Destination Weddings

Exotic locales and stress-free nuptials could mean the end of Bridezillas

By: Janeen Christoff, Marty Wentzel, Jamie Wetherbe

Weddings seem to be contagious around the TravelAge West office. Along with some other recent nuptials, Assistant Editor Jamie Wetherbe got engaged in July, and Associate Editor Janeen Christoff did the same just two months later.

So when it came time to decide who would write a cover story on destination weddings, they were the obvious choice. Even though they are having very different weddings Janeen will say “I do” on a beach in Southern California, while Jamie will wed at her mother’s home in New Mexico they have one thing in common. They have no idea how to plan a wedding.

To take the stress and guesswork out of planning, more and more couples are opting for ceremonies away from home. Experts say that now one in 10 weddings are destination weddings a 200 percent increase from a decade ago.

As couples get married older, some wish to forgo a formal church affair and have someone else do most of the planning. Still for others, it’s a matter of money. Thanks to smaller guest lists and all-inclusive resorts, couples spend an average of 41 percent less on destination weddings than those who wed at home, according to a recent CNN report.

As destination weddings become more mainstream, guest lists are growing beyond close friends and family. This is good news for travel agents. Commissions for most destination weddings typically range between $4,000 and $10,000, according to The Travel Institute which offers a specialist course in honeymoons and destination weddings. Agents planning an event for more than 100 guests at a luxury resort can see commissions of $20,000 or more.

Couples are also constantly seeking out new locales, but agents need to keep in mind that often where couples say they want to wed and where they actually get married are very different places. For example, Tahiti ranks high among destination wedding hot spots, but the island’s legal requirements (including residency and celibacy certificates) and remote location, make it an impractical choice.

Although some places still remain out of reach for many couples, Hawaii, Mexico and the Caribbean remain staples on wish lists and are where more couples actually wed. We’ve combined trends and package options in each of these locations for clients looking for wedded bliss away from home.


Agents shouldn’t ask why clients are considering Hawaii for their nuptials. Instead, the question is “why not?” The 50th state not only provides sublime locations and year-round warm weather, it lays claim to a long list of experienced wedding coordinators with savvy tips for tying the knot in Hawaii.
When choosing which island to get married on, couples need to think carefully about what else they want to do while in Hawaii, said Susan O’Donnell, whose Aloha Wedding Planners sells wedding services on Oahu, Maui, Kauai and the Big Island.

“It’s important for the bride and groom to consider their guests’ needs, too,” she said. “Will guests be visiting for the first time? What will they do to occupy their time here?”

Oahu-based Penny Johnson, of Hawaii Weddings.

net, thinks Oahu is the best island for a wedding, especially if it’s the couple’s first trip to Hawaii.

“Oahu has everything they need, from rural settings to big-city excitement,” she said. “With the right planner, couples on Oahu can spend as little or as much money as they want on the wedding of their dreams.”

Clients who decide to wed on Maui must consider the layout of the island, said Lori Scott of Tropical Maui Weddings.

“Traffic between Maui’s south and west sides can be very slow, and in emergency situations it can be closed for hours,” Scott said. “For the couple and their guests, agents should find accommodations on the same side of the island as the wedding location.”

In addition, Maui devotees need to remember that they aren’t alone, said Debi Winckler of Pacific Island Weddings.

“Clients wanting a quiet beach setting should get married no later than 8 a.m. for a wedding with perfect lighting and the beach to themselves,” she said. “Since Hawaii is three to six hours behind the mainland, most couples are getting up early anyway.”

Speaking of beaches, don’t forget to use plenty of sunscreen, advised Enchanted Weddings owner Lisa Bollhorst.

“I’ve seen too many brides in tears over sunburns and strap lines,” she said.

Haunani Rossi of Kauai Aloha Weddings encouraged working with an island-based wedding planner who really knows the lay of the land.

“Find a reputable island-based company, perhaps a member of the Better Business Bureau of Hawaii,” she said. “Look for a wedding coordination company that has been in business for at least five years or more, and see if they are members of any professional organization locally.”

On any island, don’t choose a planner who simply offers you package A, B or C, without any flexibility, advised Debbie Cravatta of Paradise Weddings on the Big Island.

“Work with someone who goes the extra mile to customize the wedding, someone who’s eager to listen to each couple’s needs,” she said. “Independent wedding planners thrive on making the client happy, and we never want anything to go wrong.”


Next to Hawaii, the Caribbean is one of the most popular places for couples to wed away from home. The most frequented destinations are Jamaica, U.S. Virgin Islands, the Bahamas and St. Lucia, but the tropical setting on any of the islands make the Caribbean an idyllic setting. Additionally, the abundance of all-inclusive resorts adds to the ease in which couples can share their vows.

While all-inclusives make wedding planning easy for couples, they also mean large commissions for agents. One large destination wedding at an all-inclusive resort, with clients’ guests booking multiple-night stays, can earn agents thousands of dollars in commissions. In addition, many resorts offer commissionable add-ons to packages.

An important thing to consider when booking an all-inclusive resort for a Caribbean wedding is whether or not families or just couples will be among the guests. Resorts like Sandals offer beautiful settings for weddings throughout the region, but they are couples-only resorts. Similarly, Couples Resorts is designated adults only.

Beaches Resorts, Sandals’ family brand, offer accommodation for the whole family as do Club Med properties, Occidental Hotels and Resorts’ Allegro, Grand and Royal Resorts and Wyndham Hotels and Resorts all-inclusive Caribbean properties.

Many of these resorts entice couples with wedding incentives that not only make their destination weddings easier but also include deluxe accommodations, wedding planners, flowers, cakes or even free weddings.

At AMResorts’ Dreams, Secrets and Sunscape brands in the Dominican Republic, free weddings in the resorts’ gazebos come with booking a seven-night stay. The Secrets Wedding in Paradise package includes wedding coordinator, wedding gazebo, dressing assistant, room for the groom the night before the wedding, cake, bouquet and more. Other packages are also available, and all packages are commissionable to agents.

Sandals Resorts appeal to a wide variety of brides- and grooms-to-be with their WeddingMoon packages. The recent launch of the Preston Bailey packages makes a fancy Caribbean wedding even more accessible, offers more choice to the couple and, with a Sandals wedding planner, the couple can expect everything to be organized on their big day.

Currently, there are four packages available and while the offerings may change in order to keep them fresh, according to Tony Cortivas, vice president of advertising for Sandals, the Preston Bailey WeddingMoon is a long-term Sandals offering.

“With Preston, now we have a fantastic message,” he said.

Sandals is also trying to arm agents with the tools to sell these packages, said Cortivas. Agents should watch for new ad campaigns as well as a Sandals workshop with information about how the packages work and how agents can maximize commissions.

“The travel agent is going to be integral in this process,” noted Cortivas.

Commission for Sandals’ packages is a standard 10 percent but varies depending on what is sold with the package. They can also be sold a la carte or mixed and matched to clients’ wishes. Additional add-ons like cakes designed by Sylvia Weinstock or gowns designed by Dessy Creations are also available and commissionable. Package prices start at $1,700 for the Floral Elegance Collection.

Other resorts have followed the lead of all-inclusives and offer perks like wedding planners to draw business. The Half Moon Bay Resort in Jamaica offers three wedding packages and 12 percent commission to agents.


Mexico is another popular choice for destination weddings because while exotic, Mexico is also easy to access via plane or cruise ship. With a number of resorts and beaches, couples have a choice of many places to say their “I dos.” However, those who prefer to wed at a specific date or time such as sunset should book their nuptials as soon as possible, said Cozumel wedding planner Stephanie Skiba de Garcia.

Additionally, Mexico’s marriage requirements aren’t that different from what’s needed in the U.S., and many resorts will take care of all necessary paperwork. Since the dollar stretches further, a wedding in Mexico can also be easier on the pocketbook, and several resorts offer free weddings with a minimum stay.

Beginning in January, the boutique luxury property El Dorado Seaside Suites a will offer the Sweet Weddings package. Couples receive a free wedding when they book an oceanfront Jacuzzi Junior Suite for seven nights or more, along with five additional guestrooms. Rates at the adult-only resort run between $270 and $400 per night, double.

Dreams Resorts & Spas offers free weddings at its all-inclusive resorts in Puerto Vallarta, Los Cabos and Cancun if couples book a Junior Suite Oceanview category for seven-nights or more. The Dreams in Paradise package includes the services of a judge and wedding coordinator; use of the beachside wedding gazebo; bouquet and boutonniere; wedding cake and a bottle of sparkling wine; discounted spa treatments; and, based on availability, a separate guestroom for the groom the night before the wedding and late checkout for the newlyweds.

Villa Premiere Hotel & Spa in Puerto Vallarta is offering a free wedding package for couples who book a Honeymoon Suite for a minimum of seven nights. Through Dec. 24, couples receive the services of a minister and wedding coordinator; bouquet and boutonniere; wedding cake; spa discounts; and based on availability, a separate guestroom for the groom the night before the wedding and late check out for the newlyweds. Rates start from $230 per night, double.

Although honeymoon destinations may change in popularity over the years, the popularity of destination weddings and vow-renewal ceremonies beyond one’s own backyard is on the rise. Combining a wedding with a dream honeymoon can make lasting memories for clients and give agents a creative and lucrative way to serve the honeymoon market.

Question and Answer With Preston Bailey

Preston Bailey is an internationally celebrated event designer and wedding planner as well as author of “Design for Entertaining and Fantasy Weddings.” He has planned events for Donald and Melania Trump, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Matt Lauer, Donna Karen and Oprah Winfrey. This year he has partnered with Sandals Resorts to create four wedding packages for Sandals’ WeddingMoon program.

How did you get started with Sandals?

I was giving a speech once and there were some executives there from Sandals. They came up with the idea, and I was really excited about it. My market is a very high-end market, and it was interesting to create full packages that I felt had some kind of a style to them. Also most of the Sandals resorts are in Jamaica, and my grandparents are from there so there is a certain heritage to it as well.

Were you considering doing packages with other resorts?

No, just Sandals. I visited quite a few of their resorts, and I think that they are really beautiful and the quality of what they offer is really very special. As it is, they do about 10,000 weddings there a year, so they do have that market there already and it’s exciting to take that market and upgrade it to make it something really special.

How did you come up with the four packages that are offered?

I tried to think of the brides that I normally work with and the different type of brides and different sensitivities. I also try to keep in mind that most of the people getting married in the islands are getting married at the beach or in a wonderful garden setting. I try to bring in a little bit of the whimsy like in the Crystal Collection, where I did a tree with crystals, almost like a ballroom on a beach. Each one of them I did with some point of reference for a bride or a room or a concept that I’ve worked with and made it work outdoors and beach-like.

When did you start doing the WeddingMoon packages and which one was first?

The first wedding was in September in St. Lucia. It was the high-end Crystal Collection.

How are all the different Sandals resorts able to give the Preston Bailey touch?

Every destination has a wedding planner. There is a very specific catalog that has images from each package for couples to choose from. It is possible to combine one element with another and all the elements work well together.

What is your favorite package?

I fluctuate between the Water Lily and the Crystal Collection. I love the Water Lily because of the wonderful colors. The hot pink on the beach is really vibrant and incredible. And the Crystal Collection I love because of the crystal tree and the orchids and the movement that it has. I think that is very cool.

Why do you think destination weddings are increasing?

I think one of the greatest reasons is that it really avoids a lot of stress. It is smaller and more intimate which is appealing for a lot of people.

A Day in the Life of a Wedding Planner

Stephanie Skiba de Garcia started Cozumel Wedding Planner in 2001, and since that time, she’s seen her Mexico-based business grow. Communicating mainly via e-mail, Garcia says that while a destination wedding is usually less stressful on the bride and groom, planning a wedding for couples in another country can be difficult or even last minute. Here, she gives an account of what it’s really like to be a destination wedding planner.

Tropical storms, sunburned brides and late cruise ships are all part of the day for a destination wedding planner. From three-day wedding extravaganzas to intimate events, I do it all. A storm blows in unexpectedly two hours before the beach ceremony. No problem. Electricity goes out at the hotel. Not an issue. Destination weddings are romantic, unique and definitely a different realm of wedding planning.

Unlike traditional planners, we rely heavily on e-mail communications with our clients. Their ability to trust in us can’t be enhanced by face-to-face meetings. We woo our clients through exceptional customer service via e-mail, even before they set foot in Cozumel, Mexico. From bikini “I dos” to New York City glitz on the beach, we have helped plan a variety of weddings on this cozy island.

A Surprise Wedding for 50

Although many of the weddings are planned months in advance, we are never surprised when we receive last-minute wedding requests when weather or technical problems cause cruise ships to re-route. I think I am on the speed-dial of every cruise ship in the Caribbean.

For traditional planners, a wedding emergency may consist of the groom arriving late or the bride getting a stain on her dress, but try a cruise ship calling you a day before asking you to throw together a wedding and reception for 50 guests including food, flowers and music. I call my staff, and we put into action “cruise ship emergency alert,” working together to give the couple an amazing wedding that we hope is everything or even better than what they would have had in the other port.

A Three-Day Wedding Extravaganza

One of my favorite weddings was a three-day wedding weekend adventure. The couple wanted to pack their stay with fun. We created a weekend celebration that began with an authentic Mexican fiesta and a sunset cruise with buffet and bar along the island’s coastline. Finally, the couple wed near an ancient Mayan ruin on a beach. The wedding aisle was lined with sand dollars and tiki torches, and the crashing waves on the black lava rock served as an alter.

The Eloping Duo

Destination weddings are also perfect for couples who want to scrap their at-home wedding plans and escape from controlling in-laws, growing guest
lists and shrinking pocketbooks. I love planning weddings for eloping couples because I become much more than just the wedding planner: I am mother of the bride, bridesmaid and best man; sometimes, if money is tight, I’m even the photographer.

Excitement and challenges are all part of the day in the life of a wedding planner. Wedding planners are responsible for one of the most important days in a couple’s life. I deal with emotions and memories, so everything I do has to count. From something as silly as substituting my husband’s pants for tuxedo pants that the groom forgot, to as serious as calming a stressed bride because her dress doesn’t zip, I’m on hand to “sew things” right.

Garcia is the chief coordinator and owner of Cozumel Wedding Planner

The Wish List

In August 2004, The asked couples where they wanted
to have their destination wedding versus where their nuptials actually took place.
Below is a list of 2,082 respondents’ top 10 (out of 32 choices):

Dream Destination Wedding Location

1. Hawaii - Maui
2. Las Vegas
3. Caribbean - Jamaica
4. Europe - Italy
5. Hawaii - Kauai
6. Caribbean - Bahamas
7. Mexico
8. Florida - Walt Disney World
9. Caribbean - Other
10. Hawaii - Oahu

Actual Destination Wedding Location

1. Las Vegas
2. Florida - Other
3. Mexico
4. Caribbean - Jamaica
5. Hawaii - Maui
6. Caribbean - Other
7. Hawaii - Oahu
8. Florida - The Keys
9. Caribbean - The Bahamas
10. Florida- Walt Disney World

Legal Matters

Wherever clients chose to book their destination wedding, planners suggest couples get their paperwork out of the way as soon as possible. Below is a list from The Travel Institute of common legal requirements clients might need for a destination wedding. For further information, log on to and visit the official tourism Web sites of the country where your clients want to wed.

- Waiting period (varies by country)
- Passport
- Birth certificate
- Administrative and license fees
- Proof of divorce or copy of death certificate
- Tourist card or visa
- Blood test
- Witnesses
- Authorization letters
- Certificate of Consular Inscription
(a letter obtained at the embassy or consulate)
- Proof of church membership



The Travel


Aloha Wedding Planners: 800-288-8309;

Hawaii 877-393-3614;

Tropical Maui Weddings: 877-628-4933;

Pacific Island Weddings: 888-824-4134;

Enchanted Weddings: 800-648-8697;

Kauai Aloha Weddings: 808-822-1477;

Paradise Weddings: 800-428-5844;


Couples Resorts: 800-268-7537;

Occidental Hotels & Resorts: 800-858-2258;

Sandals Resorts: 888-726-3257;

Wyndham Hotels & Resorts: 800-996-3426;


El Dorado Seaside Suites: 866-527-4762;

Dreams Resorts and Spas: 866-237-3267;

Villa Premiere Hotel & Spa: 877-886-9176;