Destination weddings can be a lucrative and rewarding niche for travel agents, but it comes with unique challenges. The specialty requires the highest level of service for individuals who are often the highest maintenance clients: brides.
“I basically turn into the mother of the bride, but without as much emotion,” said Penny Sheldon, of Boise, Idaho-based Penny Sheldon Travel. “I’m the mother of the bride, an advisor and a travel agent.”
When the wedding includes guests, as most do, agents must also deal with demands from the families, plus travel arrangements for family and friends.
Meetings for ‘emotional people’
Some agents even accompany the bride on a pre-wedding trip to the resort to ensure the event will be as perfect as possible.
“This is usually for a special case, but I’ve done it depending on the size of the wedding,” said Cookie Carney, CTC, of Cookie’s Travel Experts in Charlotte, N.C. “I’m acting like any other meeting planner, because that’s what destination weddings are – they’re just meetings, but meetings for emotional people.”
Travel Market Report spoke with destination wedding agents for their advice on selling and servicing the market.
Product knowledge is essential
“I don’t ever truly have a vacation,” said Sheldon. “I’m out doing site inspections so I can give my brides an honest perspective on the resorts.”
Building a relationship with several resorts is a good strategy, according to Carney. “I have found a few places that work really well; properties that really know how to do a destination wedding. It’s wise to partner with them and I continually go and visit them.”
Having planned your own destination wedding is a tremendous sales tool for agents as well. That’s not always possible, of course. But agents who have, like Sheldon and Jennifer Doncsecz, president of VIP Vacations in Whitehall, Penn., can share their firsthand experience with clients.
Both agents also include photos of their Caribbean weddings on their websites. “It’s important for brides to look at destination wedding photos before they book their own,” said Doncsecz.
Referrals are key
Destination weddings are – perhaps more than any other type of travel – about referrals. Doncsecz said she gets two referrals from every destination wedding her agency books. She added that about half of the wedding guests return to her agency to book vacations.
Sheldon said about 95% of her business is referrals. “You often don’t know where it’s coming from,” she said. “I’ll ask and the bride will say ‘my jeweler recommended you or my cousin’s neighbor’s brother.’”
Bridal shows are another way to find clients but agents cautioned the results aren’t always immediate. They also recommended sponsoring a bridal show. That entails an expense but it’s a way to insure being the sole agent at the event.
Qualify the bride
A myriad of details are involved in matching the bridal couple with the right destination and resort, said Linda D’Arcy of Altour American Express in Oak Brook, Ill.
These include the time of year (for example, avoiding the Caribbean hurricane season); if there will be guests and how many; choice of an adults-only versus a kid-friendly resort; the quality of food at the resort; the distance for guests traveling to the wedding; the couple’s budget and estimated costs for guests; and the wedding venue, D’Arcy said.
“Do they want to get married on the beach or on a cliff overlooking the ocean? Even these questions involve details. If a bride wants a gazebo on the beach, is it a big enough gazebo?”
D’Arcy also asks how exotic a destination the couple wants. She has gone beyond the Caribbean and Mexico, which host the majority of weddings, to arrange weddings in Scotland, Thailand, Croatia and South Africa.
“Given the different time zones, trying to reach people is a challenge,” she said. “Emails can take a day. If I need to reach someone, I just pick up the phone.”
Develop a personal bond
“This is not about booking one wedding and going on to the next,” Sheldon said. “It’s about getting involved with real people and real lives.”
Given the highly personal nature of weddings, friendships can grow out of business relationships, Sheldon said.
“Brides call me on a daily business and ask me about this and that,” she said. “I have clients clear across the country. It’s enlightening that there can be such an amazing connection with someone you’ve never met.”
“That connection is super important,” Doncsecz agreed. “Brides send me pictures of their shoes; when they find their dress they call me. You really have to love weddings to be in this business.”
Provide above and beyond service
“There’s so much pressure to make sure the wedding is perfect that I only work with the bride,” Doncsesz said. “I want to give my full attention to what she wants, so my team handles arrangements for the family and friends.”
A plus to this is that her agency isn’t perceived as strictly a destination wedding business; guests view it as place to book other travel, she said.
“I see agents with a lot of dollar signs in their eyes,” she added. “The business sounds lovely but you have to know the ins and outs. You have to deal with getting that email Sunday morning from a bride who is in tears and says her family isn’t sure it wants to go to her destination wedding.”
There can be other complications. Sheldon remembers a situation with a bride with divorced parents.
“The mother refused to be on the same flight as the father or stay at the wedding resort because the dad was staying there,” she said. “I had to book her on a different flight and into a nearby resort.”
Suggest a symbolic wedding
Agents can propose a “symbolic” wedding for couples who want a destination wedding but for various reasons choose to get legally married first in the U.S. It’s a good option for those who don’t want to deal with another country’s marriage requirements, agents said.
There are special reasons for symbolic weddings as well. Carney said the father of one of her brides was too ill to travel to the destination wedding but wanted to be present when she got married. She got married at home and then had her destination “wedding” a week later.
See related stories: Destination Weddings: A Profitable Match for Agents, March 19, 2012, and Destination Weddings Are Evolving in Scope, March 26, 2012