It's the age of the destination wedding, and we're not talking about the Little White Wedding Chapel in Vegas.
Today's well-heeled are saying "I do" on tropical beaches and old-world piazzas, bundling the big day with a celebratory family getaway and luxury honeymoon.
"Brides and grooms are marrying older, they're wealthier and they're more part of the jet-set," says luxury-event planner Tatiana Byron, adding that the growing popularity of the destination wedding reflects those demographic shifts.
"It's also an opportunity to make the wedding more intimate ... In your hometown, it's really hard to chop the guest list," Byron says. "Your distant cousin probably isn't going to come to your wedding in France."
4PM Events specializes in the lavish end of the multibillion-dollar weddings market, with one of her most memorable nuptials including 400 guests, a Cirque du Soleil performance, a troupe of belly dancers and a cake decorated with 18-karat edible gold.
She rarely handles weddings with budgets smaller than $100,000 -- with the average couple shelling out $500,000 -- but the destination wedding trend has seeped beyond the borders of the economic uber-elite.
Surprisingly, Joann Delgin, director of wedding strategy for
Sandals Resorts, says the average domestic wedding costs about $28,850, while the average destination wedding costs $25,800.
"These weddings are, in many ways, so much easier," Delgin says. "You pick your destination, and our planners take care of everything else. You send your save-the-date cards well in advance ... then guests can even plan their vacations with your wedding in mind."
More Overseas Vows
Sandals hosted 12,000 destination weddings, or "weddingmoons," last year at its properties throughout the Caribbean, a 10% increase over the last two years.
Fairchild Publishing's bridal group estimates that 16% of couples had destination weddings in 2005, which reflects a 400% increase over the last decade.
And Tom Curtin, publisher of
Bridal Guide Magazine
, says that about 20% of the magazine's readership had a destination wedding in 2005.
"It's just an absolute boom," says Curtin. "
The Wall Street Journal
ran a piece on a woman who rented a used wedding dress, but was willing to spend $65,000 on a destination wedding in the Bahamas with 250 guests. The popularity is enormous."
This trend is a big business for airlines and destination hotspots, as well as wedding planners.
Hawaiian Airlines offers a special "weddings wings" airfare that gives the wedding party 10% off. The couple also gets upgraded to first class if at least 10 family members are on the same flight. And Virgin Atlantic has seen its destination weddings department grow from two people to six in about two and a half years.
While Byron says having your big day far away can cut down the guest list, your third cousin twice removed just might be willing to join you in Jamaica.
Destination weddings are getting bigger, with an average of 50 to 80 guests, according to Sandals statistics.
"We're a transient society these days," says Delgin. "Almost all of the guests have to travel anyway."
Ironically, divorce is also among the drivers behind the destination-weddings business.
Of the estimated 2.4 million marriages in 2005, about 18% of them included a bride or groom making a repeat trip to the altar. In 1988, only 2% of weddings included someone who had been married before.
"We're looking at a lot of second and third marriages. These are not 21-year-olds planning a fairy-tale wedding for 100," says Byron. "They know which people really matter in their lives and want to share something special with them."
Moreover, all brides and grooms are getting older. "In 1974, the average age of someone getting married was a 21-year-old woman marrying a 22-year-old man," Curtin points out. "Now the average age of the bride is nearly 29 and the guy is 30 or 31."
These couples have lived on their own for long enough that they probably don't need a shiny new toaster. "Corresponding to the growth in destination weddings is a decline in gift registries for things like silver and crystal," he says.
"People have been pushed more to family and their closest friends. These are the people they want at their wedding, and they want to celebrate in a very special way," Curtin says, adding that many couples would prefer that their guests spend money on airfare to Italy than on a set of fine china.
Set Your Destination
Byron says the Caribbean is the No. 1 hotspot for Americans taking their wedding show on the road, and that St. Barts, the Cayman Islands and the Bahamas are the top resort destinations. Miami is a hot spot, too -- and then there is that certain set who loves the old world charm of Tuscan vineyards and the French countryside.
Most wedding planners also say to avoid peak season because the price difference for travel is substantial, and that it's still possible to get great weather year-round.
Overall, Byron says the only thing the couple needs to worry about is having a civil ceremony in the U.S. before the wedding in order to avoid any concerns about the legality of the union.
Otherwise, the planner will take care of the details, such as scouting for sites and vendors, hiring translators, guiding you and your guests through customs details and creating schedules.
"There is an intense amount of quality control that goes on when you're getting married overseas," Byron says. "The staff hired at the site may be cheaper, but you want to know if they'll be up to snuff." She adds that it's well worth it for the couple to make a trip to the site beforehand, rather than just leave it in the planner's hands.
"Don't get married sight unseen," she says. "You want to have your hands around your own wedding."
Sandals has taken care of quality-control concerns by putting together a "dream team" that includes Preston Bailey, a celebrity wedding planner who has planned weddings and events for Donald and Melania Trump, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Oprah Winfrey.
Bailey has created four packages that allow couples to have a faraway wedding that cuts down on the likelihood of unexpected events.
And once on property, budgets are very predictable for the couple and the party because all luxury amenities are included in the price of the wedding package.
"This is part of a larger industry trend, much like
using famous designers to create affordable products for the mass market," says Delgin. She adds that these packages can be tailored to fit each wedding party, for example allowing the bride and groom to travel to a couples-only Sandals location while the wedding party remains at family-friendly resort.
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