by Beth Erickson

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Destination weddings used to be synonymous with elopement. Times have changed. True, destination wedding couples still run off to wed, but they do so with their guests and to any location that’s not home. Today’s destination weddings take place on beaches, in castles, at ancient ruins, in vineyards, and on mountainsides. Think Cabo San Lucas, Costa Rica, Italy, Napa Valley, Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon—even Sandusky, Ohio, if your couple so desires. If they dream it, they can do it.

Match personalities and set the mood
The success of a destination wedding hinges on the ability to sync a couple’s personality with the locale. “Most couples are looking for unique destinations. They’re not necessarily asking for all-inclusives, but they do want places with activities for the guests that are also easy to access from airports. Most want boutique-type hotels where they cater to guests and host one wedding a day,” says JoAnn Gregoli, MBC™, of Elegant Occasions in New York City.

Most of the Caribbean destination weddings are beach-driven. “The couples want a beautiful beach with sunset ceremony. They want to be the only bride that day. If they see another wedding on the property that day, they won’t even consider it,” says Gregoli. Marsha-Ann Donaldson Brown, director of sales for Sandals Resorts, agrees. “When you think Caribbean, you think sun, sea, sand, surf. That’s magic for us. We find it’s not about the popular locations; it’s about matching the personality of the brides to the resort through architectural flare, lifestyle, and amenities.”

Those not looking for a beach venue may want something that celebrates heritage, tradition, and the flavor of the local culture. Mexico is predominantly Catholic, says Kitzia Morales Harbich, of www.LoveMexicoWeddings.com, and so there are a number of couples who choose to wed in its chapels and cathedrals. “There are other great locations to perform all kinds of weddings as well, and there are several symbolic ceremonies performed by a shaman, like the Mayan wedding,” she says.

The Old World feel, says Gregoli, drives European weddings. “I love Italy. It’s romantic, has great food, and offers guests so many wonderful sightseeing opportunities. Italy from the mountains to the wine country to the seashore is just breathtaking,” she says.

Trends range from eco-weddings to all-inclusives
This year, more and more planners are seeing couples request “green” destination weddings. Brides and grooms are seeking sites that are environmentally responsible in the use of water and energy, as well as how recyclables are handled. This philosophy is spreading to the ceremony and reception. “The eco-conscious brides request we use things indigenous to the Caribbean, like coconut and pineapples,” says Donaldson Brown.

In Mexico, “our trend is more ecological weddings,” says Camelú Millán Vargas, MBC™, the owner of Diseño Nupcial in Mexico and the Latin America director of the Association of Bridal Consultants (ABC). “The bride and groom committed to our planet can add value to their wedding using products made by local communities,” says Lilia Anciola, of Paralelo 19, which manages haciendas in Yucatán and Campeche through social responsibility, sustainability, and fair trade.

All-inclusive resorts are also increasing in popularity. Hotel stay, land and water activities, drinks, food, and even tips are included. “There is wine service and white-gloved service at some restaurants. Everything is experiential. The only things people pay for are experiences they want to enjoy above and beyond, like the gift shop, photography, the spa,” says Donaldson Brown.

Destination weddings experience surge in popularity
The economy doesn’t seem to be much of a factor in the destination wedding market. According to The Knot’s 2011 Real Wedding Survey, the number of destination weddings held since 2008 has increased by 20 percent. In 2010, one in every four couples considered their wedding a destination. “I believe the reason is that folks are seeing the magic of destination weddings for themselves,” says Donaldson Brown.

The only way destination weddings may have been impacted is through guest count as fewer guests may be in a position to afford the trip, says Gregoli. “Where they once involved 100-125 guests, they now have 50-75.”

Although the number of destination weddings may not be affected by the economy, costs do play a role in planning, and resorts know this. “We’re trying to give more options to foreigners who want to get married in Mexico. We’re increasing our all-inclusive packages and cutting costs,” says Millán Vargas.

In fact, planning a destination wedding can cost less. “Hosting a destination wedding allows you to spend less money while entertaining and spending more quality time with your family and friends over a few days versus a few hours,” says Gregoli. “This way, the couple and their guests can have their expenses under control.”

Still, not all destination weddings are about economizing. “Couples are spending more in décor, food, and entertainment. According to Destination Weddings Magazine, 2009 was the first year that they spent more on a destination wedding than a traditional wedding,” says Morales Harbich.

Explore the destination wedding market
Destination weddings are renowned for their exclusive appeal and more relaxed, casual feel, but it doesn’t happen by itself. Brides and grooms are busy and often need assistance—whether from onsite consultants at all-inclusive resorts or hotels or from a local wedding planner. In addition to planning the wedding details, destination planners assist with travel arrangements and activities.

“Destination weddings are a new market niche. There are several opportunities for wedding planners who have been doing traditional weddings because they have the know-how and most importantly, the know-who. They are in constant contact with brides and, if they have the knowledge of the best destination spots and connections with local vendors and other partners like tour operators, they will be able to take advantage of this market,” says Morales Harbich. She says 80 percent of destination wedding couples in Mexico use the help of a planner.

Many resorts have free planners on staff with knowledge of all their products. When a bride arrives, she gets a walk-through of the wedding with her onsite wedding team. “ABC planners work with ours to book all of the dreams of their brides. At times, an ABC planner will come along with the couple. That’s typically when we have a large group wedding. It’s a matter of the planner and bride making the determination to work together and then the planner works with ours,” says Donaldson Brown.

Planners wanting to become active destination wedding planners will find many benefits. “The perks are that we get to see the world and experience the best of the properties,” says Gregoli. But get used to the airport, she advises, because you’ll be there a lot. “Learn to travel light and gain knowledge of the area you are focusing on. Your days will be longer than the usual wedding; but you not only get to know the couple, but the family and friends as well.”

New revenue streams are opening up beyond destination weddings. Destination bachelor and bachelorette parties, baby-moons, and vow renewals are possibilities as well. “There’s a market share for renewal of vows. Gone are the days when we celebrate only anniversary milestone year marks. There is so much to celebrate every day in what we accomplish and overcome. If it is celebrating the 11-year mark that you want, why wait until the 15th?” asks Donaldson Brown. “It can mean so much more than the wedding day because experience has brought so much to the table. It does take the same passion that makes a wedding to make the marriage live on.”

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