This is the second part in a three-part series about selling cruise weddings.
Independent travel seller Carolyn Waffle, CTC, went into selling destination weddings on cruise ships and in other locales for a simple reason: she loves being involved in romance.
The niche also happens to be a great market, she told Travel Market Report. Waffle, an affiliate with Avoya Travel in Binghamton, N.Y., has booked dozen of weddings on Carnival, Princess, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian ships and through the cruise lines at ports of call.
While the cruise lines don't commission wedding packages, Waffle earns commissions on the cruise portion – for both the couples and their wedding parties – and by booking commissionable shore excursions and travel insurance.
An emotional event
But Waffle advised agents looking at getting into the market need to understand there is "emotion" involved.
"They have to do some deep thinking,” she said. “There are agents who would not touch a destination wedding if it was the last piece of business in the world. There's an emotional liability, a wedding is an emotional event. If you're not connected emotionally to the bride and don't want that type of connection, it just doesn't work.”
For Waffle, that emotion is the exciting side of the business.
"I absolutely love being an emotional part of the most important day of their lives. It should scare me but it doesn't. I love it. Brides send me pictures of their dresses, even their shoes.
"I love imagining the scene. The emotion. Watching on the beach. I am a romantic at heart."
Working with cruise lines
Most of the cruise weddings Waffle has been involved with take place at a port – such as Cozumel, St. Thomas or Bermuda – or onboard before a ship embarks. She also has booked non-cruise destination weddings.
She said when it comes to cruise weddings, she has contemplated doing all the planning on her own, leaving the cruise lines out of equation so she can make more profit, but for liability reasons has decided going with the cruise line programs is best.
"If the ship does not make the port for weather reasons or whatever it's not easy," she explained.
Wedding party averages 10 couples
An average cruise wedding party is 10 couples, she said, though she has booked up to 32 couples for an event. She's also booked weddings involving only the bride and groom and one or two other couples.
She keeps in close touch with cruise line wedding planning departments, making sure preparations for her clients are in place.
Lack of commission not a deterrent
Waffle said the fact that cruise lines don't commission on the wedding packages – which include the ceremony, flowers, cake, and a bunch of optional extras and can run into the thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars – should not be a deterrent to agents.
"Would I like them to commission all that? You betcha'," she said. "But you can make money on the cruise."
Her role in the actual wedding planning, once a ship and the destination are chosen, is to make sure the bridge and groom find the right package and that everything ordered with the cruise line is what they want and what they get – the right flowers, the preferred cake, and so forth.
She also offers advice such as making sure the bride carries her wedding dress on the flight as hand luggage so it doesn't get lost in baggage.
Consult with a lawyer
Because of the emotions involved in a wedding, everyone wanting the day to be perfect, Waffle recommended agents looking to get into the business work with a lawyer on a specific contract for wedding couples.
"I think the most practical advice I have would be to make sure the contract is in order between the vendor and yourself and yourself and the wedding couple. There are so many issues, emotions involved."
Waffle said the contract she has "clearly spells out liability and the lack thereof." An agent can't, for instance, promise a ship will arrive at a certain port, since weather can wreak havoc with cruise schedules.
A huge market
An agent for 30 years, Waffle began really focusing on the weddings market three years ago.
"It's a huge market and there is huge potential," she said. "About 18% of weddings are destination weddings of the $18 billion business and that's why the cruise lines are really trying to focus and grab a true piece of the market share."
That's also why she decided to specialize.
Clients find her
Waffle said most of her wedding clients find her, rather than the other way around. She is part of a small wedding-planning network in town that also includes a jeweler, baker, bridal shop and men's store that does tuxedo rentals. They refer clients and do marketing projects together.
"If the bridal shop does a trunk show, I am always there," she said.
She also occasionally attends larger bridal shows, which require a fee for a booth.
But much of her business comes from word of mouth. "I am positioned in the local marketplace as someone who sells weddings," she said.
Clients for life
With most of her wedding clients in their late 20s and 30s, Waffle said another advantage of working in the market is building a great foundation for future business.
"The more interest you take in them, the more connected you are to their experience, and with that emotional connection comes more business," she explained.
Wedding couples, she added, tend not only to become loyal repeat clients but also to tell their friends.
"A good part of my business comes from the wedding couple, families, friends and referrals," Waffle said.
Next time: A travel agent’s own wedding at sea
Please see related story: “Cruise Lines, Agents Are Cashing in on Shipboard Weddings,” July 19, 2012.