- Associated Press - Sunday, January 18, 2015

PHILADELPHIA — To be fair, Natalie Suresch and Joe Felicetti claimed that weekend first.

The Philadelphia couple chose Sept. 26 for their wedding and then planned accordingly: They booked their venue, a former factory building in one of the city’s most historic neighborhoods. They hired a DJ. Suresch purchased her dress.

Then Pope Francis announced he was coming to town - the same day.

“We can’t compete with the pope,” said Suresch.

The couple’s story is a cautionary tale for anyone planning to do something in Philadelphia during the last weekend of September, when the pontiff expects to make his first visit to the United States. Organizers predict 1.5 million people will visit the city to see Francis as part of the World Meeting of Families.

Suresch and Felicetti found out about the conflict when his sister called to say she was hoping to see her little brother married and the Holy Father in one shot.

At first, the couple was concerned but not frantic. They began checking for possible hotel blocks for their guests. They found nothing within 10 miles. Or 50 miles.

“I had a moment of pure panic, about 20 minutes of hysterical crying when I was yelling at Joe for no apparent reason,” said Suresch, 35, gallery manager for French furniture company Roche Bobois. “He was like a deer in headlights.”

Said Felicetti, 41, an architect, “I called the venue woman at 9 o’clock on a Sunday night to see if we could change the date so she would stop crying.” They now plan to marry Oct. 9.

Tourism and hospitality officials said the impact of Francis’ appearance is unlike anything they’ve experienced in recent memory.

“His visit changes the whole paradigm,” said Jack Ferguson, chief executive of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau.

To illustrate how crowded things could get, Ferguson offered this: Imagine if, on one weekend, the downtown convention center was hosting 30,000 people while Beyonce and Jay-Z performed on a nearby public stage at the same time the area’s major sports clubs - Eagles, Phillies, Flyers, 76ers and even the Union soccer team - were playing championship games at local venues.

“That’s how you can get the magnitude of what’s happening,” he said.

Bob Dmuchowski, sales and marketing director for Kimpton’s Hotel Monaco near Independence Hall, said his team told a few couples who wanted to have their weddings there during the papal visit that it was not a good idea.

“We’re a boutique-style hotel and we wouldn’t be able to provide that memorable experience for them,” he said.

The hotel has 268 rooms, and about 30 of them have already been booked by a World Meeting of Families delegation from the Midwest. Kimpton is now figuring out its strategy for renting the other rooms. Single-night reservations won’t be accepted; the hotel will most likely require guests stay for three nights.

“It may look like a lot of hotels are sold out online, but what you’re finding is they’re not accepting that stay pattern of just Friday and Saturday,” Dmuchowski said.

Even Ed Grose, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association, said he may end up sleeping on an inflatable mattress on his office floor during the pope’s stay.

“I have connections in the hotel business, obviously, and I couldn’t get myself a room,” he said.

Suresch and Felicetti said they’ve recovered from their initial shock and accepted their new wedding date - a Friday instead of a Saturday, as originally planned.

Not ideal, they said, but it’s the only date that allowed them to marry first and still go on their planned honeymoon later in October. The DJ was able to accommodate them as well. And while they may have lost a few years from their lives during that one panicky night, they lost no money.

They’re joking about it now. That’s a good thing.

“People are saying, ‘You should have just gotten the pope to marry you,’” Suresch said. “Yeah. Right.”

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