Frugal Brides

Saturday, January 17, 2009 ·

The dour economy is not stopping brides and grooms from the USA from saying "I do" on Caribbean sand. Many hoteliers expect to handle about the same number of destination weddings this year as 2008, despite a drop in overall bookings. A 2006 survey estimated that 16% of U.S. unions took place in a destination setting, which also saves money by combining the ceremony with the honeymoon.

"This is a recession-proof market," says Donald Foste, group sales director for Occidental, a hotel chain with properties in Aruba and the Dominican Republic. "Brides are going to get married regardless of what's happening in the economy." At SuperClubs, the Jamaica-based operator of about a dozen all-inclusive resorts under the Grand Lido, Breezes and Hedonism names in the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, CuraƧao and the Bahamas, executives hope weddings will help offset the dip in overall bookings, says marketing director Zein Nakash.

Many people will look at all-inclusives such as SuperClubs because "you know exactly what your wedding is going to cost you," she says. The Caribbean's destination wedding industry hopes to thrive on budget-minded lovebirds such as Tilly Lashel Gant and Terrance Flaggs of St. Louis. For $3,600 at Riu Ochos Rios, Jamaica, the couple is receiving airfare and lodging for two, an upgraded honeymoon suite, food and drinks, and the wedding ceremony. Picking the offseason date of April 29 helped them lower their rate. "You can't beat that," says Gant, 31. "It is so much cheaper than having a traditional wedding at home, where the cost can skyrocket."

The destination wedding market is so promising that some Caribbean hotels are trying to boost their share. SuperClubs is taking out TV ads. It's also attending more bridal shows. And at the Wyndham hotel and casino on Nassau's Cable Beach in the Bahamas, manager Jeffry Humes had the hotel renovated specifically to please brides, with a new boardwalk and gazebo with ocean views for wedding photos.. The hotel has 200 weddings planned this year, double last year's count. The hotel also hopes to lure more cruiseship passengers who disembark in Nassau with a desire to exchange vows on a beach, says Lisa Harris, who handles the hotel's wedding sales. The hotel plans to charge couples $300 to use the gazebo, she says.

Still, the economy is having an effect:

•Smaller wedding parties. Because wedding guests typically pay their own airfare and lodging, hoteliers expect to see fewer people attend. SuperClubs expects a 25% decline in guest numbers, Nakash says. Because of the economy, Gant and Flaggs expect few people to join them in Ocho Rios. She says her mother can't afford to join them, and their bridesmaid and best man have yet to book their trip. They're prepared to do without a bridal party.

•Fewer extras. At upscale Paradisus in the Dominican Republic, which handles nearly 400 weddings a year, couples typically spent about $40,000 last year. But this year, Paradisus executive Maria Gomez expects they'll stop at $30,000, with fewer flowers and extra events such as welcome parties, bridesmaid lunches and spa treatments.

•More price quotes. Brides who are "being more frugal" are taking more time to book weddings, Foste says. Brides used to book their wedding at an Occidental hotel within three weeks of requesting information, but now they're taking up to six weeks so they can shop more, he says. Melvin Grant, a Bahamian minister, says he's marrying more people on free public beaches. Couples are also calling him directly to lower the price. "Two years ago, they didn't care," he says. "But since last year, they've been cutting corners."

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