Wedding and honeymoon travel is one of the healthiest segments in the domestic and global markets. But what are the trends and pitfalls, and how can you guarantee couples have the experience of a lifetime? By Geri Bain
Destination wedding and honeymoon business is up, despite worrisome headlines about the Zika virus and terrorism. In fact, the average honeymoon and destination wedding spend is up by over 13% and nearly 14%, respectively, from just three years ago (see Key Trends page 53), according to wedding resource The Knot’s 2016 Romance Travel Study.
The segment’s willingness to spend was underscored by a recent Travel Leaders Group survey, which saw nearly 70% of Travel Leader agencies reporting the average revenue of a honeymoon was higher than that of a typical leisure FIT booking — by 40% or more for 7.1% of the market; by 31-40% for 11.2%; by 21-30% for 20.3% and 11-20% higher for 20.3%. Additionally, about one in three destination wedding couples spent over $2,500 on the wedding component alone.
High demands, high rewards
It’s certainly a valuable market segment, but one that requires heightened attention to detail, specialized knowledge and a lot of hand-holding to calm any pre-honeymoon/wedding anxiety, agents say. In seeking ‘brag-worthy’ experiences, couples tend to splurge on over-the-top activities — such as helicopter tours with waterfall landings, private dinners on the beach and elaborate spa experiences — and typically select higher room categories, notes Robyn Basso, senior director of travel industry partnerships at the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau.
All-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean and Mexico are wooing couples with ever-more-indulgent features, including swim-up suites, white-glove butler-service, and, as of this fall, the over-the-water bungalows coming to Sandals Royal Caribbean in Jamaica and Mexico’s El Dorado Maroma on the Riviera Maya. Plus, couples are increasingly traveling to far-flung, bucket-list destinations.
“A honeymoon is the trip of a lifetime,” says Jim ‘Mr Honeymoon’ Augerinos, president and luxury travel consultant of Perfect Honeymoons. “If one small thing isn’t right, the couple will notice and it turns into a much bigger issue. And, for many couples, it can be quite the process to make the ultimate decision on where to go.
“The reward for the agent is that the honeymoon is typically a big spend, and all the work will pay off in happy clients and
a nice commission check.”
The stakes and time commitment are even higher for destination weddings, which often involve three or four days of group activities. Since family and friends attending a destination wedding book as part of the group, agents receive exposure to potential new customers. Plus, every time a guest talks about the nuptials or a couple is asked about their honeymoon, the agent that put it all together becomes top-of-mind, creating further opportunities for new clients. “Referrals can be exponential,” says one Travel Impressions spokesperson.
On the other hand, it takes real organizational skills and the right temperament to deal with all the details of a destination wedding, says Kelley Austin, a Cruise Planners franchise owner who bills herself as “a couples concierge”. She says, “We help with guest invitations, save the date, gift registry, social media and websites.” And while the resort or hotel planner usually executes the wedding, Austin remains in the loop throughout the process. “I often find myself acting as a therapist,” she says.
The biggest anxiety for destination wedding couples is often not the wedding details, but their guests. The big question is: will they be willing to spend the money to come? “If they want their guests to come, a couple has to consider not just their own but their guests’ budgets, too.”
Getting all the bookings to flow through the group process can also be challenging. “Rogue guests often think they can get a better deal, but then they may not be on the guest manifest or get the day passes they need to attend the wedding,” says Austin.
Invitees tend to follow direction when it comes directly from the bride and groom, so agents need to connect with the couple and establish a mutual trust.
What’s hot for honeymoons
These days, in order to match couples with the right destination, it’s important to be familiar with both the popular and lesser-known options. For honeymooners, the Caribbean region holds the top spot (chosen by 30%, up from 28% in 2010), followed by continental US (18%, down from 30% in 2010) and Europe (16%, up from 10% in 2010), according to The Knot study.
Specifically, the Hawaiian Islands rose to 13% (up from 11% in the 2013 study), Mexico drew 12% (up from 8%), and Italy rose to 8% (up from 5%). Jamaica (7%), The Bahamas (6%) and Florida (6%) were also up, while France and the Dominican Republic held flat at 5%. Across all destinations, more than one in three honeymooners wants an all-inclusive resort; and one in ten chooses to cruise.
For high-end travelers, the rankings shift a bit. In the 2016 Virtuoso Luxe Report, an annual survey of the luxury travel agent network’s elite advisors, the top honeymoon spots were Italy, Maui, French Polynesia, the Maldives and Mexico. Augerinos says many of his clients are flying 20-plus hours to honeymoon in the Seychelles, Maldives, Thailand, South Africa, Bali and Sri Lanka.
Stephanie Cain, editor of The Knot Real Weddings, sees growing interest in Iceland, which is “close, with a great mixture of adventure travel.”
Also popular are Italy’s Amalfi Coast; Greece, “where it’s really inexpensive to live the high life”; French Polynesia “with its over-the-water bungalows” and Mexico, especially the Riviera Maya. “And, of course, it’s a great time to go to London with Brexit causing the pound to plummet.”
One takeaway from The Knot survey is how varied couples are in their criteria: 75% want a restful and relaxing honeymoon, and 65% want a highly active honeymoon with lots to do. Specifically, 89% want rest/relaxation, 76% want beach/sunning, 74% want fine dining, 58% want tours, 57% want water activities, 56% want shopping, 56% want discovering local towns and culture, 41% want outdoor activities, 41% want spa treatments/visits, 33% want nightlife, 30% want cultural activities, 11% want sporting activities, 11% want casino/gambling and 7% want theme parks.
Most of all, couples want to feel important — but that means something different to each one, says Austin. They may not be able to afford a top-end suite, but many want big opulent rooms and lobbies that wow them and give them a sense that they’re in a ritzy, high-status place. On the other hand, some couples feel more special in a small exclusive hideaway. “I no longer define the wow factors,” Austin says. “I [just] listen.”
Another trend agents should be aware of is that increasingly, couples are delaying their honeymoons months or even a year after the wedding. Many take a ‘mini-moon’ right after the wedding, maybe a long weekend at a nearby spa or luxury hotel, and a bigger trip later, says Cain.
Often couples take vacation time before or after the wedding to spend time with out-of-town guests and then need to get back to work, explains Austin. While those taking ‘epic’ journeys may prefer to “button up all the things that need to be done after the wedding and take the long honeymoon when they can be focused on the adventure ahead, not 24 hours after the biggest day of their lives,” adds Augerinos.
Trends in Weddings Away
Destination weddings, at their most basic, involve guests and/or the couple traveling a significant distance for the Big Day. More than half of The Knot’s respondents defined these weddings as ‘including vacation components for guests’ and 39% thought of them as ‘being in a popular vacation spot’.
The Caribbean was ranked as the top international destination wedding spot by 36% of respondents, followed by Mexico at 24%, Hawaii at 16%, Europe at 15%, and Central/South Asia at 9%. Florida was ranked as the top domestic destination by 23% and California by 17%, followed by North Carolina and Nevada, each at 6%.
Interestingly, 75% of international destination brides say planning a destination wedding is less difficult than a traditional one; and 83% of domestic brides say the planning is the same or more difficult thana traditional wedding. Couples are also
heading to domestic locations such as Charleston, Savannah, Napa Valley, Palm Springs and the Hudson Valley for a weekend full of activities with friends and family, says Cain. Some couples will even rent an entire resort for the occasion.
A Vacation For All
Group activities — and not just a rehearsal dinner or post-wedding brunch — are increasingly de rigueur for destination weddings. According to The Knot, 31% of destination weddings include a spa/beauty outing; 28% feature a boating excursion;
and 21% arrange golf.
Sightseeing is also becoming more popular: 23% add a non-tour sightseeing outing; and 20% include an organized tour. Other popular group activities include snorkeling (20%), hiking (17%), wine-tasting (14%), fishing (10%), zip-lining (8%), jet-skiing (5%) or other activities (29%).
Austin has also seen a trend towards longer stays for guests, who take advantage of the value of the wedding package to have a vacation for themselves. “Some people can only get away for one vacation a year. If you’re using that to go to your cousin’s wedding, you want to maximize it,” she says.
Another recent development to impact on the wedding sector is the recent US Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage. Cruise Planners has been offering LGBT marketing and education programs to its travel advisors for the last two years, says COO and co-owner, Vicky Garcia, an LGBT advocate. “LGBT travel represents $200bn in domestic and global travel revenue according to the World Travel and Tourism Council,” she says.
In total, the honeymoon and destination wedding market represents $21.9bn worth of business, according to The Knot. So, it’s not surprising that resorts and destinations actively cater to this market and heavily support the efforts of agents in the form of training programs, special wedding desks and even referrals.
All agree that with this market in particular, it’s essential to take time up front to connect with couples and ferret out what they want. Augerinos says that at least five times a week he gets calls from couples who have spoken with one or two other agents who tried pushing generic honeymoon ideas on them. He says, “Take the time to listen, and be prepared to have your time monopolized, as these couples need a fair amount of hand-holding. But it’s worth it!”