February 18, 2017

Gap in the Market Volume 11 - Wedding Travel

by Malek Murison

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It's that time of year again. Plenty of sweeping romantic gestures have been made, relationships are starting up; bad boyfriends around the world are still regretting that last-minute hunt for flowers in the gas station. Even though Valentine's Day has been and gone, love is in the air. With that in mind, there's no better time to continue with our popular Gap in the Market series. It seems appropriate that we switch the focus this week to the blossoming world of wedding travel.

Why tie the knot abroad?

The wedding travel market has been steadily growing for at least the past decade, according to an industry report by Destination Weddings. There are several reasons for this. The first, perhaps surprisingly, is cost.

We've all heard stories of domestic weddings costing many tens of thousands of pounds/dollars. Last year, industry giant Hitched released report findings that suggest UK weddings are now costing on average £25,090 - that's a 21 percent rise from the previous year according to a survey of more than 3,000 users.

Now, that might seem like an awful lot of money, but when you consider the average costs of venue hire (£3,738), honeymoons (£3,366) and food for wedding guests (£3,072), things begin to add up. While the price of having weddings close to home appears to be on the rise, Destination Weddings report that the average cost of weddings abroad for its customers has remained under ,000 for over a decade. “When couples take their wedding on the road they can uncover savings throughout many points in the planning process,” says Richard Calvert, President and CEO of Destination Weddings Travel Group, which last year experienced its biggest ever year. “Even those who aren’t necessarily seeking to trim expenses will find that they have extra room in their budget for upgrades and add-ons to enhance their experience.”

wedding travel
Greek Island Weddings: Ionian Weddings

So there's clearly a cost factor for the rise of wedding travel. But suggesting that money is the only motivation behind this travel sector's rise would be untrue. There are larger themes at play here: escape being one of them. Hopping on a plane and getting married in an exotic location provides weddings with an extra layer of exclusivity, a feeling that this really is an incredibly special day, a once-in-a-lifetime occasion. Having a stunning backdrop for the ceremony is always a bonus, too.

The idyllic atmosphere and location make it very easy for travellers to be captured in a swirl of romance. Travelling abroad and to Fiji in particular for a wedding means for guests they are able to add on their honeymoon to their wedding, and the distance from Fiji to countries such as Australia and New Zealand, means it’s great for an extended vacation. The beautiful weather is of course a huge appeal!" - Jane West, Regional Director UK/Europe, Tourism Fiji.

There are also practical and romantic motivations behind the world of wedding travel. Weather, though it might sound trivial, seems to play a big role in decision making. It certainly goes a long way to explaining the trend for summer weddings. But a summer wedding can still be a gamble for many couples in western Europe and the USA. Tieing the knot in a place where there are bound to be blue skies is a safer option - a cheaper option too if it's done out of season. And it doesn't hurt to spend your big day on the white sands of a Greek island beach or the shores of Lake Garda.

And one last possible reason why couples are increasingly eager to get married abroad? The honeymoon. Wedding travel can be both more convenient for couples and less expensive, in that the honeymoon can begin literally as soon as the service is over. Honeymoon travel is a separate sector that we will be covering in the near future, but taking the whole wedding on the road negates the need for flights when you're already at your chosen destination.

What sets wedding travel agencies apart from the rest?

Typically, wedding operators are a hybrid of wedding planners and travel agents.

For most couples, planning a wedding is a long-winded and stressful experience. Now take that experience and add to it the complication of a foreign language and an unfamiliar place. Quickly it becomes clear why wedding travel agencies with local knowledge and expertise are so vital to this growing market.

We got in touch with UK wedding travel operator Ionian Weddings, which caters for couples looking to get married in the Medditareanian. Ionian Weddings offers complete wedding packages in destinations including the Greek islands, Italy and Malta. Founder Jane Stuart-Palikira spoke to Travelshift about the current trends in wedding travel and the challenges Ionian Weddings faces.

What's clear straight away is that an important part of Ionian Weddings' success - or any decent operator in wedding travel for that matter - is flexibility. When tasked with arranging what will for many couples be the most important day of their lives, a certain amount of flexibility is needed. Wedding travellers want to find an agency that can handle the stressful details, while still feeling that their input is being taken into account. Every couple is different, which means that such a personal occasion demands a bespoke service. Agencies like Ionian Weddings need to communicate well with clients and find the right balance early on.

"We offer sample packages for all of our venues, but they can be totally tailored to suit the requirements of our wedding couples," says Stuart-Palikira. "We tailor all our weddings to the needs of the couple, it's down to them on how much they want to be involved."

Offering bespoke weddings in different locations around the Med wouldn't be possible without plenty of local knowledge and contacts, and Stuart-Palikira highlights in the video above that all of her staff are well-trained and each one of their destinations has been visited and understood in full.

Where do Wedding Travellers like to go?

As far as the Meditareanian goes, Stuart-Palikira suggests that the Greek islands are especially popular. "Santorini", she says, is always in demand because "couples see photos of this beautiful island with the volcanic rocks, whitewashed buildings and spectacular views - and fall in love with it."

In preparing for this piece we also spoke with Tourism Fiji. As potential wedding destinations go, Fiji is right up there with the most exotic, and weddings there continues the trend of tieing the knot with waves and sand forming the backdrop.

"Young couples often choose Fiji as their wedding destination and continue on for their honeymoon, but we also find older couples renewing vows on the island. Fiji is the perfect destination for all...a great place to celebrate special anniversaries," said Jane West, Regional Director UK/Europe, Tourism Fiji. 

"There are 333 islands to choose from, stunning beaches, pristine water, but also so much to do, from diving to visiting the island where Tom Hanks’ “Cast Away” was filmed. The tranquil beauty of the Fijian islands provides the perfect backdrop for a romantic getaway."

"From the UK the Mamanuca Islands are the most popular [Fiji destination] because they have fine white sand and a good choice of boutique resorts which are more easily accessible from the international gateway of Nadi. Nadi Bay is also very popular due to its beautiful backdrops of hidden beach coves, turquoise waters and coconut trees."

Challenges and Changes in Wedding Travel

(Hopefully) a lack of repeat business

One thing many travel agencies can rely on is loyalty. If they provide a good service for a good price, they can build long-term relationships with clients and expect their repeat business year after year. However, in the world of wedding travel things are different. If all goes well then you hope never to see your clients again!

We don’t have any repeat clients!" - Jane Stuart-Palikira, founder, Ionian Weddings.

Because of this, the focus is on making the big day as special and memorable as possible. The couple's close friends and family are then much more likely to spread the word about the wedding travel agency in question. "A large number of our bookings are through recommendations from previous weddings we have organised," says Ionian Weddings' Jane Stuart-Palikira.

While this lack of easy repeat business might seem like a major challenge to those working in the wedding travel industry, they have the opportunity to harness something much more powerful. As we've discussed, a huge amount of trust is placed with wedding travel operators, and they tend to form stronger bonds with clients than your average tourism supplier. This creates the opportunity to provide a bespoke, truly personal service and leave clients feeling so thrilled that they absolutely have to share their experience with friends, family and on social media.

This is content marketing in its simplest form; there's nothing more appealing for prospective couples than seeing public feedback from a long list of delighted clients.

Changing Trends

In recent years wedding travel has started to shift. Tourism Fiji is discovering that many couples are moving away from traditional weddings and looking for something a bit different.

"A traditional wedding is not so heavily in demand nowadays, and couples are looking for something that will wow their guests and create memories for forever. A lot of the wedding packages we offer now have experiences included, such as diving at Dolphin Bay, jet boating adventures, or for those seeking purely romance and relaxation, a visit to one of Fiji’s many spas," said Tourism Fiji's Jane West.

Ionian Weddings have also seen a shift, but in terms of the size of events they are helping to plan. "We’ve been organising weddings abroad for 10 years and have noticed that guests are more willing to travel abroad for a wedding; overall the wedding parties are getting bigger", said Stuart-Palikira.

Wedding travel
Ionian Weddings

Is there room for a marketplace in the world of Wedding Travel?

As readers of our travel industry analysis will know, here at Travelshift we provide ambitious travel startups with the tools they need to build world-leading marketplaces. So is there any potential for a marketplace in the world of wedding travel? Could one platform aggregate together different operators and give prospective couples a wider choice of destinations and packages?

Read more: Choosing a travel marketplace niche

It's hard to give a definitive answer because this sector is unique. But we think the answer is yes.

On the plus side, the wedding travel market is highly fragmented. By nature, wedding travel operators have to operate within themselves. The more expansion there is in potential destinations and the more customers they take on, the higher the risk that the service provided won't have the personal touch that's so vital. It's better to keep things relatively small and have a 100% satisfaction rate, than grow too quickly, compromise on the service and lose credibility.

Another challenge is that any marketplace would have to be international in scale. Many individual countries and regions are already covered, so startups would have to think bigger, and put together a global platform that can inspire, inform and ultimately guide couples to the right wedding travel operator.

The role of any marketplace in wedding travel would have to be as a complete intermediary. The focus would be on inspiring wedding travellers through community driven content and facilitating transactions. Although bringing together enough operators across potential destinations would be a challenge, it's far from impossible. Get in touch with us today if you think you have what it takes!