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LAS VEGAS (AP) - Las Vegas, land of the quickie wedding, is in the midst of a serious love recession, and chapels in the city accustomed to playing the numbers were not about to let the latest money-making opportunity _ Wednesday's auspicious 12/12/12 date _ pass without a marketing push.
They worked for months to turn the day into a major payout, luring thousands of lovebirds with the promise of a wedding license bearing the century's last string of identical numbers.
Sin City's share of the weddings business has fallen by a third since 2004, as destinations from New Orleans to New York have gotten into the elopement game.
"From a marketing perspective, it's a very big deal. Numbers are associated with Vegas," said Ann Parsons, marketing director for Vegas Weddings, which runs four of the more than 60 chapels in town. "Unfortunately, it's the last date like that we'll have."
From the rundown courthouse area to the ritzy Strip, chapel programmers jumped at the chance to sell 12-12-12 packages at three times the normal price for a weekday ceremony during the wedding offseason, from November to April.
At the high-end Bellagio, 12 couples paid $5,000 apiece on Wednesday to say their "I do's" near the casino's famous fountains. The 12-12-12 packages, which included an hour of chapel time, a bag of white rose petals and a buffet for two, had sold out weeks before, MGM Resorts spokeswoman Yvette Monet said.
In the absence of any obvious symbolism _ like 7-7-07, which gamblers will recognize as the numbers for a lucky slot machine winner_ promoters turned to Chinese numerology.
"One is considered a yang number, while two is considered a yin number. Combining the two can offer new couples balance," the marketing firm Back Bar USA said in a press release announcing its $1,212,120 wedding package that offered the use of a private jet, watches and earrings for the wedding party, and dinner at a Michelin-rated restaurant.
Clark County, the home of Las Vegas, issued 1,224 marriage licenses on the Monday and Tuesday before the 12-12-12 wedding rush. That's three times the business the area would normally see, county spokesman Dan Kulin said.
Triple-digit wedding dates have become a lifeline for struggling chapels, said Joni Moss, a longtime Las Vegas wedding planner and founder of the Nevada Wedding Association.
Over the years, Vegas has become known for such nuptial innovations as drive-thru weddings, over the top themes, and Elvis look-alikes playing minister.
The boom in competition has meant real heartache for the city of lights, where weddings are the second-largest industry after gambling, and the newlywed business brings in about $800 million annually, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
The county captured 5.7 percent of the U.S. wedding market in 2004 compared with 4.4 percent in 2010, the last year the stats are available.
Yet overall, speedy weddings and destination ceremonies are more popular than ever, according to The Wedding Report, an online market research firm.
More people are getting married at ages when they no longer need a gift registry to fill their kitchens, or a "Big Day" to mark the transition to adulthood, said Linda Waite, a sociology professor at the University of Chicago.
And with budgets tightening and wedding costs spiraling ever upward, the stigma is falling away from getting hitched on the cheap. As a result, businesses and cities across the country are looking to attract couples fleeing the wedding industrial complex.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg turned the Manhattan Marriage Bureau into a gleaming 24,000-square-foot wedding palace in 2009, saying he intended to give Vegas a run for its money.
"Not everybody particularly likes Vegas," said Carolyn Gerin, co-author of the Anti-Bride Guide. "There are all sorts of business that have sprung up to cater to brides that want to do it differently. It's like, why would they leave money on the table."
The lure of running off to Sin City has long been tied to the state's streamlined wedding laws, which allow couples to skip blood tests and waiting periods. In recent years, other states have also hit the accelerator on their marriage license process.
Mississippi enacted a "quickie marriage" law this year to attract visitors, and similar legislation is under consideration in New Jersey. New Orleans saw a jump in marriage tourism after eliminating its waiting period in 2003, according to the Louisiana Department of Tourism.
"I feel like everyone who is getting married considers Vegas. I've just never liked it that much; it's tacky," said Nina Baltierra, 27, who eloped in 2010 after spending months planning an increasingly elaborate 200-person wedding in rural Pennsylvania.
Instead of flying to the desert, Baltierra and her groom called in sick and drove to New York City, where they were married in Central Park by a photographer and officiant team who do a brisk business in "guerrilla-style" elopements.
"It only took an hour and a half to get to New York City and the possibilities there are endless," Baltierra said.
In Las Vegas, the industry is not giving up on the gimmickry that is its hallmark. Chapels are already starting to market "Armageddon Wedding" packages for Dec. 21, 2012, the close of the Mayan calendar said to portend the end of the world.
The quickie wedding in that case could make for some very short marriages.
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)