Destination weddings are back – and they’re supersized

With so many  ceremonies postponed by the pandemic, and a fresh set of newly announced engagements, decorative gourd season is now also destination wedding season. People have been ready, and waiting, to get married — and combining an overdue vacation with a ceremony has an obvious logic to it. 

These celebrations — which were once simply called out of town weddings — have a new look and feel, reflecting both the emotional and practical consequences of dealing with COVID-19, according to the Bay Area hotels that host such celebrations.

There were 30 weddings at Napa Valley’s Carneros Resort and Spa in 2019, according to managing director Edward Costa. By the end of July, the Wine Country resort  had already hosted 55 weddings since being allowed to resume May 1 — “and normally April would have been busy for us too,” Costa noted. 

Dallas couple Dr. Babu Makkena, a cardiologist, and Jodi Higginbotham, a medical sales representative, were among those tying the knot at Carneros this summer. Before the pandemic began, they had already decided to get married in Napa and toured venues before choosing Carneros.

Napa Valley vineyard covered in mustard plant. 

Spondylolithesis/Getty Images/iStockphoto

“We eventually ended up postponing our wedding plans due to travel bans and the various periodic uncertainties COVID sent our way,” she said. In June, Higginbotham and Makkena were finally able to host a traditional Hindu wedding ceremony, followed by cocktails and dinner, on the resort’s Vineyard Lawn and Hilltop Dining Room.
Now that people are scheduling destination weddings again, some couples are going “above and beyond,” according to Costa. “Last weekend we had a full-blown rehearsal dinner for 50 on Friday night, then 100 people for post-dinner drinks, and then a big wedding on Saturday and on Sunday a huge brunch,” he noted. “Couples are wanting as much time with their guests as possible.”

“In the past, since you’d see these people a lot anyways, you’d have the big Saturday night event and that’s it. But now because they haven’t seen people for so long, they say, ‘What can we add on to spend more time with them?'”

Holding more wedding-related events, particularly outdoors, is “definitely a trend that we’ve seen,” said Cynthia Conat, director of events and meetings at Carmel Valley Ranch and Ventana Big Sur in Monterey County. 

At 500-acre Carmel Valley Ranch, which frequently hosts “backyard” weddings by Bay Area couples, Conat said, many “are bringing all their friends to be here for four or five days.” 

Three young men preparing for Hawaiian wedding wearing kukui nut beads, Kaaawa, Oahu.

Three young men preparing for Hawaiian wedding wearing kukui nut beads, Kaaawa, Oahu.

Rosanna U/Getty Images/Image Source

Couples getting married at the exclusive Hawaii Four Seasons Hualalai resort also show an increased desire to spend more time with their guests, according to Jaclyn Jerstad, director of weddings and special events at the hotel. 

“Some of these weddings that we’ve seen are seven-night stays, flying Sunday through Sunday,” she noted. “The majority of the activities that they’re asking to do are for the entire group.”

Long-deferred leisure travel also fuels other choices. “A lot of our grooms have been golf enthusiasts, and they’ve really been wanting to have a vacation, so the new golf hale [house] that we have has been a big hit,” Jerstad said.

Some of the couples don’t just want to play with their guests—they want to stay with them, too. The Four Seasons recently debuted Bungalow Zero, a six-bedroom, stand-alone unit with two specialty suites, one of which has a pool and hot tub on a lawn leading to Kumukea Beach. While each bedroom has its own entry and key, the outdoor space is common. “It’s extremely popular for smaller weddings,” Jerstad said.

Northern California resorts also report a demand for larger weddings. At Carmel Valley Ranch, Conat said she has been “pleasantly surprised” by the prospect of 150- to 300-person weddings.

At Carneros Resort and Spa, “a small 70-person wedding is all of a sudden jumping up to 140 people,” Costa said. “It’s like there is so much pent-up demand, everyone makes a list and then says, ‘Everyone comes to this.’  We don’t normally see that big an increase.”

The most noticeable increase at Four Seasons Hualalai is in the budget for weddings, even for smaller gatherings. With upgraded wines and Champagne to custom culinary experiences and bigger floral designs, “intimate” doesn’t necessarily mean small, according to Jerstad. “Ten to 12 guests could easily be spending now what a 100-person wedding would have 18 months ago,” she noted.  

A banquet table in a tropical garden.

A banquet table in a tropical garden.

XavierMarchant/Getty Images/iStockphoto

“These celebrations that we’re having have been over the top,” she added. “You’ve been cooped up for 18 months, and now you’ve had the opportunity to plan your wedding that you’ve had to reschedule three times — it’s almost like the budget is out the window. ‘I’ve been thinking about this so long, I want what I want, and I want my guests to have that, too.'”

Of course, COVID remains a concern no matter where a wedding is held. “A lot of couples are guaranteeing that all their guests are vaccinated, because they’re concerned about their grandparents and also making us feel comfortable,” Costa said. “We had one that wanted all our staff to wear masks — color coordinated — even if it was not mandated. “

Thanks to vaccinations, easily available testing and reduced travel restrictions, event planners report a renewed interest in destination weddings. But like many aspects of life during the pandemic, they can require some thoughtful consideration. Here are five tips that Eileen Lacey, owner of E Events Co. in Carmel, shares with couples considering a destination wedding.

Determine how you and your venue will handle guests’ vaccination status. 

“This is an incredibly important step to have thought through before selecting your destination or wedding venue, as all properties are handling it differently, with different regulations on showing proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test,” Lacey notes. “Leaving this until the last minute can cause a lot of stress for not only the couple, but their guests.  Letting your guests know ahead of time that they will be required to show proof of vaccination, or a negative COVID test within a certain time period, allows everyone to make their plans accordingly and be prepared.”

Mail “save the date”  information nine to 12 months beforehand.

“Since the pandemic, everyone has a different level of comfort with travel, and you want to make sure to give your guests plenty of time to make their travel plans,” Lacey says.

If offering a video stream for guests who can’t attend, make sure there’s enough bandwidth for a high-quality stream.

“Have your vendor handling this service do a site visit ahead of time and check all equipment to ensure that all runs smoothly the day of the event,” Lacey advises.  Couples should also include a link to their livestream on their wedding website — another helpful tool of the modern-marriage era — so that guests can easily access it on the big day.

Book a vendor team well in advance, and plan to exercise patience in communications.

This year and next “are proving to be incredibly busy for the entire wedding industry,” says Lacey. “Many vendors have been hit incredibly hard during the pandemic and are working limited hours and are understaffed, while trying to complete all of the events that were postponed from last year, in addition to new business that was already booked, so please be patient.”

To avoid frustration during the planning process, it’s always a good idea to ask what response times to expect, she adds.

Communicate clearly — and early — with guests.

“Even with the vaccine, I am finding that many guests feel much more comfortable receiving health and safety measures before RSVP’ing,” Lacey explains. She recommends not only creating a wedding website, but also keeping it up-to-date in terms of COVID and virtual event details and creating an FAQ page to answer your guests’ potential questions. 

“Including COVID safety measures, like whether the event will be held indoors or outdoors, if there’s socially distanced seating, if masks are optional for guests or if they will be provided, etc., are all very important details to include,” Lacey says.

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