Burlington International Airport may have launched millions of journeys since it opened in 1920, but never before has it been the takeoff point for a marriage. That will change on April 12 of this year, when Jamie Walker and Germain Mopa tie the knot on the second-floor mezzanine. The Burlington-based, business-savvy couple will be the first to take advantage of the airport’s new status as a wedding venue. As far as anyone can tell, says BTV’s director of aviation, Gene Richards, it’s the first time a full-blown wedding will be held in an American airport, period.
“No one does this,” says Richards, who first proposed offering BTV as a wedding venue last year. He says the idea came to him while he was brainstorming ways to utilize the airport in off-peak hours.
“I look at this as a public asset, and that there’s times of the day when it’s not being used very well,” he explains. “It’s a big space. We heat it, we cool it, and it’s a beautiful amenity. And I do know that today there’s challenging times in our community, our state and our country. There are people who are about to get married and would like to do it in a nice place and not necessarily break the bank.”
“Not breaking the bank,” by the way, means that the airport is offering its space to the tune of $1,000 for an entire evening of nuptial celebrations — reception, ceremony and late-night loitering included. Compare that with up to $8,000 for a barn or hotel venue, according to the couple’s wedding planner, Jackie Watson.
A marketing manager at MBA HealthGroup in South Burlington and a Colchester native, Walker acknowledges that the most common response her choice of venue elicits from friends and family is a laugh. “People think we’re joking,” she says.
But she remembers that she was immediately taken with the idea when her fiancé first got a phone call last autumn, asking if they would be interested. Richards had been Mopa’s landlord years ago, and a mutual friend connected them after hearing of Richards’ airport wedding plan and Mopa’s upcoming nuptials.
“I knew right away she would be excited about it,” says Mopa, a native of Cameroon who first came to Vermont when he was recruited for the University of Vermont’s basketball team in 2001. Now a software engineer for GE Engineering, Mopa met Walker on the dance floor of Red Square in Burlington, by way of mutual friend Corey Hevrin, who will DJ their wedding. That was six years ago. The pair started dating the following year; they had a daughter, Zara, who is now 2 years old, and have been engaged for the past year.
“I had been looking at a list of locations, and I wasn’t set on something because none of it felt original,” Walker recalls. She jumped on the idea of an airport wedding the moment Mopa told her about the phone call. “Right away, I was like, ‘That’s it. That’s our spot,’” she says. The uniqueness of the concept appealed to her.
Mopa, the more measured of the two, says they have done a lot of explaining since they decided on an airport wedding.
“The first thing people ask is where in the airport,” he says with a laugh.
Where, indeed? Walker and Mopa have called in the usual parade of wedding organizers to help them transform the second-floor waiting area into a venue that feels, in the words of their wedding stylist, Jovana Guarino, “private within a busy space” for their reception. (The ceremony will be held on the UVM campus, to which Mopa feels a strong tie.)
On a recent tour, Richards points out how sections of the mezzanine, including a now-empty restaurant, can be cordoned off from other corridors and stairwells to create a private gathering area — yes, before the security checkpoint — without disrupting the flow of passenger traffic.
“I had never even noticed the mezzanine existed,” Walker says. “I had only come here to go places, never to hang out or wait. But as soon as I walked in, I saw the windows, the high ceilings, and I thought, This is it.”
For its debut as a wedding venue, the mezzanine will be transformed into a New York City rooftop scene. Though the couple does not have any personal ties to the city, Walker says she liked the way the theme captured an intimate group setting amid a flurry of activity.
“We need to make it feel private while making use of the fact that there’s an airport going on in the floor below,” adds Guarino, who came up with the concept with Walker. “We’re not going to hide that — we’re going to use it in the scene.”
Many professionals have donated their time to the Walker-Mopa nuptials: Besides Guarino, wedding planner Watson of VT Enchanted Events and their teams, a slew of local vendors are on board, including the Vermont Tent Company, Blue Toad Flowers, Jayson Munn Design and Caketopia Cakes. The fact that the airport wedding is a “first,” it seems, has excited the local wedding industry just as much as it excited the bride-to-be.
“I love the fact that it hasn’t been done before; I love the fact that we are using resources from nature and smaller artists from our team … Everyone is pouring heart and soul into doing what they do best,” Guarino says. “It is such a team, and it is an enormous challenge, and at my age, I like that — I don’t like to do the same thing.”
Watson — the winner of industry awards including Member of the Year from the Vermont Association of Wedding Professionals and the 2013 Wedding Wire Couples’ Choice award — says she believes an airport wedding trend could catch on. In the decade since she first got into the wedding business, she’s seen a number of changes in tastes and trends among her clientele. Ten years ago, Watson says, everyone got married in hotels and resorts; now, barns and outdoor tents are all the rage.
Of course, an airport wedding isn’t for everyone. Interested couples will have to be willing to contend with background noise from loudspeaker announcements and traffic from check-in and baggage claim on the first floor. Activity at BTV does slow to a crawl after peak hours, but Richards is adamant that all airport activity continue as usual through this wedding and any others that might follow. (He adds that the airport did not have to seek special permitting or zoning conditions to open as a wedding venue.)
While an airport may be the last place some couples would want to tie the knot, there’s no denying the idea is novel. “I do think this could take off, because it’s unique,” Watson says. “Vermont is such a wonderful environment, and there are so many couples looking for something different.”
Richards, for his part, says he doesn’t see any reason weddings in his airport wouldn’t catch on. “For some people, it’s ‘Oh, I would never get married in an airport,’ right? Like, ‘Why would you get married in an airport?’ But I think you have to ask yourself — why would you get married in a barn?”
Watson points out that many of the challenges that arise during barn weddings, such as lighting problems and limited electrical outlets, apply to airports as well; in both cases, they can be overcome with planning and creativity. “You can flip any space,” she says. “You can have your wedding anywhere there’s a space.”
Whether the concept will take off, in BTV or elsewhere, remains to be seen. If it does, it could give a boost to Vermont’s wedding industry — which already contributes a significant sum to tourism, according to Steve Cook, deputy commissioner of the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing. “The wedding industry is very strong in Vermont,” he notes. “Vermont is very unique in that it’s a four-season wedding destination.”
As for the airport’s foray into the marriage industry, Cook won’t comment, since his department didn’t take part in any stage of the planning. “But it’s an interesting idea,” he allows. “We’ll be interested in seeing how it comes together in the first year.”
For Walker, no airport but BTV would have made the short list. “I wouldn’t get married in an airport other than Burlington. This is my home,” she says.
Now, Walker and Mopa and their team are eagerly moving forward with wedding arrangements. And they’re steeling themselves for another flurry of questions.
“I would say half our guests have no idea, because our invitation goes out in two weeks,” Walker says. “So I think we’ll be getting a lot of phone calls.”
The original print version of this article was headlined "Pair Traffic"