Weddings: Couples Going Above and Beyond
Lavish weddings — destination weddings included — are becoming more and more elaborate. In the industry, we’re seeing that couples are arranging more multi-day programming; they’re getting hitched in more luxurious properties (and pushing their guests to pay a higher price for the better experience) and they’re preferring properties that host only a single wedding per day to have autonomy over the event to best dictate the event for themselves, their families and friends, and more.
April Schmitt, CEO of Divine Destination Weddings, says the classics remain popular destinations; these include Mexico, the Caribbean, Hawaii, South Pacific, Italy and Greece. Although one destination that she says is growing in popularity is Ireland, as the historic castles make for an excellent backdrop for a ceremony. And for travelers on the East Coast, it makes for an easy trip, she adds. Renée Strauss and Pamela Strauss-Goldman, the co-founders of Wedaways.com, confirm several of these “trends.” The most popular destinations that they see are Tuscany and Amalfi Coast, Italy; Provence and Paris, France; County Kildare and County Waterford, Ireland; Marrakech, Morocco; and Napa Valley, CA.
Schmitt also says that couples are looking to go above and beyond the typical rehearsal dinner or welcome cocktail party. For instance, they’re looking to book unique events that can only be enjoyed in the destination. Some top picks include tequila tastings, sunset champagne catamaran excursions and even taking a group to be cleansed by a shaman. The team at Wedaway.com says that, even if the couple doesn’t book these events for their guests, some will include a guide to the destination with a welcome bag, allowing them to discover the area on their own.
It’s also becoming increasingly common for wedding guests to book pre- or post-wedding stays of their own. Because guests are traveling great distances to attend the wedding, they’re choosing to take advantage of the opportunity to build their own travel into the trip. They may time a cruise to coincide with the wedding, go from the wedding to a safari, or take a scenic road trip in and around the wedding destination.
Ceremony-wise, Schmitt says she’s seeing an increase in non-conventional religious ceremonies (such as a groom who brought a rabbi and a bride who brought her yogini to conduct a joint ritual).
Both Schmitt and Deborah Garcia of Jalmor Travel, a member of Ensemble Travel Group, say that clients are looking at resorts that book one wedding a day. This gives the couple more control and more attention from the resort’s in-house wedding-planning/events team. For families and wedding parties that aren’t buying out a property, Garcia tells us that villas are a great option.
Jesse Cisneros, of I Do Wedding Travel (an affiliate of Protravel International), says 90 percent of his guests are opting for high-end all-inclusives, noting they make the decision so they can be pampered with less stress. One of his most-requested destinations in 2018 was Los Cabos, which he attributes to several new resorts, including Montage Los Cabos, Grand Velas Los Cabos and Le Blanc Los Cabos.
Historic castles such as Adare Manor make for a great backdrop for nuptials — and make Ireland a popular wedding destination.
The Social Media Factor
Several agents, including John Oberacker, founder and CEO of Eden for Your World, an affiliate of Montecito Village Travel, say that social media is having an effect on how couples book weddings and honeymoons: They’re seeing what their friends and family are doing and are looking for at least the same experiences — if not trying to one-up them. Millennials are the biggest group who are turning to Instagram for inspiration for their weddings and honeymoons, often looking for a hotel or destination that will give them the most buzz-worthy photo ops. And with this, we’re told that clients are spending more on photography and videography (drones included!) throughout the wedding, so that they can share on social media their experience with their friends and family (both in attendance and elsewhere).
The evolution of these more-extravagant weddings can be taxing on an agent; however, there is a good bit of news: Many couples are booking further out. To note, we’ve heard that couples are looking as far as 16 to 20 months to begin planning their special day, Schmitt tells us. Strauss and Strauss-Goldman also see that couples are starting the booking process for a destination wedding approximately 15 months out. There are certainly lots of moving pieces to arrange but it should come as a sign of relief that couples are aware of the tasks they’re handing their travel agent.
Accent on Luxury
What’s also great for couples — and agents — is that plenty of luxury resorts are upping their romantic offerings to meet the desires of wedding destination parties and honeymooners. For example:
- Anantara Medjumbe Island Resort, an adults-only property off the northern coast of Mozambique, has introduced its Star Bed Experience, a romantic getaway where couples are whisked away to their own private island to watch the sunset, have dinner and sleep under the stars.
- Jumeirah Vittaveli in the Maldives, Sandals Ochi Beach Resort in Jamaica and Hotel Xcaret Mexico in Playa del Carmen have debuted over-water wedding chapels that can accommodate various-sized ceremonies.
- Brands such as Palace Resorts have revamped their rewards programs, allowing agents to earn commission on wedding extras, including cakes and flowers.
Grand Class Suite at Grand Velas Los Cabos: The hotel is part of the luxury resort boom that has made Los Cabos a frequently requested destination, says I Do Wedding Travel’s Jesse Cisneros.
Honeymoons: Upping The ‘Wow’ Factor
Honeymoons are getting bigger: from multi-destination trips to a bigger focus on immersive, experiential activities, couples are looking for ever-more-wow-worthy getaways to follow the big day.
“If it’s past seven nights they like to do, maybe, two different locations,” says Laura Lukasik, manager and luxury travel advisor with Viking Travel Service. “So sometimes what I’ll do is a resort hop from one area to another, or I’ll do an island hop so it mixes the experience up and they get a little more adventure involved.”
Where are couples headed? “While traditional honeymoon destinations are still very popular, couples are often interested in more unique, exotic destinations — places that their friends haven’t experienced,” says Cathy Robinson, group travel director at Brentwood Travel. “Especially destinations they can share on social media.”
“Gone are the years when a flight of over seven hours was immediately dismissed,” agrees Jennifer Doncsecz, president of VIP Vacations, Inc. “The takeaway is that being uncomfortable on a long flight doesn’t outweigh the opportunity to go to Bali, do a safari, or trek around New Zealand.”
Since many honeymooners today are highly well-traveled, seeing new places and checking off new destinations holds greater appeal, she adds.
“Honeymooners want to travel farther — they have the time off and want to make the most of it!” says Meredith Rothouse, a travel consultant with Edgewood Travel. In terms of specific destinations, Bali remains popular for its uniqueness and affordability, Rothouse tells us.
“We have also seen an uptick in French Polynesia now that there is more airlift and we are seeing lower rates at those hotels — the best in years.”
Robinson says that she has fielded a few recent enquiries in Thailand, Vietnam, Iceland, Greece and Turkey.
Lukasik says she has seen a great deal of interest in Hawaii, both because it provides great opportunities for island-hopping and because, as a U.S. destination, couples do not need to worry about passports. “Greece, again, because it has multiple islands, has been trending upward, and for those that want adventure, I’m getting some interest in Africa,” she says. Dubai has also been popular for those that want to go farther afield, while Costa Rica and Belize remain good options for couples looking for adventure destinations that do not break the bank.
A typically romantic Kauai beach: Laura Lukasik of Viking Travel Service says she has seen a great deal of interest in Hawaii, both because it provides great opportunities for island-hopping and because, as a U.S. destination, couples do not need to worry about passports. // Photography: HTA / Tor Johnson
Deeper Destination Dives
Once they get there, clients look for experiences that help them dive deeper into a destination — particularly its cuisine. “Wine tours, wine tastings and wineries are huge this year,” says Doncsecz. “Millennials have become the largest demographic for wine sales, so highlighting destinations, resorts and cruises that have optional wine experiences, even if the couple doesn’t mention they are ‘wine enthusiasts,’ can truly close the sale.”
“Honeymooners are looking for experiences — they are not necessarily looking to lay on the beach for a week,” says Rothouse. “They want to connect with local cultures, take a culinary tour, or take a wine or distillery tour.”
That trend holds true for accommodations, too: “Resort-wise, honeymooners look to be leaning a little bit more towards boutique, as opposed to mass-market,” says Lukasik. “A focus on food and wine in the resort or in the destination itself helps seal the deal.”
Grand Velas is one of Lukasik’s favorite resort chains to recommend to foodies. “They have a two Michelin star restaurant in Cabo,” she says. (That’s Sidney Schutte’s Cocina de Autor.) “And some of your cruise lines focus on food and wine experiences, such as Oceania. Windstar also does very well for honeymooners.”
“Wine tours, wine tastings and wineries are huge this year,” says VIP Vacations’ Jennifer Doncsecz adding that “Millennials have become the largest demographic for wine sales.”//Photography: Getty Images/ Bokan76
Unique and Private Experiences
Couples also like to focus on experiences that are unique to a particular destination, such as a temazcal experience in Mexico, Lukasik says. Private experiences of all kinds are also a big selling point.
“That couple’s massage, that private dinner on the beach, that private picnic — I’ve done The Brando [a private island resort in Tahiti], and if people can afford it, they like to have those bragging rights that come from doing that,” Lukasik says.
One tip to help spotlight the culinary aspects of a honeymoon: Doncsecz says that she has recently started a sheet for certain cities listing the top five restaurants to be found there, including the name of the restaurant, its cuisine and its website or reservation link. She also asks her clients to hashtag VIP Vacations or @ her with a photo of their meal.
“I am surprised by the number of couples that do this as I get tagged more for ‘food porn’ from them than I do for anything else on their honeymoon,” Doncsecz says.
That goes to show the power that looking good on social media has in terms of honeymoon planning, wherever clients happen to be traveling.
“I think clients are looking for Instagram-worthy destinations — even if they are staying at a well-known resort like a Sandals, they want something unique within that hotel,” says Rothouse. Some examples could include a unique room category, like the new over-water bungalows, or a helicopter transfer.
“They are also seeking out the more independent, unique hotels,” Rothouse says. “Belize and Costa Rica are great examples where you can combine adventure with beach time, staying in ecolodges and combining that with boutique or larger beach hotels.”
Social media can help agents win honeymoon business, too. “I feel that travel consultants looking to sell honeymoons have an advantage that agents 10+ years ago did not with the assistance of social media,” says Wendy Sarama, a travel consultant with Edgewood Travel. “They can utilize Instagram, Facebook and Twitter to follow trends and gather information, repost from travel partners and honeymoon pages, and share their client’s experiences. For more hands-on marketing, a travel agent can also look up local bridal shows or events at wedding facilities and request a table. A great way to meet potential clients.”
All the same, agents should not neglect the importance of real-world partnerships. “Teaming up with local wedding vendors, florists, makeup and hair artists, or planners is an easy and profitable way to boost your wedding business,” Sarama says. “Referrals remain one of the strongest ways to build your business in this industry; therefore, having someone the honeymoon couple already has rapport with recommend your business is invaluable.”
The “heritage return” trend is one reason why the Amalfi Coast and other regions of Italy are popular for destination weddings. Photography: Getty Images / Bokan76
‘Heritage Return’ and Other Trends
Here are some more of the latest destination wedding and honeymoon trends from Wedaways.com co-founders Renée Strauss and Pamela Strauss-Goldman.
Heritage Return: One of the top initiators of a destination wedding today is what is known as “heritage return.” The wedding will often be the first opportunity a couple has to return to their land of origin (or the land of ancestry for one of the partners). This is one reason why Ireland and Italy are incredibly popular for destination weddings.
Pre-Wedding Planning Trips Are On The Rise: Couples take the time and spend the money to visit the destination and venue prior to the wedding date. They want to see and feel the overall venue experience so they can plan around it accordingly.
Fewer Couples Want Pre-Packaged Anything: Even though a couple might be going to a hotel or resort that specializes in destination weddings and offers a wedding package, most don’t want a “cookie-cutter” experience and tend to stay away from a hotel’s “wedding package.” They seek out preferred wedding planners in the destination to ensure a truly bespoke experience.
It’s Not Just A Wedding, It’s A Multi-Day Celebration: A destination wedding is much more than just the actual wedding day. Couples are now including itineraries in the guest’s welcome bags with details on all of the events the guests can participate in as well as suggestions and options of activities guests can do to best experience that particular destination over a few days for the wedding celebration.
Authentic Destination Guest Gifts: Couples are after authentic guest gifts which represent the destination of the wedding versus something generic. For example, for a recent wedding in Japan, one couple gave away gorgeous Japanese silk fans to their guests as a keepsake.
Delayed Honeymoon Trips: Couples are not in a big hurry to depart on their honeymoon immediately following the wedding. They don’t mind planning an extended honeymoon for months after the wedding if it might mean they can get better deals in shoulder season and then take longer trips using accrued vacation time. They also delay a honeymoon in order to travel at the time of year they prefer or that is most popular for a specific destination like an October safari, an early April cherry blossom visit to Japan, a December ski holiday in Aspen, Vail, or St. Moritz, or the September wine harvest in Tuscany.
Honeymoon Savings and Splurges: Couples want to travel farther and stay longer at exotic destinations and therefore, might stay at a more affordable property in a region they’ve not been to, like Thailand, in order to reserve their funds to splurge on a few days at a $2,500 a night five-star plus resort in the Maldives.
Instagram One-Ups: Millennials are determined to get the better Instagram pic than their friends. They recognize destinations their friends post in photos of noteworthy hotels, famous sites, etc. and often will go to great lengths to select a destination wedding or honeymoon location that will offer them the best photo options to post on Instagram.
Destination Bachelorette Parties Are Getting More Popular: Destination Bachelorette parties continue to grow. Wedaways is seeing brides and their friends depart on a Thursday afternoon and return on Monday, flying for up to eight hours to the destination. East Coast brides are choosing Cape Cod, Montreal, Nova Scotia, Ireland, Scotland, and even as far as Croatia for their getaways. Activities typically include spas, wine tasting, and even golf.