How to Plan an Over-the-Top Destination Wedding and Honeymoon

Couples looking for a cool, splashy way to promote their engagement on social media are traveling to beautiful locations to pop the question.

Various reports put the revenue generated by the wedding industry as high as $76 billion annually, with average wedding costs reaching new highs year after year (more than $35,000, excluding honeymoon, according to The Knot’s most recent Real Weddings Study). To help you get your slice of the cake, Travel Agent spoke to a number of top experts in the destination weddings and honeymoons market and uncovered several trends and tips on everything from the proposal, places and products to the pitfalls of planning. Here’s what we learned:

Destination Proposals

The practice of traveling to a beautiful location to pop the question began to catch on a few years ago, mostly among Millennials looking for a cool, splashy way to promote their engagement on social media. And now, Carolee Higashino, president and founder of White Orchid Wedding (WOW) in Hawaii, says the niche is all the rage these days, from simple proposals to elaborate ones on the beach.

“Many couples are booking our services to arrange for their secret surprise by hiring a paparazzi photography session complete with a ceremony site, flowers, champagne and an intimate dinner for two,” says Higashino. “Often family and friends are invited as well and appear once the willing participant says yes.”

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“Resort staff have always been more than willing to lend an assist in this area — and now hotels are beginning to capitalize with special add-on packages,” says Scott Wiseman, president of Travel Impressions. “One of our popular packages is the Secrets ResortsPop The Question’ package, which features a photo shoot, bouquet of roses, sparkling wine and additional special touches [ranging] from a romantic rose petal- and candle-lined path to the words ‘Will you marry me?’ written on the sand.”

Wiseman also recommends The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel in California, which offers two proposal packages that have all the trimmings, including a kneeling cushion.

“If you’re aware that a proposal is in the works and are not recommending one of these commissionable packages, you’re leaving money on the table,” says Wiseman. “Beyond financial motivations, helping to make your clients’ special day even more memorable is a great way to cement loyalty.”

Couples looking for an out-of-the-box idea to celebrate their big day can opt for an underwater wedding offered by Buddy Dive Resort in Bonaire.

Unusual Weddings / Venues

Perhaps the biggest trend in selecting a wedding type or venue is quite simply avoiding a boring, traditional, ballroom wedding and instead opting for a once-in-a-lifetime ceremony.

“No one is getting married in a box anymore,” says Jenna Mahoney, travel editor with Bridal Guide Magazine. “The days of getting married in a basic ballroom are over because people realize you can be anywhere when you are in a ballroom. People now want a sense of place and a sense of experience.”

To avoid a dull celebration, here are a few popular, out-of-the-box types and venues that will wow every guest invited.

Naked Weddings / Vow Renewals: Jamaica’s famous all-inclusive, adults-only, clothing-optional resort, Hedonism II, is not your average getaway and thus doesn’t tote just your basic offerings. Weddings and vow-renewal ceremonies are always complimentary here and the tux and traditional white gown are definitely optional. Wedding packages include a personal wedding planner, a choice of location — whether it be white-sand beaches, lush tropical gardens or waterfall lagoons — a minister, marriage license, champagne, a wedding cake, flowers and music.

Underwater Weddings: Buddy Dive Resort on the Caribbean island of Bonaire specializes in offering underwater weddings. Their underwater wedding package starts at $450 per couple and includes dive equipment for bride and groom, an underwater video with editing and music included; and a wedding ceremony at Buddy’s Reef. Witnesses, champagne and additional services such as photographer, hairdresser and make-up, bridal bouquet, wedding dinner, party with live music are available upon request.

Weddings at a Volcano: Lena Brown of Largay Travel recommends clients get married in the Napali coast of Hawaii and take a Zodiac to a beach that has a stone-hole arch where the 1976 “King Kong” movie was filmed on Kauai. There is a cabin in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park that you can rent and you have to hike down to it, says Brown.

Higashino tells us that White Orchid Wedding has also organized incredible experiences atop Maui’s volcano Haleakala at sunrise and even performed ceremonies on the Big Island near an active lava flow.

“We love utilizing historic and / or culturally significant spots as well as places that have the true essence of Hawaii,” she notes.

Get Married in the African Bush: Marsha Carroll of Travel Beyond points to Africa as a trendy spot for fresh wedding idea, specifically a simple ceremony in the African bush.

“All the planning will be arranged by the safari camp, and the intimate experience offers an unforgettable ceremony,” she says. “If you prefer something more traditional with ethnic clothing, a Masai blessing can be arranged.”

Not-So-Ordinary Domestic Weddings

Travel Agent also rounded up a few destinations in the U.S. for the most Instagram-worthy weddings.

In Palm Springs, CA, plan a wedding at The Merv Griffin Estate, the former home of the late singer and television host. Available on the 39-acre property are an infinity-edge pool, a two-plus-acre pond and equestrian racetrack — all of which are perfectly suitable settings for a wedding. Book the couple and their guests on-property.

The estate has two guestrooms in the main house, four guest cabanas to the east and an 1,800-square-foot guesthouse to the north. Nearby, the couple and their guests can explore the Mount San Jacinto State Park or Lake Cahuilla, or they can tee off in Hideaway or Madison Golf Club.

Chateau Cocomar is a castle-looking estate in Austin, TX with opulent chandeliers, elegant gardens and French-style ballrooms. It’s a wedding-focused venue, so it offers a Bridal Dressing Suite, Groom’s Dressing Suite and Family Dressing Suite. There are also seven additional Deluxe Overnight Suites.

For a totally far-out idea, suggest to your clients The Old Dairy, located in Bath County, VA. Surrounded by the Allegheny Mountains, this venue was previously a fully functional dairy that operated until the second half of the 20th century. Currently, it’s a popular wedding venue with two silos providing the backdrop. Don’t worry: The property is fully restored and includes a dance hall. Tip: Make time to enjoy the natural hot springs. The property also has luxurious interiors, master bedroom suites, soaking tubs, heated floors, large decks and outdoor fire pits. The wedding party will also have access to the exclusive Warm Springs Dairy Community Center, so they can choose to cool off in the outdoor pool, or visit the fitness center, whirlpool and sauna.

Just to the southwest, in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains, is The Lodge at Brother’s Cove. This is a great venue for couples who enjoy adventure and fresh mountain air. The Lodge at Brother’s Cove is located on 450 acres; guests can get married outside or indoors under iron chandeliers in front of floor-to-ceiling windows.

Guests can be booked at the main lodge or at any of the other 50 cabins located on the property, sleeping anywhere from two guests to 24. We recommend the Fireflies in the Night property, whose three stories can accommodate 20. Each of the seven rooms has its own flat-screen TV, private en suite baths, a full kitchen, two dining tables, a fireplace, game room, multiple decks, hammocks and picnic tables.

Honeymoon Destinations / Hotels

The St. Regis Princeville Resort on Kauai is seen as one of the hottest properties to honeymoon at in Hawaii.

When it comes to the two biggest trends in honeymoon planning, several advisors we spoke to point to a client’s desire to get married in an exotic location and also their willingness to wait for peak season for the best experience.

Daniela Harrison of Avenues of the World Travel tells Travel Agent that her honeymoon-bound clients are choosing bucket list-type destinations like Sri Lanka, Africa, Maldives, Thailand and the Cook Islands, while traditional favorites like Mexico, Caribbean and Europe will always be popular.

“Africa is certainly one of the most romantic destinations for a wedding, honeymoon or anniversary,” says Marsha Carroll of Travel Beyond. “Africa has an allure that’s captivated the imagination of romantics at heart, boasting wide open spaces, breathtaking sunsets, stunning landscapes and the thrill of wildlife encounters.”

In Mexico, Pamela Walker of Escapes.ca says, she recently received “rave reviews” from a couple she booked at the Rosas & Xocolate Boutique Hotel + Spa in Merida, while Sayulita is a great destination for a more chill honeymoon just north of Puerto Vallarta.

And as far as properties go, over-the-water bungalows are dominating honeymoon bookings in both the Caribbean and Mexico.

“Honeymooners have alternate options open to them with opulent overwater bungalows, suites and villas now available in Mexico and the Caribbean, including El Dorado Maroma, a Gourmet Inclusive Resort, by Karisma in Riviera Maya; Sandals Royal Caribbean Resort & Private Island; Sandals South Coast in Jamaica and Sandals Grande St. Lucian Spa & Beach Resort in Saint Lucia,” says Jack E. Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays.

Pamela Walker of Escapes.ca says she recently received “rave reviews from a couple she booked at the Rosas & Xocolate Boutique Hotel + Spa in Merida, Mexico.

The new over-the-water bungalows are so popular, says Anna Swenson of Journeys Inc., that travelers will even opt for a shorter trip — three nights instead of a week — to have a chance to stay there. Another option is to split a shorter stay in a bungalow with a stay in a lower-priced suite.

“They can get the amazing experience, if for a short time, and as a bonus, get those ‘Instagrammable’ pictures to show their friends and family back home,” says Swenson.

But although the Caribbean and Mexico may be the latest destinations to get into the over-the-water bungalows market, Richards says the South Pacific still remains the most desired location for this room category for clients looking to go “dream big” or go home.

“An iconic overwater bungalow perched above the translucent waters of a South Pacific lagoon in Bora Bora, Moorea or Tahiti is still the ultimate in ‘dream big’ honeymoons,” he tells Travel Agent.

Meanwhile, Walker says, “I love Playa Resorts’ Sanctuary Cap Cana in Punta Cana. It’s a beautiful, adults-only resort with a spa-like feel. There are gorgeous oceanfront luxury villas and private island suites. There are many unique features such as the Blue Marlin Restaurant on stilts over the water, and the incredible castle surrounded by a moat.”

Other unique and faraway destinations that are trending are Morocco, Bali and Thailand, notes Walker. Selena Bohinski of First Class Travel also points to Thailand as a hot honeymoon destination, while Singapore and the Maldives are also popular.

For domestic honeymoons, Hawaii is still king. Higashino says the hottest properties to honeymoon at in the Aloha State include Four Seasons Resort Maui; Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort; Fairmont Kea Lani, Maui; The St. Regis Princeville Resort on Kauai; Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina; The Laylow, Autograph Collection on Oahu and Four Seasons Resort Lanai.

And regardless of where they choose to celebrate their honeymoon, Hannah Schremp of Frosch Travel says many of her clients are willing to postpone their honeymoon in order to travel during the peak season of their desired destination.

The Over-the-Water Bungalows at Sandals South Coast in Jamaica are an enticing option
for honeymooners.

“So, if their wedding date doesn’t coincide with ideal weather where they would like to travel to, they are happy to wait,” Schremp tells us. “They’ll do a stay-cation or a quick weekend getaway directly after the wedding and then wait six months to go on their dream honeymoon.”

Mahoney of Bridal Guide Magazine says “buddymoons,” in which the recently married couple invites friends to join them on their honeymoon, is continuing to grow in popularity.

She notes that the trend was born when former “Friends” TV star Jennifer Aniston got married in 2015 and had a honeymoon that included all of her friends.

“Last year was really the first year we heard about it,” says Mahoney, “but this year, we are starting to see properties getting in on it, like the Four Seasons Bora Bora.”

Trendy Wedding Locales

The Caribbean remains a popular destination for weddings and honeymoons, according to several travel agents that we spoke with. The reasons being that it’s a quick flight and the atmosphere of the Caribbean and the people “seem to say, ‘Let’s party!’,” according to Julia Shore from Reid Travel. However, she tells us that she’s taken a special interest in Morocco lately.

“I love it so much that I have visited twice in the last four months, and can’t wait to return in March,” Shore says.

A few key points that make Morocco a great destination are that it’s easily accessible from the U.S. (especially the East Coast) and that it’s also an exotic and romantic destination. Shore tells us that there are plenty of “spectacular venues,” and that includes Moroccan palaces and hidden riads, as well as desert oases and beaches.

Palaces, hidden riads, as well as desert oases and beaches make Morocco a trendy destination for weddings and honeymoons. Seen here is the Royal Suite at Ansanga Riads Collection in Marrakesh.

For instance, couples can opt for a sophisticated garden wedding in Palmeraie (a palm oasis of several hundred thousand trees outside of Marrakesh), an Atlas Mountain where couples and their guests can enjoy the “star-laden Moroccan skies,” or in the Sahara, which can be followed by sleeping in tents or a private estate. This follows the trend that couples are looking to tie the knot in unique locations, but these also tend to be more intimate, as further destinations can be prohibitive to some guests.

Mexico is Pleasant Holidays’ number-one choice for international destination weddings, with Riviera Maya, Cancun and Los Cabos being the top picks, says Richards.

“Mexico resorts also make the planning process easy and seamless, with onsite wedding coordinators and directors of romance, free ceremonies, special promotions and more,” Richards adds.

Mexico and the Dominican Republic are also Travel Impressions’ biggest sellers for destination weddings.

“Resort brands such as Breathless, Dreams, Hard Rock, Karisma, Palace, Palladium and Secrets have become pros when it comes to executing picture-perfect nuptial ceremonies tailored to the dreams and aspirations of each couple,” says Wiseman.

“We went to the Breathless Punta Cana Resort & Spa for our honeymoon,” Shayna Pierce of Academy Travel, A Frosch Company, tells us. “What I recommend about that destination is that there are so many activities to do while you are there.” And while Breathless may give the impression of nonstop party, Pierce says, “It really is not. There are a number of opportunities to get away from the party scene, including the quiet pool.”

Hawaii is Pleasant Holidays’ top choice for domestic destination weddings, with Oahu and Maui being the top picks.

“While oceanfront sunset weddings are predominantly the most preferred option, guests are opting for the islands of Maui, Kauai and the Big Island for the most intimate offerings from these beach / oceanfront wedding venues,” says Higashino. “While many love the hustle and bustle of Waikiki, it can be a challenge to find a sunset spot without being inundated with people.”

Disney’s fairy-tale weddings are said to be a hit among second-timers, who have children from prior marriages. Seen here is the Walt Disney World Orlando.

Wiseman also points to Hawaii, as well as Las Vegas and California, as the most popular for destination weddings, although he noted that Travel Impressions is seeing some “renewed interest in Florida, spurred by Disney’s fairy tale weddings, which are a big hit with second-timers when children from prior marriages are in the picture.”

Products and Assistance

Agents are not wedding planners, so it is important for an advisor to seek the proper assistance from someone, either onsite or elsewhere.

“Clients need both of our skill sets and expertise; they want someone to scout venue with them in a destination, design all the elements and also handle their travel logistics,” says Heather Christopher, owner of Heather Christopher Travel Consulting. “Most wedding planners already have their plates full and are not well equipped to handle travel and hotel contracts on top of their regular duties. The partnership between the two can be as simple as handling hotel blocks for local weddings and building from there.”

Bohinski recommends joining The Knot or WeddingWire so couples can find you easily during their wedding planning process and to attend local bridal shows that fit your market and clientele.

“One thing that has helped our agency so much in booking destination weddings is attending wedding FAM trips and seeing the ceremony and reception set-ups in person and learning firsthand what is included at each resort,” says Bohinski. “Every resort is so different in its own way and being able to experience the resort and meeting with the resort staff and wedding staff is so important.”

Michelle Carbone tells us that seeing the resorts in person has helped set her agency, Michelle’s Destinations Unlimited, apart from the competition. “And you know people onsite usually can get to know your local rep or BDM in the process,” she says. “It’s important to ask lots of questions to properly qualify your clients and make sure they end up in the right resort.”

For further assistance, Higashino says White Orchid Wedding uses all the latest in event-planning apps and especially social media avenues such as Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, Social Tables and Hootsuite. She also says many event planners find Aisle Planner useful.

“I have been planning weddings and events for over 25 years and the best advice I can give is to be patient and listen to your customers’ needs and desires,” she tells Travel Agent. “Create their celebration to always exceed their expectations and take pride in your work. You must stay savvy with current trends and utilize the latest tools available in the trade. Stay personal with clientele, nothing worse than automated messages. Answer your phone and be professional at all times. Be sure you are a fit with your client as you often will be working side by side for quite some time throughout the planning process”

As far as new products go, Mahoney tells us the traditional photography packages offered at hotels are beginning to evolve with drone rentals set to be all the rage this year and beyond. Mahoney says more and more hotels are beginning to offer drone packages for couples looking for some spectacular aerial shots of their ceremony.  

A Pair of Proposal Packages

Get Engaged Like a Royal: Meghan Markle isn’t the only American who can have a royal engagement. Now, The Milestone Hotel, London’s boutique five-star hotel overlooking Kensington Palace, is offering a special “Royal Engagement Package” to celebrate the upcoming nuptials between Prince Harry and American actress Markle.

The two-night package includes Royal Afternoon Tea for two; a romantic turndown with pink Champagne on one night; a chauffeured Bentley to a Hatton Garden jewelry store; a horse-drawn carriage around London to celebrate the new engagement; a private tour of Kensington Palace and a photo session with a hotel photographer in front of Kensington Palace.

Il Salviatino in Italy is offering the “Perfect Proposal” package. Seen here is one of the GreenHouse Suites, which have glass-encased living spaces.

A “Perfect Proposal” in Tuscany: Il Salviatino, a restored 15th-century villa located in the Tuscan hills of Italy, is offering the “Perfect Proposal” package, which includes accommodations for two nights in the room of the couple’s choice; a daily breakfast buffet; a one-hour couples massage at LA SPA; a romantic, candlelit, three-course dinner; and a three-hour tour with a personal shopper who will escort clients to the best jewelers on the Ponte Vecchio and Via Tornabuoni for the best fashion findings.

Avoid These Wedding Planning Pitfalls

Understand the Needs of Bride vs. Groom: Just because two people are destined to be with each other doesn’t mean they necessarily have the same tastes and interests, says Travel Impressions’ Scott Wiseman.

“Clients often come into an agency with two different ideas of what their dream wedding should be — and then you have outside influences such as the sister who appoints herself wedding planner,” he says. “As a travel agent, your job is to take all of that feedback and distill it into the perfect experience, which is no easy task.”

Do Not Avoid Using a Planner: While White Orchid Wedding’s Carolee Higashino recommends using a wedding planner, she also urges agents to reconsider hiring a planner the day of the actual wedding.

“Use a planner. Always. You may think you are capable and you may very well be, but, why? It is a huge burden of stress on the very day you hope to enjoy and cherish for the rest of your life,” she says. “Reconsider hiring a ‘day of’ planner as this often is not actually cost effective and you will feel quite stressed once again when passing over all of your details to someone at the final hour. As many couples are not experts in event planning, often something goes amiss and can become an issue in this scenario. Be sure to cover outdoor events as tropical weather can be unpredictable.”

Don’t Skimp on Memories: Higashino also urges advisors to invest in a great photographer and cinematographer to tell your story for years to come.

“Hire professional transportation for your events especially if your guests plan on imbibing,” she says. “Do not count on taxis and Uber, as they can be unpredictable and not available in certain parts of the islands. Do not try and be a travel agent for your guests, they are capable of managing this themselves. Align yourself perhaps with a travel agent partner to help your guests with these needs.”

White Orchid Wedding’s Carolee Higashino urges advisors to invest in a great photographer and cinematographer.

Don’t Overwhelm Yourself: Avenues of the World Travel’s Daniela Harrison tells us the best wedding specialists are the ones who give proper attention to every detail of the wedding, which is why she tries to limit herself to handling about one or two weddings per year. “They are so time intensive and take so much patience and hand-holding,” she tells us.

#GetSocial: In addition to creating a clever wedding hashtag for guests to include in their social posts, many couples are opting for a personalized Snapchat filter — essentially replacing the otherwise popular photo booth. This is according to findings of wedding trends gleaned by Destination Hotels. The team at San Diego’s Paradise Point Resort & Spa, for example, reports seeing more wedding attendees use live video capabilities on Facebook and Instagram to commemorate the special day. With today’s technology, friends and family who aren’t able to make it to the wedding don’t have to miss out on all the fun when they are able to tune into the action in real-time through social media.

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