Hitched to a niche


The development of a niche at Sunset Travel & Cruises in Chicago came about by happenstance. About 10 years ago, Sunset began organizing destination weddings in response to client requests, according to Jay McArthur, operations manager. The agency took on the challenge, learning the ropes along the way.

About five years ago, after seeing how popular destination weddings had become, Sunset began marketing its expertise.

Today, the agency's five-person staff handles eight to 15 destination weddings a year, McArthur said, which accounts for about 30% of the $3.5 million agency's annual volume.

These days, the agency benefits from word-of-mouth referrals by previous wedding clients. It also gets some business from people who had been guests at a Sunset wedding.

But the agency also is getting customers via traditional media such as the Yellow Pages, promoting at bridal shows and using purchased mailing lists. The agency advertises and stages twice-monthly presentations for engaged couples who are prospects for a honeymoon or a destination wedding, McArthur said.

For weddings, Sunset first helps the couple select a destination that will work for all parties, then provides travel arrangements for the wedding pair and guests.

The agency does not plan the wedding itself. McArthur said Sunset refers the clients to wedding planners at the destination. However, Sunset is copied on e-mailed exchanges between clients and wedding planners as a way to head off problems. For example, McArthur might remind the clients to order their flowers, or he might nudge a planner if communications with clients have not been timely or clear.

Weddings are essentially group trips with participants traveling from scattered places. Sunset will arrange for sightseeing activities for guests.

Group sizes vary widely, from four people to more than 300. Sunset planned a destination wedding with 318 guests on the Riviera Maya, Mexico, McArthur said. Guests arrived from all over the world.

Five hundred had been invited to the large wedding. The couple expected about half to attend.

"I tell clients they'll be happily surprised at how many guests come," he said.

Mexico and the Caribbean are the most popular destinations, but the agency has sent wedding parties to Hawaii and Italy as well as on cruises. One group traveled by cruise ship to Barbados for a shoreside wedding.

As for his own recent wedding, McArthur and his bride selected Sedona, Ariz.

Mexico offers the best value for the dollar, McArthur said, with the Dominican Republic second.

Wedding work is labor intensive, but McArthur said the agency does not find it necessary to charge specific planning fees. The agency gives the bride and groom a price break if their groups are large.

Requests can be unusual. McArthur recalled the wedding where the bridegroom's divorced parents were so estranged that the mother and father each privately demanded that their part of the wedding party be housed in a different building.

For the Barbados wedding, the bride's brother was afraid to fly and too claustrophobic to travel on a cruise ship, so Sunset arranged surface transport from his home in Washington to Miami and a chartered boat to Barbados and back.

Things can go wrong, though McArthur said he hasn't seen a wedding canceled yet. Two events were washed out by hurricanes. One couple had taken the vows and the storm forced them and their guests out of the resort the next day. Another couple rescheduled their wedding.

The agency has learned from its errors. One time, when the destination wedding business was just starting out, McArthur said that a couple had asked if they could quote trip prices to guests, and the agency agreed.

This turned out to be a bad idea because it led to confusion, leaving family members unhappy, said McArthur.

Now, if clients suggest conveying trip information to friends and family, Sunset asks them to refer everyone to the travel agency.

"We tell clients that they don't want to plan their trips, and we explain why we know this," McArthur said.

Think you're a good candidate for an upcoming Agent Life? Contact Nadine Godwin, Agent Life editor, at [email protected], and please include your agency name, agency location, telephone number and e-mail address in the message and put "Agent Life" in the subject line.

The Perfect Itinerary

A wedding on the Riviera Maya

Jay McArthur, operations manager at Sunset Travel & Cruises in Chicago, prepared the following sample itinerary for a destination wedding on Mexico's Riviera Maya. To save money, he recommends a wedding in the spring, after the busy winter season ends.

Day 1: Bride and groom arrive in Cancun, at least three days prior to the wedding date, ideally on a Monday or Tuesday. After a private transfer, the couple checks in at the all-inclusive Iberostar Paraiso del Mar, where they stay in the presidential suite.

Day 2: The couple meets with the resort's wedding planner in the morning. They do a site inspection of the resort and the wedding location. In the early afternoon, they observe a wedding at the property from a distance. There is a wedding every day at the Iberostar Paraiso del Mar.

Day 3: The couple greets friends and family, including kids, who are welcome at the resort. The couple and their guests relax in the afternoon by the lagoon-style pool. That night, the group goes on a sunset dinner cruise. A photographer takes candid shots throughout the day and evening.

Day 4: More guests arrive. The group goes on an all-terrain-vehicle ride in the jungle, traversing narrow, dirt paths. Then they head to Maroma Bay and skim the Caribbean in speedboats. The dress rehearsal dinner is at La Hacienda, the resort's Mexican restaurant.

Day 5: Wedding day, ideally a Friday or Saturday. Guests go to their late-morning session at the spa. At sunset, the bride walks down a pristine, white-sand aisle. The wedding reception is in a private room with music and dancing.

Day 6: Family and friends depart. The newlyweds move to the adults-only El Dorado Royale and stay in a Casita Suite for a seven-night honeymoon. The couple experiences private, candlelit dinners on the beach; bathes under the stars in their casita's open-air showers, known as Aguas del Amor; and enjoys couples massages on the beach.

The Perfect Itinerary is an example of an itinerary an agent crafted his or herself, not available anywhere else, but can be duplicated by other agents to sell to their clients. To send an example of an itinerary you've customized, e-mail to [email protected] with "Perfect Itinerary" in the subject line.


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