By Emily Stifler Explorebigsky.com Editor

BIG SKY – Now worth an estimated $48 billion annually, according to industry analysts at IBIS World, the U.S. wedding industry has taken a major upswing in the last decade. Montana and Big Sky are riding the wave, for both in-state and destination weddings.

Since starting Eye in the Sky Photography in 2002, local photographer Kene Sperry has seen exponential growth in sales, even in a market that sometimes seemed flooded.

“You have to be open to different kinds of people and different ways of life,” Sperry says of his work, which is focused on portraiture and weddings.

The trick to wedding photography, Sperry says, is making people feel comfortable, engaging with them and asking questions – plus having a really good understanding of light. “It’s about connections with people, about giving more than just images.”

But these are only part of the reason behind Eye in the Sky’s growth.

“Montana is a beautiful place for a couple to bring their friends and family, and to have a personal experience that will be with them the rest of their lives,” said Katalin Green, founder of the destination wedding planning resource, Montana Bride. “Couples come from all over – from Paris, Tokyo, Dubai and from Austin, Texas. The appeal is the mountains, the rivers… whether they take advantage of fly fishing, they appreciate the clean water, the environment and the western lifestyle.”

Add to photography clothing and jewelry, catering, planning and consultation, party and venue rentals, music, lodging, car rentals, health and beauty products, gifts and registries, and it’s clear weddings are a major part of the local, regional and tourist economies in the state.

But no one can really say what the industry adds annually to Montana’s economy.

“It’s a hell of a lot of money,” said GJ Hensen, vice president of Northwest Montana Wedding and Event Professionals and owner of Celebrate Rentals in Whitefish. “You’re talking millions.”

The Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research in Missoula hasn’t studied it, and the state Department of Tourism sees the industry as “very niche,” said Sarah Lawlor, communications director for that office and the Department of Commerce.

“We don’t concentrate a lot of resources on that specific a market, choosing rather to concentrate on the larger audience that have the qualities and inclination to visit a place like Montana, understanding we will also capture those people… interested in the type of destination wedding Montana could provide,” Lawlor said in an email.

However, the state’s website has a page dedicated to wedding planning, with information on 600 businesses that provide related services.

One, Gibson Mansion, a Missoula bed and breakfast that hosts private weddings, has seen an increase in destination weddings in the past five years, according to owners Tom and Nancy Malikie. During the recession, Gibson still hosted upscale weddings, but typically with smaller guest lists.

“This seems to be shifting, … and we are seeing the return of larger guest size weddings planned for the 2013 season,” the Malikies wrote in an email.

In Big Sky, Rainbow Ranch Lodge is reporting a similar trend. The lodge hosts around 30 weddings a year, 70 percent of which are destination events, and also does rehearsal dinners for weddings elsewhere in Big Sky.

“People still got married when times were low, but maybe watched the budget a bit more,” said General Manager Mollie Eckman. “Now it’s not quite so budget conscious.”

Both Eckman and Green would like to see the business grow.

“Wedding tourism shows huge economic potential,” said Green, who distributes Montana Bride magazine in cities including Chicago, Miami and New York, as well as in Montana airports. Green recently presented her new campaign, Say “I Do” in Montana, to the Governor.

“We live in a town that’s all about tourism,” said Tori Pintar, also a wedding photographer in Big Sky. “That’s why many of us are able to live here. The wedding industry capitalizing on that can benefit [us] hugely.”

Big Sky Resort and Moonlight Basin are on board with that sentiment. Having doubled its wedding count between 2011 and 2012, Big Sky is reinventing itself as a venue for the events, said Wedding Sales Manager Margo Humphries.

“We have so much to do here in summer. We have the infrastructure, so it was more retraining our brains around the wedding offerings and standards.”

Last year it hosted 25 weddings, and this year is on track for the same number. Approximately 75 percent of those are from out of state, with the rest from Billings. Lodging at the resort has seen an uptick, as well, Humphies said.

Moonlight has been rebuilding the program since taking ownership of Jack Creek Grille in 2011, said Moonlight Basin Event Manager Michelle Frederick, and this summer has over 20 private events scheduled, with an even mix of local, regional and national brides.

The Big Sky Chamber of Commerce’s new website, visitbigskymt.com, set to launch in June, will provide information for people planning a meeting or wedding here, said Chamber Membership Sales and Event Manager, Danielle Chamberlain.

Pintar would like to see both the business community of Big Sky as well as the state of Montana up their wedding marketing, which she called “behind the times.”

The effort, she said, could be comparable to the Biggest Skiing in America marketing campaign, which marketed in New York subways this year. “I think we can do the same thing with making Montana a destination wedding spot… All these people will come here, stay in our hotels, go to the parks, spend money at our businesses and come back again. People fall in love with Montana, they never want to leave.”