Goin' to the chapel: Resorts woo big-ticket destination weddings

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The high price tags associated with destination weddings have made nuptials an increasingly popular niche product among Hawaii's hoteliers. The U.S. mainland is accounting for a growing percentage of clients booking destination weddings, a market still dominated by Japanese visitors. 

The trend is encouraging the addition of wedding chapels, packages and coordinator services at a growing number of properties, both in Waikiki, where the Hilton Hawaiian Village opened a new chapel, and on the Neighbor Islands, where the Sheraton Keauhou added an oceanfront chapel. 

"Even though the [number] of mainland-booked weddings is small, they often bring a whole entourage," said Jon Conching, Hilton's vice president of sales and marketing for the Hawaii region. "So it's an important niche market for us to cater to."

Officials at Starwood Hotels & Resorts, for example, say a typical wedding booking includes the bride, the groom and 10 guests. In most cases, the special nature of the event means booking more profitable high-end accommodations.

Getting churched

The resort chapel phenomenon debuted on the Neighbor Islands in 1980s, when chapels were integrated into the setting at the Grand Wailea Resort Hotel & Spa on Maui, the Hilton Waikoloa Village on the Big Island and the Kauai Marriott Resort & Beach Club.

The latest Neighbor Island addition is the Bayside Chapel at the Sheraton Keauhou on the Big Island, where the Bayside Garden provides an outdoor venue with wedding packages priced from $2,500 to $20,000.

A chapel is also planned for the Coco Palms in Wailua, Kauai, closed since Hurricane Iniki in 1992 but now slated for redevelopment, where Elvis Presley sang of dreams coming true in the 1961 film "Blue Hawaii." 

On Oahu, the Ocean Crystal Chapel that opened this year at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Beach Resort & Spa is Hawaii's newest and Waikiki's first. A second, privately run chapel, the $2.5 million Arluis Wedding Chapel, is also set for a groundbreaking in the residential part of Waikiki at the intersection of Kuhio Avenue and Kaiolu Street.

While most resort hotel chapels aim to offer a beautiful setting and an elegant venue, many couples-to-be prefer to experience Hawaii's romantic beauty in an outdoor setting. Beachfront hotels seem to be the favored setting for outdoor ceremonies.

At the Sheraton Royal Hawaiian in Waikiki, weddings take place under the palms on the resort's grassy front lawn. My wife and I were married in a sunset beach ceremony at the Kona Village Resort on the Big Island, a gentle surf lapping at our feet. 

Others may choose one of the many small churches and private estates that now host weddings.

The Four Seasons Resort Lanai, the Lodge at Koele, for example, offers weddings at the Ka Lokahi o Ka Malamalama Church, adjacent to the hotel. 

"When it comes to making dreams come true, there isn't a detail too small or a dream too big for our wedding managers," said Tina Canderle, in charge of the Westin Maui's wedding program. "We've seen some incredible weddings here." 

Wedding packages at the Westin, priced from $3,375 to $5,600, typical for an upscale hotel event, include a nondenominational officiant, wedding certificate, wedding coordinator and site fees.

The wedding packages at the Sheraton Kauai in Poipu, Kauai range from $1,500 to $4,800. At the Grand Hyatt Kauai, prices range from $3,700 to $20,000. 

Even a simple Hawaii wedding offers decent commission opportunities for travel agents. Booking popular activities or adding customized wedding options like hula dancers and aerial flower drops to a typical wedding booking of 12 guests or more helps increase commissions. 

But to take advantage, retailers have to be aware of the options so that they can make recommendations that best suit a client's budget and expectations. Usually, the actual planning of the wedding falls to the bride once the booking has been made.

"We've seen a real change in our wedding bookings over the past couple of years," Canderle said. "It's no longer just a simple ceremony but a full vacation experience for the bride and groom and their guests, lasting a weekend or longer."

The greatest growth market for the Westin Maui is the U.S. East Coast, "where Hawaii is still a more remote, exotic destination."

Canderle's observations are confirmed by the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, which this year reported a record 19,340 weddings booked from North America through July, up 21.5% over 2005.

That growth may be making on-staff wedding consultants vital at many Hawaii hotels, but it is also keeping independent wedding planners busy.

Independent planners such as Tropical Dream Weddings on Kauai peddle wedding packages for as little as $425 and as much as $5,000, in settings ranging from Koloa's churches to tropical lagoons.

But smaller resorts, such as the Hanalei Colony Resort on Kauai, may better suit clients' budgets.

The Hanalei Colony offers Weddings With Aloha packages that start at $500 and peak at $2,385, with extras not included in upscale hotel deals. Booking off-season is another way to save.

To contact reporter Allan Seiden, send e-mail to [email protected].

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