In Honor of Halloween: Scary Destination Wedding Topics

Hello Brides and Grooms! It’s another great day for wedding planning, isn’t it? In honor of the pending ghoulish holiday, I’m going to tackle a few “scary” subjects this week in my blog. It’s the ghosts and goblins of wedding planning I’m talking about — the really scary stuff!

So let’s tackle the first unpleasant topic. Destination Wedding Budgets. It’s a subject matter that all brides dread. Brides avoid it. Grooms challenge it and want to fight about it. Wedding planners live by it and get very frustrated with bridal couples who treat it like an imaginary number with no consequence.

How much money do you need to have a destination wedding? I get asked that all the time. But it’s a loaded question. If you tell me that you have a certain amount of money to spend and a certain number of guests, and you give me the discretion to get you the best deals, least expensive vendors, etc., then I can make it happen. But if you give me a smallish budget and I tell you it’s a smallish budget for what you’re trying to do, you can’t insist on choosing the most expensive vendors for every single item on your budget.

There are certain things that are static for every wedding — the fee for the officiant, the fee for the marriage license paperwork, the cost of renting out the entire bio-bay boat for a private tour, the price per slice of cake, for example. Other items are completely arbitrary and end up costing as little or as much as the bride and groom demand. You can spend anywhere from $300 to $3,000 on a photographer, depending on whether you want digital or film, discs or albums, four hours of photography or eight. You can spend $600 or $6,000 on your accommodations and reception venue, depending on whether you choose an affordable hotel or a posh villa. Wedding receptions can cost anywhere from $50 to $150 per person, depending on the caterer you choose and the kind of bar you want to have. And flowers. Flowers are a whole other ball of wax. I can’t tell you how many brides tell me in the beginning that they just want simple flowers and candle centerpieces, and then change their minds and try to build an entire enchanted garden before we’re done. Suddenly a $500 flower budget for bouquets-only becomes a $5,000 extravaganza of blossoms and buds.

I am a wedding planner. A damned good one. But I am not a magician, although people often describe my events as “magical.” I cannot make a $10,000 budget cover $30,000 in selections made by a starry-eyed bride. I always promise my couples that I’ll do my best to keep them on budget, but once they start making selections, it’s up to them to use some self-control. I keep making cash register noises (ka-ching, ka-ching), but if a bride insists on using the most expensive vendors available, she needs to forget about the idea of having a “budget” wedding.

There is a misconception that it’s less expensive to have a destination wedding. It’s not. It can be more cost-effective because you don’t have to invite as many people, and some of those who you do invite won’t come, so you usually end up with fewer guests. But the price per person isn’t that different than any other major U.S. city. If you’re from a small town, a destination wedding could actually be a lot more expensive than getting married at home where the vendors all know you and will give you cut rates. Plus you have the added expense of your own travel and accommodations at the destination that you probably wouldn’t incur at home.

If you’re planning a destination wedding, you need to take several budget items into consideration:

  • Accommodations
  • Transportation
  • Reception venue
  • Flowers
  • Music for the ceremony and reception
  • Food
  • Liquor
  • Reception décor
  • Rehearsal Dinner
  • Special activities like boat cruises, fishing trips, beach parties and day-after brunches.

All of these items are arbitrary expenses in that they fluctuate based on the number of guests and the level of the bride’s taste. You have to add those to the fixed expenses I’ve already mentioned. When you add the rough estimates of all of these items together, you add 20 percent and that’s probably about the budget you’ll need to pull it off.

Okay, so you don’t know what all of these things cost. That’s another good reason to hire a wedding planner. No good planner will take on a wedding with a budget too small to satisfy the bride. In fact, I’ve turned away a few brides in the past few months because I knew there was no way they could afford to have the wedding of their dreams on Vieques. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to help plan their weddings, but they were woefully underfunded for the weddings they wanted to have. It doesn’t do me any good to promise a bride things she can’t afford just to get a client. She’ll end up unhappy and she’ll make me miserable before it’s all over. No client is worth that frustration. I don’t like to see unhappy brides.

If you’re seriously considering a Caribbean destination wedding, take the following steps before you do anything else: 1) identify where you want to get married, 2) sit down with your fiancé and your parents to see how much money you really have to work with, and 3) make a guest list and then go through and try to eliminate half of the number of people on it (a good exercise even if you’re getting married in your home town). Once you have a rough budget and a guestimate on your number of invitees, you’re ready to contact a wedding planner on the island of your choice.

Tell the wedding planner your budget and the size of your guest list, and then listen carefully when she tells you what you can, and cannot, get for your money on that particular island. Pay attention to keywords about cost — when she says something “could cost as much as,” use the top number for your budget estimate. When she tells you that hotel rooms are $200 per night but a posh villa is $1,000 per night, don’t write down villa and $200 per night in the accommodations column. That’s not what she said.

My point is that most reputable wedding planners will try to work with your budget as closely as possible. We will tell you when you are getting near your limit, and we’ll get your pre-approval before we plan anything over and above the budget. We’ll ask you about excluding certain items from the budget (the invitations, the rehearsal dinner, etc.) and we’ll tell you what kind of special activities you can afford. Your wedding planner’s fee needs to be an item you pay for over and above the overall budget number — we base our fees on your total budget. Plan on paying the fee from “other” money, not that exact budget number you gave the planner.

Your wedding planner should never feel like your enemy. She’s on your side. You should get a good vibe from the very first time you talk to her. If you don’t, move on. There are plenty of destination wedding planners out there who can help you. If your gut tells you it isn’t a good match, you should thank her for her time and begin interviewing other planners.

With that said, once you choose a wedding planner, you must trust her. If something ends up costing more than she initially estimated, don’t lose your cool at her. It’s not her fault the prices have gone up. Unless she’s given you some other reason to doubt the veracity of the prices she’s quoting you, accept that vendors do raise their rates seasonally and in response to the economic climate. For example, when the big resort hotel on Vieques closed a few months ago, the cost of flowers for weddings on the island shot up dramatically. The florist explained to me that the big hotel ordered so many flowers per week that it basically subsidized the shipping costs of flowers for everybody else. Now that the hotel is gone, there’s nothing to help defray that cost and it’s being charged in every arrangement and bouquet the florist makes.

Sometimes a planner can’t get you the lowest price she’s quoted you because that vendor is not available or is already booked for your wedding date. This is especially true in the high season on Caribbean islands. Hotels, rental car agencies, restaurants and bars have no incentive to give your wedding party a discount when they know they’ll book up or sell out anyway without your business. In fact, a lot of vendors don’t like dealing with destination weddings in the Caribbean in the winter because most wedding guests only book rooms for a long weekend. If they don’t block the rooms for wedding guests, hotels and guest houses can usually book full-week rentals that time of year. The same goes for rental cars.

So how can a wedding planner guestimate your needed budget, especially in high season, when so many parts and pieces of your budget are arbitrary? She can tell you the top prices things will cost and do her best to get you the least expensive options when put to the test. She may get you a fantastic deal on your accommodations and venue but not be able to get you the flowers you want for the amount you’ve budgeted. This is not a reflection on your wedding planner. It is a result of the local economy where your wedding is being planned. You have to be flexible to have a destination wedding, and you have to expect to make a certain number of compromises. If you find that your wedding planner isn’t doing the job you hired her to do, then consider severing the relationship. But that’s a topic for another blog…

To be absolutely, positively safe, it’s not an awful idea to set aside some additional funds in case your wedding goes over budget. I’m not suggesting that you lie to your planner and say you have $10,000 to spend when you really have $15,000. More like, tell your planner you have $15,000 at the absolute top and then save an additional $2,000 in egg money before your wedding. If you don’t need to use it to fill a gap, you can add it to your honeymoon fund or use it to celebrate your first anniversary with a trip back to the island.

Until next time, have some fun with your wedding planning!

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