MAST Travel Network President and COO John Werner along with Journeys Travel Inc. Agency Owner Jeni Chaffer take an in-depth look at the current state of travel, specifically in regard to destination wedding planning. Jeni has been in the travel industry since 2006, and specializes in destination weddings, romance and family travel. John and Jeni discuss how COVID-19 has played a role in destination weddings, and what couples are doing right now to continue planning their dream days. From wedding sizes, to new locations, destinations weddings are continuing, but in new ways that will continue to evolve as the world and the travel industry adjusts. John and Jeni discuss both international and domestic options, LGBTQ+ destination weddings, as well as some of the most unique destination weddings that Jeni has ever planned.

Key Points On Destination Weddings As Mentioned In The Podcast

#1 Destinations Weddings are still happening both domestically and internationally

“Mexico and Caribbean are still the most popular … There has been a lot of questions for domestic weddings. Most people though, if they have their heart set on international and there’s any way, they can get there, that’s what they’re still planning to do.”  

#2 – Working with a travel advisor allows for details to be handled by a professional with connections in the industry.

“That’s always been the backbone of my business, building the relationships with everyone and I feel that’s how we give the client the best wedding experience and the best travel experience.”  

#3 – The most Instagramable wedding location.

“Fiji comes to mind, but I think Instagramable and iconic would probably have been in Greece. One of the islands in Santorini. You can’t beat that view.”  

#4Many destination weddings guests often don’t have a passport before attending their first destination wedding

“With weddings, a lot of times half of the people have not traveled before. We generally find 40-50% don’t have a passport and have never traveled out of the country. 

#5 – There is no true time frame for planning a destination wedding.

“One is there’s no time too short. I have done a wedding in less than 30 days… It’s also not too far out. We’re already seeing some resorts have 2022 dates that are sold out.”  

Full Podcast Transcript

John W. 0:16
Welcome to our MASTers of Travel series. My name is John Werner. I’m the President of MAST Travel Network. We are a network of almost 1000 travel advisors located primarily in the Midwest. And today, I would like to welcome our guest, Jeni chaffer of Journeys Travel. Jeni is an expert in planning destination weddings, and she has helped so many couples over the years plan, just the ideal destination wedding in places all around the world. Welcome Jeni, to our talk this morning.

Jeni C. 1:03
Thank you. Thank you for asking me to do this today.

John W. 1:07
You know, in this environment, of course, that we’re in right now, destination weddings are still happening in some places, but things, I know, have been postponed. It is such a big business, and really when you think about it, maybe 10 years ago, it was a much smaller segment of the travel industry. But it has really become so popular and brides and grooms can have great vacations out of it as well as their wedding. But you know, in this environment of COVID-19 pandemic, what is the typical size of destination wedding groups that you are talking to these days?

Jeni C. 1:59
Pre-COVID, the groups normally ranged from, I’d say, 40 to 60 people were average. I think for the foreseeable future groups are going to be closer to the 20-30-person range. So approximately, say 15 rooms if you were doing an all-inclusive. Some of it has to do with the fear of travel, fear of flying, fear of going outside at this point with COVID. But we’re also seeing that the resorts are still deciding what they need to do on their end to have social distancing.
Some of their venues for receptions aren’t as large as they need to be unless you go inside to a ballroom. People are going to Caribbean for example, to get married, not to be in a ballroom like they would have to be at home. So, a lot of that has to do with COVID more than anything. I do think the numbers will continue to rise as we get those protocols in place and people are starting to travel again. We’ve had several people going and lots of new inquiries. So things are looking up.

John W. 3:09
That’s great! So what destinations are popular right now? And when do these groups want to go? You said you are planning some new destination weddings for down the road? And what kind of timeframe are people looking at?

Jeni C. 3:25
Mexico and Caribbean are still the most popular. That is also due to the restrictions. A lot of the other countries we have increased to are just still so uncertain. Even Hawaii, people cannot travel there without being quarantined, so they’re kind of afraid to plan for that at this point. For a large group.

The resort destinations in Mexico and the Caribbean are opening sooner and they are putting those protocols in place, but they are able to change them. We’ve seen a week by week change to some of these programs. Most couples that are calling right now are still looking for 2021, I also have some 2022 inquiries. We’ve not had any weddings for [this] fall, I do still have two scheduled and they’re are still on track to travel. Nut no new increase for 2020.

John W. 4:21
Sure, yeah. Makes sense. You know, you mentioned Mexico and the Caribbean, which a lot of people would automatically think are great destinations for destination weddings. And yet all over the world there are really fun, beautiful places to go and I you know, some of them come to mind. I know destination weddings in Bali or the Maldives, Greece, Africa. I’ve seen, weddings planned there. What are you finding to be some of the most unusual destinations that you have planned?

Jeni C. 5:03
The ones that I have planned so far have been Italy, Greece and in Fiji. Those are big. I think all three of those offer just an element of being different. Something else, especially now seems like there’s a trend that one couple goes and then all of their bridesmaids and groomsmen start planning their weddings, and they all want to do something different. So, after the third or fourth one maybe has gone to Mexico or the Caribbean, they start looking elsewhere.

John W. 5:38
I could see that happening. Have you seen an interest shift from international to domestic destinations?

What kind of destination weddings are taking place in the United States this year?

Jeni C. 5:54
There has been a lot of questions for domestic weddings. Most people though, if they have their heart set on international and there’s any way, they can get there, that’s what they’re still planning to do. We’ve seen a rise in Florida weddings. Of course, that was before there was a rise in cases there, which put a damper on that again. For couples, that have someone that maybe can’t travel or there’s a passport issue or something like that, Florida is usually the top request. Some of the beaches there are phenomenal. We have wedding planners in place with resorts as well as offsite locations that can work with the couples to plan those as well. And from a lot of places, if there’s a reason someone can’t fly, it’s a relatively easy drive.

John W. 6:44
Okay, that’s good. Any mountains and desert resorts to those often come to mind?

Jeni C. 6:51
We’ve had past weddings in both locations. We haven’t had any recent inquiries, but past weddings in Scottsdale and as well we do several in Las Vegas each year.

John W. 7:02
That makes sense. For destination weddings that you deal with what would you say is the percentage of first marriages, versus a second marriage or even a third marriage?

Whether it’s a first or second marriage, does that also come into play for a destination wedding meaning do some people think well, it’s a second marriage, maybe I won’t have quite as big of a party as I had the first time around, does that come into mind on planning trips like this?

Jeni C. 7:38
Sometimes for a lot of first weddings, what I find is that the couple may want it, but they have that tie to a parent or grandparent that either can’t go, they aren’t able to travel, or there’s just a lot of naysayers, and the couple isn’t ready to approach that. And so, they go with a traditional wedding at home. When it’s a second or third wedding, they realize that it really is about them and they just do it anyway. We are finding those second weddings, the groups tend to be larger, because they have a bigger friend base that has the funds and the time and availability to take away from work.

John W. 8:22
I believe you’ve also planned some LGBTQ weddings. Any difference in the way that the destinations are chosen? Do you have to take other things into consideration?

Jeni C. 8:40
I am certified with what used to be called 14 Stories and is now Equality Institute and it is an LGBTQ certification. It’s not just about working with couples, but it comes down to what your contract says, how you market, and how you are talking to the couple. But it’s much, much bigger than that. It’s to make sure you’re partnering with the right destinations because there’s some destinations where it’s [gay marriage] still illegal. Resorts that will accept anyone on their property and the resort, as well as the staff on resort, the transfer drivers, making sure that all of them are going to make your couple feel like they’re VIPs and their guests feel like they’re VIPs. And not have anyone have any qualms about going or if they’ll be treated differently. There’s a lot more countries that are accepting, but the first the country has to accept and then we have to wait for it to trickle down and all the staff to be trained. That is something with being certified, it really does set you apart so that you have those relationships and can stay on top of those changes.

John W. 9:48
That sounds like a great certification to have. Do you could specialize in that too?

Given airlines policies of temperature checks and facemasks are some destination wedding groups just talking about driving? Again, we go back to domestic travel or domestic destinations, are they talking about driving instead of flying?

Jeni C. 10:15
When this began, I would have said yes without question. Couples were looking to change to Florida, like I mentioned before, but for the most part after having discussions and after the numbers spiked [in Florida] most of them have gone back to flying. If they’re staying domestic, they’re still taking flights to say Scottsdale, Las Vegas, etc. We have had some requests for Sonoma area in California. I don’t really know that driving is important as just getting on a plane. A the airlines across the board have such good protocols in place and we’ve had several people flying already reporting back that they actually felt safer on the flights than they have at their local stores.

John W. 11:09
That’s great to hear.

What are your favorite destinations for planning a destination wedding? What were some of the most fun weddings you have planned?

Jeni C. 11:26
Well, that’s a hard one. Top of my list is Mexico. There are so many properties there and people automatically think Cancun but, you have Cancun, Riviera Maya, Cabo, Punta Mita, Puerto Vallarta, so many different locations. We have offsite villas that we use and cenotes that people can get married in, and we do weddings both on resort and off. There’s so much there, which also lends to the guest’s perspective. There’s a lot a lot of price points so when you’re planning the destination wedding that’s something we work through with a couples. It’s not what do you think they will want to pay but, what do you want to offer. And then we piece the resort or the offsite location to fit the couple’s needs and what they think the guests are going to look at from a price standpoint. It gives you a great variety.

As far as my most fun weddings, oh that’s even harder to choose. My favorite wedding was in Fiji. It actually was a first marriage and they decided that they did not want to have to deal with the family’s issues at home. It was a small wedding it was just them and one other couple, but they had always wanted to go to Fiji. We ended up just turning it into a small destination wedding.

My most fun wedding was probably in Punta Mita [Mexico] and it was an Indian wedding. And if you know anything about Indian weddings, they are not only a weeklong affair, but there’s also three ceremonies. And there’s lots of cultural aspects that have to be dealt with, as far as having a room for certain things and having a horse to bring the groom in. Watching the two cultures combined, she was American with an Italian background, trying to figure out how to interweave those with myself, the couple and the on-site coordinators was just amazing experience to see it all come to life.

John W. 13:45
Yeah, I can imagine I’ve been to an Indian wedding myself and it was very colorful and beautiful. And I know there’s a lot of parts to it. I’m sure that was a great experience. What would you say then is your most Instagramable photo, where was that taken?

Jeni C. 14:21
Fiji comes to mind, but I think Instagramable and iconic would probably have been in Greece. One of the islands in Santorini. You can’t beat that view.

John W. 14:39
Wow just incredible.

Do you work with on-site wedding coordinators at a lot of the destinations or are you always planning the whole wedding including the ceremony; or do you find that some couples want you to handle travel arrangements and those logistics and they’ll handle the rest themselves? What kind of the percentage do you see couples doing?

Jeni C. 15:13
I offer a variety of packages to my clients. I do work hands on with the on-site resort coordinators and the off-site planners with my lowest package that I offer. I handle all travel arrangements, secure the wedding date and make the initial arrangements. Other plans I offer include planning services. Most couples though use the planning services, maybe not my on-site coordination, but at least so that I am in charge of getting them the information and am in charge of the timeline. I also suggest different packages, add-ons, preferred vendors, different group tours, we handle a lot of the group excursions for the welcome parties, things like that. That’s one thing I think a lot of advisors don’t do. Which is fine handling the travel portion of a wedding group is enough in itself. But I wouldn’t suggest to people that you at least make that next step for the wedding coordination. Get them in touch with the resort planner or an off-site planner. One of the things we see is that we end up with frustrated brides because they may have talked to another travel agent, but then the travel agent has said, here’s the website, go book the wedding and they end up on Facebook trying to find out information and they’re very frustrated. I think it does a disservice to what we actually could be offering them.

John W. 16:40
I know in your case, too, you have a lot of contacts in these most popular destinations. There’s a big advantage and knowing those on-site coordinators, even if the couple does want to have some control over that themselves, it still would be a big benefit to them with your knowledge and access.

Jeni C. 17:05
As you know from the travel side, the people that go on Google and become an agent overnight with what they’ve read, most of that information is not correct or it’s an exception not the rule. So is getting those relationships. That’s always been the backbone of my business, building the relationships with everyone and I feel that’s how we give the client the best wedding experience and the best travel experience.

John W. 17:34
How important is it to have incentives for all invited guests to work with you versus in some wedding parties some work with you and some go off on their own? Are there a lot of reasons for the couple to have all their invited guests work through one source?

Jeni C. 18:06
I honestly don’t use incentives. I feel it comes from the conversations with the clients. They have to believe in what I’m there to provide. I connect with the guests in a variety of ways. I start with an email to the guests, introducing myself giving them the website that I provide and booking forms. I continually follow up with the guests and I take that off of my clients. That already gives them a reason and a connection. I do charge a fee to anyone who plans to attend the wedding and doesn’t book through me. The couple knows that up front and agrees to it as part of the contract. It’s on the wedding website. Sometimes it’s not from a price standpoint, but it may be that they’re an employee of a resort we’ve chosen and they’re getting a better rate. This enables the couple to get credit and not lose out on anything. It is so much easier when everyone books through the same source, it’s easier for the resort to keep things streamlined and organized as well. It does come from the clients because once I have that connection, their favorite phrase becomes, “I don’t know, just call Jeni”.

John W. 19:29
Well I think that is a very important point because it does take a lot of that stress and time off the couple and lets them concentrate on the other things that they need to be doing.

Jeni C. 19:46
With weddings, a lot of times half of the people have not traveled before. We generally find 40-50% don’t have a passport and have never traveled out of the country. Or it’s been many years and things have changed and they have a lot of general questions that the couple really shouldn’t have to deal with.

John W. 20:10
That brings me to one of my final questions. What would you say is the the mix of people that are citizens of foreign countries that you’ve had to work with that are going to the wedding?

Jeni C. 20:49
The largest one has been India. With an Indian wedding there is a lot of family members that are still residing in India. Other than that, it’s really been the UK and that’s generally more friends coming in and family. Probably 80% of our couples are second third generation if not more. Most of the family is already in the States and have a US passport.

John W. 21:29
Do you have any other final tips for anyone getting ready to plan a destination wedding?

Jeni C. 21:40
One is there’s no time too short. I have done a wedding in less than 30 days. It is stressful, and you have to be available to make decisions, but it can be done. It’s also not too far out. We’re already seeing some resorts have 2022 dates that are sold out. Generally, we find 12-14 months seems to be the average of what people are planning. Even if you’re down to nine months, there’s still plenty of time. One of the things that I find from bridal shows is that when people come to a bridal show, especially in the spring, they’re just newly engaged, they really don’t know what’s going on yet. I always tell them take my card and call me later, once they sit down and look at the dollar amount for having domestic weddings. A lot of times they change their mind and decide that they want to go ahead and do destination wedding somewhere. In doing that, they generally save money, but they’re also afraid they are too short of time to plan something like that. If you’re trying to do it yourself, you would not have enough time to do that. But, when working with professional both on the travel and the planning side, it’s easily done. We try to take the stress out of it by having those connections and being able to tell you who we’ve worked with in the past and what they have to offer so that you’re not having to spend your time hunting.

John W. 23:12
Great points. Well, Jeni, I really appreciate your time today and your visit with us and the fun work that you get to do. I know that it could be stressful but making people happy on one of the most special days of their lives, I think is can be quite rewarding. We really appreciate your insight today, and I look forward to when travel really gets back into full swing.

Jeni C. 23:50
Thank you for having me today.

Amber Zakem

Amber Zakem has worked in the travel industry since 2014. Although, her love of travel began far before that. Amber grew up visiting cousins stationed throughout Europe and worked as an Au Pair in Germany for a year between High School and College. She started working at a local travel agency in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, after graduating from Central Michigan University. Amber began working for MAST Travel Network in 2016 and is the Social Media Specialist. She runs the MAST Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest and Snapchat and she teaches twice monthly webinars to travel agents on using social media to promote travel. Amber has continued her passion for travel and social media by also teaching a course at Moraine Valley Community College in their Hospitality program.