ACCORDING TO THE CONDE NAST BRIDAL MEDIA'S 2006 AMERICAN WEDDING STUDY, 2.3 million weddings take place on an annual basis, a number that is expected to increase 6 percent by 2020. And with nearly all of these newlyweds planning a honeymoon, tapping into this market can be quite lucrative.
Nationally, Conde Nast Bridal Media's study reports the honeymoon market is a $10 billion industry, and couples on average spend about $3,719 on their first trip as a married couple. Commissions of course can be extremely high for honeymoons and destination weddings, as couples have been known to shell out three times the amount of they would typically spend on a vacation.
Though you may be dazzled by the dollar signs, there is some homework to do before diving into this market. You're planning a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime event for couples who have most likely been dreaming about this day for years—and if you're successful, you may have a client for life.
Rebecca Hunt, a home-based travel consultant with Protravel International who specializes in honeymoons, says she thrives on the excitement of working with young couples.
"Selling honeymoons is like a tree that branches. You can form a great long-term relationship, especially once the couple has kids."
Hunt says many honeymooners don't know what they are looking for so it's extremely important to have excellent listening skills. Since honeymooners are looking to make their vacation a special occasion, "They want to have someone who's been there and experienced what they're dreaming of. They are really dependent on you."
With the right education, sales experience and tools, you'll be entering a profitable, mostly recession-free market that many agents describe as extremely rewarding. John McBride, honeymoon and wedding destination specialist at Dream Travel in Naperville, IL, reworked his business plan to focus on the market after 9/11, when it was clear, he says, that regardless of the travel environment, honeymooners were still going to travel.
"Of the 29 2001-2002 honeymoons we had on deposit, only one cancelled; they were scheduled to leave on September. 22, 2001 for seven nights to St. Lucia. At that point, it was crystal clear to me that honeymoons were not only recession-proof, but that these couples would travel under most any circumstance."
Education is Key
Since couples are looking to essentially turn their dreams into a reality, you must be an expert—and that means being educated and well traveled. If you're new to the market, you'll need to start at the beginning. The Travel Institute offers a Honeymoons and Destination Weddings specialist course (www.thetravelinstitute.com) that can earn you 10 CEU credits. Launched in 2004, 200 specialists have earned their designation through the course, which covers key trends, popular destinations and marketing and selling strategies.
Hunt suggests starting out by familiarizing yourself with one destination. Contact the visitor bureaus or tourist boards to check their schedules for seminar , which can help get your feet wet. Build a rapport with the tourist board and get to know the key players and the hotels. As a Hawaii certified specialist, she says, "Once you become a specialist for a certain destination, it opens the door to other interests."
Since Hawaii is such a hot spot for destination weddings and honeymoons, Hunt visits two to three times a year. "Hotels are constantly undergoing renovations and general managers move around, so you have to be in contact with the right people. I'll drop a new manager a note and make appointments to see hotels while I'm on island."
It's definitely hard to beat first-hand experience, which is why Jennifer Wayland of IslandBridal.com says, "Know the product. I spend most of my income traveling and visiting the most popular destinations, honeymoon and wedding sites. There is no substitute, and if you don't want to spend most of your free time traveling, you're not doing yourself or your clients any favors." Wayland also says she uses the travel trade publications such as this one as a source of information, tearing out articles of interest and putting them on her desk until she has time to further research them online.
"It's paramount to stay educated on the destinations you sell," says McBride. "I take fam trips, attend specialist programs, read and attend presentations on places I sell. More and more brides have asked about Africa so I have started a study program to become a specialist. This gives me a chance to learn a new destination and broaden my knowledge."
Hunt also advises agents to seek out trade shows in your area, which can help build contacts and expand your knowledge.
Building Your Client Base
If you're an independent home-based agent, marketing is going to be crucial for you to grow your business. For many agents starting out in the business, bridal shows are a great place to start. At the end of most bridal shows, you'll get a list of attendees that has the brides' names, addresses, phone numbers and e-mail addresses. According to Wayland, "The key is to have pre-packaged destination wedding and honeymoon packages available to market at the shows. Update brides with new packages continuously thereafter until you hit the right call button. Stay in front of them."
McBride, who only promotes her services at bridal shows, has even hired a local marketing company to assist in web site development, creating a post-show e-mail campaign and managing post card mailings.
Since networking is essential, try to get in front of as many people as possible, Hunt says. Hunt has found joining the local chamber of commerce extremely beneficial. "I go to the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce breakfast, which is sold out every month. You can also join rotary clubs and get involved in community events."
Hunt has found business just about everywhere you can think of: She's even generated leads at her yoga and water aerobics classes. Other suggestions are advertising your business in local papers and partnering with local wedding venues that can refer you to brides.
Since the honeymoon is often the last aspect of the wedding to be budgeted, some agents say it's best to secure clients early on in their wedding planning stages as it's difficult to try to deliver all of the client's expectations on a specific budget. Audrey Hulsey, manager of Pegasus Travel, admits finding clients early in the game is a challenge. "If I could, I would stand outside the jewelry store handing out business cards!"
Matching Clients With Honeymoons
Agents say, once you've got potential clients in your lap, give them the red carpet treatment. First and foremost, establish yourself as a professional.
McBride finds one of the greatest challenges of the business is gaining the client's trust and finding the time to sit down and plan. McBride gives clients the opportunity to meet him in person as clients sometimes have preconceived ideas about exotic destinations or poor advice from family or friends who have never actually traveled to a certain locale. "Face to face appointments will increase your sale by 50 percent," he says, whether that involves traveling to their offices, meeting at a local restaurant or going to their houses. He also uses a three-page fact finder to determine the type of honeymoon the couple is looking for. If it's not a destination he sells, McBride will refer the couple to another agent who is a specialist.
Many home-based agents we spoke with say they use their personal travel experiences as a selling tool. Several put together a photo album of their travels so clients have a visual picture of the destination and proof that they've been there.
Listening to your clients is essential for every sale, and especially for a destination wedding or honeymoon. Make sure you take notes during your conversation with the client. Hunt suggests asking high-impact questions about their interests and expectations. Ask if they want to be active all day, or want to sit by the pool. Do they want a large resort or a small, intimate property? Is a view of importance?
Once you're experienced, you may also want to make suggestions. For example, if the couple has a lot of out-of-town guests, they may not want to travel the next morning. This way they can open last-minute gifts, not stress about getting up early and see the out-of-town guests off. Climate is also a concern for some destinations, which may have rainy seasons.
"When you listen to a client, (you should) really hear what they are looking for and recap from time to time," says Hunt. "It makes the client feel very comfortable."
As a Protravel agent, Hunt gets leads from Distinctive Honeymoons, a honeymoon planner and online gift registry Protravel created in 2004 to meet the needs of couples getting married later in life and those embarking on second marriages. According to Donna Keane, director of Distinctive Honeymoons, couples are typically getting married between 28 and 38. Since many are combining households, they don't need the standard registry items such as toasters and dishes. Distinctive Honeymoons therefore allows couples to create a travel registry where guests can purchase luxury gifts such as hotel nights, spa treatments, dinners and excursions. "The honeymoon is a trip the couple will remember for the rest of their lives," she says, "The length of a honeymoon stay is 12-to-14 days longer than the normal vacation. With our registry they can afford to go on their dream honeymoon and have the money to stay in a suite rather than a deluxe room for example," says Keane. When a call comes into Distinctive Honeymoons, the lead is passed on to a Protravel destination specialist who will arrange the wedding or honeymoon itinerary and send to Distinctive Honeymoons to create the online gift registry.
Even if you're not a Protravel agent, Distinctive Honeymoons can post registries for couples who are your clients for a $150 fee. The price includes 100 personalized cards and envelopes to send to guests announcing the registry.
Other agencies have also found the online registry option to be a popular feature with clients. Wayland says one of the best moves she made was offering a wedding registry on her web site. Clients can then put her web site on their "save the date" announcements and invitations, which acts as free advertising. Her site has a link to www.thehoneymoon.com where couples can register for their honeymoons, allowing guests to give gifts such as swimming with dolphins and sunset horseback rides on the beach.