According to Kim Hanks, CEO of both Dripping Springs-based event company Whim Hospitality and nearby wedding venue Camp Lucy, as venues have bloomed across the region, growing numbers of vineyards and similar businesses have given tourists reason to stay put in the Hill Country.
“It used to be they’d bus downtown to Austin,” Hanks said. “Now they’re not.”
While colder months are not the busy season for working professionals in the region, brides and grooms are gearing up for warmer days. Austin’s Palmer Events Center will host the semiannual Texas Weddings Bridal Extravaganza on Jan. 11 and 12, and Dripping Springs will host the Wedding Capital of Texas Showcase and Tour Day Jan. 26.
The ‘Wedding Capital of Texas’
The tourism appeal of Southwest Austin and Dripping Springs is different from that of Central Austin, but tourism professionals such as Hanks said they have learned to market to the region’s strengths. Dripping Springs has strategically branded itself to tourists since 2005, when state Legislature recognized it as the “Wedding Capital of Texas.”
Hanks was a member of the chamber of commerce board that brainstormed the title, which was intended to grow Dripping Springs’ reputation as a wedding destination.
“That’s when we decided we were more of a leisure town,” Hanks said.
Pam Owens, president of the Dripping Springs Visitors Bureau, said the brand has helped the city market itself not just as a wedding destination, but also as a spot for Texas “staycations,” a Hill Country getaway for natives of Austin, Houston and Dallas.
“Tourism has become a big economic indicator here,” Owens said.
At present, Hanks said she counts at least 36 wedding venues in Dripping Springs and Driftwood, up from the two that existed prior to the implementation of the “Wedding Capital of Texas” branding about 15 years ago. Hanks also credits the area with at least 28 wineries, breweries and distilleries, many of which wind up on the itinerary for wedding guests and parties or serve as venues themselves. Hanks said, however, that just driving through, the abundance of these businesses may not be apparent, because they are often nestled off back roads like “hidden gems.” That is part of their appeal, Hanks said, both for tourists and for the town.
“It was a great way to use our land without overdeveloping it,” she said.
Daniel Barnes, founder and CEO of Treaty Oak Distilling, a business he relocated from a small warehouse in North Austin to a Dripping Springs ranch in order to make it more of a “destination,” compared the area to one in California in terms of its attractive landscape and rising tourism profile.
“I kind of liken it to what you saw happen with Sonoma 30 years ago,” Barnes said. “Sonoma was kind of in the shadow of Napa to a certain degree, but as the food scene and the quality of everything started to raise, it almost took it over.”
Barnes said Dripping Springs has begun to make a name for itself separate from Austin’s with the proliferation of quality wineries, distilleries and barbecue joints—aided by Texas’ changing “distilling climate,” which went from being “the worst to one of the most liberal.” Hanks would add wedding and event venues to that list, and differs slightly from Barnes in her California comparison: She calls Dripping Springs “the new Napa Valley.”
Straddling city and country
The draw of rustic Hill Country charm extends northeast toward Austin as well. Brodie Homestead, a venue in Sunset Valley, rests in a setting much more urban than its neighbor Dripping Springs. Its architecture and story as a large, preserved historic barn yields appeal for brides and grooms who seek Hill Country charm and downtown proximity, according to Juliana Ross, the director of events for Brodie Homestead.
“For some of our clients, it’s like the in-town option they’re looking into,” Ross said.
On the flip side, Ross said that for some clients, Brodie Homestead is the farthest venue from downtown they are considering. Ross and her family own both Brodie Homestead and downtown Austin venue Allan House and said many clients consider both locations.
Having been in the Austin wedding scene since 2000, when her family opened Allan House, Ross has seen the industry transform in the region.
“It’s definitely changed a ton over the past few years,” Ross said, indicating that the number of venues and vendors—including wedding professionals such as caterers, decorators and florists—has exploded in the 2000s.
According to Ross, the growth has made for a better regional industry, one that puts “community over competition.”
“It’s making everyone raise their game,” she said.
Hanks, whose Whim Hospitality serves not only Dripping Springs but also Austin, similarly said she appreciates the industry’s growth.
“We want more,” said Hanks, “because that builds your brand and awareness of what you’re doing.”
Another venue in the Austin area has begun to struggle, but its executives say competition is not to blame. Representatives for Mercury Hall, a popular wedding venue in South Central Austin, announced in November plans to close by June 2021. Daryl Kunik, a managing partner for the venue, cited erratically rising property taxes as the culprit.
“Property taxes in general in Austin are just really going up, and not going up at a steady rate,” Kunik said. “You can’t continue to run that type of business in town on that big a piece of property.”
Mercury Hall, which bills itself as having “Hill Country feel in the heart of Austin,” is subject to Austin’s current property tax rate of $0.4403 per $100 of assessed value. Dripping Springs, by comparison, enforces a tax rate of $0.14 per $100 of assessed value. School district tax rates average around $1.12 per $100 of value in Austin versus Dripping Springs’ $1.42, however.
Making it work year round
No matter the tax rate, venues throughout the metro area share another challenge: supporting business and employees through seasonal lags.
Ross said Brodie Homestead capitalizes on being a fully indoor venue to draw clients in during the coldest months of January and February, and the most sweltering—August. She also said that while the venue is best known as a wedding and wedding reception space, it benefits from weekday corporate and social gatherings, too—as well as events such as bar and bat mitzvahs and quinceaneras during wedding offseasons.
Hanks said many of the venues she works with have made up for seasonal wedding lags by diversifying their business models. For instance, Dripping Springs venue Camp Lucy features its own vineyards on-site; a full-service restaurant, Tilly’s; and glamping-style accommodations. The venue also offers year-round programming, including a music series. Next up, Hanks said, will be a spa, with the eventual goal of making Camp Lucy a wedding-specialized resort.
“I am seeing this overlay of services, and I think it has to do with employment,” Hanks said. Hanks’ business, Whim Hospitality, alone, has expanded to 250 employees, up from the two it started with seven years ago.
In order to attract great full-time employees, Hanks said, she tries to bolster a year-round industry that can sustain them.