Dripping Springs Was a Tiny Texas Town. Now It Hosts 1,000 Weddings Per Year.

On the first morning of the weddingest weekend of the weddingest year since 1984, Kari Shelton is calmly preparing to spin dreams into reality. She’s the owner and head florist of the Flower Girl, and she was voted Dripping Springs’ best florist of 2022. That might sound like a humble honor, but it’s a hotly contested title in the booming Wedding Capital of Texas. Shelton, who handles some 185 weddings per year, is a veritable floral fairy godmother. Today, though, she looks tired. 

“Well, the bride wants to be married in a field of daisies,” she says. I glance dubiously at the 50 stems in front of her, wondering if they’ll be enough to fill an entire meadow. Apparently, a supplier made a mistake (yet again), and the florist is now expecting—praying for, really—350 more FedEx’ed stems to arrive from Florida by one o’clock. It’s 11. 

Already on this late-October morning, the mother of a different bride has wandered in looking for rose petals to scatter down the aisle that very day—as if florists just keep fresh petals on hand, rather than order them well in advance and wait at the mercy of the supplier, like Shelton is doing just now. Such is the not-so-glamorous life of a florist in a small town that hosts as many as a thousand weddings annually. Yesterday, Shelton and her staff wrapped the first of the four weddings they’ll work this week. And that’s not to mention the other one-off sympathy and just-because bouquets that became a necessity during the COVID pandemic. 

Shelton, with a 5-hour Energy drink on the table next to her, is riffing on backup floral options (white roses, maybe?) when, just an hour and a half before they’re meant to be out the door, the daisies finally arrive. 

Over the past two decades, Dripping Springs, the self-described “gateway to the Hill Country,” 23 miles southwest of Austin, has expanded from hosting a single wedding venue to offering more than 35 within fifteen square miles. New event spaces are opening with increasing frequency, and countless wedding planners, DJs, and photographers descend on the community each weekend. Officially declared the Wedding Capital of Texas by the Texas Legislature in 2015, the former ranching town is now a premiere wedding destination for couples from across the state and, increasingly, from farther afield. 

For Shelton, an Austin native, and other longtime residents, Dripping Springs’ new spot on the map has been a big change. “My parents just drop their jaws when they hear people coming down from New York and Chicago and L.A. that want to get married in Dripping Springs,” she says. While established cities like Nashville and Charleston are also witnessing a ballooning of their respective wedding industries, Dripping Springs’ comparative size, and former obscurity, makes its boom a particular Cinderella story. 

This year, the area’s wedding dominance coincides with a general spike in nuptials. An estimated 2.5 million weddings are expected to take place nationwide in 2022—the most since 1984. The wedding website the Knot predicted that the fourth weekend in October, the weekend of my visit, would be the busiest wedding weekend throughout the country. Because of the respite from the heat, the fall—October and November in particular—is perennially the busiest season for ceremonies in Texas. This year, the first cool weather of the season rolled into the state the week of October 17, just ahead of the bridal parties.   

Drive around historic Mercer Street, and you might wonder why so many brides are choosing a Texas town that looks like any other, with its main thoroughfare packed with pickup trucks and small businesses with names such as Pig Pen BBQ and the Barber Shop. But it makes sense, too: the area, named after springs that flow from the Edwards Aquifer, is known for its natural beauty. Surrounded by dozens of popular, well-attended breweries and distilleries, the area is an idyllic postcard vision of a “small town,” a perfect backdrop for blush-colored bridesmaid gowns and brown liquor beverages.

Wedding boom in Dripping Springs, Texas
The Terrace Club.Kelsieemm Photography/Courtesy of The Terrace Club

The Wedding Capital did not rise fully formed from the rolling countryside, like an expensive, white rental tent. When Shelton’s family moved to Dripping Springs in the early 1980s, the population hovered around nine hundred, and a single traffic light stood between the town and Oak Hill, Austin’s southwesternmost neighborhood. Now congestion is so consistently bad in that spot, where U.S. 290 and State Highway 71 diverge, that it’s the subject of a huge construction project meant to aid traffic.

Over the last two decades or so, the area has expanded alongside its burgeoning wedding and tourism industries. Much of the growth can be attributed to the town’s proximity to Austin: it’s just forty minutes west, caught between the ever-expanding city’s limits and the wide-open spaces of the Hill Country. But helping the evolution along was also a well-strategized campaign to give the place a purpose, a reason for folks to visit and spend their dollars. 

“That was a real dialogue in all of Dripping Springs. Are we going to be a college town or a medical center, or is it just a bunch of houses and everybody drives into Austin?” says Whit Hanks, a former member of the town’s Economic Development Committee and the owner of Camp Lucy, a huge resort property featuring four wedding venues, guest lodging, a restaurant, and, soon, a spa. As recently as the early 2010s, Hanks says, no one envisioned Dripping Springs as a tourism destination. “That would have been too bizarre.” 

In the beginning, there was just one venue. The Terrace Club, a property with an elevated ballroom and sweeping views of the surrounding Hill Country, opened the first wedding space in town in 2000. Owner Hunter Connor, who bought the place from her sister and brother-in-law, remembers that time as a very different era in Texas tourism.

“At the time, Dripping Springs wasn’t really even on the map,” says Connor. “Everybody was moving north towards Cedar Park, Georgetown, and people thought they were crazy for building a wedding venue in Dripping Springs.”

In 2010, Camp Lucy hosted its first wedding in the first of four separate venues that would eventually be erected on the grounds. Now one of the biggest players on the scene, the property fittingly came about via the marriage between Kim and Whit Hanks. The pair met when Kim, then a wedding planner and venue consultant with a fledgling party-rental company, suggested that Whit host ceremonies on the land his family had owned for generations. They married in 2014, two years after opening Whim Hospitality, a rental company that now provides linens, tables, chairs, and the like to some three thousand events nationally each year, many of them in Central Texas. By owning two sides of the wedding equation—the venue and the vendor—Camp Lucy grew its overall footprint. It now hosts corporate and private retreats in addition to weddings: the property is “a Hill Country destination, not just a wedding place,” says Pam Owens, the president of Destination Dripping Springs, a tourism organization established in 2016. It also became a model for other landowners in town, who looked at their own pretty properties and saw dollar signs. Kim Hanks, excited at the possibility of more venues for which to provide rentals, was also waging a campaign to get ranch owners, of which there are many in Dripping Springs, to build event spaces of their own. Many venues began as private properties outfitted for a son’s or daughter’s wedding before being transformed into commercial enterprises. An overwhelming majority remain family owned and operated.

Whenever people would come in and rent stuff and I would go and deliver, I would say, ‘You’ve got a really big house. This would be perfect for a wedding,’ ” Kim says. “ ‘Have you ever thought about doing weddings here?’ ”

At the same time, the town itself was growing. From 2014 to 2019, Dripping Springs’ population nearly doubled in size. Though the town’s official population is now around 5,000, its extraterritorial jurisdiction, which affects school enrollment, counts 45,000 residents in surrounding communities like Driftwood. 

The venues began to rise faster, like so many daisies in a field. There’s Ma Maison, a European-style mansion offering an “old world atmosphere” since 2013; Stone House Ranch, a barn-centric outdoor space with hundred-year-old oak trees primed for twinkly lights; and Canyonwood Ridge, a bright, light-filled chapel with high ceilings and vaulted beams. There are venues for black-tie brides and for bohemian chic couples, for lovebirds seeking to orchestrate the day themselves and for those hoping to hand the planning off to a professional. 

For the penultimate weekend of October, floral prep begins, as it does most weeks, on Wednesday. Long rectangular boxes arrive (mostly on time) from suppliers and are unloaded from vans and trucks. Then workers strip the stems of their leaves, trim them, and set them out in giant orange Home Depot buckets. 

Like a mother of the bride prepping for the big day, the flowers need a second “to have a drink and relax” before their big show over the weekend, says floral designer Sarah Rochford. Rochford, Shelton, and the Flower Girl’s rotating crew of ten assistants and local high schoolers will work four weddings Thursday through Sunday. A fifth ceremony planned for Saturday has been canceled; Shelton makes a point to not ask why. 

Shelton prefers to work three to four weddings in a weekend, but the number of events can stretch beyond five or six, especially as the wedding season ramps up in November. Last year the number of weddings per weekend was often even higher, as the shop struggled to fill orders placed in 2020 while also bringing in new business. Shelton says she has definitely felt the boom this year, but after the COVID catch-up season nearly broke her, she’s now learning to say no. She also dedicated much of her year to prepping for her oldest daughter’s own wedding ceremony, which took place at the Dripping Springs–area Pecan Springs Ranch in late September. (Shelton crafted an impressive woodland fantasy scene, complete with a giant, lifelike tree made out of sculpted styrofoam.)

As Shelton methodically strips daisies on Friday afternoon, she describes the skin breakouts, the poor diet, and the long hours that accompany her work. On the way to our first venue of the day, daisies procured, she shares a reassuring mantra from her accountant: “They’re just flowers; don’t let ’em kill you.” Five minutes later, as we pull into Felton Ranch, a rustic outdoor space, its co-owner, John Felton, jokes about “not dying” from the stress. He and his wife have devised a system of working in shifts; he works the setup during the day, and she’s on hand for the “fun part,” the ceremony and reception in the evening.

The Flower Girl’s small crew combats the chaos with organization, labeling flower buckets and arranging them in the delivery van like blocks in a real-life game of Tetris. On days with two weddings packed in, the setup—arranging table settings, adorning cakes, and delivering bouquets and corsages—can be a race against the clock. On Friday, the only two-a-day of the weekend, the construction of a large arch arrangement runs up against the ceremony itself. As Shelton hangs precariously from a ladder, tying blocks of floral foam to an unsteady wooden arch, a wedding planner clad in black tells us the ceremony is slated to start in a quarter of an hour. I panic internally, but Shelton just gets to work. Graciously, the wedding ends up being delayed another fifteen minutes anyway. It’s Formula 1 weekend in Austin, so guests are having trouble finding Ubers to ferry them out of the city. 

Wedding boom in Dripping Springs, Texas
Ian’s Chapel at Camp Lucy. Lucy Struve
Wedding boom in Dripping Springs, Texas
Floral design from the Flower Girl. Courtesy of The Flower Girl

As we leave the wedding—just as it’s beginning—Shelton tells me her heart is racing. But the day isn’t over. There’s unloading and cleaning to do back at the shop, and someone must return to the venue that night, to break down and retrieve the rented vases and table decor. On the way back to the floral studio, we hit standstill traffic on 290, a symptom of the town’s growing pains.

As Dripping Springs grew, it abutted against the limitations of its still relatively small size. Because its tourism industry has grown so fast in one sector—one that’s largely relegated to weekends—it lacks some of the basic amenities of a larger town. Some businesses still find it hard to survive on slow weekdays, when the wedding crowd is gone, says Owens of the tourism organization. At the same time, upscale restaurants with large seating capacities are in high demand for couples seeking rehearsal-dinner or welcome-party spaces.

At present, the town only has two standalone hotels: a Sleep Inn & Suites, built in 2011, and a Holiday Inn, built in 2017. A third hotel, a Courtyard by Marriott, is now accepting guests for December 2023. This is due in part to slow weekday business and in part to the fact that the city of Dripping Springs lacks the wastewater infrastructure to support high-occupancy development. The other options for lodging are Airbnb rooms, of which there are more than five hundred in Dripping Springs and nearby Driftwood. (Sometimes these are even de facto venues for couples who favor smaller ceremonies.) But a higher number of Airbnbs can also contribute to higher rent prices, making it difficult to find local employees to load the rented tents and wash the used dishes, to work the catering buffets and arrange the flowers. The Hankses say staffing is one of their biggest issues, especially post-COVID; they even considered building staff lodging on their property. Many of their three hundred or so employees must commute in from San Marcos, Wimberley, or South Austin, as housing in Dripping Springs is scarce and rent, with all of the growth, is now competitive with that in Austin. Rochford, the Flower Girl designer, considered renting in the area when her Austin lease expired but couldn’t find anything below $1,700; in Austin, she was able to find units for $1,500.

Rochford tells me this as she places flora in an arrangement over another wedding arch. With hours to go until the ceremony starts, she takes her time placing pink and rust roses, dyed eucalyptus, and pampas grass into the bouquet. The plant, which is the ur-decoration of a rustic, boho vibe supremely popular in the Hill Country, also represents both a flattening of individual tastes in weddings and the amplification of a sort of photo-ready, Instagram-perfect aesthetic that’s infected nuptials—and life—everywhere. 

“There used to be regionality to trends. Now there’s Pinterest,” says Rochford, who has been designing florals, formerly in Brooklyn, since before the platform launched in 2010. In those bygone days, in the early aughts, weddings were simpler: “It was basic. White linens, white chairs, and if you wanted to tie in the color of your wedding . . . we’d add red-and-blue rocks to a fishbowl . . . or a red-and-blue candle in the centerpiece,” says Connor of the Terrace Club. 

Now your typical wedding might feature an extravagant photo booth in the 1964 Peachy Keen Photo Camper; a mobile bar and “taproom,” also in a vintage vehicle, from BarCars; custom sound and lighting from Altared Weddings & Events; or beer burros from Ears With Beers, a company whose donkeys, Carrie and Spirit, deliver drinks to guests. “Because brides and grooms want to have that Instagram-worthy wedding, the wedding industry has come and supported that” with a plethora of varied vendors, says Julia Mechler, a venue consultant and founder of Wildflowers & Whiskey Events, a Hill Country–focused wedding planning company. And though the scene might sound saturated, at least for now, there’s an unending appetite for wedding services. “There’s always another couple out there. It is a really hot market on the supply and the demand side,” she says. The industry surge has caused budgets to skyrocket; Mechler says it used to be easy enough to find a $5,000 venue in the Hill Country. Now a lot of spaces trend toward $10,000 as a starting point.

Shelton smartly points out that in a year or two, the idea of getting married in the “Wedding Capital” might become déclassé, like the shoulder pads and wedding headbands of decades past. For now, she’s just riding the wave.

As her crew sets up for yet another wedding, musicians rehearse an instrumental version of Elton John’s “Your Song.” I glance down and spy a single strand of dyed pampas grass lying in the aisle, irrefutable evidence that another wedding on another day took place here, just as dozens of other weddings are happening concurrently all throughout a town turning out luxurious ceremonies by the hundreds. I bend down to pick it up, not wanting to ruin the magic for this particular happy couple.