One thing is for certain: when Elton John marries his long-term partner David Furnish in December, the flower bill will be enormous. But it won't just be the most famous gay couple in the world who will be digging deep into their pockets on their big day. Those planning to enter into a same-sex civil partnership - dubbed a "gay wedding" and soon to be available in the UK - are prepared to spend up to twice the average cost of a heterosexual wedding.
Ben Spence set up Pink Products, an online gay and lesbian wedding store, two years ago, to cater for commitment ceremonies. The company's 1,200-odd product line now includes his-and-his or hers-and-hers pillow cases and rainbow confetti. Over the past few months he has seen business increase by 40 per cent. "With civil partnership approaching, business has started to rocket," says Spence. "We've seen a massive increase in same-sex wedding-cake toppers, and gay and lesbian wedding invitations are selling like never before. There's a hell of a lot of people getting ready for December."
More products and services will be on display at the Gay Wedding Show, of which Spence is co-director. It takes place in Belfast today before moving on to Manchester, Cardiff and Brighton later this year.
However, if it's all too much trouble to arrange yourself, there is, of course, a gay-wedding planner just waiting to remove the hassle. Pink Weddings was set up in 2001 by Spence's business partner, Gino Meriano, and last year it arranged over 300 gay and lesbian commitment ceremonies. It is now taking up to 15 requests a day for civil partnerships with bookings well into 2007. And while the average heterosexual wedding costs £16,000, many gay couples are budgeting double that amount.
"Last year a lot of people just wanted a ceremony at home with 10 friends. It was a lot more informal," says Meriano. "Now couples are talking about private estates with 300 guests, sit-down meals, fireblowers and opera singers. We've had a lot of requests for castles; they want to hire the whole place and theme it up. We've also had two requests from people who want funfair rides. But the majority want a dignified, very traditional day."
Straight wedding planners hoping to tap the pink seam will need to get to grips with the intricacies of a gay wedding. "For example," says Meriano, "if two girls are walking in there's the two-aisle concept. And you will have occasions where both of the girls want the limelight, which will affect the photographer, so they may need more than one. Sometimes you get the fathers both wanting to make a speech - then there's the question of who makes the first one."
Civil partnerships offer legal recognition to gay relationships for the first time. Couples will be able to apply for joint state pensions, gain recognition under inheritance laws and have shared parental responsibility. At the moment, gay couples can only register their relationship at so-called commitment ceremonies, which have no legal standing.
Gay couples will be able to give notice of their intention to register from 5 December. Following a 15-day waiting period to allow for objections to be made (which is also the case for civil marriage) couples in England and Wales will be able to sign the official document on 21 December. However, those in Scotland and Northern Ireland can get hitched the day before; Northern Ireland has a shorter notice period (as for marriage), and the Scots have a day's head start after an official miscalculated the statutory 15-day notice period, but decided to honour the bookings already made.
Every local authority has to provide a facility for civil partnership registration, but couples will also be able to register in venues that are approved for civil marriage. And there are already plenty of companies lining up to make it a day to remember.
Jenny Crandley, who runs an event management company, last month launched a planning service called Fabulous Gay Weddings. She offers everything from playing the role of mother of the bride if necessary, to finding the venue, florist, caterers and music. One couple, both in banking, has already signed up with a budget of £35,000 for a party of 60 people in a castle. " This is very special," says Crandley, who refuses to say what she charges. "This is the first time that people can register their commitment, their togetherness. It's quite moving."
Guthrie Castle in Angus, used to holding commitment ceremonies, already has a booking from two men who are splashing out £40,000 on a knees-up for 150 guests. The ceremony will include a hawking display, fireworks and Highland warriors charging out of artificial smoke. "We thoroughly enjoy these things, they're great," says Morganna Ross-Docherty, the venue's events manager. "People want to formalise their commitment and it's important that they do it in a place where it's not just a marketing exercise. We take it very seriously and assist the couples as much as we can."
Ashley Rogers, owner of Limo Fever in Bristol, is hiring out his pink limousine to the first gay couple getting married in the city on 21 December. "It glitters," he says. "Inside, there's a mirrored ceiling, disco lights, a smoke-machine and pink and purple leatherette seating. It's all done quite tastefully. I think gay people have a better laugh than some straight people. We're expecting heaps of business next year. "
Perhaps inevitably, there is also money to be made from it all going horribly wrong. The Civil Partnership Act 2004 also introduces "gay divorce", which will take place in court. In anticipation of this, for £350, Agreements.co.uk will furnish a couple with a legal document, which will effectively act as a "gay prenup".
"The richer partner might potentially lose up to half of his or her wealth to the poorer partner if there is a dissolution of the partnership," warns the company's spokesperson, Mark Andrew. "Civil partnership is akin to marriage and the courts are going to see it that way when a gay or lesbian couple split up." So far, however, there have been no takers. *
Pink Products, tel: 0870 020 1712 or visit z. pinkproducts.co.uk; Gay Wedding Show, tel: 0870 750 4493 or visit www.gayweddingshow.co.uk; Pink Weddings, tel: 01932 571 286 or visit www. pinkweddings.biz; Fabulous Gay Weddings, tel: 020 7206 0207 or visit www.fabulousgayweddings.com; Guthrie Castle, tel: 01241 828 691, or visit www.guthrie castle.com; Limo Fever in Bristol, tel: 07865 261 108; Agreements.co.uk, tel: 020 7439 9555, or visit www.agreements.co.uk
PROVISIONS IN THE CIVIL PARTNERSHIP ACT 2004 INCLUDE:
A duty to provide reasonable maintenance for your civil partner and any children of the family
Access to fatal accidents compensation
Protection from domestic violence
Recognition for immigration and nationality purposes
Equitable treatment for the purposes of life insurance
Recognition under intestacy rules
Employment and pension benefits
Civil partners are to be assessed in the same way as spouses for child support