TORONTO — “Small and safe” is how DWHSA’s Liz Scull described destination weddings, post-pandemic, just a few weeks ago. Fast-forward to today, with 30% of Canadians already receiving their first COVID-19 vaccine shot, and she says that description may no longer apply.
“There is a change in the air,” says Scull, who joined Destination Wedding & Honeymoon Specialists Association as its new General Manager, Canada last month. “For 2021 I still say destination wedding bookings will still be low, but with 2022 bookings, quotes and inquiries have slightly increased in recent weeks. More and more are being vaccinated, they feel it is more likely that it will be safe to travel again in 2022 and confirm a wedding date.”
As an example of how the scope of destination weddings has broadened in just a few weeks, Scull thinks back to a wedding couple, both teachers, who recently inquired about a March Break 2022 wedding in Playa Mujeres with a very healthy 80-person guest list. Quotes, in recent weeks, says Scull, have been on the larger side.
She does, however, note that prices are on the rise as more wedding venues and resorts book up. This means that even if couples may have saved during the pandemic, a budget that would have covered all their costs in 2020 and 2021 may not be enough for a wedding in 2022.
“The couple provided quite a reasonable budget and I thought, ‘Easy-peasy’ with this budget,” says Scull. “But when I received the quote from the resort, it was $1,000 over their per person budget, when in the past their budget would have easily covered the package price. Prices have increased for many reasons, whether it be due to safety costs, reduced capacity, gas increases, security costs and more.”
Scull is advising all couples to book their future weddings as soon as possible, as “the big budget they have now may be the everyday price in 2022.” But are couples willing to lock in a date, destination, resort and group size at this time, given how uncertain everything is?
Luckily, suppliers are doing their best to accommodate, says Scull.
“Suppliers and tour operators are trying to be as flexible as possible, but supply and demand will be the answer. If your group increases in size, there may not be the space or prices will increase. If the resort is struggling for bookings, I believe they will increase the block at the same price. I would go over supplier terms & conditions thoroughly and have these questions answered during the consultation with the couple,” she adds.
“Flexibility and being able to cancel or change their wedding group is what surveys are showing couples want.”
Other emerging trends that Scull has noticed as a result of the pandemic include elopements, combined wedding-honeymoon trips for longer holidays, livestreaming ceremonies to allow friends and family at home to take part, symbolic ceremonies over lawfully-binding ones, and off-site ceremony venues since couples may no longer need the resort’s full catering services. As for which destinations she’s recommending to couples, tried-and-true locales like Mexico, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic “will lead the way in demand since their entry requirements are very manageable and resort companies have stepped up to offer on-site testing.”
One such company is Sandals Resorts, which announced back in January that it would be offering complimentary in-resort PCR testing through end of March 2021. Though there has been no word whether the company will be extending this offer, it has, however, gone out of its way to accommodate wedding couples with regards to safety and service. Its new Weddings Platinum Protocols of Cleanliness program, for example, includes hygiene practices across 18 touchpoints, hospital-grade disinfectants, electrostatic sprayers, UV lighting to inspect cleanliness, air duct sanitization in each room before guest arrivals, steam cleaning of carpeting and more. Plus, wedding venue capacity has been reduced, tables of eight at receptions have been reduced to six, and buffets and specialty food stations have been eliminated, with all food now plated and served by staff wearing masks.
“In true Sandals fashion, we went one step further to develop specific protocols for our brides and grooms to make sure that no one’s plans to the altar will falter,” says Marsha-Ann Donaldson-Brown, Director of Romance at Sandals Resorts International. “Whether a couple chooses our free tropical wedding (available to all guests with stays of three nights or longer), or a Sandals Customizable Weddings that’s a reflection of their personal style and taste, they can rest assured that we’ve covered all the bases and expect more hyper-personalized service.”
With all safety protocols in place, Donaldson-Brown adds that future wedding bookings “are looking quite good on the horizon,” which she credits to Sandal’s stellar reputation. While some couples are booking as far out as two years, there are others who are booking as soon as three months in advance – and less. One couple, she adds, planned a last-minute wedding in just eight days after their original wedding venue in Saint Lucia unexpectedly closed.
“A few text messages and phone calls later, they were speaking with one of our amazing wedding planners who confidently told them not to worry, we would create a destination wedding of their dreams at Sandals Grande St. Lucian inside our dream Over-the-Water Serenity Wedding Chapel,” says Donaldson-Brown. “They weren’t quite sure it was possible in just over a week but needless to say, the couple was completely blown away with just how easy and seamless the entire process was.”
Of course, this comes as no surprise considering that in a typical year, thousands of wedding ceremonies are held across all 18 Sandals Resorts and Beaches Resorts properties. The Weddings team is well accustomed to catering to every need, and that hasn’t changed during a pandemic. This means being able to accommodate an uptick in elopement ceremonies, smaller wedding gatherings (“or as I like to call them, love bubbles,” says Donaldson-Brown), outdoor wedding venues and receptions as well as live-streaming services that allow friends and family at home to take part in the festivities.
And travel agents will also be keen to know that couples are even planning not one, but two weddings celebrations, says Donaldson-Brown, the first being an intimate ceremony followed by a larger celebration down the line, when the time is right.
To help agents plan future weddings now, Donaldson-Brown is reminding them about Sandals’ real-time wedding planning solutions, from 360-degree digital resort tours and photos that allow couples to preview properties from home, to the Sandals Virtual Wedding Design Experience during which they will be transported to a virtual customizable wedding showroom with their wedding planner. There’s also the Ultimate Digital Wedding Planning Tool that allows couples to browse through décor inspiration, venue locations and wedding services like hair, makeup and photography.
And for those whose clients say it’s just too risky to get married abroad anytime soon, Donaldson-Brown is quick to add that not only does Sandals have a new Cancellation Protection Benefit (guests who cancel for whatever reason at least 31 days prior to check-in will receive a full refund on the land portion with zero penalties), the Caribbean has also been proven to be a safe destination during the pandemic.
“Those stringent entry requirements and health and safety measures implemented by our local governments, combined with the strong protocols that we’ve created and put into place at Sandals Resorts are a matchmade in heaven – pun intended!” she says. “I want to assure couples that they can still get married – safely – in the Caribbean, in the most romantic setting imaginable with the same world-class service and luxurious amenities they’ve come to expect at Sandals Resorts.”
This was part two of a two-part series on Destination Weddings. To read part one, click here.