At A Little White Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas, Lisa Rhodes fields calls at the front desk.
“Congratulations,” she tells the caller and then offers the list of services — marriage by an Elvis impersonator, a ceremony in the gazebo or the chapels.
This place has always been a pioneer in the marriage business; doing the first helicopter marriages and building the first drive-through complete with a window and a pink Cadillac in the Tunnel of Love.
But soon after a massacre just a few miles away left 58 dead, the calls started coming in to cancel.
“They were saying now is not the right time,” said Charolette Richards. She owns the place and has been marrying people for some 60 years.
She loves love. But in this moment she says it’s hard to be a dealer of love, just a couple of miles from the scene of the shooting.
“It feels strange,” she said, sitting in a velvet-covered pew in the main chapel, near vases of pink roses. “I have a hard time going down there, that street, and I only live two blocks from it. I feel like I’ll cry. It’s hard.”
Last year, Las Vegas welcomed nearly 43 million tourists for gambling, shows and quickie marriages or vow renewals. And nearly half of the jobs in southern Nevada are directly or indirectly dependent on tourism. Gaming alone last year brought in nearly $10 billion. And the city hosted nearly 22,000 conventions.
So when the shooting happened, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, LVCVA, snapped into action. Within 15 minutes of the last gunshot it had pulled paid advertisements including spots to celebrate the iconic ad campaign “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” It began to assess the situation. It opened the convention center for the families of the wounded and the dead, kept its lines open and helped visitors and potential visitors who needed answers.
“We do what we always do and listened to our customers,” said Rossi Ralenkotter, president and CEO of the LVCVA. The authority is funded by the room tax in Vegas. “All of a sudden the hashtag VegasStrong message started coming across on the social media side. So we felt that was our customers talking to us; that was the messaging we started with because that was resonating with people.”
They worked with hotels and media partners to harness that. The LED billboards on the strip emblazoned with the words “We’ve been there for you during the good times, thank you for being there for us now. #VegasStrong.”
“It was all about the tone. We had to be cognizant of the fact that this terrible thing happened that impacted all kinds of people,” he said. “We decided, OK what is the next messaging, we needed to put a message of compassion and a message of strength in the destination. Our community reaching out.”
And three days after the shooting, a somber ad appeared on television narrated by Las Vegas native and famed tennis player Andre Agassi. The camera zooms in from the dark to the light of the shining strip.
“What is strength? Strength isn’t anger. Strength isn’t vengeful. Strength isn’t rage. Strength is unity.”
It’s one minute. There are no jokes, no gambling, no drinking and no music. Media partners offered up ad space for free, Ralenkotter said, and the NFL did something unheard of, it opened up space and sold it to the LVCVA for the games the Thursday and Sunday that followed the shooting.
Ralenkotter said they are doing market research once a week to measure people’s perceptions of Las Vegas. There were some cancellations right after the shooting, but no convention cancellations, and the hotels are being booked.
“People consider us safe; that messaging is coming back and we’re using that,” Ralenkotter said. Other convention bureaus across the country offered help. “We’ll keep monitoring the situation and at some point in time we’ll say it’s time again for the the 15 year anniversary of the ‘What Happens Here Stays Here’ spots.”
But now is not the time. There are still about 30 people in the hospitals here.
Back at A Little White Wedding Chapel, couples from Australia, Germany, the U.K. and across the United States walk through the white painted doors to do the iconic Las Vegas thing: get married.
Agnes Kolodziaj holds a single rose and looks at her groom, Lucas Pawelek.
They’d been planning this for six months. Las Vegas was the perfect place for the wedding she wanted. Stress-free.
“For me the only chance was to do it fast and easy because I’m not the marrying type,” Kolodziaj said. She laughs and her groom looks at her adoringly. “So Las Vegas was perfect for me.”
Then the shooting happened.
“We had everything booked, so we couldn’t cancel it,” she said.
They considered it — not because they were afraid, but because they were sad.
“So many people come here to just have fun and this is not the place where you just want to have fun right now,” she said. “Because it’s simply sad that so many innocent people died because of one stupid idiot.”
But that doesn’t stop them from trying to have fun. The photographer, Marcus Knight, tells them to smile.
“It’s your honeymoon,” he says. He ushers them out the front door, where another couple yells “congratulations!”
Then they kiss near the outdoor gazebo and take a picture in front of the pink Cadillac in the Tunnel of Love.
Owner Charolette Richards says she’s had a rush of marriages to make up for the cancellations that first week. Last Saturday there were 24 bookings, not including walk-ins — an average day. But there’s one thing she won’t do. Couples who want the iconic wedding picture at the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign will have to go somewhere else. There’s a memorial there.
“If they want to take photographs they do it on their own,” she said. “I don’t have the heart to put them over there when that’s kind of like a memorial. Not at this time; there’s too much heartbreak right now, too much sadness.”