Couples tie the knot down in the barn
In the wedding business, having one of the world's top 10 venues is clearly an important asset.
But for the owner of Featherston's Tarureka Estate, a character-filled barn and homestead, built in 1868 and 1870 respectively, are also key "staff members".
"It's funny how it is like a person, this house," said Helen Forlong, who has run a successful wedding, conference and reunion business out of the immaculately restored property on Featherston's western outskirts for five years.
"It's definitely one of the participants, this building, in the wedding."
Tarureka's selection last month alongside properties in Tuscany and California as one of the world's top 10 barn wedding venues by popular London blog Bridal Musings confirmed Forlong's nose for an opportunity.
"It's what they call rustic chic . . . it was quite lucky that I took over when that was what everyone wanted, and we did quite well straight away."
Equally serendipitous was a recent "revitalisation" of Featherston, with an influx of young families, artists and professionals - including two of Forlong's five adult children - attracted by low house prices, gracious colonial buildings and a unique location at the Rimutaka bushline. "It's taken on a life of its own, old Featherston - we love it."
The barn's roomy downstairs bar area has an English-pub feel, a log burner and dance floor; a commercial kitchen and bathrooms were added when it was made into a restaurant by the previous owners, descendants of pioneering Wairarapa dairy farmer James Donald.
Upstairs, the cathedral-like hay loft's totara beams resonate occasion and provide outstanding acoustics - Forlong's son Sam Scott and his band The Phoenix Foundation recorded much of a recent album there.
In summer, brides generally preferred an outdoor lawn or "wedding grove" ceremony but were often pleased if the weather intervened: "They say, oh I'm so glad it was raining because it was so lovely upstairs."
Tarureka's biggest advantage was offering a complete package including ceremony and reception venue, backdrop for bridal photos and accommodation for 22 in the seven-bedroom homestead and three-bedroom Victorian workers' cottage; there are also verandas, barbecues and warm lounges for the "day after" wind-down.
The all-in-one aspect appealed to brides: "You get to see all your closest guests for the whole weekend, it's not that thing of ‘Oh, I didn't get to see Aunty Sandra'."
Forlong's public relations and editing background helped her build Tarureka's profile, especially online, and it's booked nearly every weekend for the next two September-to-June wedding seasons. Winter weddings were gaining popularity. "It's very romantic in there with the fire going. And it's less expensive."
She uses mostly local contractors for catering, music, transport and other services and employs a manager, Kirsten Ball. The market is mostly Wellingtonians, but increasingly includes expats returning for a wedding with an earthy, Kiwi flavour.
Long-range planning is a plus - Forlong already knows what her income will be in August 2016. Conferences and family reunions are a growth market, with fireside evenings and games of petanque or croquet appealing for team-building.
The biggest challenge is maintaining her greatest selling point, the graceful buildings which four generations of Donalds cherished so well. But Forlong doesn't mind.
"A lot of the turnover goes back into the buildings - I feel like it's this place paying for itself, and I get to make a living as well."
$1200: Two nights' accommodation for 22 – winter get-together special.
$6000: Summer weekend wedding package – venue for a day plus accommodation for 22 for Friday and Saturday nights.
$8: Corkage per head.
120: Loft capacity for sit-down banquet.