Travel agents often get referrals after successfully handling a wedding. // © 2013 Sandals
Destination weddings and the Caribbean make a perfect match. According to a 2012 survey by TheKnot.com, 66 percent of international brides who opted for a destination wedding did so because they wanted a special, fun or exotic locale — an ideal match for the Caribbean. The study also found that the top international destination wedding location is the Caribbean, which accounts for 39 percent of all such weddings.
When it comes to choosing a location for a Caribbean wedding, there are specific features and benefits of each island, whether it’s on-island attractions or the availability of airlift. Factors that will influence a couple’s choice of destination for the exchange of their vows include whether the resort is adults-only or kid-friendly; if the quality of food is front-and-center or an afterthought; and if there are plenty of diversions available to suit the different needs of a wedding group, from golf and spa to shopping. Another factor is the Caribbean hurricane season, which reaches its peak from August through October. These three months, especially September, are popular for destination weddings. The upside of booking during the peak hurricane months is the likelihood of wrangling an attractive rate for your wedding clients.
Travel agent Jennifer Doncsecz, president of Whitehall, Penn.-based VIP Vacations Inc., has her own favorite destinations. She cites Jamaica as the easiest place to get married, due to its streamlined wedding regulations process and the fact that English is spoken. In Jamaica, she recommends Sandals and Beaches resorts. For destination weddings on a budget, she steers her clients toward Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, where she favors properties from AMResorts, especially the company’s Secrets brand.
Proposing to Your Clients
Travel agents have their work cut out for them in attracting clients away from booking the wedding themselves using online resources. A 2011 survey from Walker Communications found that 62 percent of all destination couples book their wedding online, as compared to the 24 percent who use the services of a travel agent. What this survey doesn’t record is the level of satisfaction couples had in the process. When things go wrong — and a destination wedding has many moving parts — couples booking through a travel agent have a real person they can call to sort things out.
Travel agents entering the destination wedding market have to be prepared to go the extra mile for clients who have a lot of emotion invested in their big day. The term “travel counselor” really applies here. Agents will need to don a variety of hats — from surrogate mother to island marriage law expert — to ensure that their clients’ wedding goes off without a hitch.
According to Doncsecz, too many travel agents book the rooms and flights for a destination wedding and then hand off the rest to a wedding planner.
“I see agents with a lot of dollar signs in their eyes,” said Doncsecz. “The business sounds lovely but you have to know the ins and outs. You have to deal with getting that email Sunday morning from a bride who is in tears because her family isn’t sure that they want to go to her destination wedding.”
Doncsecz gives brides the chance to have their own website, which is created by the agency. Brides are also sent a spreadsheet after each new guest is booked into the group room block. Doncsecz even creates customized save-the-date notices for each bride’s invitees. At a specified time, usually three months before the wedding, the agency follows up with guests who have not responded.
“I work with the bride for 18 months on the wedding, and only turn it over to the wedding planner 30 days beforehand,” said Doncsecz. “This kind of customer service has its rewards. We often get referrals from our clients before they’ve even experienced their wedding.”
Repeat business can be an additional reward. Sandals Resorts and Beaches Resorts have found that 70 percent of their destination wedding brides and grooms return to the same resort to celebrate their first year anniversary.
“Further down the line, if the couple has children, agents may find they are booking their clients’ family vacations,” said Marsha-Ann Brown, Sandals Resorts International’s director of resort sales. “Also, on average, four of the couple’s friends are getting married within 18 months. This represents another potential for business referrals, since these friends have seen what the agent can accomplish.”
In a reflection of the economy, destination weddings have become smaller since 2009, decreasing from an average of 48 guests to 40, according to the 2011 Walker survey. These figures are borne out by reports from the field.
“Our destination weddings are experiencing a dip,” said Tammy Levent, CEO of Tampa-based Elite Travel Management Group. “Given the state of the economy, people are afraid to ask their friends and family to drop more than $1,000 on airfare if they don’t have a job. I see the trend moving toward smaller weddings at high-end resorts. Couples are not asking everyone to attend their destination wedding, and I’ve noticed that there are less kids going to weddings.”
Levent noted that keeping it small means the bride and groom can have their dream wedding.
“You have to guide your client,” said Levent. “The travel agent has to be very considerate of the client and not indulge in the hard sell. To economize, maybe you’ll combine a ceremony at the resort with a dinner at a local restaurant. Couples are getting married later. They’ve been together with their partner for five or six years. They’re educated, they have a house. Many of them would rather spend the money on a nice vacation instead of a wedding. Given the economy, they’re also not going to ask their families to sacrifice.”
There’s also the matter of priorities for invited guests.
“If you have a family of three spending $5,000 for three nights to attend a destination wedding — for that kind of money the family could vacation at Disneyland for a week,” noted Levent.
While Doncsecz planned more weddings than ever last year, the number of rooms booked went down.
“Fifty to 60 rooms are the biggest weddings we do,” said Doncsecz. “We usually do four weddings of that size each year. Last year, we only did two.”
There is a silver lining, though: Doncsecz noted that since room rates have risen, her company’s revenues are actually up for the year.
When new passport regulations were introduced in 2007 for travelers to the Caribbean, common opinion held sway that group travel to the region would take a substantial hit. But according to the 2011 Walker survey, destination wedding couples are well-equipped to travel internationally, as 91 percent currently own a valid passport. This is a remarkable figure, considering only 37 percent of U.S. citizens owns a passport.
“When U.S. passport requirements for travel to the Caribbean were introduced, we did receive a number of enquiries about destination weddings in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, where a passport isn’t required,” said Doncsecz. “But clients soon realized that they could save money by booking an all-inclusive resort at one of the other islands in the Caribbean and then factoring in the cost of passports.”
Know Your Business
TheKnot.com’s 2012 study noted that international destination weddings are likely to span several days. Nearly seven in 10 international weddings last three or more days, and 47 percent last four or more days, compared with just 38 percent in 2009. More than four in five international destination wedding couples and guests stay at the destination beyond the wedding date. This represents a sizeable number of commissionable room nights.
Doncsecz also noted that it’s important to qualify the client in order to avoid meltdowns. She has had brides work intensively with her and then suddenly have the bride cancel their destination wedding when they met opposition from their family.
“When meeting with the bride and groom for the first time, and they say they want a wedding experience for just the two of them, gently guide them to consider expanding the scope of their wedding,” advised Brown.
Agents can begin by accentuating the perceived value of destination weddings.
“If a couple were to have the wedding at home, there would be more guests,” noted Brown. “Couples also like the prospect of the easy one-stop shopping a destination wedding represents, instead of having to deal with a variety of vendors at home. With a destination wedding, they are looking at a small core group of family and friends. This core group will pay for the expense of attending the destination wedding and will also honor its commitment to attend.”
TheKnot.com’s study also revealed who actually pays for the expenses associated with a destination wedding. Thirty-nine percent of couples pays for travel and accommodation expenses for at least some of their guests. Of the couples who plan a special group activity — such as a group catamaran ride — 53 percent cover the cost for a portion of their guest list.
Brown noted that the guests whose expenses are covered by the bride and groom are unique to the particular wedding party.
“What we’re seeing is the bride and groom paying for the bachelor party for the guys, which might be centered around something adventurous, such as an ATV excursion or ziplining, and a spa session for the bride and her bridal party,” said Brown.
Knowing the destination wedding market inside out is essential. It begins with education and extends to attending bridal shows and seminars. Brown has some advice for agents considering entry into the destination wedding market.
“First, pick a brand and get a working knowledge of the market,” she said. “Second, I recommend agents be proactive with grassroots marketing. For example, go to a local jeweler and say, ‘You sell rings and I sell travel — let’s partner.’”
Doncsecz recommends that agents enroll in a training program, such as the WeddingMoon Specialist Program from Sandals and Karisma’s Wedding Specialist Program. Last year, Sandals’ popular four-day, on-resort program filled all available spaces for agents within 48 hours.
“At Sandals, we’ve seen a keen interest in destination weddings, more than ever before,” said Brown. “This is a niche market that is going nowhere but up.”