|The Bahamas Investor Magazine
January 1, 2009
January 1, 2009
Shonalee King Johnson
Wedding bells are ringing in big bucks for hotels and small business vendors in The Bahamas. In 2007, nearly 4,000 couples exchanged vows on beaches and at quaint island churches throughout the country. Romance as a business translates into top dollars for major hotel properties with couples spending on average five to seven nights (wedding and honeymoon packages), pumping $5,000-plus into accommodations. That’s four to five times more than a typical stay over couple.
But it is not just direct spending that benefits The Bahamas. High profile celebrity weddings like Grammy-award-winning singer Mariah Carey’s April 2007 nuptials to actor Nick Cannon at Carey’s private estate on Windermere Island in Eleuthera bring immeasurable positive media exposure and up the ante for The Bahamas as a desired destination wedding locale. After the cover of People magazine featured the Carey-Cannon nuptials, calls and emails flooded the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism’s weddings office.
The idea is catching on and now more than 16 per cent of American brides prefer destination weddings to traditional ceremonies. “Destination weddings have exploded,” says Freda Madrisotti, director of weddings and honeymoons for the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism. “Ten years ago they were almost nonexistent.”
Dubbed the “Director of Romance” by USA Today, Madrisotti works closely with tourism stakeholders, helping them fully capitalize on this growing market segment. “When we say destination weddings, really we are looking at it here as groups business,” she says. Although on average destination weddings are 30-40 persons, Bahamian wedding planners have accommodated parties as large as 400. In 2007, exit surveys showed 115,000 visitors came to The Bahamas specifically for the purpose of attending or participating in a wedding. “One property alone estimated about 900 weddings that year,” says Madrisotti.
Tourism officials now market group wedding packages to regions with direct flights into New Providence and Grand Bahama including New York, Florida, Houston, Atlanta, London and Toronto. In addition to full-scale print magazine campaigns in international bridal magazines, the ministry launched the weddings website www.weddings.bahamas.com to provide brides and grooms with the necessary tools to plan weddings from afar.
Couples also see the benefit of a Bahamian wedding and honeymoon package because they can always escape to another more secluded island for their honeymoon. The ministry’s tagline, “Marry on one, honeymoon on another, island hop to a third, no two are alike,” resonates with modern couples. “We are very big on cross selling. If [the wedding] is in New Providence, we try to encourage couples to have the wedding here, and then go off on honeymoon to a Family Island,” says Madrisotti. “One of the trends that has grown out of destination weddings, is that family and friends buy into the idea of a vacation.”
The business of weddings
Forbes.com lists weddings as the third largest lifetime expense for Americans after home purchase and college tuition. Couples spare no expense for extravagant affairs, with the average American couple spending just over $20,000 on their weddings. As Americans make up more than 80 per cent of the 4.5-million tourists coming to The Bahamas annually, the $270-billion wedding industry seems bulletproof in an economic downturn.
According to Madrisotti, destination weddings are also popular with more budget conscious couples as well. Destination weddings equal smaller guest lists. “It is less expensive to feed 40 persons in Nassau than to feed a guest list of 400 in New York.”
Kerzner properties—the One&Only Ocean Club and Atlantis Resort—are taking advantage of the booming destination wedding market. “We’ve definitely seen a year-by-year increase at each property,” says Brittany Manos, group sales manager at Kerzner International. “Destination weddings have grown in large numbers and we are benefiting from that.”
In 2007, Atlantis alone hosted 360 weddings. Ceremony packages start at $10,000 and the sky is the limit at the upper end. Couples must book a minimum number of rooms in order to have their weddings on property.
The resorts, however, do not aggressively market the wedding product, instead preferring to rely completely on word of mouth. “For the most part previous guests are our primary clientele for the weddings. Guests who have been to the resort before … fall in love with the property and decide that this is the venue that they want for their wedding,” says Manos.
On average, Atlantis hosts six to ten weddings per weekend. The Ocean Club property limits weddings to 30 ceremonies per year. “We limit it to one wedding per weekend because of the intimacy of the property. We like to keep our level of service up to par,” Manos explains.
At the first Wedding Isle Symposium in 2007 held at Sandals Royal Bahamian on New Providence, more than 100 travel agents specializing in wedding related travel met to discuss industry trends in destination weddings. Renowned event planner Preston Bailey and celebrity wedding cake designer Sylvia Weinstock hosted the conference.
The Ministry of Tourism co-sponsored the event, gearing their message towards properties with the potential to capitalize on weddings group business. “[Hoteliers] have embraced the idea of the ministry taking the lead because at the end of the day we don’t sell anything,” says Madrisotti. “We can only promote their properties. The onus is really on them to see the value in this.”
In 1998, supermodel Cindy Crawford married her second husband Rande Gerber on the beach at the One&Only Ocean Club. Many in the industry mark this as a turning point for destination weddings in The Bahamas. The resort still fields calls from brides requesting Crawford’s wedding location.
According to Manos, the country receives immeasurable publicity when celebrities choose The Bahamas to exchange vows. The Ocean Club recently hosted the Greg Norman and Chris Evert wedding, which was featured in People magazine. “We get clients calling in saying ‘I saw your information in the magazine’ so that definitely helps,” says Manos.
The couple’s 2008 Bahamas wedding topped out at $2 million.
Google co-founder Sergey Brin rented out 150-acre Musha Cay when he wed his fiancée in The Bahamas in May 2007. The tech billionaire with an estimated net worth of $16 billion transported 60 guests by boat to the secluded cay.
Once photos and news of celebrity weddings hit the international media, “automatically our phones start ringing,” says Madrisotti. The challenge is in measuring the direct impact of the positive publicity. “We know that it is good publicity for us but one of the difficulties has been that it is somewhat difficult to track.” And while brides may fall in love with photos they see of their favourite celebrity in a magazine, “whether or not they are going to book The Bahamas remains to be seen. From where I sit, I’m always interested in what real business develops as a result.”
The trickle-down effect
One of the ways to gauge the true impact of destination weddings is to speak to the people who make a living from providing wedding services and products. Over 100 Bahamian ministers, 50-60 certified wedding consultants, photographers, tour bus operators and local entertainers are directly connected to the weddings industry. “Weddings is one of the markets that I believe has the most spin-off benefits because there are so many different vendors involved to make one day a reality,” says Madrisotti.
Anne Marie Williams, operator of Weddings in The Bahamas, started her bridal consulting firm 25 years ago. “When I started, destination weddings were few and far between,” says Williams, the preferred wedding coordinator for Comfort Suites and a direct vendor for Kerzner hotels. “Now it’s all over the world. It’s just grown.”
The company averages 25 weddings per month and already has functions booked through to 2010. During the peak wedding season between April and July, business is booming for the local entrepreneur. On the coveted July 7, 2007 (7-7-7) date, Williams and her small team of four manned nine weddings on that supposedly lucky day.
Consultants see wedding budgets from $2,000 up to $500,000 to well over $1 million. Most memorable for Williams was a consult where the groom’s father flew in 259 guests for a four-day celebration complete with midnight buffets and a send-off Sunday morning brunch on the last day. The wedding was held at the Cloisters and guests stayed at the Radisson. “We had eleven buses and six limousines transporting people,” Williams recalls. “The father didn’t want any of their guests to pay a single cent.”
Even in high profile celebrity weddings like Norman and Evert’s, local talent is needed to pull off a successful event.
Williams worked on the Norman-Evert wedding. “They had a wedding planner from the States and I worked along with their planner. I was at the Ocean Club around the clock. [They] had to have someone here who knew all of the vendors. It was an unbelievable wedding.”
Consultants have seen budgets for flowers top the $100,000 mark. And while a five-piece calypso steel drum band may seem excessive at $1,200 per hour on any other occasion, couples book bands and relish the memory of their guests on a Bahamian beach dancing the night away, as they spare no expense on the happiest day of their lives.