Among the sessions at this year’s Travel MarketPlace in Toronto will be one on the burgeoning destination wedding market—a lucrative niche for Canada’s travel agents who want to break into the market or increase their existing business.
A group of specialist panelists will share their expertise in the session, dubbed Saying “I Do” to Destination Weddings. The panelists include Lisa Sheldon, executive director of the Destination Wedding & Honeymoon Specialists Association (DWHSA); Jennifer Doncsecz, president of Bethlehem, Pa.-based VIP Vacations, a member of The Affluent Collection; Brenda Washington-O’Neale, founder and president of With This Ring Destination Wedding & Honeymoon Travel Agency, and Kitzia Morales, CEO and co-founder of LOVE Mexico.
Co-sponsored by Travel Market Report and the Association of Canadian Travel Agents (ACTA), Travel MarketPlace will be held June 16 and 17 at the International Plaza Hotel & Conference Center. In its second year, the unique conference addresses the key issues and concerns facing Canada’s travel agent community.
For a look at the destination weddings market, Travel Market Report spoke with Sheldon who shared her thoughts on the scope of the market, its challenges and its great potential for developing repeat business.
You presented a session at the first Travel MarketPlace last year in Toronto. How will this year’s session differ?
Sheldon: Last year’s session was a general overview of romance travel whereas this year the focus will be on destination weddings. [My presentation will deal with] once you get that client who says ‘yes, we want to do a destination wedding,’ and they’ve chosen the resort and booked the date, then it’s ‘now what do I do next?’
Agents will be working with those clients for a year or more. There are peaks and valleys of activity. I’ll talk about dealing with the time frame of working on a destination wedding; dealing with clients, when payments are due, keeping track of everything.
Agents will also want to stay in contact with the client during the year [of planning]. I’ll talk about ways to keep the clients involved and have them know the agent is there for them.
What challenges do agents face in arranging destination weddings?
Sheldon: This is an emotional trip for clients, especially the bride. This is their wedding, a day that this girl has dreamed of for years. It has to be perfect.
Some couples don’t even have a passport. They have no comprehension of what’s involved so it can be a lot of hand-holding. Older, more mature brides may be different but just because they may be a business traveler, for instance, doesn’t mean they know the ins and outs of getting married in, say, the Bahamas.
The information available to the couple, whether word of mouth or what they’ve read online is enough to confuse them. Your role as a romance travel specialist it to help them find the right destination and resort for themselves and their guests.
Give us an idea of the scope of the destination wedding market?
Sheldon: The statistics are confusing. One survey says 13% and another says 24% of U.S. couples choose destination weddings. Some surveys also consider a “destination wedding” as one held 50 to 200 miles from the bride’s home. I think the true measure of a destination wedding is going out of the country or to Hawaii. We also have no sense of how many couples book destination weddings through agents.
The DWHSA is working on putting together a survey that will provide a true indication of how many destination weddings outside of North America are actually booked by U.S. and Canadian agents. We’re hoping to have that later this year.
Are there differences between the destination wedding markets in the U.S. and Canada?
Sheldon: I think there are more similarities than differences, including couples going to sun and fun destinations. However, most of the destination wedding travel in Canada is booked for seven nights for most of the guests if the trip is to a destination that involves changing planes.
In the U.S. it depends on the region but guests will travel for only three nights if the destination is easily accessible. Of course in Canada you might have a couple from Vancouver, for instance, have a three- to four-night destination wedding in Puerto Vallarta; that’s a four-hour flight for them.
What potential does the destination wedding market hold for agents?
Sheldon: It can be very lucrative as most couples tend to spend more to have a nice resort and then if they invite family and friends, that turns into a group and group bookings are lucrative. Couples that invite just immediate family and friends can easily qualify for some of the group promotions which in turn leads to more commission.
The promotion might involve a free room if you book a certain number or upgrades on charter flights; it depends on the resort company or the tour operator. But these are good incentives for clients to get as many people to go as possible.
This market is also supposed to lead to repeat business. Can you explain that?
Sheldon: Repeat clients are easily gained in a number of ways. The average wedding has five wedding attendants—groomsmen and bridesmaids. Usually at least three of them are engaged or about to get engaged and looking to get married. You can do weddings or honeymoons or, when clients become families, book trips to Disney. This is building a relationship with a client that hopefully will last for many years.
Other family members and guests can also be added to agents’ data bases, doubling or tripling their existing data base. That’s their goldmine for clients.
And just marketing to millennials alone will create an opportunity for about the next 20 years. The youngest of the millennials are about 15 now. They’ll be potential brides and grooms in the next 10 years. For millennials, family and friend referrals and word of mouth is very important.
Do agents need specialized knowledge to break into the market?
Sheldon: If they have handled group bookings in the past, they will find it easier when handling a group destination wedding. Learning as much as possible about the resorts and wedding packages that their preferred tour operators offer will help. Many resorts also offer fam trips; meeting their wedding department is important.
If agents focus on beefing up their knowledge of the resorts’ wedding options, that really helps. Marketing themselves as a romance specialist to their existing data base will help them get started.
The DWHSA has an online certification program and is also launching a masters specialist course. That will probably happen in August.
What are the most popular destinations for this market?
Sheldon: Mexico is by far one of the most popular for many reasons including price, airlift, options for weddings, and a variety of resorts. The Bahamas, Jamaica, Grand Cayman, St. Lucia and the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean are also popular.