With more than 340,000 destination weddings each year (according to the The Knot 2016 Real Weddings Study), there’s no denying the sales potential of this lucrative market segment. Agents who successfully tap into this travel niche stand to book big group business, grow their client list and gain valuable repeat customers.
But today’s destination weddings are much more than sending a group off to a resort for a packaged ceremony and reception. Modern couples are demanding personalized celebrations full of custom details, unique touches that reflect their interests and special ways to amaze their guests. From unusual venues to welcome parties and group excursions to gourmet meals, custom cocktails and blended cultural traditions, couples are looking to go beyond the traditional or expected.
Overall, vendors are delivering the goods, offering a range of options and high product quality. “Some of the more popular destinations — like the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Jamaica — have really upped their game,” says Denise Georgiou-Newell, owner of WeDDings & Travels Jubilee. “You don’t really hear about limitations anymore. They have vendors from all over the world, and the couples are blown away by their amazing ability to create something unique — that goes for the food, the decor and the incredible event designers.”
From sitting down with chefs to design custom menus to donning scuba gear for underwater vows, couples are taking their destination wedding dreams to new heights—and agents need to know how to turn those dreams into reality. Here’s a look at some of the ways to create unique, personalized destination weddings that will meet and exceed clients’ expectations.
When it comes to destination choice, there’s no doubt that sun and sand top the list for many couples. The Knot’s study lists Hawaii, California, Florida, the Caribbean and Mexico among the top locales for a destination wedding — no surprise, considering the warm weather, stunning scenery and easy travel access — but adventurous couples aren’t limiting themselves to the tried-and-true.
“For the most part, any place is a consideration today,” says Kimberly Wilson Wetty, co-president of Valerie Wilson Travel. “We have seen it all, from flip flops to ice boots. Couples want to experience a destination that is new to them, or one that incorporates their interests in a special way.”
What’s more, the search for something unique is coming into play for ceremony and reception venues as well. According to The Knot’s study, unexpected places to wed are on the rise, in such non-traditional sites as beach houses, public gardens, wineries, museums, ranches and farms, and historic buildings and homes. While the study wasn’t limited to destination weddings, the trend is also applicable to those tying the knot away from home.
Aside from the ever-popular beach ceremonies, Georgiou-Newell says “Cliff-sides are very popular,” because they often have views of the sea without being right on the sand. “People love sky terraces right now and archeological sites that have ocean backdrops. In France or Italy, it’s wine country.”
And she predicts that venue choice will become even more diverse in the years to come: “In North America, we saw people get tired of cookie-cutter, and suddenly everybody started doing museum weddings and art galleries, and things you’d never seen before. I think the same thing is going to happen with destination weddings. People are going to want to be different, to be away from the tourists, to really immerse themselves in the culture of the place where they decide to have their wedding.”
When it comes to receptions, Wetty is already seeing couples opt for a range of nontraditional options, from “sundowners [cocktails at sunset] while on safari to remote beaches that are miles from anything to private chateaus and villas.” Vivian Caballero, who handles sales and marketing for ViaDestination Groups & Weddings has planned “scuba diving weddings under the water,” as well as weddings at Mayan ruins and next to the unique water-filled caverns called cenotes in Mexico.
As customization continues to grow throughout the travel industry, so too is it taking hold of the weddings market. The Knot’s study revealed that 75 percent of all couples have at least one signature wedding element, such as a signature cocktail. Destination Weddings Travel Group’s report highlights the importance couples are placing on personalizing everything from guest favors to wedding hashtags.
“Most brides have been planning their dream wedding for most of their lives,” says Araceli Lopez Dacosta, romance director for the Mexico Tourism Board. “They have thought about every detail, from the flowers to their first song. Customization is the most important part of making these dreams come true.”
In fact, couples’ focus on the details is one of the biggest differences in destination weddings today, according to Wetty. “Events have become more elaborate over the years,” she says. “When destination weddings started, I think everyone was more forgiving and the events were a little more relaxed since they knew it would be hard to replicate the hometown church and reception hall feeling. Today, there are no limits. Flying in flowers and musicians is the norm.”
Couples looking to create their own unique wedding experience can draw from a number of factors for inspiration. Look to the following for ideas that can create customized wow moments.
Many couples expect to incorporate their personal heritage into their destination wedding in some way, big or small, and today’s vendors are prepared to make that happen.
“Asian weddings are a good example,” according to Caballero. “They really transport all their traditions — the outfits, the food, the henna tattoos, everything. Years ago it was very difficult to get the vendors that offer those services, but now you can find everything you want.”
Agents should also be prepared for requests to incorporate a mix of traditions if the bride and groom come from different cultures. One way Georgiou-Newell accomplishes this is through food: “We’ll sit down with the chef and create a menu that incorporates two cultures in one, like creating churros filled with Nutella for an Italian-Mexican theme.”
“Incorporating the local traditions is critical for many couples,” says Wetty. “They don’t just want a destination wedding — they want it to feel authentic down to the food, wine, music and more.”
Common ways to give a destination wedding a strong sense of place include choosing a historically or culturally infused venue, using locally made decorations, serving regional cuisine and beverages, giving guests locally made wedding favors, and incorporating local music and entertainment. But agents can help couples take it even further.
“We’ve done jerk station huts in Jamaica; we’ve had the wait staff dressed in cultural clothes,” says Georgiou-Newell. “I did a wedding in Barbados, where they have trees with seed pods that dry out and become like a musical instrument. So when guests wanted the couple to kiss, they would shake the pods instead of clinking on glasses.”
Reach out to resorts, destination management companies, tourist boards and the like for insights into meaningful local customs that can be incorporated in unique ways.
Gourmet cuisine options are increasingly important at a destination wedding. “Couples have become such foodies, and people are not doing the cheapest or the complimentary meal options anymore,” says Georgiou-Newell.
Agents may be asked to accommodate requests for gourmet meal planning with a chef, culturally significant dishes, signature cocktail creations, authentic local cuisine and more.
Lifestyle and Interests
Consider what the couple likes in their everyday life, and suggest ways to incorporate those preferences and interests into the wedding. For example, Wetty suggests “blending grapes at a vineyard and creating a wine” if couples are wine enthusiasts, while Georgiou-Newell is seeing a rise in wellness-focused destination weddings, with couples tying in healthy cuisine or taking part in a cleansing ritual “to get their Zen on” before the ceremony.
The Guest Experience
According to The Knot’s study, the average cost of a wedding reached an all-time high in 2016, while the number of guests dropped — showing that couples are spending more on each guest and the overall guest experience.
“Smaller feels more special,” explains Wetty. “You can do private events with fewer people more easily than with bigger groups. It’s all about the wow factor.”
And in fact, the same study revealed that custom guest entertainment has more than tripled since 2009, with photo booths, games, musical performances, fireworks, dance performers, and wine or liquor tastings listed as examples.
“I think couples want the guests to really experience the destination they’ve chosen, and they want to spend quality time with them and experience something together,” says Georgiou-Newell. “The focus is for the guests to have a good time.”
Excursions for the whole group is a popular option, and one way Georgiou-Newell keeps everyone happy is by “creating a poll on the wedding website with a list of options that guests can vote on. And the majority wins for the group excursion of that trip.” She also recommends planning some free time for guests to spend as they wish, relaxing or doing their own activities, so they feel like they’ve gotten some real vacation time during the trip.
Couples are also adding fun experiences for guests at the ceremony and reception. In addition to unique entertainment, Georgiou-Newell has planned special guest experiences such as an LED balloon release at the end of the night or after-dinner teepees and bonfires on the beach where guests can relax.
She is also seeing couples give guests more chances to get involved in ceremony prep: “We just had a same-sex couple host an arts and crafts hour for their guests, where everyone wrote their wishes [for the couple] on colored ribbons. The day after, the moms, the aunts and the planners hung the ribbons on the chuppah, so that they were flowing in the wind as the couple came down the aisle. It was a wonderful way to incorporate the guests.”
Both Wetty and Georgiou-Newell also like to recommend planning surprises for the guests, whether it’s a fun element in the ceremony or reception, whisking guests off on a surprise excursion with minimal instructions (like how to dress) or wowing the group with an incredible favor.
“Don’t include all the events on the invitation,” suggests Wetty. “I also love having photographers capture the ‘real’ moments and then creating a personalized album for each guest.”
Caballero sums up the importance of the guest experience: “When all the people are mixing and connecting…when they don’t stop dancing, talking, drinking — you see that and know this is a job very well done.”
The Magic of Mexico Destination Weddings
To put it simply, “Mexico has everything couples need to make any dream wedding come to life,” says Araceli Lopez Dacosta, romance director for the Mexico Tourism Board.
That’s especially true at a time when couples are looking for unique, exciting and personalized options for their destination wedding — thanks in part to a multitude of diverse landscapes throughout the country and a variety of incredible venues for both ceremonies and receptions. “A couple can have their wedding on serene beaches, in calming deserts or even in the beautiful snowy mountains,” explains Dacosta. “Couples have gotten married in majestic castles, magical towns, bullring stadiums, caverns, ancient sites, vineyards, exotic jungles and forests, and even on yachts and private islands. No matter what a couple’s budget may be, there is an exciting wedding location to fit their level of adventure and their desire for a unique experience.”
Another perk of planning a destination wedding in Mexico is the ease of adding custom touches, starting with heritage and lifestyle. “Mexico offers lots of wedding ceremonies to fit many different lifestyles, including multicultural, same-sex, green and pre-Hispanic ceremonies,” says Dacosta. “Couples can perform any wedding rituals from their culture and heritage at their wedding in Mexico.”
In addition to bringing their own background and lifestyle to the event, couples can highlight the destination and create an authentic sense of place for their guests by incorporating the flavors and culture of Mexico in a variety of ways. Dacosta lists Mariachi music, Mexican cuisine, historical sites, Mayan or pre-Hispanic rituals, and traditional Mexican celebrations as just a few of the many options.
What makes this customization possible is the vast network of wedding vendors available to make every dream come true. “Mexico has 23 destinations and more than 650 vendors and specialists certified,” Dacosta explains. “With so many specialists, Mexico can provide options for weddings that many people don’t expect — for example, couples who love scuba diving can have a beautiful wedding underwater. Couples who enjoy adventure can get married on ziplines high above the ground. They can have a wedding on the beach with their friends and family, then have a personal and intimate Mayan ceremony with just each other in a cenote. With a Mexi-CAN wedding, there is nothing a couple can’t do.”
For more information and ideas about how to help your clients create the wedding of their dreams in Mexico, check out VisitMexico.com.