Saying 'I do'
The following sample package was taken from the choices offered through Norwegian Cruise Line’s “Wedding Aisles” program, for an onboard ceremony while the ship is in port at St. Lucia, including an onboard reception for 25 people.
• Coordination with onboard planner
• Priority check-in for bridal couple and guests
• Refreshments in couple’s stateroom
• Ceremony venue
• Officiant and vows
• Prerecorded ceremony music
• Bouquet and boutonniere
• Cake for two
• Bottle of sparkling wine
• Keepsake certificate
• Total: $1,875 (plus St. Lucia marriage license, $465)
• Wedding cake to serve all guests: $137.50
• One-hour cocktail reception with cold hors d’oeuvres and open bar: $725
• Sparkling wine toast: $137.50
• Sit-down luncheon, four courses with wine: $1,200
• DJ for two hours: $600
• Photographer for one hour, including photos: $649
• Total: $3,449
• Grand total: $5,789
With thousands of couples tying the knot on cruise ships or during port calls every year, wedding packages are a boon for agents and cruise lines alike.
Retailers booking group space for the happy couples’ family and friends can earn big commissions, while the lines rake in revenue from ceremonies, receptions and other events related to the nuptials.
Carnival Cruise Lines spokesman Vance Gulliksen said that 2,400 weddings are held each year across the line’s fleet, and he added that several enhancements to Carnival’s wedding programs are in the works.
Norwegian Cruise Line typically hosts some 300 weddings each year, according to AnneMarie Matthews, vice president for public relations, who said the line plans to ramp up its marketing of wedding options in 2012.
Royal Caribbean International sells 800 weddings each year, and it also plans to boost marketing efforts.
There is little mystery about why the cruise lines are enthusiastic about at-sea nuptials. Even an arguably low-frills wedding package that Travel Weekly created on paper for a group of 25, based on one line’s amenity choices, totaled nearly $6,000 (see sidebar).
Beyond the Big Three, other cruise lines are also getting in on the act. Cunard, eager to make its foray into this lucrative niche, decided earlier this fall to pull the registry of its three ships from England, where a law prohibits marriage ceremonies at sea, and reflag the vessels in Bermuda, where no such law exists.
Cunard President Peter Shanks said the line decided to reflag because it was “missing out on the big business of weddings.” Cunard’s ships will offer wedding packages starting next spring; details about the program are expected before the end of the year.
The vendor strategy
The big mass-market and premium cruise lines outsource their wedding-planning services to specialist vendors. Among the largest providers is the Wedding Experience, a Miami-based company that markets a wide array of wedding packages for most of the major lines. According to Wedding Experience, it is the exclusive vendor to Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Princess, Norwegian Cruise Line and Azamara Club Cruises.
Other vendors in the weddings market include Royal Ocean Events, which handles all of Holland America Line’s packages; A Wedding for You; and Island Dream Weddings. Carnival Cruise Lines said it uses a combination of vendors, based on the location of the wedding.
There’s no commission for agents on any of the wedding packages. In fact, the purchase of a package is handled separately from the booking of the cruise. In most cases, onboard accommodations for the bridal couple and any guests sailing with them must be booked and deposited before the wedding planning can begin.
And agent Loris Fusco, of Montrose Travel in Montrose, Calif., said that none of the cruise lines will reserve a wedding date until the full cost of the event has been paid for.
Agents who have helped clients book their weddings through a third-party vendor say it can be a mixed blessing.
The great thing about it is that the vendor makes all the arrangements for the nuptials and any reception or party afterward. The risky thing about it is that the vendor makes all the arrangements for the nuptials and any reception or party afterward.
In other words, the agent typically has no control over the actual events, whether they are being held shoreside during a port call or on a ship, and that can be frustrating if anything goes wrong.
“There can be problems when you turn the show over to someone else,” Fusco said. “The Wedding Experience is easy to work with in many respects. They know what they’re doing, but they’re cookie-cutter. If it’s in the package, it’s in the package. The bigger problem for the bride, and the agent, is having no control once the couple gets on the ship.”
Each ship has an onboard staff coordinator who serves as liaison to the bridal couple, attending to the details of the event and troubleshooting potential problems. But even the coordinator can sometimes disappoint.
“Whoever that designated staff person is could drop the ball on your bride,” said Fusco, who books about four cruise weddings each year.
In addition to the cruise line’s coordinator, the wedding vendor typically provides a representative who boards the ship if a wedding is being held on embarkation day, or who attends a shoreside ceremony.
According to Valerie Brizuela Mahon, marketing director for the Wedding Experience, the majority of shipboard weddings are held on embarkation day because the cruise lines allow nonsailing wedding guests to board the ship for a few hours.
Angela DeDomenico, who owns a Cruise Planners/American Express franchise in Boca Raton, Fla., and books upward of 25 cruise weddings each year, has learned not to leave anything to chance. Either she or one of her staff sails with each wedding party booked through her agency.
“I’d say that for the most part, 80% of my weddings go off smoothly,” DeDomenico said. “Sometimes there are little hiccups, and sometimes there are big problems.”
She recalled one wedding that never happened at all: “My clients were supposed to get married shoreside when the ship called in St. Thomas. All the arrangements were made, everything was done, and then the ship was rerouted to avoid a hurricane.”
It was a September cruise, and DeDomenico said she had urged the bride to choose a different month to avoid hurricane season. But the client was adamant about wanting a September ceremony.
Then there was the time she booked a large wedding group on a ship that the cruise line later decided to charter during her clients’ wedding dates.
“It was six months before the sailing, but by that time everybody had already bought their air tickets, got their vacation time off, etc.,” she said. “The line gave us some choices for other dates, and the bride had to decide. Luckily in this case it was a shipboard wedding, so we didn’t have all kinds of land arrangements that would’ve had to be changed.”
Fusco has had her share of headaches, too, but they’ve been mostly due to snafus and obstacles once her bridal clients boarded their ship.
For example, in one wedding at sea, Fusco’s client was told by the vendor that she’d get a note from the cruise line’s onboard coordinator setting up a time to meet, look at the wedding location and discuss details.
“Well, three days into the cruise and still no sign of any coordinator,” Fusco recalled. “My client finally stopped a crew member in a hallway and said, ‘Hey, I’m getting married here in a few days, and I’m supposed to be meeting with a coordinator, but I don’t know who it is.’ Turns out the person she happened to approach was the coordinator. ‘Oh, that’s me,’ he said. She found him by accident.”
But there were other problems, as well.
The bride had arranged for each of her guests to receive flowers in their staterooms that they could wear to the reception if they wanted to, but not all of the flowers were delivered. At the reception, a miscommunication led the ship’s wait staff to believe that only guests wearing flowers should be served.
“People were being denied drinks because they weren’t wearing their flowers,” Fusco said. “And the ship’s staff never set up chairs, either, so the family of the bride ended up doing that.”
Ever since that experience, she said, the agents at Montrose make it a practice to go on the ship on embarkation day to meet with the bridal couple and the ship’s coordinator.
A package deal
Wedding packages can offer a mind-boggling array of amenities (from menu and drink options to music, photographers and flowers) and add-on events (such as Celebrity Cruises’ optional Bridesmaids’ Party or Cigar and Cognac Party). That’s why, Fusco said, it’s crucial to thoroughly qualify clients before making any recommendations about which cruise line, cruise ship or package the couple should consider.
A typical basic package onboard a ship will include the officiant (in some cases the ship’s captain), a bouquet for the bride and boutonniere for the groom, a photographer (for one hour), cake and champagne for two and perhaps flowers in the stateroom.
Then come the optional add-ons: a bigger cake, more champagne, a cocktail party, a buffet dinner, a sit-down dinner and myriad other items.
“Obviously, if you have guests you must provide more cake and champagne,” Fusco said. “And usually the bride and groom will buy a sit-down luncheon or dinner. Pricing depends on the cruise line and the number of people.”
A review of each line’s offerings reveals that shoreside weddings, either on a beach or at another scenic venue, typically incur extra charges. In addition to group transportation, each destination charges marriage license fees, which can add hundreds of dollars to the tab.
For instance, on St. Maarten the license costs $685. On St. Kitts it’s $395, and on Aruba it costs $300.
Clients also usually are asked to pay a planning or consulting fee to the agent who books the group onto a cruise and qualifies the bride and groom so that they can be matched up with an appropriate cruise line and/or shoreside venue.
Fusco charges a flat fee of $300, while DeDomenico will sometimes levy a per-person or perhaps an hourly fee based on what services she needs to provide.
“I had one bride who, during the length of the cruise, wanted each of her guests to be seated at her table for dinner one of the nights,” she recalled. “So I had to arrange all of that with seating cards. She also had gifts for all of her guests, which were stored in my cabin and which I delivered to the guests, so that all takes a lot of my time.”
Not all agents are comfortable working with a third-party vendor when it comes to their clients’ big day. DeDomenico is one of them, so sometimes she works outside the box.
“Do we need a third party involved? I don’t think so,” said DeDomenico, who considers herself a special-events planner. “The cruise lines already have group events people, and they help to choose rooms, food, etc.”
In addition to weddings, she also specializes in organizing music-themed cruises through her website www.musicinmocean.com.
“If I’m orchestrating all of that right now, why do I need a third-party vendor for weddings?” she asked. “It’s just another chance for someone to screw it up.”
Sometimes, DeDomenico said, she will book a wedding party without going through a vendor, particularly when a couple is bringing their own officiant onboard.
“I arrange it just like it was a meeting,” she said. “You book a private lounge for the ceremony, the ship helps with flowers, and you buy a cocktail party. You can set up a private dinner in a specialty restaurant.”
Not all cruise lines offer wedding packages. Smaller lines, such as Windstar, Oceania and Regent Seven Seas , don’t get into the weddings market, but they do sell vow-renewal ceremonies directly to their guests. Windstar, for example, features a package that covers a ceremony by the ship’s captain, a cake, a bottle of wine and a renewal certificate. The package costs $179.
The Wedding Experience was launched in 2000 by managing director Barbara Whitehill, who started out in the business by arranging weddings for just one cruise line.
“She soon realized that her vast network of vendors throughout the world would be beneficial for every cruise line couple,” Mahon said.
Today the firm handles about 4,000 weddings a year. Mahon said it had reached a peak of 6,000 before the recession.
“With the [economic downturn] we took a little bit of a hit,” she said. “People stopped taking vacations, spending went down. Our business dipped in 2008 and 2009, but now it has leveled off.”
She added that she expects demand to ramp up again as the economy improves.
Three of the company’s cruise line clients offer weddings at sea performed by the ship’s captain: Azamara Club Cruises, Princess Cruises and Celebrity Cruises.
“This is due to where their ships are flagged,” Mahon said. “Princess is flagged Bermudian, while Azamara and Celebrity are flagged in Malta. The other lines we handle are flagged Bahamian, whose government does not allow the captain to marry couples.”
Follow Donna Tunney on Twitter @dttravelweekly.