Paying the Hidden Cost of a Destination Wedding<NYT_BYLINE>
By CHRISTINE NEGRONI
Published: September 7, 2012
- DANIELLE and Tim Jennings of Indianapolis booked a seven-night stay at the Couples Tower Isle resort in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, last August. They took advantage of one of those deals that couples considering destination weddings hear about all the time: pay for a week and get the wedding ceremony free.
But just how free is free?
The couple paid $2,700 for their room at the all-inclusive resort and $250 for government and processing fees for the ceremony, which included the wedding official, flowers, cake and Champagne for themselves and their two guests, Mr. Jennings’s parents.
“If that’s all they’re giving, with everything else a resort will be making off the couple, that’s nominal,” said Marie van Rooyen, a hotel consultant in Connecticut specializing in the Caribbean. “A Champagne toast, maybe cake. If they have a restaurant, the cakes are probably prepared. You’re not talking about a whole heck of a lot of money that they’re giving for free.”
In fact, had the couple hired the minister and gotten the marriage license from the Jamaican authorities themselves, they would have paid less than $200. Whether the value of their free wedding is $500 to $750, as the resort’s romance director claims, or something less, experts in the hospitality industry say that when it comes to the so-called free wedding, there is no such thing.
“The cost is buried someplace,” Ms. van Rooyen said. “There has to be an additional revenue stream.”
For very small ceremonies, between the weeklong booking and the administration fee, the hotel’s costs are more than covered. For larger weddings, the hotel will often offer lower prices to the couple, knowing that it will make money on the wedding guests and what they spend for rooms, food and entertainment.
Destination weddings have been increasing steadily since the mid-1990s, when American couples first began going off to find places to marry more romantic than their hometown.
A Brides magazine study this year indicated that about 15 percent of its readers had a destination wedding, and that a top reason for choosing one was, perhaps surprisingly, to keep costs down. The study said the average cost of a destination wedding was $23,800, more than $3,000 less than non-destination weddings at $26,989. One reason for the savings is that fewer invited guests are likely to attend a destination wedding.
Couples who chose a destination wedding said the event was more fun and lasted longer because they had in effect taken their guests with them on a getaway. The guests may get a mini-vacation, but they are going to spend a lot more than just the cost of a wedding gift. Attending a destination wedding can cost on average about $1,500, industry insiders said, and that does not include a gift.
“It’s incredible money,” said Richard Markel, the director of the Association for Wedding Professionals International, because destination-wedding guests book large blocks of rooms well ahead; fill dining rooms, bars and gift shops; and spend on sports activities and spa treatments.
Michael Van Camp, an investment banker from New York who has attended several destination weddings in the last few years, including one in St. Barts and another in Isla Mujeres in the Mexican Rivera, estimates he spends about $2,000 each time he goes. That includes his airfare and accommodations for what is usually a two-day event, though sometimes he spends more and stays longer. “Part of that is me, I like nice hotels,” said Mr. Van Camp, 40. “They do get expensive.”
But he does not mind going to one or two destination weddings every year. “I would have preferred not to have to travel to attend weddings in Northern California, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.,” he said. The appeal, he said, “depends entirely upon the destination,” and for him, the Caribbean or Mexico are well worth the expense.
After they became engaged, Dewey Burke and his fiancée, Megan Kaltenbach, visited Maroma, a resort on the Mexican Riviera Maya, where they learned that their ceremony this month would coincide with the hotel’s low season. Mr. Burke, who lives in Denver, used that information to extract better rates for his guests.
“I knew right there that would be a bargaining chip for the negotiation,” Mr. Burke said. “We got them to cut the room rates in half and include breakfast for everybody.” But the hotel would make up for the discount, he said, because his guests would be spending even more money at the hotel. “That’s how I laid it out,” he said. “I said: ‘Give us these rates, and those people will be buying drinks and food. Some people are coming for an entire week and spending money.’ ”
When Rosie and Michael Klein of Cherry Hill, N.J., married in May at Playa del Carmen on the Gulf Coast of Mexico, they had 82 guests attend the three-day affair. Considering that drug-related violent crime in Mexico has caused a three-year downturn in tourism and that the resort where Ms. Klein wanted to hold her wedding was brand new, she was counting on big discounts for filling dozens of rooms at the Paradisus La Perla with her friends and family.
“That was part of our initial conversation,” Ms. Klein said of the discussions with the travel agent who was also her destination-wedding planner. “We said, ‘What can we get?’ ” But Ms. Klein said the hotel did not budge much on the price of the ceremony or associated events and meals, though she did get some free accommodations.
“Every hotel offers incentives to the bride and groom,” said Marilyn Cairo, the romance-desk manager for Paradisus Resorts in North America. “They brought us this business. We are on the higher end in terms of price, but I also know we’re also on the higher end in terms of what we deliver.”
Ms. Klein said she and her husband paid $75,000 for their “unforgettable” wedding at the Paradisus, which included hosting three evening events and entertainment like fire dancing, cigar rolling and a tug of war (bridesmaids vs. groomsmen) on the beach. For every 10 rooms they booked, they were given three nights free to dish out as they pleased. “We gave our parents three nights, we used a set for our videographer from New York, and we used the balance,” she said.
Their guests each paid $215 a night, food and drinks included, Ms. Klein said. Of the $75,000 bill, Ms. Klein said she was prepared to pay the same amount for a wedding at home, but at home she “would have had more guests but less of an experience.”
Free or upgraded rooms and a free one-year anniversary stay are the most common incentives given to couples. This can create conflict when guests discover that their attendance is subsidizing the wedding or the bridal couple’s expenses.
“I have seen instances where, within the immediate family, there has been some resentment,” Ms. Cairo said. A guest once demanded, “Why can’t I have some of the free nights because thanks to me my brother is getting free nights?” she said.
Mr. Van Camp said he has never believed he had subsidized his friends’ wedding ceremonies. In fact, he has seen otherwise. “Special considerations were made for our safety at the expense of bride and groom in Mexico and in the St. Barts wedding,” he said, and weeklong events were also covered by the bride and groom. “It was more expensive for them.”
There were no free nights for Daniel Lapin and his bride, Inna Shamis Lapin of Manalapan, N.J., even though they took 45 people to Paradisus La Perla for their wedding in March. Unlike the Kleins, who booked their block of rooms months ahead, the Lapins did not require their guests to do that or to use a specific booking agent. The Lapins’ room was upgraded, and all their guests were given $250 to spend at the resort. But looking back, Ms. Shamis Lapin said she could have done things differently to get a better deal.
“I would have been more strict with my guests in terms of booking with one travel agent versus booking on their own,” she said, “because it would have led us to enjoy other incentives we did not have access to.”
Randall L. Russell a senior vice president at Couples Resorts in Jamaica, said, “Those who book the farthest in advance get the best deal.” He said 2,000 weddings were held in 2011 at the four Couples resorts there.
Rather than do a lot of negotiating with couples, Mr. Russell’s company developed five wedding packages. The most expensive, at $4,750, includes a private island ceremony with reception, cake and rehearsal dinner for 40.
But most at the Couples resorts decide to wed as Danielle and Tim Jennings did, an intimate event with the “free” ceremony and post-vows toast at the resort. “The one that is the most popular is the free one,” Mr. Russell said. Since that deal requires booking a weeklong stay, it gives newlyweds plenty of time to decide if their free wedding was worth the price.
<A version of this article appeared in print on September 9, 2012, on page ST35 of the New York edition with the headline: Paying the Hidden Cost Of a Destination Wedding.