A few weeks after her February 2016 Punta Cana destination wedding, Beth Eibler Johnston found herself retired, newly remarried and settled into a Michigan winter.
Ever since she and her husband Dan Johnston got engaged in 2014, she was preoccupied with planning her wedding, including the myriad and complex tasks that come with hosting 30 family members and friends, 1,800 miles away in the Caribbean.
With time to finally breathe and think, she asked herself: “What will I do now?” The last thing Eibler Johnston thought was that in less than a year, she would be helping other brides plan and book their destination weddings. She contacted her travel agent, Tami Santini, owner at Paradise Getaways in Portage, Michigan, to ask if she had any part-time work that could be done from home.
“Tami said, ‘No, but how would you like to be an independent contractor in my host agency?’” Eibler Johnston recalled.
Santini said she felt that Eibler Johnston had the right mix of skills and passion to succeed, and by January 2017, Beth’s Beautiful Getaways in Pinckney, Michigan, was launched, focusing on honeymoons and destination weddings.
“It’s really unique for Beth to be in a position to know what a bride is going through,” Santini said. “For Beth to have that connection with a couple, that she can say ‘I know how you feel,’ and walk them through the process from a personal understanding is great.
It’s all personal
Prior to getting engaged in December 2014, the Johnstons had traveled extensively and Beth knew that if she did get married again, she wanted it to be on the beach, someplace warm, away from the Michigan winter.
After Dan proposed, Beth spent time over the Christmas break researching her Caribbean options, and soon found herself overwhelmed. Not yet fully retired, she was balancing the planning with her teaching duties.
“I decided early on I needed someone to help me figure this out. Somehow, my online search turned up Tami, but it was the way she cared so much on that first call that gave me the confidence that she was the right person to help,” she remembered.
This was Eibler Johnston’s first lesson: your clients can come from anywhere, but ultimately, the connection with you personally is what will close the sale. “It was that sharing and back and forth. We clicked.”
Cull the options
“I wanted a beautiful beach for the wedding and our photos. Dan wanted to play golf the day before the wedding. Whatever Tami researched, she knew we had to have both,” Eibler Johnston said.
Santini offered a Hard Rock resort in Punta Cana; a Sandals resort in the Bahamas; and the Paradisus Palma Real Golf & Spa Resort, also in the Dominican Republic.
“The Hard Rock Punta Cana was a little too large for my liking. My mom was 78 at the time and I didn’t want her to walk a whole lot,” EIbler Johnston said. “The Sandals resort had a Greg Norman golf course, but I didn’t want to chance the weather being so cool in the Bahamas in February, and we were locked in for that weekend because I was still teaching. For me, it was all about how the beach was going to look.” They settled on the Paradisus.
“This is what a good planner does,” EIbler Johnston said. “They listen to everything about what the bride and groom require and vet out a small set of options. This experience taught me to really listen to the client and what they are saying. Do you prefer adults-only? How important is the food to you? What are you looking for in terms of the grounds?”
How’s your ground game?
The same way that brides will visit their catering hall or wedding venue during the planning process, it is exponentially important for them (or their agent) to make a site visit when the wedding is being held nearly 2,000 miles away, and where the locals may speak English as a second language, Eibler Johnston said.
“This was especially useful with my mom traveling. At her age, I needed to feel comfortable what her experience would be like getting from the airport to the resort. What assistance would she need on the property getting to the events? Those little things are big things for a bride,” Eibler Johnston said.
She praised resorts like Sandals, which will provide discounted pre-wedding visits for couples.
“You can use that time to meet with the onsite photographer and scope out the shots you want, and how many, talk to catering, taste the food, see what the nightlife is like,” she said.
Meeting in advance, Eibler Johnston worked with her photographer on her son’s surprise proposal to his girlfriend. “We wanted to make certain he understood that was a must-do, and plan for it.”
Even still, Eibler Johnston never got a photo with her mother in her hotel room as she was getting ready. “Those are the kinds of memories you don’t get back, and having missed that opportunity, I’m sensitive to it and will help a bride plan as much as we can,” she said.
Eibler Johnston also had a chance to see the wedding ceremony location, and plan out any potential issues with the public beach beyond it. “Brides need to know that the resort can’t block people from accessing the beach. If they aren’t comfortable, maybe they want a garden wedding instead. You get a feel for these things when you visit.”
Sweat the details
Finally, Eibler Johnston also thinks that having gone through this experience, she plans for things that could go wrong. For example, some all-inclusive restaurants require dining reservations.
“Depending on the size of your party, if you don’t make reservations far enough in advance, they might not be able to accommodate you and all of your guests at the same seating,” she said, recounting how that happened at her destination wedding.
“We ended up with eight reservations here, ten reservations there, and I was dealing with the stress of who was going where, and whether everyone would be happy with what I chose. Find out the policy ahead of time,” Eibler Johnston advises.
Trip insurance is another biggie, Eibler Johnston said. “We had one guest who needed it and benefitted from having it, and one who didn’t purchase it and had a problem.”
Finally, Eibler Johnston believes that destination wedding specialists should require all airline information from all guests, even if you don’t book their flights for them. In her case, originally her elderly mother was going to be accompanied by one of Eibler Johnston’s brothers, and her flights were booked accordingly. But her brother’s employer couldn’t give him the time off, necessitating flight changes.
“As a bride’s go-to agent, I would want to take that trouble completely off her shoulders, so it would be easier if I just had everything on behalf of all her guests.”