Specializing in destination weddings will challenge even the most experienced agent, but in the end the personal and professional benefits make it all worthwhile. Read parts one and two of this three-part series.
More couples are searching for wedding experiences beyond the conventional ceremony and reception, and travel agents can benefit from both the large ticket sales and loyal client base that destination weddings and honeymoons can create.
“I’m averaging 1-3 new leads per day since the New Year started,” said Melissa Varela MBA, MCC, owner of Modern Romance Travel, San Ramon, CA. “I’m happily surprised by the boost in sales. 2017 is going to be good.”
Modern Romance Travel, specializes in destination weddings and honeymoons, and is listed online at sites like Wedding Wire and The Knot.
“With destination weddings, there are so many moving pieces and so much information, it’s overwhelming for the couple,” Varela said. “That’s where specialists come in. We’ve been to the property. We have connections at the resorts, like the onsite wedding coordinator. This is all information the couple won’t be able to find online. It’s so difficult to plan a destination wedding on your own.”
With both bride and groom having careers these days, it is getting harder to find the time right after a wedding to take a traditional honeymoon, said Lisa Sheldon, executive director of the Destination Wedding & Honeymoon Specialists Association (DWHSA). She believes that is the driving force behind the “two-step honeymoon, a ‘mini moon’ immediately after the wedding, and then the longer traditional honeymoon when they can both get the time off.”
Sharon Campbell Little, president and owner of the Wedding and Honeymoon Travel Group, Los Angeles, said she is also seeing a trend towards “twin center destination weddings and honeymoons. For example they marry in a garden location resort in Ocho Rios for the wedding but then take a honeymoon down on the beaches of Negril.”
“More and more couples are looking for that unique wedding or honeymoon experience. Recently I went Sharkcage diving on Oahu’s North shore and I had a couple contact me about doing that type of experience on their honeymoon.”
Other trends that the DWHSA has seen lately include smaller guest lists and smaller properties, “volunteer moons,” and honeymoons to exotic locations that allow the bride and groom to satisfy their desire for adventure.
Zika still having an impact a year later
Varela and others said that last year, fear of the Zika virus dampened demand for traditional destinations like Mexico and the Caribbean.
“Bookings hit the wall in March 2016,” said Jennifer Doncsecz, president of VIP Vacations, Bethlehem, PA. “I normally do 200 weddings a year. Guests are thinking about whether they are getting pregnant while they will be at a wedding.”
As a result of destination wedding cancellations last year, VIP is now including cancellation fees in its contracts. “Tour operators made it too easy to cancel last year,” conditioning couples to plan and rethink their decisions, Doncsecz said. Now, she is very open with couples about any potential Zika concerns.
“You have to get out ahead of it with your clients. I don’t want to work with a bride and then seven months out they cancel.”
As a result of Zika, many couples became conservative in their plans, opting for brand name all-inclusive properties where they felt virus prevention controls were stronger, said Diane Bean, owner, Off on Vacation, Bangor, ME.
“I educate, but I don’t try to change their mind. I’ll also recommend alternatives, like Cabo san Lucas for a couple looking at Mexico but worried about the Caribbean side.”
Kitzia Morales Torres, co-founder of Cancun Wedding Experience, noted that there were 365 cases of Zika in Mexico last year, but only four were on the popular Quintana Roo strip of the Yucatan. “It’s really only been in the remote regions,” Morales Torres said. “Not in Cancun or the tourist regions.”
“You can still save the sale from a Zika destination wedding cancellation,” Sheldon advised. “You can still book the honeymoon. And Las Vegas weddings are up because of Zika.”
New destinations rise, but traditional locations thrive
While Zika has dampened demand for some traditional destinations, a host of factors are causing other locales to become more popular.
Campbell Little believes the industry is going to see more bookings to countries like Iceland, Ireland and Cuba. And in many cases, she said, couples are considering destinations as far away as, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. “I will be visiting three of these destinations this year myself,” Campbell Little said.
Connie Riker, owner at Create the Moment, Olympia, WA, said she has seven inquiries related to locations like Thailand, Bali and Indonesia. She believes some of this demand is due in part to a wedding and romance fam trip that the Thailand tourism board hosted for agents two years ago. “It’s seen as a safe, exotic location to go,” Riker said.
“I didn’t think that it would be an easy sell for Americans to go to Southeast Asia for a wedding because time and cost would be prohibitive,” she said.
At the beginning of this year, Paul Gauguin Cruises announced it is now offering wedding ceremony and renewal of vows packages at Motu Mahana, the cruise line's private isle off the coast of Taha'a, or at the InterContinental Bora Bora Resort & Thalasso Spa.
“We have a lot of couples who cruise with us for their honeymoon,” said Paul Gauguin public relations director Vanessa Bloy. “So we designed two wedding packages, and then partnered with the Intercontinental to offer the second package.”
Bloy described how Paul Gauguin just hosted a small wedding party at Thalasso. Guests can also, if they have a large group, 332-guest ship. There are in Tahiti, different laws. You do have to go to the courthouse to have a legal wedding first. This is more ceremonial.
Gauguin’s Bora Bora Wedding Ceremony or Renewal of Vows at Thalasso offers bride's arrival at the chapel on a traditional outrigger canoe ride through the lagoonarium, Tahitian blessing by a local priest, at the InterContinental Bora Bora Resort & Thalasso Spa's air-conditioned chapel with glass floors showcasing the lagoon below, a 2-course lunch at the resort, transfers and use of the resort's facilities after the ceremony.
Varela at Modern Romance said that the close proximity of her business to Silicon Valley has led to more Indian and Southeast Asian weddings as well. “They’re large in size, and very profitable,” she said. Varela attended a seminar on Indian weddings last October at a Riviera Maya resort to better educate herself how to serve this market.