The Atlantic Hotel & Spa in Fort Lauderdale served as the ideal backdrop to discuss scenic wedding venues.
Travel Agent magazine hosted a roundtable on Destination Weddings & Honeymoons in Fort Lauderdale in February at The Atlantic Hotel & Spa.
Our participants included: Amanda Carlow, director of sales & marketing, Sirenis Hotel & Resorts; Kristopher DaCosta, media relations manager, Jamaica Tourist Board; Gwenn Feliciano, director of sales & marketing, Radisson St. Martin (now Riu Palace St. Martin); Christopher Gould, general manager, The Atlantic Hotel & Spa; Frank Maduro, vice president, sales & marketing, All Inclusive Collection-Hard Rock All Inclusives; Maureen Morgenthien, director of marketing, Melia Hotels International/Paradisus Resorts; Michele Olivier, regional vice president, sales & marketing, Jewel Resorts; Karlene Shakes, sales relations manager, Jamaica Tourist Board; and Maggie Rivera, brand strategist, Sandals Resorts International.
Representing the travel advisor market was Andrea Williams, owner, Exquisite Vacations, Inc.
The roundtable was moderated by Ruthanne Terrero, VP/editorial director, of Travel Agent magazine. Following is a condensed version of our discussion.
Ruthanne Terrero, Travel Agent: How does having a travel agent involved in the sales process help with the booking of a destination wedding or honeymoon?
Maureen Morgenthien, Melia Hotels International/Paradisus Resorts: Having a travel advisor involved is very helpful for the client; they can really manage the expectations of the family and friends who usually travel to a destination wedding. It lets our planners concentrate on working with the bride and groom and what they’re looking for in their wedding.
Christopher Gould, The Atlantic Hotel & Spa: The expertise of the travel advisor is really instrumental in driving guest satisfaction because their knowledge and insight is going to help match guests with a better choice of resort or hotel and with the amenities and the type of accommodations, it really move beyond the way that the Internet has dumbed down the distribution of travel product.
|Karlene Shakes, Jamaica Tourist Board; Michele Olivier, Jewel Resorts; and Frank Maduro, Hard Rock All Inclusives.|
Karlene Shakes, Jamaica Tourist Board: Travel agents are there to really assist in making the whole experience a very good one, and if anything goes wrong, the client always has somebody who they can quickly go to for help.
Michele Olivier, Jewel Resorts: Do agents help the process? Absolutely. Do they upsell? Absolutely, especially destination wedding specialists who have put themselves through training and educated themselves, who know and understand the product, especially when dealing with groups. It helps tremendously when you have the agent involved who can sell them into the right categories and manage their expectations.
Frank Maduro, Hard Rock: Ninety percent of our business comes from travel agents. They play a critical role in not only ensuring that the client’s budgetary needs are being met, but also in the upselling process. Their expertise allows a client to be put into the right property at the right budget with the right fit, so they’re critical for us.
|Kristopher DaCosta, Jamaica Tourist Board|
Amanda Carlow, Sirenis Hotels & Resorts: Travel agents are very crucial to us as a company, in particular because we’re not as well known yet in the U.S. Travel agents are our ambassadors to getting our branding out there. In addition, travel agents are always privy to exclusive specials and offers; having that information helps them to capture the bride or attract them to our hotels so we can offer them exclusive amenities or other services once on property.
Gwenn Feliciano, Radisson St. Martin: The travel advisor is a crucial part, especially in a destination wedding with multiple rooms. They also know how to manage expectations, and they make the process easier for our wedding coordinator on property.
Andrea Williams, Exquisite Vacations: Our agency specializes in destination weddings and honeymoons, and I’m so happy that all the major partners are here, and I’m so happy that all of you know our importance.
Kristopher DaCosta, Jamaica Tourist Board: The travel agent pairs the right person with the right product and the right experience, and that is of course very important to us.
Maggie Rivera, Sandals: We recently surveyed our destination wedding clientele and found that 54 percent of Millennial brides used an agent to book their Sandals vacation. That was a number that we were really pleased with and it showed that Millennials are using agents to book their weddings.
We’ve invested a considerable amount of money trying to make that process easier for agents, like our online travel agent portal. Weddings are a really high-touch purchase so having that agent to hold the client’s hand through the process is just invaluable.
Ruthanne Terrero, Travel Agent: We talk about the weddings and honeymoons market as being recession-proof. Did you find that to be the case over the past recession? Are you seeing an increase in expenditures in this category?
Maggie Rivera, Sandals: In our Destination Weddings Survey we found that Millennials are outspending baby boomers on luxury purchases such as spas, excursions, the top-of-the-line suites and butler service. But what’s interesting is they don’t see it as a splurge; they see it as an investment in themselves. So, whereas the mindset for boomers was, “I’m going to splurge on this,” [Millennials are more about] “I need to do this. I deserve it. I work hard.”
Eighty-five percent of our clients are booking from the top down and they’re purchasing more lavish packages for photography. They’re meeting with the wedding planners, they want their own private cocktail and mixology; 24 percent of them are organizing all the group tours for every guest. Those numbers are climbing.
|Maureen Morgenthien, Melia Hotels International/Paradisus Resorts and Christopher Gould,
The Atlantic Hotel & Spa.
Andrea Williams, Exquisite Vacations: Yes, it’s recession proof. I always say, “You are going to go on a honeymoon. It’s a must.” [As for expenditures], as a travel advisor, it is always easier to take away things than to add them. So when a bride and groom come to us and say, “We’re going to have 40 people in our party,” I customize everything they could possibly want, such as renting a catamaran for everyone. When you divide the costs by the number of guests, it comes out to a very small number. Most of our clients are spending a lot of money on the actual wedding day event. They want their signature drink. They want their bouquets to be 24 roses, not 12. They have more people in their bridal party. They want the aisles decorated just like they would at home in a different setting. It’s easy to sell the couple the higher-end room, but the guests are also saying, “We’re going to the Caribbean. We’ve got to see the water!” I tell them I’m not selling them the room, I’m selling them the view. I offer the benefits of why they need to do certain things and I justify why. Once a client chooses an ocean-view room or an oceanfront suite, they’re never going back to entry level; that makes it much easier for us.
Amanda Carlow, Sirenis Hotels & Resorts; Gwenn Feliciano, Radisson St. Martin; and Andrea Williams, Exquisite Vacations.
Ruthanne Terrero, Travel Agent: Is the size of the actual groups growing? What’s the dynamic of booking the destination wedding guests?
Andrea Williams, Exquisite Vacations: The most I’ve done is 120 in a group. It depends on the client and who their friends are. For the lawyers, it’s no big deal. They’re going for seven days and they’re taking the higher-end rooms. When I do wedding groups, I offer one entry-level category, one ocean-view and one oceanfront room, and the suites. I’m not going to offer every single category. When they look at the price points, they’ll say, “You know what? I’ll take the ocean view.” The guests themselves want to feel special, and they want to outdo their friends.
|Karlene Shakes, Jamaica Tourist Board|
If I’m working with a couple on a budget, I’m still going to offer the high-end rooms to their guests. Another tip: You cannot choose a resort for a wedding group that the guests themselves cannot afford. You have to really quantify the couple and who their guests are. Who will be coming? Group size can grow depending on the resort, how long they want to stay, and how much they can afford. We do payment plans so they can pay in installments.
Gwenn Feliciano, Radisson St. Martin: I find when they’re coming in for weddings, they are buying better suites, they’re choosing live music versus having a CD player, and they want out-of-the-ordinary transfers. We’re lucky enough that in the island of St. Martin, you can do a private catamaran water transfer; they can bring the whole wedding party or we can do a couple of transfers. We’re hearing less of, “I’m treating myself,” and more of “This is what I deserve and this is what I’m used to.” They’re choosing the wines by name, whether they’re American or French wines, and the Champagne as well. They want what they want because that’s what they’re used to getting on an everyday basis. You also want to stay in a room that’s equal to or better than what you have at home, and they’re willing to pay for it as long as you’re creating the value.
Amanda Carlow, Sirenis Hotels & Resorts: We’re noticing that those doing destination weddings are increasing slightly in age, which means, normally, they’re further along in their career and more stable, so they have more money to spend on their big day. And because destination weddings tend to be less expensive than having a wedding at home because there are fewer guests, the bride and groom are willing to spend more per guest. They readily opt into the upgrades or the other excursions.
|Frank Maduro, Hard Rock All Inclusives|
People are taking time out of their busy schedules from work to attend these weddings. I know a lot of my friends are getting married and everyone’s complaint is, “I have to take five days off. This is getting so expensive.” I think the bride and groom realize that and want to make sure their guests are enjoying themselves. They want to be sure they are going to attend and have a good time, so they’re willing to spend more money to satisfy everyone.
Frank Maduro, Hard Rock: It absolutely is recession-proof. We’ve seen the numbers for destination weddings increase in the past few years. We’re seeing the bride and groom spend more on their stay, and the wedding party is spending more. One thing we are seeing, which is a great indicator of how the recovery has really impacted travel, is our wedding groups are substantially larger than they used to be two or three years ago, and the bride and groom are now willing to spend some of their money on the wedding party. So they’ll contribute toward the air, toward the rooms, toward tours and excursions.
Something that has helped tremendously, as far as expenditures go, with the help of people like Andrea, is breaking down the cost by night, by person. It becomes more manageable than just one bulk price. That’s why travel agents are crucial to our business; they do a great job at explaining it, and we’re seeing a lot higher room categories being bought.
On a side note, the economy has rebounded so well that we just had a wedding in Punta Cana where the bride and groom chartered the entire plane, and paid for the plane with 172 seats, for the wedding party to fly down.
Michele Olivier, Jewel Resorts; Christopher Gould, The Atlantic Hotel & Spa; Karlene Shakes, Jamaica Tourist Board; and Maureen Morgenthien, Melia Hotels International/Paradisus Resorts.
Ruthanne Terrero, Travel Agent: Frank, in terms of your guests, is it a psychographic that your brand attracts? People who bridge all generations?
Frank Maduro, Hard Rock: Yes, baby boomers tend to be drawn to it because they grew up with rock and roll, and they grew up with the brand. The Millennial generation tends to look at us as a fun brand, so it crosses that gap very, very well. It allows us the luxury to be priced a little bit higher, because of the comfort and familiarity with the brand.
|Amanda Carlow, Sirenis Hotels & Resorts|
Amanda Carlow, Sirenis Hotels & Resorts: Do you find that the brides and grooms are basing their timing on a concert that’s going to take place or do they not really care about that?
Frank Maduro, Hard Rock: They don’t 100 percent base it on that, but if they’re getting married and there is a great entertainment event that can be part of the wedding party, they absolutely do change the dates. We’ve seen that trend a lot more at our Punta Cana property, so big events really play a factor there.
Michele Olivier, Jewel Resorts: Our honeymooners are spending more. While our prices have not gone up in the last few years, our wedding folios have, so I’d say that that is a good indicator. We’ve also gotten pretty creative with an online system that’s like a registry for guests who are not attending the wedding. Even if you are attending the wedding, you can give an extra gift, like a treatment to the spa or an upgrade to a suite.
We also have specialist agents who lead them down the path to picking the right tours and room accommodations; almost 100 percent are in our butler suites for the bride and groom, so that is always a good start for them.
Christopher Gould, The Atlantic Hotel & Spa: From the hotel side, it’s been pretty recession-proof, at least in the upper-upscale and luxury segment. The typical behavior that we see from our destination weddings guests is that we have one master bill for everything. Whoever is giving the wedding is paying for everything, at least while they’re under our roof. That also extends to the arrangements that our concierges make for them for activities in the area. When you talk to these guests, you realize that even though they may be spending lavishly here, it actually represents for them a modest expenditure in that they’re not having a gigantic 1,000-person wedding back home, where they would be expected to foot a much larger bill. We’re happy to be the recipient of that behavior.
|Maggie Rivera, Sandals Resorts International|
Maureen Morgenthien, Melia Hotels International/Paradisus Resorts: At Paradisus Resorts, we are seeing increases in expenditures. Brides are gaining confidence in the economy and we’re taking reservations for 2016 weddings. We don’t do free weddings. We do a maximum of two per day, per resort. So we sell a sense of exclusivity and customization. A normal wedding for us is about $25,000 to $30,000. At Paradisus we also do ethnic weddings. We can do Hindu, Jewish, Asian, and Persian, which is just a whole another marketplace for us. Those are very successful. A typical Hindu wedding is three days and 200 to 250 people. That’s great market for us.
Ruthanne Terrero, Travel Agent: It sounds like everyone here has wonderful sun-and-sand options, which are naturally perfect for a honeymoon or a destination wedding, but are you finding that Millennials are looking for more to do?
Maureen Morgenthien, Melia Hotels International/Paradisus Resorts: The keywords right now are, “It’s all about the experience.” I think that the weddings tend to be more active. They also are looking for something that’s always different, but in the end, everybody still wants value, so it’s a combination of all of those factors, balanced differently for customers.
Ruthanne Terrero, Travel Agent: Do you find that they’re savvier than ever?
Maureen Morgenthien, Melia Hotels International/Paradisus Resorts: I do. With the Internet, they have exposure to any information they want, so they’re very educated. Even though they’re not well traveled, the younger ones have seen it all visually, and so they have an idea of what they’re looking for.
Christopher Gould, The Atlantic Hotel & Spa: We’re finding that Millennials are very experience-based. They’ve done a lot of research and they’re looking for our concierges to help them with real bonding experience for the people that they’ve gathered together. If it’s a paddle-boarding excursion or going out in the Florida Everglades to see alligators, those are exotic and interesting experiences that they can do only in our destination, and they’re really looking to create those memories when they come here.
Karlene Shakes, Jamaica Tourist Board: The Internet has opened the world to everyone, so we find that the honeymooners are looking for new things to experience, they’re much more active now. Of course they relax, but activities are very important, and of course Jamaica has something for everyone.
Frank Maduro, Hard Rock: The bride and groom together are very involved in the wedding planning process. As a matter of fact, we have as many consultations with grooms as we do with brides. They’re looking for a unique experience, something to call their own. They don’t want to mimic what somebody else has done. They want to be able to custom-make an experience. Something that we’ve stumbled onto is that a bride and a groom are looking for a venue that’s going to be perceived as “fun” because a destination wedding involves family and friends, and they want to ensure that it’s a complete vacation for everybody attending the wedding.
|Travel advisors from Post Haste Travel joined us to observe the panel. Shown here are Natallia Khoshchynka and Sheri Elfman with The Atlantic’s Christopher Gould.|
We continuously tell our brides and grooms to look for a brand that’s going to be like comfort food; that aspect of the brand is really important in being able to ensure that their guests are going to have a great experience. Ultimately, they have to sell the destination wedding to their friends and family, because they are making an investment in the trip.
Amanda Carlow, Sirenis Hotels & Resorts: We are a family-friendly property, so we have a wide range of ages that are coming for a destination wedding, which is important for brides and grooms. We still find them going to the spa a lot and relaxing. However, for their guests, like Frank and Christopher said, they want to have the options to be very active, to partake in many different things on property, whether it’s snorkeling or scuba diving or exploring the local community.
Another thing they both hit home on is the experience. We have a Mayan ruin on property, and we find that that’s one of our biggest selling points, because the bride and groom can take a picture near the ruin and instead of saying they’re just at another resort, they can say, “I was in the Mayan Riviera when I saw these different things,” or “I was culturally immersed.”
Andrea Williams, Exquisite Vacations: Every bride wants to be different and special; if their friend has gotten married at a resort, they want a different resort and an entirely different experience. If I get their guests as repeat business or friends of the bride who are now getting married, I have to top their wedding. I can’t do the same thing. I’ve got to come up with something creative for them to do. I find grooms are now getting involved as well, and I try to do something for the groom’s friends because it’s their day, too. I love challenges, and I have fun doing it. If you love what you do, you’ll enjoy it.
|Maggie Rivera, Sandals International; Kristopher DaCosta, Jamaica Tourist Board; Andrea Williams, Exquisite Vacations; and Amanda Carlow, Sirenis Hotels & Resorts.|
Kristopher DaCosta, Jamaica Tourist Board: Something we’ve tried to focus on is highlighting our cultural icons, because one thing about Jamaica is, you can’t replicate our culture.
Part of my [social networking] referral system is getting coverage from people uploading their photos to social media, so we highlight those cultural experiences. One of the things we also push is getting guests outside of the walls of the resorts and experiencing our people because that’s another great story for us. We’re looking to get that unique content from what the actual traveler posted on Facebook and YouTube, and we can repurpose everything into blogs, where we like to focus on four things in each story: food, our people, the nature of the country, and of course, the music. We try to wrap those four things into every story and every communication. Some will skew higher but we try to get them all in somehow.
Maggie Rivera, Sandals: At Sandals, we always like to say that we have two types of guests, the relaxers and the active doers. In the past, the relaxers were the majority of the guests, but we are now seeing that the active client numbers are really climbing, dramatically.
I think we’re all saying the same thing—our clients want to be connected with the local culture and experiences and they want a trip that’s authentic. We’re seeing a lot of adventure tours; “voluntourism” is skyrocketing, it’s really on the rise. Through our Sandals Foundation, we have millennial guests coming and donating their time to read books to the school children. Millennials are really proficient travelers, they travel six times a year. Through the destination wedding survey that we did, we found that they’re very savvy and discerning; they really know what they want.