Destination Wedding Planning: The Venue Selection Process

Prior to opening my wedding planning and design company, I spent a year as a tech consultant specializing in process consultation. I loved helping businesses to define their everyday processes in a clear and disciplined way. Many times, we operate our lives and jobs just checking off lists, without ever really thinking about how one thing leads to another. This leads to lackluster results. Epic results require epic processes!

This business experience is part of what makes my wedding planning process so thorough and organized. On the way from step A to step D, I guide my clients to diligently complete steps B and C, so they never miss an important checkpoint.

Destination weddings offer unique challenges, which is why I love them. To master these demands, I follow a very specific process for planning destination events. Today, I am proudly sharing what I've learned with you! If you are currently in the process of planning your destination wedding, you're in luck - this is your blueprint for an effective planning experience!

STEP ONE: Open Tough Conversations about Wedding Budget

Talking about money is never easy, especially when it involves high emotions and large expenses (as wedding days often do). Determining a wedding budget is also difficult because couples have no idea what things will actually cost. They don't know what they don't know!

At this point, it's more important to determine who is contributing, and roughly how much, rather than an exact wedding budget. Are parents pitching in? Is the couple covering all costs? About how much does everyone feel comfortable spending? Unless your family recently planned another wedding, you won't have clear knowledge of what you're really going to spend. Further exploration in the next steps will help you determine realistic expectations.

STEP TWO: Get your Mindset in Order

If you've traveled a lot, you know that quips about "cultural differences" and "island time" are a real thing. While in the U.S. we regularly work 50+ hour weeks, and we have workplace standards of quick turnaround times and responses, not everyone in the world lives this way. In fact, even some areas of the U.S. are more laid back than others - this is not just a difference between countries.

I'm here to tell you that your destination planning experience will only be enjoyable if you recognize up front that communication will be (not probably will be - just will be) slower. When someone tells you something will be done 'mañana,' those who have limited Spanish understanding will probably expect an answer according to the literal translation of that word: 'tomorrow.' 

However, the word, "mañana" often really means, "sometime in the future."

You can fight the culture and be miserable while planning this special day, or you can work with it. Remember: the only behavior you can control is your own. The solution is to embrace the process, always be kind, and ask for things well before you need them so you are not stressed. If you have a question about a detail, ask about it right away and prepare to wait a week for an answer. Set an RSVP deadline on your invitations 30 days before the resort's actual deadline so you can work out final details well in advance. Do everything you can to give yourself more time so you can avoid freaking out when - not if - you experience a delayed response during wedding planning.

STEP THREE: Firm up your Guest List

Once you've determined your rough budget and committed to a healthy attitude about destination wedding planning, it's time to firm up your guest list. That means consulting with everyone who has a say in the list (especially parents) and putting real names in a spreadsheet - all of the real names. It is vital to complete this step before moving forward. However, don't start calling people for addresses. Until you really understand more specifics about your location and budget, you may find you need to cut this list (way) back.

When destination wedding couples get in big trouble during the planning process, it is usually because they glossed over this step. Here's what happens:

  • Couples find themselves looking at too many wedding locations and feeling distressed, disorganized, and confused. In reality, many of these locations could be easily eliminated because they are not a fit for the guest count, or the types of guests on the list won't be able to make it to those locations anyhow due to budget or other limitations.

  • Couples book a location before all names have been added to the list, and then they find they are over capacity for the location or there are not enough rooms available.

  • Couples book their location and then add more people to the list. Suddenly, their budget is wrecked.

When we work with clients, we will not allow them to research specific venues until they have sent us a guest list. This discipline makes a big difference in the planning experience.

STEP FOUR: Identify your Dream Destination

By "Dream Destination," I do not mean the exact all-inclusive resort or private villa where you will exchange vows. I mean the general region where you would like to host your event. Some questions couples should consider to pick the best destination wedding region include:

  • Are you comfortable with the language(s) spoken in this area?

  • Does this region have the types of accommodations you would like for your guests? For example, some places are heavily developed with all-inclusive resorts, which is great for some couples. Other locations (such as the island of Puerto Rico) offer resorts but they are a la carte, not all-inclusive. Still other areas are known for smaller hotels or villas with more local flavor, and they have very few big resorts or hotels. Pick a region that fits your needs.

  • Are you excited about the ambiance of this area? If your favorite chill music at home is reggae, the feeling of steel pans playing during your dinner party could mean Jamaica is your ideal destination. If you can't stand humidity but love the beach, the desert climate of Cabo san Lucas would be a better fit than the thick rainforest of Costa Rica. If you would love to exchange vows with a mountain backdrop but still want a healthy dose of city culture, Aspen or its nearby sister city Snowmass would be a great match.

  • Are you comfortable with asking wedding guests to do what it takes to get to this region? Some couples want to keep things simple. From Columbus, Ohio, accessing Cancun is as easy as a non-stop flight and a 20 minute cab ride - so that would be a great fit for couples seeking low-maintenance wedding travel. Other couples feel comfortable asking guests to join them on an ultimate adventure, perhaps involving seaplanes or ferries to smaller untouched islands, or longer drives to more secluded areas.

  • Can this region accommodate your health and safety needs? Not all countries have the ADA accommodations that we have in the U.S., so if you have a VIP guest who needs to get around safely and easily in a wheelchair, you should do serious research to make sure they will be comfortable. While Zika virus alerts were recently reduced, if a VIP is expecting a little one on the way, you may want to err toward a desert wedding in Scottsdale rather than a tropical location, or simply be prepared for that guest to be unable to attend.

  • Does this region fit the rough budget expectations for you and your guests? For example, Turks and Caicos and Grand Cayman are gorgeous locations for once-in-a-lifetime destination wedding adventures, but they will require higher travel budgets than weddings in Mexico or Jamaica.

  • Does this region work for the time of year that you want to get married? Avoid the Caribbean in hurricane season. If you want to be snowboarding with your guests, only choose a mountain wedding date when there's a high likelihood of snow. Note: I discourage destination wedding couples from having their hearts set on an exact wedding date. Popular resorts book out well in advance for holidays and corporate events, and flexibility is your friend.

If you are on your own, here are some great resources to explore different destinations. They offer curated inspiration to help guide you toward more reputable destination wedding options:

STEP FIVE: Investigate Specific Locations & do a Site Visit

This is where things get real. At this stage, I may consult with a travel agent who specializes in the locations and types of properties that my couple is considering. I pull travel costs and budget numbers for different options that accommodate the clients' vision, so our couple knows approximately what their guests will pay for the trip and what the basic wedding costs will be for food, beverage, and venue fees.

After identifying the 2 to 3 top picks, a site visit is vital. That arbor on the beach may look gorgeous in photos, but what you may not know is that just outside the frame, there are beach lounge chairs and old guys in speedos spraying tanning oil (how romantic!). Or, the resort's outdoor reception photos may look just perfect, but the ballroom (rain backup plan) may be in major need of repair. Or, the service staff may not be as attentive as you expect. These are things you can only find out by physically visiting the resort.

I go with my couples for these site visits to help ask the right questions. If a couple is very busy, I can visit on their behalf. However, most couples like to go in advance because they can try the food, do a hair and makeup trial, and meet the vendors who will be on their team.

STEP SIX: Investigate all Wedding Components

My destination couples find that we do a LOT of planning before we ever sign a venue contract. That's for good reason, because destination venue contracts are very different from local venue contracts.

In Ohio, signing a venue contract regularly involves asking a lot of questions, such as requesting a cost estimate for all the food and beverage to make sure everything makes sense for the budget, finding out about certain rules (Are sparkler exits allowed, for instance? Are you required to use in-house lighting and A/V companies?), and learning about perks (such as a complimentary wedding night suite). This takes some time, but after that contract is signed, in most cases we can move on to research multiple resources for the rest of the team, such as entertainment, photography, floral, etc. As long as we're only working with experienced vendors, we don't typically have to look into these vendors before booking the venue in Ohio (except for a few all-inclusive local venues, which is a post for another day).

In many cases with destination weddings, however, the venue has quite a bit of control over your whole team, especially in the case of all-inclusive resort weddings. You must find out costs and vendors for all the items you'll want before you sign the venue contract.

Here are just 2 examples showing why this is so important:

  • Your photographer is someone who will be with you all day for your wedding, through every emotion and wardrobe malfunction, and you should have a very strong positive relationship with this person. We are extremely lucky in Ohio to have photographers who are nationally and internationally recognized for their talent in publications like Martha Stewart Weddings, Style Me Pretty, Magnolia Rouge, and more. Unfortunately, not all destination wedding locations boast this kind of talent, and you likely won’t be able to experience engagement photos with a photographer from your wedding location. For those reasons, I often recommend that my couples bring their photographer with them from the U.S. Resorts may charge fees to allow this, so it's important to know those fees up front and request that they be reduced if possible. While I do believe it's important to support the local economy when you plan a destination event, having excellent photography does that by ensuring all elements of the wedding get beautiful, press-worthy coverage. It's a win-win for everyone.

  • Destination resorts frequently have exclusive florists on board. In many cases, these florists are paying for the privilege to be the florist of record, which in combination with high importing/customs/shipping fees for many countries can result in higher floral bills than you expect. Floral trends in other locations can also be very different from what you're seeing in your favorite blogs and magazines. First, make sure you find out who the preferred florist is and verify that their work is in line with your design vision. Next, request a quote for the basics that you'll need - bouquets, centerpieces, ceremony floral, etc. It doesn't need to be exact, and you can make changes before the big day. But you should have an idea of what these items will cost and look like before you are locked in to a resort and their preferred florist.

Things like this can be accomplished during the site visit, and an experienced destination wedding planner can help you through it to make sure you don't miss anything.

Again, commit to kindness throughout this whole process. Open and hearty negotiation is more common in many destination locations than it is in the U.S., but you will have the best results when you are respectful and patient. Try to find win-win situations. Give the coordinator or sales person at least a few days, or even over a week to respond to your requests - they may be checking in with outside vendors to see what they can work out for you. If you jump in impatiently or come across as rude, you may lose your shot at some help on your budget.

STEP SEVEN: Sign the Contracts

After you've done your research on all components of the wedding (and not a moment sooner!), you are ready to sign your contract. At least two contracts will be involved: Your wedding contract, and your room block contract.

Verify that your wedding contract states in writing all the agreements that you reached regarding venue provisions and vendors. The person you work with on the contract may not be the same venue coordinator for your wedding, and the on-site venue coordinator may change between the time you sign the contract and the day you marry. Anything you don't have in writing on the contract may not be honored. If you absolutely can't get something to be added to the contract, at least make sure you have it in writing via email. Assume that all verbal agreements never happened.

A travel agent can be a fantastic resource when it comes to securing one or more room blocks. He/she will help you navigate the contract terms to help you set aside the proper amount of rooms while avoiding the risk of being held liable for un-booked rooms. This is another area where Step 3 (Firm up your Guest List) is so important. While it's not an exact science, you should do everything in your power to avoid setting up a room block with too few or too many rooms!

I am passionate about destination wedding planning. I’m based in Ohio, so I have the ability to meet face-to-face with my clients and to be there for every step of the planning process. I also frequently work with couples across the US; we use video chat for all our meetings. If you'd like my expert destination wedding planner guidance while planning your big day, please visit the contact page to open a conversation! 

Thumbnail Credit: Lauren Peele

Destination Wedding Planner - Meggie Francisco

Meggie Francisco is a Columbus wedding planner and event designer. She is well versed in guiding clients through challenging event design and management goals, and has successfully executed corporate events, social occasions, and destination weddings around the world. Contact Meggie today for a complimentary consultation for her wedding planning or event planning services.