By JoAnn Gregoli, MBC™, and Beth Erickson

Destination weddings, by definition, are weddings that take place in a location where the bride and groom do not reside. Often, these weddings are outside of one’s home country and passports are required. But, increasingly, destination weddings are being held a bit closer to home, which expands the destination wedding market. “Couples can be very creative, whether they select an exotic resort in the South Seas, a castle in Europe, or a lodge in Northwestern Wisconsin. “Making this happen is our job,” says Mary Charmoli, MBC™, of Saratoga Weddings, Inc., in Webster, Wis.

Become an expert in destinations
Although destination weddings may involve exotic islands, romantic cities, or foreign countries, for the wedding planner, destination weddings are a great deal of work. Planners who specialize in destination weddings typically see 50 percent or more of their business volume as such. For those coordinating destination weddings where their business is located, that means communicating with clients they may not meet directly for some time. “Last ear, 100 percent of my weddings here at home were destination weddings. My clients were from all over the U.S. and South Florida was their destination. In every case, I did not meet the couple until a few days before their wedding. All communication was done through phone, Skype, email, and texts,” says Carmen Mesa, ABC™, of CCDesigns, Inc., in Florida.

Some planners coordinate destination events far from home, which can mean a lot of travel time as planners must become familiar with the areas they recommend. Site visits are critical which is why the Association of Bridal Consultants (ABC) offers two to three annual trips designed for attendees to get to know various destinations. FAMinars, as they’re known, “are a way to learn about destinations so that you can experience the food, culture, sites, services, and make contacts to be able to coordinate a wedding in that destination,” says Elise Enloe, MBC™, ABC vice president of operations and director of education. Another option is to become a certified Sandals specialist through a half-day course offered by the resort. The course trains individuals who want to specialize in honeymoons and destination weddings at Sandals venues. Planners who specialize in the destination niche, must also be willing to travel with the couple for the event itself.

Glamorous destination weddings have added challenges
Destination planners face other challenges unique to their specialty, like identifying the client. In the end, not only are the bride and groom the client, but the guests as well. Planners find themselves playing host by assisting guests with questions about the location. The guests see the planner as the point person in assisting them with travel plans and questions.

There are also legal and procedural challenges planners encounter. “We often get in touch with couples thinking that they can arrange their legal wedding in one to three months,” says Annette Tuxen, PBC™, of Weditalia in Italy. “It can be hard to make them understand that some procedures, like asking for a marriage license, especially if we are speaking of a Catholic wedding, do take time. The bureaucracy of Italy is terrible. It can be quite a clash of cultures.”

Budget, too, can be an issue as couples often have an unrealistic expectation that holding a wedding in a foreign country is less expensive than their home country. “Sometimes it can be hard to make them understand that if you want to get married in famous places like Venice, Rome, Florence, or Amalfi, prices can be rather steep and accommodations, especially during peak season, are very expensive. It’s then our job to make them see the other possibilities and help them choose the solutions that fit their expectations, and which do not break the bank,” says Tuxen.

Research is often the key to getting the budget right—especially outside your home country. “When working on a budget or quoting costs to the client, be sure that you have researched on-island costs and have these in writing. For example, flowers can cost more than five times what they are in the U.S.,” says Mesa. For Charmoli, planning destination weddings to her small community, the opposite is usually true. “Often, having a wedding out of a larger metro area is less expensive overall,” she says.

Logistics, logistics, logistics
Logistical considerations and back up plans are also critical to address in destination planning. Rain and back up options are musts. Many hotels have small or limited event space to host an inside event, so the planner must consider renting tents to ensure the wedding occurs without a hitch. Find out if the location or venue offers tents before you suggest a location. If it cannot accommodate a rain plan, move on. Sometimes, this leads to disappointment for couples set on a certain locale. “Occasionally, their dreams are not reality-based and compromises are difficult to swallow. Breaking the news is often more difficult than solving the issue,” says Charmoli.

Explore the hotel capacity. Are there enough in the area to accommodate guests who cannot afford the host hotel? Unearth all options, then, make a recommendation, keeping in mind the added transfer costs from one hotel to another.

For vendors, it’s crucial that planners know the work permit or visa rules if the destination is foreign. Supplementing local talent with outside talent might not be possible as the talent could be barred from entering the country. Planners should also know the local vendor market, and find out what they are able to produce—keeping in mind that even if a hotel has a recommended vendor, they may not always be the best choice. “I have always tried to work with an ABC member when doing an event in an area that I am not familiar with,” says Mesa. “They know the ins and outs of their market and can guide you to the services you require. If there is not an ABC member, I usually contact the Convention and Visitors Bureau or ask the hotel or venue for their preferred vendor list and contact the service providers after I have done a little research.” Checking references and getting everything in writing is also important so nothing gets lost in translation. “With regards to décor,” says Mesa, “be sure that you communicate exactly what you need and want in writing and with pictures. Not everything that is available on mainland U.S. is available on the islands.” In her small resort community, says Charmoli, “We have fewer choices and options for vendors than they may have in the larger cities. Our products and services may not instantly be available. This small vendor base makes for great teamwork, however, which is also part of our charm.”

Above all, if the hotel or resort the couple selects has an on-site event planner, get to know him or her well. Most, if not all, properties have on-site planners who are the contact people for weddings. Many welcome outside planners, but some do not. Keep in mind that you have to work with them. They become part of your team and will offer valuable guidance in helping make things happen or solve problems if something goes wrong.

Let the brides know where to find you
When marketing to the world of destination brides, the key is to reach brides where they’re looking. Consider advertising in Destination Weddings and Honeymoons or get listed on The Knot or Wedding Wire as a destination specialist. Tuxen uses her blog, http://wedditalia.wordpress.com/, to connect with brides. She’s also active on Facebook and believes strongly in networking with wedding industry professionals around the world. “Sometimes, you are lucky to get in contact with the right person, allowing you to grow your business,” she says. Referrals are another solid way to grow business, says Mesa.

The marketing is different for Charmoli, who sells her northwest Wisconsin resort community as a destination. “Because I live in one of those small resort communities and am the only consultant within a two-hour radius, I appear at wedding fairs, on our local Chamber of Commerce’s wedding-dedicated webpage, in a state-wide wedding magazine, the telephone directory, and small niche newspaper inserts. The ‘old-fashioned’ advertising still works here, though we also use some social media.”

The charm is in the details
Despite the hours logged in travel and planning, the extensive research involved, and the unique challenges inherent in planning a destination wedding, those who do it daily love it. “Destination weddings are probably the part of my job that I love the most,” says Tuxen. “The brides we get are confident that we do our utmost to make their day perfect—and that makes us all feel much more relaxed and get things going in a smoother way.”

How destination wedding specialists make those weddings perfect is in the details—incorporating local traditions, customs, and flavors into the day. Perhaps it’s being entertained through dinner by a local Mariachi group, dining on regional fare, drinking local wines, or gifting guests with sweet treats from the area. “Each time, we offer something different, depending on the style and taste of the couple. I could never think of doing the same for everyone,” says Tuxen, who has arranged varied events for her destination weddings including wine tastings, spa treatments, and tours of the Italian countryside.

Warm memories and happy endings
With long hours, aching feet, and bad hair days in the tropics, destination planners might return home more tired than they left but, in the end, the memories that are created for couples are life-changing moments that lead to happy endings. “Up until now, among the biggest challenges we’ve had, are a symbolic destination wedding which was planned in just three weeks; a double, twin wedding; a Catholic-Protestant wedding that needed the authorization of the Bishop; super-small weddings and quite large weddings; relaxed country-style weddings and hyper-modern weddings; beach, lakeside, and vineyard weddings,” says Tuxen. “Oh, yes, destination weddings can be anything like this, or not be like this at all. And we are always happy to help out.”

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