Interview with Dells Bells Wedding Chapel owners - Scott & Tara Joles

The Dells Bells Wedding Chapel, located in historic downtown Wisconsin Dells has been home to where over two thousand couples have professed their love by saying "I do"  – making it the Midwest's #1 wedding destination. 

Recently I had the opportunity to talk with owners Tara and Scott Joles, who shared their story of how they met, and how their own wedding played a part in bringing this unique place to life.

CHRIS DEARMAN: So, let’s start off by telling me how the Dells Bells Wedding Chapel came to fruition.

TARA JOLES:  Well, it was the middle of summer at about eleven o’clock at night. We were driving through downtown with all the neon lights and I turned to my husband and said: “Why doesn’t this town have a wedding chapel? The streets are packed, it’s like a Midwest Vegas. There should be a chapel!” My husband turned to me and said: “You should open one!”

I laughed it off, because we both had good jobs at the time. So we dropped the subject. But, sometime later he brought it up again. I was like: “I don’t know the first thing about running a business! I’m not going to be the one to do that!” He said: “That’s fine, I won’t bring it up again, but if you don’t do it and someone else does, you’re going to kick yourself.” And I knew darn well that he was right. 

So the idea came from seeing that the Dells had a need, as well as your husband giving you a little verbal motivation to actually pursue it. What happened next?

TARA:  So, I started looking into the logistics.  It was really difficult trying to start up a business from scratch while we were both working full time.  Plus, Scott was operating a portable sawmill business part-time on the weekends. We barely had time to even talk about the endeavor.

How did you decide on this particular building and property?

TARA: It was the arched windows. Every time we would drive by we would say: “That looks like a little chapel.”

Even though the building was in shambles, we could see it’s potential.  So, we started trying to find someone who could tell us something about the space. 

What was that process like?

TARA: Horrible! It took almost a full year to find out who to talk to about it.  In the end, that person was Jesse Defosse.  He also runs Showboat and MaMa’s Garage. Anyway, we went down and talked with him about the building.  Once he shot us a number we could work with, we were a go.

That’s when everything becomes a blur. There was so much work to be done. If we weren’t at work, we were here, or doing startup paperwork at home. Some good friends like, Jack Ladik, Eddie Gardener, Beav Anderson and John Colbert gave us invaluable help with the overhaul. Scott did everything from woodwork to plumbing in the building.  It was literally a shell with pretty arched windows and a tree growing inside when we got it!

Do you know what business resided in the building before this?

TARA: Most recently it was Millie’s House of Gifts, but we are still trying to find out what it was originally intended for. The railroad has always been here, so there was a large millhouse on this property early on and then we know the Helland Hotel stood here as recently as 1940’s or so.

So after you had the idea for the chapel, you found the property and then worked to turn the old building into a chapel. How did you get your first couple?

SCOTT JOLES: Our first website actually had a shopping cart where couples could pick out packages and reserve their space online. So, we were sitting around the dinner table with a friend, and we heard an email pop up on the computer.  Somebody had booked a wedding online! It was just like the commercial where the startup business gets their first order and then more and more and you realize you might not be quite ready yet. I mean the chapel was in the middle of construction. In fact, the toilet literally went in the morning of our first wedding!


How long was the website up and running before getting that first order?

SCOTT: Not long at all. As a matter of fact, we actually had this building all gutted out. We were still working on it.

Those are the days you don’t forget though. You hear that pop-up and you’re like: Woo-hoo! Somebody’s coming to get married here!

TARA: We had a friend at our house when that first online booking came through and we all started high-fiving each other. It was the classic “if you build it, they will come” moment.

Sounds like you guys were really under the gun! What did you do after that first day?

TARA: I think we had a drink! (laughs)  I’m pretty sure we left here and went straight to Showboat!  We gave ourselves a pat on the back, felt blessed and started smiling a lot. 

I’m sure it was much deserved after all the work you two did to get to that point. It sounds like you two make a good team. Let’s back up a bit. How did you meet?

TARA: We met in Lodi, at the Wollersheim Grape Stomp.  I tell this story and I know people don’t believe me, but we met through a mutual friend that day.  I was young and hadn’t even had wine before. He was going for his first glass of wine, and asked if I’d like to fight through the crowds along with him.

I said “sure”.  So, we’re struggling through the crowd and I keep losing sight of him and I say “Hey, don’t lose me” and he turns around, reaches for my hand, smiles and says “I won’t.”  It was at that precise moment that we were married.  That moment that he touched my hand we were as good as married.  That was it! It was my happily ever after, right there in the crowd, at the Wollersheim winery.

I know it sounds ridiculous, but it really happened that way. It was like a fairytale for me. I was really ready for a new direction, and luckily for me, he was in that exact same place in his life.  Timing is everything

Your fairytale ended up with your own wedding, and now you do them for a living. Where did you two get married?

TARA: Well when Scott proposed, the ring came along with two tickets to Vegas. Since we had each had the big wedding previously, and we were good with whatever we were going to get out there.  If it’s hokey it’s hokey, we’re fine with that. But, it wasn’t – it wasn’t hokey at all! And even though there was a service every fifteen minutes, once it was your space, they made you feel welcome and comfortable.  It was very traditional, very classy.  It was only $190 – and we were married! And that included photography! So we really tried to model Dells Bells after that. We wanted other couples to share that experience, but right here in the Dells. 

Tell me a little about the experience people get. Walk me through things a bit.

TARA: Well, our four o’clock reservation today has reserved a “Vegas Style Package”. When Andrea and Jose arrive for their ceremony, their guests will begin seating.  The couple will sign their license with their witnesses and prepare to walk the aisle. All this will happen in a traditional setting with a Christian ceremony. Once they are pronounced husband and wife, they will exit the chapel and get congratulations from their special guests.  After that, they will have some time for photos and will likely walk down to the RiverWalk for gazebo pictures and some cocktails. There are several places in town that will give them their first toast for free when they come from Dells Bells Wedding Chapel.

Do you normally average a wedding every hour?

TARA: Yes, we book on the top of the hour, which some people think sounds rushed, but I think you’ll see that it’s not. They arrive at twenty minutes to. We have the bride choose her bouquet, find out who is going to walk her down the aisle, and what order she would like her wedding party to enter the chapel. I make sure it looks rehearsed. That little step saves our couples a considerable amount of money on the expense of the rehearsal dinner. It’s a matter of lining them up, letting them know when to walk and reminding them to smile on their way up the aisle. 

People get nervous about where they are supposed to be, but we’ve been doing it so long, they can tell we know what we’re doing. We make it very stress free. 
Once we ask a couple of basic questions, and let them know where to line up, they gain a confidence that it’s going to look rehearsed and orderly.

After almost 10 years, we know how to keep it flowing and reduce the stress and tension if it arises.

I’m guessing your guests appreciate that, as well as the fact that they can get a traditional type wedding without necessarily belonging to a church.

TARA: Yes, for instance, we’re Christian, but we don’t belong to a church. We practice our faith. We pray a lot and give thanks often, but, we are not church goers – and I think a lot of people find themselves in that same situation.  They have a Christian faith, but they don’t have a church. 

So, we are filling that niche.  Also, we attract couples who don’t want the stress and expense of a large wedding. With us, you can have a beautiful ceremony for $300, walk out the door and have a Swig at Nig’s to kick off your celebration. (laughs)

Sounds like the way to go, especially in this economy. I don’t even want to think about how much money I spent on my Disney wedding to my ex...

TARA: It’s definitely the way to go, in my opinion. I always find myself telling young couples how proud I am of them for making the decision to save for their home instead of going into debt for their wedding day.

With us you’re not getting the wedding where you find yourself signing loan papers. I don’t know how people are sustaining that in this economy. When they come here, they have decided to make other things a priority – and we are glad we can help them do that. With these young couples, I give them a lot of credit, especially the brides, because girls dream about their wedding their entire lives.

I’ve heard so many times: “I’ve had this wedding planned since I was ten! I was just waiting for the groom.  And there he is!”

When it comes right down to it, when you find that special someone, the marriage becomes more important than the wedding.

And every couple gets to ring the bell?

TARA: They always ring the bell!  And everybody here in town knows exactly what that means. We often hear: “You guys had a lot of weddings yesterday!”  That bell was ringing all day long.

Do you know how many weddings you average a year?

TARA: We do between two hundred and three hundred a year. It’s been a building process though. We didn’t do that many our first year.

Scott:  The first year we did thirty two weddings, the second year it jumped to a hundred and twenty, and then it started growing pretty quickly.

Did you have to do a lot of advertising to get the word out?

TARA: Thank goodness for the internet!  We pay very little in advertising.  So the Dells Bells Vegas sign is a huge thing for us. People take their picture in front of that sign all day and it’s ideal for social network marketing.

Our location is our best marketing.  It’s like a big billboard.  Here we are right in the middle of all the fun.  We capture an audience by pure location. Downtown, in the River District, near the largest public parking area in town.

Well, after nine years and over two thousand weddings I have to ask – have you ever had anyone left standing?

Scott:  I joke that we will eventually see everything at least once, but luckily I haven’t seen that yet. We also haven’t had anyone faint or pass out. I’ve seen a couple that I was concerned about, (laugh) but 911 has never been called.

Have you ever had anyone say that they object?

Scott: No, because we don’t ask that! (laughs) I once had a bride ask me: “Do you ask if anyone objects?”  I said “no”, and she said:  “Good, because there would be like fifteen people on his side that would object!” We really enjoy that kind of humor and we get it often in this setting. 
What are some of the things you like best about running your own chapel?

TARA:  Often times, parents or grandparents will come in the office afterwards, shake our hands, and say that it was an amazing ceremony.  They will say “We weren’t really sure what we were going to get here, but we are really happy”. 

And I get it, it is called Dells Bells. They’re not sure exactly how it’s going to be, so they are relieved by the pleasant experience. We’ll hear – thank you for saying a prayer, we really appreciate the blessing, etc. I mean, their granddaughter means a lot to them, they want her to have that royal treatment, and that’s what we aim to give them.  I think they look at the prices and don’t think that’s what they are going to get! It’s fun to deliver above expectations.

It’s true that the giving is a blessing.  It makes all the hard work worth it when you get the smiles.

It is, because when people aren’t expecting much and you over-deliver...

TARA: Yeah, what a gift! I’m not really sure who is happier about that, the bride, or us for getting to do it. The whole saying, that giving is a gift. I think that’s the way to go. I don’t want to say that its charity, because it’s not, we are making a living doing this.

People are always saying that we should raise our prices, but we’re making a living. We make less money now than we did when we were both working full time, but at least we’re not driving a desk anymore! I can book a wedding from virtually anywhere. I don’t have to sit somewhere waiting for the phone to ring.

So, while we’re not getting rich, depending on how you define rich, our happiness level is beyond our expectations. The truth is we felt “rich” that first year when we hosted thirty-three weddings!  Rich is a very objective term.

Well, it definitely sounds like you found your own niche’ in life, and your happiness sure shows.  Thank you for spending the time with me today to share your story. It’s been inspirational to hear you talk about it, and I wish you and Dells Bells nothing but continued success.

For more information on the Dells Bells Wedding Chapel please visit them on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and their website