wanted.

The whole idea of getting married in Las Vegas began as a joke. After the wedding fair, I joked that we should just run off to Vegas and it would be so funny and Dave actually took me seriously.

I did a little bit of research, though, as I wanted to see if I could get what I wanted there or if it would be really tacky.

Then I discovered pictures of beautiful hotels and luscious gardens which looked amazing so we decided to go ahead with the Vegas wedding. I thought that our families might have a bit of an issue, but no, they were so excited for us. I think they were excited about having the experience of Vegas, too.

Only about 10 of us went out — my parents, Dave’s mum and some very close friends. We got married in the Venus Gardens at Caesar’s Palace and they had three wedding planners as standard. The whole thing was completely chilled out. I woke up and had breakfast in the morning and didn’t have to worry about anything because the hotel ensured that it had all been taken care of.

I had my hair and make-up done, got dressed and then we all got into limos to go to Caesar’s Palace. The gardens where the ceremony was were beautiful and we certainly didn’t have to worry about the weather.

We then went on to St Mark’s Square where we had our own private dining room that overlooked a big square with live opera. This was followed by a six-course meal and then it was a limo ride to a pub called Nine Fine Irishmen which had been built in Dublin and shipped over to Vegas. They had live bands and it felt a little bit like home, so we had a bit of a buffet and danced the night away. I changed into a little white lindy bop-style dress so I could dance, too. Lots of people kept congratulating us throughout the night. After Vegas, we went on to Santa Monica and Los Angeles for our honeymoon.

I think we spent about the same amount of money as we would have if we had the traditional wedding in Northern Ireland. The total cost of the wedding came to £13,000. We did have a big party back home, though, at AM:PM in Upper Arthur Street.

I do think that by having a small wedding in Las Vegas we were able to push the boat out much more. I paid for three limos which we used on our wedding day. We were able to pay for all the hair, make-up, bridesmaid dresses and shoes — and there was plenty of Champagne. We even had the private dining room and drinks.

The party at AM:PM was pretty lavish, too, with 110 guests. I loved it because the decor felt like Las Vegas. We laid on food and the wedding favours were chocolate poker chips and cocktails we had on our wedding day and then made ourselves at home. Attached to them was a QR code that people could scan with their phones and it would take them straight to our wedding photo — it gave me a chance to wear my wedding dress again, too.

We loved the whole thing and would do it all over again. In the year since we got married, so many people have said to us that they wish they had gone away for theirs.”

Celebrity couples who chose small weddings...

  • Alan Rickman recently revealed he married his partner of 50 years, Rima Horton, in New York. He said it was great because no-one was there except the two of them. Afterwards, the newlyweds walked over the Brooklyn Bridge and ate lunch
  • When Rachel Weisz and Daniel Craig tied the knot in New York in 2011, only four guests were present
  • Isla Fisher and Sacha Baron Cohen had a traditional Jewish ceremony in Paris with only six guests in attendance
  • Megan Fox and Brian Austin Green had an idyllic beach wedding in Hawaii in 2010 with just one guest, Brian’s son Kassius Lijah Green

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