The tropical wedding setup at Dreams Tulum Resort & Spa. 

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By Meagan DrillingerHow millennials are changing destination weddings

It starts with a save the date. But not just any save the date. This one arrives via email. It's not typically how you expect to receive it, as you're more accustomed to personalized stationery with embossed lettering that you can place on your fridge with a magnet. But this save the date is not for a typical exchange of vows. It's for a millennial destination wedding, and since millennials do everything else electronically -- texting, banking, dating -- why not wedding save the dates, as well? The happy couple has electronically invited you to share their joy, simultaneously reminding you to mark your calendar for #adorableweddinghashtag on the beaches of Tulum. Details to follow.

The travel industry has gotten used to millennials shaking things up. In fact, the world has gotten pretty used to it in every market segment. Destination weddings, and weddings in general, are no exception. Millennials are changing the way destination weddings are done, turning them into epic, once-in-a-lifetime vacations for them and their friends, picking exotic locations, plastering it all over social media, keeping it all cost-effective but still absurdly personalized.

Whereas destination weddings have traditionally been for second or third marriages, Apple Vacations president Tim Mullen said millennials are opening up the market for first-timers. So if you thought the save-the-date notice was the only thing different about the way millennials are planning destination weddings, it's just the first tier of a very large wedding cake. Here's how you can walk away with a slice.

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It's not just a day

While typically a destination wedding is all about the wedding, millennials are taking it a step further to the point where the actual ceremony is not as important as the overall experience. Millennials want their destination weddings to be epic, once-in-a-lifetime vacations for them, their family and friends. Agents are no longer planning destination weddings, they're planning entire group vacations that are highly personalized.

"Wedding couples are aiming to experience an authentic vacation with their closest family and friends, where they can spend an entire weekend together versus just a single night somewhere locally," said Terrah van Meter, a travel consultant with Legacy Travel in Dallas.

Nowadays, destination wedding specialists are becoming full-service travel concierges, and not just for the bride and groom but for the entire guest list.

A wedding reception prepared at the Secrets Papagayo Costa Rica.
A wedding reception prepared at the Secrets Papagayo Costa Rica.

"All of my millennial wedding clients ask for my travel-concierge service," said Emily Lockard-Furry, founder of Traveluxe Official in Beaumont, Texas. "They value the experience in whole, versus just one day. They want to go to Costa Rica and have an experience. It's completely different from my other clients in that I become the main point of contact for all guests." 

Lockard-Furry does everything from RSVPs to creating the website to arranging individual bookings. When she arrives at the property for the wedding, she provides welcome bags for the guests, all the way down to giving each person an individual, customized itinerary.

"It really creates an experience for the bride and groom, but also for the guests," she said. "They feel like it wasn't just a wedding trip."

All the details without the price tag

After they've decided that they want an all-out vacation with their friends and family, the next step is doing so on a budget. Millennials care tremendously about the personalization and detail, but they're cost-conscious and on the hunt for a deal.

According to the Knot's 2016 Romance Travel Study, the average couple spends $27,227 for an international destination wedding. Apple Vacations sees budgets lower, hovering around $15,000. And Kelly Poling, senior vice president of marketing for Karisma Hotels & Resorts sees budgets around $28,000 for millennial destination weddings. 

"Millennials spend less on destination weddings overall," Mullen said, "but they are a key demographic for any agency looking to increase its groups business."

Millennials also opt for smaller weddings to keep costs down, and they expect their guests to pay their own way. The motto of millennials when it comes to destination weddings is, "Those who really want to be there will be there."

"Millennials are saying, 'If you want to come, come, and we'll supply a welcome party and activities," Lockard-Furry said. "It's more approachable for them to invite people to come because people are paying for their rooms."

As with most things millennial, the bottom line is about acquiring experiences, not things. They view destination weddings as a way to bring those they love together to create lasting memories. This is also combined with customized experiences, great food and wow moments that cater specifically to their tastes.

Diana Diaz de Leon, the weddings manager at the Grand Hyatt Playa del Carmen, said millennials "are focused on details and the experience they can have. They are asking for entertainment for guests, like water drums or dancers at the beach. They want their wedding to be about experiences for the guests."

A Premium Swim Up Suite at at Azul Beach Negril. Photo Credit: Moris Moreno/Karisma Hotels & Resorts
A Premium Swim Up Suite at at Azul Beach Negril. Photo Credit: Moris Moreno/Karisma Hotels & Resorts

Scott Wiseman, president of Travel Impressions, observed, "While some millennials may have money to spend, the majority are looking for value-adds that can make the wedding unique. They are the generation of the online shopper and of the age of the influencer, so it becomes a balancing act for them to find the best price while keeping their standards Instagram-worthy. Things like a special venue at the resort or a rooftop ceremony can often do the trick."

Destinations that continue to be most popular for millennial weddings are Riviera Maya and Jamaica. But more niche destinations like Tulum and Sayulita in Mexico, and even farther afield locations like Costa Rica, Canada and Europe are in play.

Weddings with bragging rights

Speaking of Instagram-worthy weddings, does social media really have that much of an impact on millennial destination weddings?

"Big time," Wiseman said. "Many agents get their leads from referrals and testimonials from other brides. Social media also helps direct brides to the new hot spots and creates the buzz that helps to sell the wedding. Word-of-mouth has become even more powerful with the exponential influence of social media, and reviews and user-generated content from one couple can easily spread like wildfire and even go viral."

Millennials want their destination weddings to create buzz, which is where social media plays an oversize role.

Ivy Jacobson, senior editor at the Knot, said there are several reasons that destination weddings offer "huge social media opportunities."

"The location and scenery is gorgeous, and guests will want to document the event on social media the whole time they're there," Jacobson said. "And having a hashtag is a must."

Photography becomes even more important in millennial destination weddings, as these clients want to share studio-quality photographs in real time, not wait for a photo album to emerge months later.

Screen grabs of the Veri by the Knot photo-sharing app.
Screen grabs of the Veri by the Knot photo-sharing app.

"Most of the weddings I've worked on have been really captured uniquely through their photographer," Lockard-Furry said. "Usually a photographer is flown down with them and captures the whole trip, not just the wedding."

Since photo sharing has become one of the largest parts of weddings, many millennial couples are urging destination wedding attendees, and even those who might not be able to attend, to download Veri, a photo-sharing app focused on weddings and events that automatically shares photos from the user's mobile device.

Destination weddings mean that inevitably some guests will not be able to travel, so it's important to be able to set up live streaming video of the ceremony.

Wiseman called out Breathless and Secrets resorts as being two top brands for social media bragging rights, when it comes to millennial destination weddings.

"The first as an exhilarating hot spot, and the second as a romantic luxury one," he said. "Both feature contemporary decor throughout all their properties and high-tech features, which further appeal to this demographic."

Mexico's Unico 20.87 hotel also gets a good amount of social media chatter, thanks to its free spa treatments and to the locally influenced details woven into its modern style. It has become quite popular very quickly, especially for destination weddings.

Poling agreed that social media plays a big part for millennials.

"Other social elements include the creation of personalized Snapchat filters, live-streaming the wedding for those who can't attend to tune in and having photo/GIF booths on-site for guests to instantly post photos to their social platforms," Poling said. "It's all about authenticity and capturing moments in real time."

The importance of authenticity

Jacobson said the top considerations when millennials select their destination wedding locale "are location and atmosphere, along with the price tag and bang for their buck, so authenticity plays a huge part of their destination wedding."

Millennials have always favored experiences over things. That's a stereotype to be sure but one that is borne out in their destination wedding choices. It's not just about the beautiful resort on the beautiful beach. It's about getting underneath the skin of a destination and seeing it in an authentic way so that both the couple and their guests can say they've had a local experience.

"Millennials are involving the traditions of the local culture a lot more," said Lockard-Furry. "One of my Mexico weddings was in Riviera Maya, and the couple opted for a Mayan ritual during their ceremony instead of just a traditional one. They wanted to incorporate some part of the culture and to include more of what that destination offers."

A wedding reception at Azul Beach Negril. Photo Credit: Moris Moreno/Karisma Hotels & Resorts
A wedding reception at Azul Beach Negril. Photo Credit: Moris Moreno/Karisma Hotels & Resorts

This shakes up the game for all-inclusive resorts, whose traditional business model has always been about keeping guests on the property. But as the demand for local, authentic experiences increases in general, all-inclusive hotels have had to adapt. Unico 20.87 was one of the first all-inclusives to get on this bandwagon, encouraging its travelers to explore off the resort, with included excursions. This is one way to cost-effectively arrange for destination wedding clients and their guests to explore off property. 

Other millennials are hosting wedding parties at all-inclusive resorts but organizing dinners off property at local restaurants, offering their guests a flavor of the destination. "This speaks highly to the social media culture, as well," Lockard-Furry said. "It's all about, 'Where else can we go?'"

The beach reception setup at the Grand Hyatt Playa del Carmen.
The beach reception setup at the Grand Hyatt Playa del Carmen.

All-inclusive wedding packages aren't what they used to be. International resorts and hotels now regularly offer to personalize many aspects of the wedding, from the menu to reception entertainment, creating additional events like a welcome dinner or farewell brunch, because they truly want the couple and their guests to have a memorable experience.

"Millennials want a venue that reflects the destination and natural environment in an authentic manner, and all-inclusive properties are a great way to accomplish this," Poling said. "For example, at Karisma Hotels & Resorts, the Gourmet Inclusive Wedding Events allow couples total flexibility and the ability to budget, organize and personalize the design of their wedding with a recently unveiled wedding website, memorablemomentsweddings.com."

The site includes everything from customized style selections to digital save-the-date announcements.

After 'I do'

It is important to note that, to millennials, even more crucial than the destination wedding is the honeymoon. And that is an area where that generation is doing it differently as well.

Daniela Harrison, a travel consultant with Avenues of the World Travel in Flagstaff, Ariz., said, "The destination wedding is typically a shorter trip with family and primarily friends, and then a more extended honeymoon afterward. Some couples go immediately; others will wait to go to their honeymoon destination during prime season and are happy to wait six to eight months to do so." 

The honeymoon, even more than the destination wedding, is where millennials are going all out, especially in terms of bragging rights. Harrison is seeing an increased request for exotic destinations like Sri Lanka, Africa, the Maldives, Thailand and the Cook Islands, as well as traditional favorites like Mexico, the Caribbean and Europe.

The ultimate takeaway for millennial destination weddings is that these travelers are no different from their still-single counterparts. They want detailed, customized experiences that need #nofilter on social media. They want to share every moment with those who are there and those who are not. They want over-the-top, once-in-a-lifetime, heart-and-soul-of-the-culture experiences, without the hefty price tag. And they want to share this experience with all of their friends, making it not only a day to remember, but the group vacation of a lifetime.