Destination I do: More wedding options arriving in West Virginia - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

Destination I do: More wedding options arriving in West Virginia

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Event planner Belle Manjong offers not only wedding dresses, but also planning and design of the entire wedding days in her boutique in downtown Charleston. Event planner Belle Manjong offers not only wedding dresses, but also planning and design of the entire wedding days in her boutique in downtown Charleston.
Photo courtesy of Lakeview Resort. Wedding venues near Morgantown, such as Lakeview Golf Resort and Spa, attract many couples and their families with ties to West Virginia University. Photo courtesy of Lakeview Resort. Wedding venues near Morgantown, such as Lakeview Golf Resort and Spa, attract many couples and their families with ties to West Virginia University.
There is really no reason for a West Virginian to have to travel for a fantastic wedding experience.

In fact, many out-of-staters are making the Mountain State the destination for their nuptials.

One new Charleston business is hoping to capitalize on that trend and even expand on it to make West Virginia an all-inclusive wedding destination.

Chris Audia, marketing manager at Stonewall Resort, says he’s seeing an increasing number of people from outside West Virginia’s borders coming to the state for their special days.

“About 75 percent of our weddings include someone from out of state, either the bride, groom or both,” he said. “We typically see a lot of couples where one person has a tie to the state but the other does not.

“Stonewall is really becoming a popular wedding destination for couples in and out of state. We’ve seen our total wedding count double from 2013 to 2014.”

The Lewis County resort owned by Benchmark Resorts and Hotels has received a AAA Five Diamond rating for 13 consecutive years.

Having everything a wedding would need centrally available in one location is an attraction in itself, Audia said.

“Beyond location and the beautiful settings that we offer, couples are really drawn to the ‘all inclusive’ feel as well as the amenities that their guests can enjoy during their visit,” Audia said. “The brides really enjoy having their guests all centralized with them during their special weekend.

“At Stonewall, the wedding party and their guests can enjoy golf, spa services, three restaurants and a variety of outdoor recreation all available on site.”

Opportunity knocks

The bride is front and center in any wedding. So it only stands to reason that her wedding dress also is a star attraction.

Event planner Belle Manjong has been one of the most respected wedding and event planners in West Virginia for the past seven years. But she often shopped with brides outside the state for their dresses, sometimes traveling to big cities several hours away.

So Manjong and her husband Matt Sutton recently opened The Boutique by B. Belle Events in downtown Charleston to solve the dress issue for several state natives.

“Traveling with brides over the past seven or eight years led me to this point,” Manjong said. “They wanted something different. They were tired of having to go out of state, and frankly, they just wanted a closer option.

“If they want to go out of state, that’s fine. But now they have something here that they can explore.”

Manjong’s parents entertained “a lot” when she was growing up, she said. That certainly shaped her current career path, though she practiced law at Spilman Law for many years, juggling both law and event planning. There, she sat on a few boards and got into fundraising for organizations. Through that experience came social functions — where she was able to use her natural abilities as a designer.

“A lot of people began to ask me to help with their organizations, parties and weddings,” she explained. “It just kind of evolved from there.

“There’s something about presentation that comes very natural to me. Fashion, design. I am capable of composing things in a way that is attractive to the eye.”

Combining her abilities as a planner and a designer was a logical next step. Her reputation for personal service garnered Manjong a legion of loyal followers, from intimate nuptials to corporate events.

“First and foremost is personal service,” she said. “Anyone can open a shop and sell dresses. But there’s so much more to it than that.

“People always remember how you made them feel. You know how you want to feel, how you want to look and how you want your guests to perceive you. You create a story from that that ties into your wedding day.”

Manjong encourages brides-to-be to come into her Virginia Street boutique with ideas from magazines or even the website Pinterest. But she wants them all to bring open minds as well.

“Brides have already come in with ideas of what they think is ‘the dress,’” she said. “We let them try on dresses that meet that criteria. Then I may ask them to give us the opportunity to try something else. It’s been very surprising; brides have ordered dresses that were nothing like what they had in mind.

“They felt it for themselves and we’ve had moms just start crying with joy, because it was the dress. They just stood up straight, their eyes sparkled. It was perfect. If we can explain and show them how and why a certain dress fits their body type, then they ‘get it’ and they want it. And they’re very happy.”

Manjong’s boutique also handles the planning and event design aspects of a wedding, down to the floral arrangements.

“We design the whole day,” she said. “We set the tone, what you want to atmosphere to be like. The food, the menu … you name it, we do it. All you have to do is show up for your fairy tale.”

Choosing a location

For many brides and their families, attempting to find a central location for the majority of their guests is of prime importance.

So it stands to reason that Lakeview Resort near Morgantown attracts many gold and blue supporters.

“We work with a lot of local brides as well as brides that are out of state,” said Megan Smith, senior wedding specialist at Lakeview Golf Resort and Spa. “Sometimes Morgantown is a meeting point for the couples’ families and many of them have ties to West Virginia University and that’s why they choose to come to Morgantown.”

Smith also points to the resort’s menus and amenities as being among the most outstanding offerings in the state.

“We are a full service hotel,” she said. “We offer two restaurants, two golf courses, a fitness center, indoor and outdoor pools and a spa.”

Audia said Stonewall Resort also attracts Mountaineers from within the hour-and-a-half drive.

“It’s a common scenario that we see, the couple having a connection to WVU and parents that reside in Charleston,” Audia said.

Even the most savvy world travelers tend to be amazed at what West Virginia has to offer.

“Yes, West Virginia is a beautiful mountain state,” Manjong said. “But there are also some negative connotations attached. It’s very humbling to see people that have multi-million dollar businesses, who have traveled all over the world, who are literally in awe with the beauty of West Virginia and the atmosphere that we set for them, the feeling.

“Many say that they have never experienced such an event. That is incredible.”

Unique options

If a bride and groom are looking for an adventurous wedding experience, Fayette County’s Adventures on the Gorge is a destination that offers world-class whitewater rapids and a bevy of outdoor activities for a couple or an entire wedding party.

The scenery around the resort near Lansing is epic, featuring New River Gorge State Park and the world-renowned New River Gorge Bridge, one of the longest steel single arch spans in the world.

And staying on the subject of taking the plunge, weddings also can be staged around the annual Bridge Day activities in October. One day a year, BASE jumpers and parachutists are given the opportunity to jump off the span that stands 876 feet above the New River.

“(That date) is usually open but rarely gets booked,” said Jessica Campbell, marketing coordinator for AOTG, who added that the closure of Rt. 19 over the bridge that day makes transportation more challenging.

Every other day of the season can be special at AOTG too, with zip lines, tree-top canopy tours, hiking, biking and swimming available. One of the resort’s top restaurants, Smokey’s on the Gorge, offers food at one of the best viewpoints along the gorge.

“One of our strengths is the ‘wow factor,’” said Campbell. “People are very impressed with the view.”

Adventures on the Gorge recently upped its game as it pertains to weddings, adding a new wedding deck, a 30-foot by 60-foot tent and a pool with a spectacular view. AOTG also provides receptions and rehearsal dinners.

“The receptions held around the pool are stunning,” Campbell said. “We’ve grown considerably over the past couple of years.”

Campbell said so far this year, AOTG has more than 100 events booked, with 35 of those being weddings.

“We are seeing a lot more destination weddings,” Campbell added. “Weddings are more than three or four hour events now. They’re three to five days.

“It’s stress-free for the bride and they get to spend time with their family members.”

Lambert’s Vintage Wines in Weston was established in 1992. The winery got into the wedding game by request because of its natural beauty, according to Jimmy Blake, manager and event planner at the Lewis County vineyards.

“We had someone ask us to host their wedding here, and it’s been going on ever since,” he said.

Lambert’s offers space for the ceremony, a banquet area for the reception and, of course, catering.

The decorating and planning is up to the participating party. The country setting with hand-cut stones and flowers throughout a working vineyard is an appeal that few sites can match.

“We work with a lot of brides and their mothers in that,” Blake said.

And it shows in the vineyard’s packed schedule — nearly every weekend for 2015 is already booked.

World-famous destination

There’s no doubt that The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs has attracted people from all over the world in its history as America’s Resort.

Among its wedding options, no fewer than 30 indoor and outdoor locations on site are available for weddings — ceremonies to accommodate 40 guests at the Spring Room Terrace or 1,000 guests in Colonial Hall. In fact, a party of up to 150 can fit around the famous infinity pool that sits near the Greenbrier Tennis Club and the Old White TPC golf course.

The Greenbrier also offers food and beverages, music, flowers, photography and even tuxedo rentals for wedding planners to select. Guests of a Greenbrier event have many options as well.

Attendees can stay in the historic Greenbrier hotel, which offers a spa, indoor pool, bowling, theater, casino and shopping among many other outdoor amenities such as golf, off-road driving, fishing and falconry.

“We see a lot of guests turning it into a mini-vacation,” said Emily French, wedding specialist for The Greenbrier. “Many come in on a Thursday and stay through Sunday. They take their free time to do some of our great activities.”

Once guests receive their wedding invitations, the excitement begins to build, French said.

“When they get their save the date (cards), guests begin looking at our website, and that generates a lot of excitement,” she said. “We have found that many guests have never been to West Virginia before.

“An experience at The Greenbrier really gives them a positive outlook on West Virginia. It showcases the state.”

And if there was any doubt a bride could say yes to a West Virginia wedding, one wedding expert could help tip the scales.

Monte Durham, host of the cable television show “Say Yes to The Dress” is a Mountain State native. He has said many times he enjoys any visit her can make to his home state.

His connection to The Greenbrier can give brides access to a celebrity designer before their big days.

The West Virginia native is “a great friend” of The Greenbrier, according to French.

“We’re lucky to have his support,” she added. “He’s very excited to be on board with us. I met him two years ago when he was here for a wedding showcase. We even sell his hair care products on site now. We love having him here.”