Focus on Hotels: Destination wedding bliss

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Destination weddings have grown in scope with the easing of pandemic restrictions.
Destination weddings have grown in scope with the easing of pandemic restrictions. Photo Credit: Panuphon/Shutterstock.com

When it came to pulling off a picture-perfect wedding, Kerri Brewster faced a bit more pressure than most brides.
That's because in addition to being owner of Arizona-based Escapes Unlimited and Sunlover Travel, Brewster is a destination wedding specialist.

"Everyone knew that I was in that world of destination weddings, so I felt a lot of responsibility when it came to making sure our guests had a good time," said Brewster. "And I knew that everyone I knew in the industry would be looking at my pictures, wondering, 'What did she do?'"

Brewster and her husband ended up getting hitched this past February at the Sandals South Coast in Jamaica, and it was far from a simple affair. The guest list, initially estimated to land somewhere between 20 and 30 guests, ended up at around 50. The celebration included a pre-wedding welcome party featuring a private catamaran sunset cruise, and at cocktail hour guests were treated to a Junkanoo performance. Dinner was accompanied by a fire-dancing demonstration. 

Kerri Brewster, owner of Escapes Unlimited and Sunlover Travel, kisses her husband at their wedding at the Sandals South Coast in Jamaica earlier this year.
Kerri Brewster, owner of Escapes Unlimited and Sunlover Travel, kisses her husband at their wedding at the Sandals South Coast in Jamaica earlier this year. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Kerri Brewster

Brewster's elaborate event, however, is far from an outlier these days.

As the world emerges from an extended period of social distancing, lockdowns and quarantines, destination wedding demand has come back with a vengeance, with couples as well as their guests spending more than ever.

"I have more weddings on the books for 2022 than I had in 2018 or 2019," Brewster said. "And it used to be that many couples I had would get the least expensive package, and they were basically doing a destination wedding because of the cost savings. But now they're doing bigger receptions, they're spending more on decor, they're flying in their own photographers and videographers. Instead of maybe $3,000 or $4,000, they're now spending more like $10,000."

Guest lists are also growing. Pre-pandemic, Brewster's destination wedding clients typically had 30 to 50 people in attendance. This year, that average has ballooned to between 100 and 150 guests, with many attendees now opting to add nights and extend stays beyond the wedding festivities.

"Instead of three nights, guests are now staying seven nights and making it a vacation," Brewster said. 

A leader in the all-inclusive destination wedding space, Sandals Resorts has certainly benefited from this year's wedding boom. According to Marsha-Ann Donaldson-Brown, director of weddings and romance at Sandals, the first half of 2022 is on pace to be a record-breaking year for the company when it comes to weddings.

"Travel is back and stronger than ever," she said. "Weddings are also making a pronounced comeback in our Caribbean resorts, as we're currently projecting 30% more weddings for 2022 versus 2021."

Donaldson-Brown also said Sandals couples are spending about 25% more on average per guest compared with 2019, increasingly willing to pour additional investment into photography, entertainment and food and beverage.

The Hotel Californian has several "sequel weddings" on the books for couples who've already gotten married.
The Hotel Californian has several "sequel weddings" on the books for couples who've already gotten married. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Hotel Californian

New opportunities

The pandemic has also bred new types of weddings. With many couples forced to downsize their weddings earlier in the pandemic, "sequel weddings" are creating an opportunity for repeat business at some properties, including the Hotel Californian, a 121-room Preferred Hotels & Resorts member property in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Samantha Brown, the hotel's catering sales manager, estimates that around 15 to 20 weddings on the hotel's books for 2022 are these "second celebrations" for couples who already got legally married or hosted a smaller wedding in the past two years. 

"There are couples who already hosted an intimate dinner with us last year who are now looking to organize larger rooftop parties this year," Brown said.

Pani puri shots, a dish created by chef Sanjay Rawat. The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel launched an Indian wedding culinary program to meet increased demand for Indian weddings.
Pani puri shots, a dish created by chef Sanjay Rawat. The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel launched an Indian wedding culinary program to meet increased demand for Indian weddings. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel

At the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel in Dana Point, Calif., a surge in wedding bookings began in late 2021 and has continued into this year. 

"We actually had more weddings at the end of 2021 than we've had at any other point in our 37 years," said Karen Chastain, general manager for the hotel. "And that trend is continuing."

Indian weddings, which account for around 30% to 40% of the property's total wedding business, have come back at a particularly fast clip. But with Indian wedding caterers in the area increasingly unable to keep pace with demand, the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel recently launched an in-house culinary program dedicated to Indian weddings, spearheaded by chef and New Delhi native Sanjay Rawat. 

"As more weddings started happening at the end of 2021, it became a lot harder to secure an outside caterer to handle Indian cuisine," said Chastain. "So, with Indian weddings becoming such a large segment for us, we saw a wonderful opportunity to bring on an amazing chef and allow more couples to have a seamless Ritz-Carlton experience."

Across weddings of all cultural backgrounds, Chastain has noticed another trend: Couples are more flexible about dates, a trend born out of necessity as the calendar for 2022 as well as 2023 has quickly started to fill up.
"We've had more weddings during the week, and Friday evening can be a popular option," added Chastain.

The pandemic also appears to have trained couples to book destination weddings within a short window of time, even as the Covid landscape becomes somewhat more predictable.

An outdoor wedding setup at the Fairmont El San Juan Hotel in Puerto Rico.
An outdoor wedding setup at the Fairmont El San Juan Hotel in Puerto Rico. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Fairmont El San Juan Hotel

At the Fairmont El San Juan Hotel in Puerto Rico, for example, one couple recently began planning their 150-guest wedding for May a mere two months ahead of time, according to the property's director of social and catering events, Vilmarie Alameda.

In fact, the average planning time for weddings at the Fairmont El San Juan has gone from a year to a year and a half out before the pandemic to just three to six months in advance today.

"Our couples are also planning more events for their weddings," Alameda said. "Some are adding a welcome cocktail event or a farewell brunch or booking our cabana facilities [to host] a day at the beach or the pool."

For guests, more events can mean more quality time with those they may not have seen since the pandemic began.

"People haven't seen some of their family and friends for two years, so they're saying, 'Yes, sign us up [for the wedding], we can't wait to see you guys,'" said Jennifer Doncsecz, president of Pennsylvania-based agency VIP Vacations. "Wedding groups that used to be 15 or 20 rooms are now 35 or 40 rooms, so more guests are coming in."

Escapes Unlimited's Brewster has seen similar enthusiasm among invitees.

"A lot of my clients are shocked at how many guests actually show up to their destination weddings," said Brewster. "It used to be that something like 70% of the people you invite would show up. Now, it's 80% to 85%. People are just ready to travel and live it up." 

Correction: An earlier version of this report had an incorrect spelling for Samantha Brown, the Hotel Californian's catering sales manager.

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