Choose a location that’s easy (or easy-ish) to get to. Destination wedding planner Cristina Verger, owner of New York-based Cristina Verger Event Planning & Productions, says that sometimes clients see a beautiful photo of a place and say, “I want to get married there!” But it takes more than gorgeous scenery to make a successful wedding. “I had this one couple that came to me and they wanted to get married in Capri,” says Verger. “You have to fly to Rome, figure out how to get to Naples, then it’s a ferry—it’s a major trip. You can’t just let [guests] do that alone, or they will be overwhelmed.” Instead, Verger suggested Portofino or Venice, both of which are closer to an airport, meaning less transport—and headache. Sarah Pease, owner and creative director of Brilliant Event Planning in New York City, starts by asking clients how many stopovers they are willing to make. “It’s great that you want to get married in the Maldives, but are you sure your guests will want to travel 20-plus hours to attend your wedding?” she tells clients. “That starts to bring the focus in quickly.”
Choose a package—or a planner. When planning a wedding from far away, you’ll definitely need a wedding package or a wedding planner familiar with the area. Going with a planner will help you to personalize your wedding to your tastes. Packages, on the other hand, tend to be a bit more cookie-cutter, but with little risk of feeling that way, since the setting will still be new to your guests. “If you don’t have the help of a wedding planner, you need the package in remote properties,” says Verger. “You’re not going to be able to find the vendors.” If you do decide to hire a planner, decide on the best one for you by looking at planner websites beforehand. You’ll be able to tell by glancing through the photo gallery if a planner’s previous work is up to your standards. If you’ve already decided on your wedding location, also look for a planner who has held events in the same area—or better yet, at the same venue—since he or she will have existing relationships with nearby vendors. (Extra helpful if you don’t speak the language.)
Ask the hotel or resort about other events taking place that weekend. While most luxury resorts wouldn’t be so tacky as to have several weddings going on at the same time, it’s worth asking if any events are taking place on the same date you plan to have your wedding. “That is absolutely a red-flag question to ask,” says Pease. “Besides asking, ‘Am I the only wedding taking place that day or weekend?’ ask if there are any other large groups. Imagine if you have a bunch of sales guys on their annual trip going bananas at the pool on your wedding weekend?”
Factor in the exchange rate. Destination weddings have a reputation for being less expensive than weddings back home, but that’s a misperception in most cases—especially if you’re hoping to get hitched in Europe, says Verger. Always convert prices into dollars so you have a real handle on how much you’re shelling out for the big day.
Mail invites early. Some guests won’t book flights and hotel rooms until they have the official invite. Alison Rinderknecht, owner of Alison Events in San Francisco and author of Destination Wedding Planner: The Ultimate Guide to Planning a Wedding from Afar,suggests mailing invitations three months out, instead of the standard two months. “Ask for an RSVP a month before, rather than two weeks [before],” she add
Plan events for the whole weekend—not just the wedding. Most destination weddings take place over long weekends, typically with guests arriving on Thursday and staying until Saturday. Your guests will be “trapped” at the destination, so to speak, and it’s the couple’s responsibility to keep them entertained. “Provide a welcome party, so guests don’t have to think about going out to dinner anywhere,” says Verger. Most weddings include a rehearsal dinner, a party Friday night, and then the wedding on Saturday. Pease says brunch the morning after the wedding is standard procedure as well. While you’re certainly not obligated, it can also be nice for you to offer “surf lessons or tequila tasting or a nature hike or yoga…activities that get people mingling,” says Rinderknecht.
Check local laws before hiring vendors from the U.S. Many couples will fly in their own photographer and videographer, and sometimes a DJ or makeup artist as well. But not all countries allow the use of an outside vendor, so check with your wedding planner or your contact at the wedding venue. “In a place like Turks and Caicos, they have some pretty serious laws and controls on bringing in vendors from outside the country,” says Pease. “You would have a hard time bringing in your own officiant and you would certainly not be allowed if there was someone at customs with six cameras and lenses. Meanwhile, in a country like Mexico, none of that exists and you can bring in whoever you want.”
Read the contract. Twice. If you have a planner, he or she will do this for you, but it can’t hurt to dot your I’s and cross your T’s. “I cannot underscore enough that the contract is so important,” says Pease. A typical venue contract (the most important one) can be anywhere from 25 to 50 pages, and can take 4-6 weeks to negotiate. “Don’t take the first version,” she adds. “Know where you are coming from and pay attention to things you expect.” You’ll want to nail down the big things, like how dinner will be served (Pease says tableside entree choice is not standard in most places) to the little stuff, like the placement of napkins on the table at the reception. “Tell them, and have it documented in writing, you want this particular flat fold or a long fold of your napkins so you don’t show up and have hideous 1980s napkins at your wedding.”
Give guests extra notice. Destination weddings require extra planning for guests, too, so it’s smart to give a bit more notice than you would for a local wedding. “I find some clients plan a destination wedding because they don’t want people to come; they don’t want to invite the boss and the whole office,” says Pease. “If you actually do want people to come, give them as much notice as possible. Even if it’s informal word of mouth, ‘We are aiming for somewhere in the Caribbean in January 2016,’ people can have it in the back of their minds that they need to save vacation days.” For destination weddings that are especially far away, Marie Perrier, wedding manager for the Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora, recommends giving nine months to one year’s notice. “It allows time for guests to organize their trip,” she says.
Create a Pinterest board to easily share your vision. At high-end resorts like the Four Seasons Bora Bora, wedding packages are customizable, says Perrier. To make sure your vision is properly translated, “we recommend that [couples] share their Pinterest boards with their wedding specialist,” says Perrier. “This way, we can make sure that this special day is all their own.” Having a visual to share is particularly helpful when planning from far away, when you won’t be able to see all details in person beforehand.
Negotiate a group discount for hotel rooms. “In general, you can get a group discount, which can range from 5 to 10 percent at larger hotels,” says Rinderknecht. “However, smaller hotels or places that book up whether your wedding is there are may not offer a discount.” You’ll also want to negotiate the number of rooms you’ll be responsible for in your contract. “In order to host your wedding at a resort, most will have a minimum number of rooms required that you are financially responsible for,” says Pease. “If you think you need 45 rooms, and you only need 35, you have to pay for those rooms… Make sure you are not on the hook if your guests cancel.” She adds: “[Resorts] will sometimes have a minimum number of nights—in the high season, it might be three nights—that you can negotiate down to two.”
Budget for flight and hotel for non-local vendors. If you do decide to fly in your own photographer or DJ, you’ll be responsible for their travel expenses. The good news? It’s perfectly acceptable to put your vendors up in a nice but less pricey hotel than the one where the wedding is taking place. (Just make sure it’s nearby.) The extra cost can actually end up saving you money. “Sometimes if you are bringing them in for the whole weekend… the photographer won’t mind shooting some extra things, or the DJ will play at the rehearsal dinner or another part of the weekend,” says Verger.
Leave a welcome note. (But ditch the water bottles.) Any luxury hotel will already have water in the rooms, so giving guests a little bag with bottles of Evian isn’t going to make an impression. Instead, Pease recommends leaving destination-specific items guests might not have brought on the plane with them—say, bug spray and sunscreen, for a beach wedding. You can also leave a token gift that’s specific to the destination; one of Verger’s favorites were fleece blankets provided to guests riding a gondola lift to a mountaintop ceremony in Aspen. She also recommends simply leaving a personal note. “It’s nice to give to people at check-in as a welcome,” she says. “I always like it as soon as they arrive to make them feel welcome.” The notes should always be handwritten, or if you’re short on time (or clear penmanship), hire a calligrapher.
Invite everyone you know. While it is possible to have a large destination wedding—the Four Seasons Bora Bora has a “Your Own Private Island” package that can accommodate up to 250 guests—a lot of couples prefer to keep the setting a bit more intimate. Perrier says groups of 40 to 50 are an ideal number. “That way everyone can join in on meals and excursions,” she says.
Foot the bill for your guests’ airfare (unless you want to). “Couples are not expected to pay for the guests’ accommodations or travel,” says Pease. It’s also not etiquette for the bride and groom to pay for flight and hotel for the wedding party—although some do. If you have guests who cannot afford the trip but it’s important to you that they attend, alleviate some of the cost by paying for a few extra rooms and have people share for the weekend. Another option that both Pease and Verger suggest: If you are having your wedding at a luxury venue where rooms are $600 a night or some such, subsidize the cost. Hotels will be happy to let you put down a specific amount toward each room. If possible, it’s also considerate to book a less expensive, sister property nearby. “Most of my clients want an option that starts with a two,” says Pease.
Leave guests to figure out their own transportation. If you do have guests staying at nearby properties, it’s your responsibility to provide car or shuttle service to the main venue. “You are taking people out of their comfort zone to a place they are not familiar with, and they are not going to know how to move around,” says Verger. Have the hotel give guests a schedule of events along with pick-up and drop-off times so that nobody misses a part of the celebration.
Spend a lot on ceremony flowers. One of the main reasons to have a destination wedding (besides the built-in vacation) is the beautiful scenery. Many couples choose to have an outdoor ceremony, in which case, there’s little need for the elaborate floral arrangements you might have at an indoor ceremony back home. “For me, if you are in a place where the ceremony is on the ocean, anything you put there is just fighting nature,” says Verger.
Mess with hurricane season. If you’re getting married in Mexico or the Caribbean, there’s not a huge chance of bad weather—unless you are planning a wedding in August, September, or October, which is the height of hurricane season. Rinderknecht also suggests staying clear of holidays, where both hotel and airfare tends to be higher. “Not to mention, it’s really busy,” she says.
Ignore the backup location. It’s easy to get swept away by the thought of a sunset beach ceremony, but also check out a venue’s backup indoor option, should it rain on the big day. “The backup plan that is inside is usually not as attractive,” says Verger. “But by that point, there’s nothing you can do.” See what options are available beforehand, and set up a clear plan B should you need it.
Forget the tip. Verger always gives clients a guideline for tipping in different countries. “In France, you don’t tip as much as in New York City, but nevertheless, you are still taking over a property for a weekend,” she says. “[Your guests] won’t be tipping those waiters during those three days… the couple needs to make up for that.” Having a planner who knows the culture will help—he or she will be able to suggest appropriate tip ranges for you. If you don’t have a planner, research tipping customs for country where your wedding is being held. If you’re still unsure, and you’re happy with the service, better to err on the side of overtipping than not giving enough.
Mail wedding items to the venue. “Don’t plan to mail [wedding items] to the venue ever,” says Pease. “Do not even send it through FedEx. You will end up paying gobs and gobs of cash on import fees. Just pay the extra $25 [per bag] to the airline, and if you need [to travel with] 10 extra bags, and your mom brings extra bags, and your fiancé, so be it.”
Wear attire that can’t stand the heat. If you’re getting married in the French countryside, or on a Tuscan vineyard, you’ll have a bit more flexibility depending on the season. But for a beach destination wedding, think light fabrics and colors that won’t show sweat. “Linen suits for the groom [and groomsmen] are always a wonderful go-to; they look great and are light enough for grooms to get through taking photos in the sun,” says Perrier. (Pease also suggests having an extra shirt or two for the groom, so that he’s never showing sweat stains.) Silk, chiffon, or organza are ideal fabrics for the bride, according to Perrier. If youdo want a ball gown or a dress with a thicker fabric, “we recommend a ceremony at sunset, which provides cooler temperatures, while maintaining the beautiful setting.”