Social media is a driving force in consumer vacation travel habits, but nowhere may it be more impactful than destination weddings.
Speaking at the New York Times Travel Show, a panel of experts said the reach and impact of lush visual imagery is driving more couples to look for increasingly unique experiences that will make their destination wedding spectacular.
The pressure starts the moment a couple decides to get engaged, said Heidi Verschaeve, director of business development at Sandos Hotels & Resorts. “Proposal videos are going viral. They want to brag to family and friends in a one-of-a-kind destination,” she said.
Social media-savvy wedding clients are looking for “very unique locations. Everyone is already aware of the typical beach locations. They’re looking for preserves and parks, tropical gardens, places that make a wedding even more unique. Private rooftop terraces are flourishing like mushrooms,” she said.
Gina Johnson, wedding and romance sales manager at Playa Hotels & Resorts, recently worked with a couple who took over a sanctuary in the Dominican Republic.
One out of four marriages are destination weddings today, said Lisa Sheldon, executive director of the Destination Wedding & Honeymoon Specialists Association. With more than 340,000 destination weddings booked annually, averaging $28,000 each, this niche can be extremely prosperous for travel agents. Sheldon said about 15 percent of those weddings are luxury travel sales, and can generate even higher commissions.
Agents can relieve information overload
But in the same way that couples’ expectations for their destination wedding have increased, so has their need for a good travel agent, said Nancy Barkley, owner at Honeymoons and Getaways, North Wales, Pennsylvania.
“The first thing they say when they call you is that they are on information overload. They really want your guidance. They want to know what is the latest trend, the best destinations. They want to be the first to do something new and have bragging rights,” Barkley said.
Playa Hotels & Resorts has been sensing this overload from its clients, so it recently launched a new destination wedding website to simplify the research process, said Johnson.
With basic core packages and the ability for customizing, the website is addressing the need for couples to personalize their experience. At Sandos, 10 percent of their business today is what Verschaeve calls “al a carte weddings where the couple can customize. This is something we’ve seen increasing the last 2-3 years.”
In other trends, destination wedding couples and their wedding parties are doing more after the ceremony. Johnson recommends that since, at many resorts, activities booked through the hotel are commissionable, travel agents should be pre-booking more activities. “Once they get on the property, they are buying these experiences anyway. You can get paid for booking a group going bicycling or ziplining,” Johnson said.
How to generate new sales leads
Finding destination wedding clients does take an investment of time and money, all the panelists agreed. The most important source are the guest lists of the clients whose weddings you are currently working on, said Johnson at Playa Resorts.
“It is almost guaranteed that someone in the wedding party will be getting engaged in a year. Destinations weddings sell the next destination wedding,” Johnson reminded attendees.
Bridal shows may not be a good source, others said, because most cater more to local weddings. Barkley said her biggest destination wedding came from a client she met at a wine expo sponsored by the Italian tourism board.
“I attended because Italy is a very popular honeymoon destination for me. Someone pulled me aside and asked me if I did destination weddings. To date, that is one of my largest destination weddings ever,” she said.
Working with travel agents, Verschaeve feels they need to be more planful working bridal shows. “Most of them are held January through March. And an agent will get a batch of email addresses, and maybe follow-up. But then you get caught up in Wave Season, updating your blog, booking spring break trips,” she said. Then, in the summer, “you’re wondering, ‘Why hasn’t that bride contacted me?’ Of course, she hasn’t. She’s only heard from you once, probably isn’t getting married in a year, and she isn’t going to remember that travel agent from the bridal show in January. You need to have a better follow-up marketing plan to stay in front of her periodically.”
Other panelists promoted using customer relationship management software for existing clients, and regularly checking in to simply see what is going on in your clients’ lives. “For you as a travel agent, you need to be aware if a couple you work with has been together for a while. One of them might be thinking of proposing,” said Verschaeve.
This especially holds true for second-time marriages. According to Sheldon, 80 percent of destination wedding couples have been married at least once before.
“Because they are more mature, the wedding groups that used to be about 20 people, even two years ago, can be double that size now,” Johnson said, accounting for the couple’s older children, and a broader network of friends with established careers and incomes.
Finally, agents should not forget where romance travel all began – booking honeymoons – which cost about two-thirds more than a regular vacation, Sheldon said.
Cindy Sullivan, Eastern region sales manager for the Globus Family of Brands, said the company’s Monogram collection is selling the hottest for honeymooners because an independent package trip reduces the need for planning at a time when a couple has enough stress on their hands.
“The quickest way to kill romance is to argue over the logistics of your honeymoon,” Sullivan said.