Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Marriage hitting the road

More couples are choosing destination weddings - combining a vacation with a walk down the aisle

By Michele Day
Enquirer contributor

[IMAGE] Christopher and Kristine Mooney married on the beach.
(Family photo)
Christopher and Kristine Mooney of Kenwood wanted a wedding that fit their personalities - minimum hassle and maximum beach exposure.

Matthew and Mandy Gessner of Fort Thomas, who have a 2-year-old daughter, wanted a ceremony and honeymoon that mixed romance with family.

And David and Sheila Kraft of Montgomery, who had both been married before and had two pre-teen children to consider, wanted to avoid the headaches of a big hometown wedding. "As he says, we wanted to get married and then jump in the pool," Sheila explains.

These three couples help to explain why the destination wedding - in which the bride and groom marry and honeymoon at the same vacation resort - is one of the hottest trends in the travel industry today.

Over the last decade, destination weddings, also known as "weddingmoons," have grown from about 3 percent of the 2.3 million U.S. marriages each year to 8 percent, says Rebecca Grinnals, owner of Engaging Concepts, an Orlando, Fla., company that advises hotels and resorts on how to capture the honeymoon market.

She tells her clients that the dynamics of brides and grooms - from the frequency of second and third marriages to the mobility of society - make this a trend that's going to continue to grow.

"The culture is changing so much," she says. "People are not marrying high school sweethearts in their hometown with 500 of their parents' closest friends. They're looking for something different, out of the norm. And they want quality, instead of quantity, in terms of the people they invite."

Those were the feelings of the Mooneys, whose extended family is spread across the United States. "We knew it was going to be hard to choose a spot for the wedding that would be convenient for everybody," Kristine says.

[IMAGE] Matthew and Mandy Gessner, with daughter Olivia, married in Jamaica.
(Family photo)
The Mooneys also are beach lovers - who romanticized the notion of exchanging their vows with the surf breaking in the background and the sea breeze blowing through their hair.

So in June, Chris and Kristine, along with their parents and each of their brothers, journeyed to Ocho Rios, Jamaica, for a combination wedding/honeymoon/family vacation.

For the first two days, the family stayed together at the Beaches Grand Sport resort. They went kayaking, sailing and snorkeling. The couple's brothers roomed together, their parents dined together and everybody - including the fathers of the bride and groom - jumped on a huge beach trampoline.

After the wedding on a deck with an ocean view (He wore linen pants and shirt; she wore a simple dress; and both wore sandals), the newlyweds moved to a separate Beaches resort for their honeymoon, while their families continued their vacation.

"It definitely made it more about what we wanted for us, instead of trying to uphold the traditions in either of our families," Kristine says. "And our families had a great time together. They'll probably vacation together again."

Kristine also liked the ease of planning a destination wedding. The resort takes care of all the mundane matrimonial details - from coordinating the flowers to arranging for the cake, the minister and the photographer.

Things seemed to be so much under control on the Mooneys' big day that the couple decided to squeeze in a morning scuba lesson before the 1:30 p.m. ceremony.

In retrospect, however, they wouldn't recommend other couples be that relaxed about their wedding preparations - even if they are in the "Don't worry, be happy" island of Jamaica.

Bride and groom brought an average of 46 guests with them on destination weddings.

54 percent of couples sought a destination with a wedding chapel facility.

75 percent said the ease of planning destination wedding was important to their decision.

Source: Conde Nast Bridal Group

1. Jamaica

2. Hawaii

3. Las Vegas

4. U.S. Virgin Islands

5. Mexico

Planning a long-distance wedding? Modern Bride magazine offers these tips for planning a destination wedding.

1. Set a budget. How far away is your wedding? How many days do you want to plan for your guests? How many guests will you invite? (These are all factors in budgeting.)

2. Select a location. Consider a place that is easy for you guests to get to, and that is served by several airlines.

3. Be realistic about your head count.

4. Hire a local wedding coordinator. Many hotels/

resorts have someone on-site.

5. Be flexible. Consider going somewhere slightly off-season, as it will be less expensive.

6. Ask for discounts. Research group discounts for lodging and airfare.

7. Arrange fun activities for your guests.

8. Arrive a day or more before your guests.

9. Incorporate local traditions into your ceremony.

10. Go with the flow. Enjoy this time away with your close family and friends.

The scuba lesson ran late, meaning that 40 minutes before the ceremony, Chris and Kristine were wearing their bathing suits. "That was an insane dash to get ready," Kristine says. "My hair was still wet for the wedding."

Jamaica is the most popular destination for weddingmoons because the island has streamlined the process of wedding documentation, says Jerry Katz, owner of First Discount Travel in Blue Ash. "Other places require you to jump through more hoops."

Jamaica also has several resorts that include a free wedding as part of a honeymoon vacation package and some that allow couples such as Matthew and Mandy Gessner to accommodate the needs of children as well as adults.

Children included

The Gessners - along with 30 friends and family members, including the couple's 2-year-old, Olivia - began their trip in June at a family-oriented resort. Matthew and Mandy said "I do" on a gazebo on the beach and had a small reception under a nearby hut.

"It wasn't a big elaborate wedding, so it was right up my alley," Mandy says. Olivia then stayed with her grandparents for a few days - while Matthew and Mandy moved to a nearby adults-only resort. The newlyweds enjoyed the time alone - but they were close enough that they could check in on their daughter, Mandy says.

"There was no way I was going to leave her while we went on a honeymoon for the whole week," she says.

Circumstances such as the Gessners, along with the frequency of second and third marriages involving children, are fueling another trend in the destination weddings industry, Grinnals says. Resorts are beginning to offer "familymoon" packages, where kids stay with the newlyweds throughout the honeymoon.

A good familymoon package will include accommodations with adjoining or connecting rooms so that both the children and the adults can have their space, she says. "It's not very romantic if you're all crammed into a hotel room with two queen beds," Grinnals says.

Good resorts also should offer activities for all ages and supervised children programs to give the parents some privacy. "It's not very fun for the kids if it's just a honeymoon, and it's not fun for the parent if it's just a family trip," she says

Sheila and David Kraft, who married three years ago at such a resort on the Turks and Caicos Islands of the Caribbean, say couples can make the combination work.

The Krafts, who took Sheila's 11-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son on their wedding trip, stayed in a suite with separate bedrooms for the adults and the children.

"My daughter loved it; she got her hair braided the day before the wedding," Sheila says. "She thought it was a pretty neat thing. I think my son thought it was pretty neat, too."

There are drawbacks

But destination weddings aren't for everyone, both couples and experts agree.

"Destination weddings are extremely intimate," says Marilyn Oliveira, editor of Weddingchannel .com. "That can be a good thing or a bad thing. Usually the guest list gets cut down to size because a lot of people can't afford to travel. The couple has to (realize) they're not going to have 200 people with them on their wedding day."

While most resorts offer wedding packages that range from simple to elaborate, destination wedding couples will have less flexibility in choosing things like flowers, cakes and ministers than those who go more traditional wedding routes.

"In a Caribbean wedding, the same expectations of perfection are not there," says Katz of First Discount Travel.

Christina McDaniel, an agent with Prestige Travel in Montgomery, wouldn't change a thing about her weddingmoon seven years ago in Jamaica. Both her parents and her husband Stephen's parents were divorced and lived in different parts of the country. A big family wedding didn't seem practical.

"We decided, you know, it's between me and him," Christina says. "We decided just to do it on our own and then come back and have a reception with family."

Her father, who owns a travel agency in Chicago, did surprise her by showing up just before the wedding to give her away. But he left soon after the ceremony, and she remembers her wedding as pleasantly stress-free.

"I have friends who've gotten married and I see the headaches they go through," she says. "I'm very glad we did it the way we did. It was very personal ... I don't regret it a bit."

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