One out of six brides got engaged over the holiday season,* and the freshly affianced of 2014 are opting for destination weddings with a fervor that dwarfs anything seen in recent years.
"In 2014, we already have as much on the books as we did in all of 2013. Things are happening a lot faster this year," said Tammy Wright, owner of San Francisco-based Wright Travel Agency, which runs the website BestDestinationWedding.com. Since 2012, Wright's business has been booming, more than tripling in 2012 over 2011 and more than doubling again in 2013.
Other destination wedding specialists are reporting similar trends.
"What we booked last year for destination wedding groups for the whole year, we've already ordered contracts on that many [groups] this year," said April Schmitt, CEO of Divine Destination Weddings and Honeymoons. "This year, we're probably going to double [our business]."
Schmitt's business has grown consistently about 30% year over year since she opened her romance travel-focused agency in 2005. Like others in the destination wedding industry, she reported that her business proved to be recession-resistant, not having experienced any of the distress witnessed by other sectors of the industry during the economic downturn.
In fact, not only did Schmitt and other destination wedding sellers not feel any recession impact on their business, what they have seen over the past couple years is more growth than in previous years -- Schmitt saw about 50% in 2013 over 2012 -- and they're all reporting that 2014 is off to an even more robust start.
The destination wedding industry has been around since all-inclusives like Sandals began offering overwhelmed brides barefoot-on-the-beach alternatives to over-the-top marriage pomp in the 1980s. But as uninhibited couples and their wedding parties-to-be emerge from the pall of the recession, the size, scope and sales for today's destination weddings have far outgrown their intimate elopement roots.
Destination wedding guest counts are on the rise, along with length of stays, additional excursions and a whole host of add-ons.
"Business is on fire with destination weddings," Schmitt observed. "You have a third of the people who are really splurging, a third of the people who just cannot afford a local wedding because it's so outrageous that they're not going to be able to afford [both] a wedding and a honeymoon, and then you have the couples who just want to do something adventurous."
Where they're saying 'I do'
When considering where and how to tie the knot, 24% of couples are opting for a destination wedding, according to the results of the Real Weddings Study, a survey of 17,500 brides released last year by wedding planning sites TheKnot.com and WeddingChannel.com.
White-sand beaches and crystal-blue waters are still the dream backdrop for the majority of destination weddings. And Mexico, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic remain, and probably always will be, the most popular places couples go to get married in that setting, according to destination wedding specialists.
There is a growing number, range and sophistication of all-inclusive resorts and boutique properties offering comprehensive wedding packages in Mexico and the Caribbean, where properties are vying harder than ever for the revenue the destination wedding industry represents.
That revenue is a direct result of the increasingly complex and dynamic nature of booking today's destination wedding. With group sizes on the rise, destination wedding bookings represent a much larger overall price tag than they did in the past.
"A lot of the resorts are now offering free wedding packages depending on how many rooms you book," Wright said. "They're realizing there's more money in the group booking."
As more couples opt to travel for their nuptials, they're also looking for new and different destinations in which to say "I do."
"We are seeing a lot of emerging trends for places for guests who want a very experiential wedding," said Melissa Pride-Fahs, director of marketing and customer engagement for the Destination Weddings Travel Group, which runs the website DestinationWeddings.com.
She noted that some up-and-coming wedding destinations include places as diverse as Iceland and Croatia. Others noted that requests for Fiji, Tahiti and Puerto Rico are also cropping up more.
There are emerging destinations in Mexico and the Caribbean, such as Puerto Vallarta in Mexico and some of the smaller Caribbean islands, that are making a run at the larger destination wedding resorts.
The dominant hotel players in this market span a wide range, including AMResorts, Barcelo, El Dorado, Grand Velas, Hard Rock, Iberostar, Karisma, Palace, Sandals, Sheraton, Starwood, St. Regis, Westin and Zoetry, as well as smaller properties that offer entire property buyouts.
As for Hawaii, a dominant player in the honeymoon market, agents say it doesn't play as strong of a role in the destination wedding market as one might assume due to higher prices and tougher group terms and restrictions.
To save or to splurge?
The average wedding budget in the U.S. in 2012 was $28,427, not including the honeymoon, according to the Real Weddings Study.
Destination wedding specialists contend that you can get a comparable wedding in Mexico, for instance, for a fraction of that price.
"The average wedding here in my area is $28,000," said Schmitt, who is based in California's Sacramento area. "A comparable wedding in Mexico would be $6,000 to $10,000, with all the bells and whistles -- at an all-inclusive. If you're looking at the St. Regis in the Caribbean, you're going to be paying top dollar. But 90% of destination weddings are at all-inclusives because they get controlled pricing."
Wright of BestDestinationWedding.com estimated that for an average, 40-person destination wedding in Mexico, including the ceremony, private reception and open bar, a couple could get away with spending about $15,000.
Asked whether clients come to her to save or splurge on their nuptials, Wright said it's actually a combination of the two.
"It is a great value, and because people are also willing to splurge, you get more bang for your buck," Wright said.
"Maybe you want to do fireworks. You can definitely afford to do it in Mexico. You can get a sit-down meal with steak and lobster instead of buffet with pasta and salad."
According to specialists and suppliers in the destination wedding business, the vast majority of couples that opt for a destination wedding make the honeymoon an extension of their wedding celebration, which is a large part of the draw of what some in the industry call the "weddingmoon."
"The biggest selling factor is being able to combine the wedding and a vacation," said Pride-Fahs.
Good excuse to travel
Destination weddings aren't just a travel opportunity for those getting hitched. Increasingly, the wedding party is getting onboard, using a friend or family member's wedding as an excuse to build a getaway.
"We are seeing really big wedding groups," Wright said. "We're [currently] working on a couple of 80-room groups. We had a case where a bride blocked 30 rooms, and she's now going to need 50."
In the past, brides would have the opposite problem, overestimating how many people would be willing to travel to witness their big day, which could leave them with possible cancellation penalties if the rooms weren't returned back to the hotel within the allotted time.
With more people attending these far-flung nuptials, they're embracing the opportunity to do more activities together, adding on excursions and get-togethers that are expanding the booking even more.
"Gone are the days where it was just the bride and groom," said Marsha-Ann Brown, director of romance at Sandals Resorts, which has seen its wedding business grow a little more than 25% each year over the past couple years. "What is of greater significance is not only the percentage growth in the weddings, but the number of guests. Now we're seeing that our average wedding size ranges from 30 [guests] and up."
And once they've made the investment to travel to destinations farther afield, couples and their guests are expressing a desire to actually experience the destination more.
"For the larger wedding parties, they're wanting to surprise and delight their guests through various levels of entertainment -- fire dancers, limbo dancers, those elements of surprise -- so that their guests can share in on the fun and excitement," Brown said.
It's not uncommon, she said, for guests to book zipline excursions or ATV trips, and the spa continues to be a place where guests want to splurge.
Other planners concurred that today's destination wedding bookings are rife with add-on opportunities.
"These people like experiences," Schmitt said. "They like to live it, not just watch it from the sidelines. I think the days of seven days lying at the beach are really behind us. ... My average stay at a wedding is five nights -- and those are the guests."
Engaging the engaged
There's little doubt there's money to be made in the destination wedding industry. The key is finding the newly engaged and ensuring that a destination wedding is on their radar in those crucial first few months after the question has been popped.
DestinationWeddings.com has been experimenting with several new methods of marketing to brides, especially during the first quarter of the year with the high number of proposals that take place over the holidays.
In addition to partnering with brands like David's Bridal and WeddingWire.com, DestinationWeddings.com recently introduced mobile app advertising and last year created an interactive digital publication, "Get Married Away," which can be accessed through the DestinationWeddings.com website.
Others find that word of mouth is the best advertising.
"They're definitely finding us," Schmitt said. "Our happy customers are blogging about us and talking about us on TheKnot and WeddingWire. ... Having a strong and clean presence online is critical for today's brides."
The added bonus of connecting with freshly engaged couples and arranging their destination wedding is the retention rate. For many of the agencies in this space, those couples then become clients for life.
*According to results of a survey released last year by wedding planning sites TheKnot.com and WeddingChannel.com, 16% of couples got engaged over the holidays.
Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.