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Getting hitched? Try Fiji
'Destination weddings' are hot -- see our gallery of the most popular spots.
November 17, 2004: 11:30 AM EST
By Les Christie, CNN/Money staff writer

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NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Picture a wedding party milling about in an old piazza high above Amalfi Coast. The setting is classically Italian. But these are New Yorkers: an example of couples who desire memorable weddings taking their act on the road.

It's the age of the "destination wedding," when brides and grooms eschew traditional hometown ceremonies to journey far and wide for romantic, exotic, or fun locales to get hitched.

The number of destination weddings has quadrupled during the last ten years, estimates Tom Curtin, publisher of Bridal Guide magazine. He claims that fully a third of all weddings now take place away from home.

Many travel-related businesses are going after this segment of the industry. Curtin says that Disney World has created a separate division to handle all their weddings; the theme park hosted 2,300 last year. The Marriot chain is training hundreds of new wedding planners.

Each of the 11 Sandals Resorts in the Caribbean has a wedding coordinator on staff, and the number of Sandals' rooms occupied by wedding attendees soared over the last few years, according to consultant Rebecca Grinnals. They have even trademarked the term "weddingmoon" as an apt descriptor for what many destination weddings really come down to – a combination of wedding and honeymoon.

Airlines offer discounts of about 10 percent to wedding parties. Hawaiian Airlines also gives the bride and groom a free first-class upgrade.

What's driving this trend?

Curtin said the shift in the age of couples marrying is an important factor. "In 1982, when I started in this business, the average bride was 22 and the groom 24. Today she's nearly 28 and he's 30." Couples have more experience, money, and sophistication.

Lisa Habicht, president of Grand Luxe International, a travel agency specializing in destination weddings, has been arranging them for more than 17 years. Many of her clients are marrying for the second or third time and have already gone through a traditional hometown wedding. "I've had three clients in a row with at least one member of the couple doing their third marriage," she says. These "encore" couples are more likely to choose Pisa over Peoria for the ceremony.

They tend to be intimate affairs. The distance and expense of travel cuts down on the size of the wedding party. Guests tend to bond more in the smaller groups and the experience is prolonged over a few days rather than the few hours that most weddings last.

Of course smaller guest lists make it more affordable as well, although Grinnals reports that the average size of these weddings has crept up. Many used to attract fewer than ten attendees. Today, "We're seeing an average size wedding of 56," she says.

Matt Godson and fiancée Emily Shalant were planning to wed at her family's home in the Hamptons on Long Island, until the house there burned down. They looked at other venues – the boathouse in Central Park, an upstate vineyard – but nothing clicked.

All along, the couple had planned to honeymoon in Italy and so they ultimately decided to "combine the honeymoon with the wedding and have our guests all have a honeymoon too," says Godson. They've invited 80 guests to join them for a week at an Umbrian villa.

New Yorkers Adrienne Klein Ratto and Alessandro Ratto married in Ravello, Italy. Klein Ratto says if they had held the ceremony at home they would have had perhaps 250 guests, but only 80 attended, including 40 of his family from nearby Naples. The wedding "would have cost more in New York," says Klein Ratto.

She cautions, though, that couples should not take it too personally if invited guests decline to attend. "You're asking them to make a big commitment," she says, "You have to be understanding if some choose not to come."

Who pays for what?

There are no hard and fast rules. Habicht says some of her wealthier clients pay for everything: airfare, accommodations, rehearsal dining, wedding party, and breakfast – even other activities. More often, guests pay for their own accommodations and travel. "A nice offer," she says, "is to pay for one or two nights of the hotel bill."

She advises those considering a wedding abroad to either be sure they know what they're doing or hire a consultant to grease the wheels. There are many considerations:

  • Residency requirements: Many countries require long stays before you can marry in a civil ceremony. France's minimum is 40 days. Habicht says you can get around that by going through a civil marriage back in the states and then have another ceremony at the destination.
  • Language: You need a coordinator on site who speaks both English and the local language.
  • Travel needs: A good consultant will make sure that all your guests know all the paperwork they need to travel to sometimes exotic destinations. Passports, visas, and shots are all considerations. There may be special considerations for non-U.S. citizens.
  • Local conditions: An on-site coordinator can connect you with your florist, baker, and minister, as well as help you avoid pitfalls that you have no way of knowing about. You may want to hold a late-afternoon ceremony at a beautiful beach on Fiji, for instance. A coordinator can tell you whether that's practical or not; maybe it rains there every afternoon.

All the experts agree that planning ahead is even more crucial with a destination wedding. Curtin says couples should send out "keep the date" notices at least six months in advance. Then, three months before, they should send out the invitations with a packet of information with details about the destination, costs of accommodations etc.

He also advises couples to plan a welcome dinner, a morning-after brunch, and extra activities, especially if guests are staying longer than two nights. Godson, whose fiancée is a "fabulous cook," has arranged a culinary course for guests taught by a local chef, as well as sightseeing trips to nearby Assisi and other towns, and horseback riding.

But once the arrangements are set, couples should try to sit back and enjoy. Klein Ratto reports that, like most brides, she was a nervous wreck before the trip. "I was so concerned about everyone having a good time," she says. But once she was in Ravello her concerns evaporated.

"I never imagined how special it would be and what a good time I could have," she says.  Top of page

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