How to Plan a Destination Wedding with a Destination Wedding Planner

Couple in Hammock on Beach

You’ve decided to run off to the beach and you’re about to start planning a destination wedding.

Now what?

Destination Wedding Google SearchIf you’re like most people, you turn to your trusty sidekick, Google! And you type in “destination wedding” – and there are 15 million results! Wow! Okay, let’s refine this a little – how about “best destination wedding locations” – and there are 9.9 million results!

Uh oh, looks like this is going to take a bit of time. And then you start clicking – first one website, then another, and then you realize you started researching 4 hours ago! But you’re no closer to making a decision on where to go.

In fact, now you’re so confused by all the information and you feel so overwhelmed by all the options that you’re starting to rethink this whole marriage thing anyway!


The “Now What” of Destination Wedding Planning


Cheryl & Shea Bailey with awardsHopefully you’re lucky enough to be friends with someone that sent you here. Because we’re going to talk about the “Now What?” today – the what happens once you’ve said yes to a destination wedding. And since destination wedding planning is what we do around here (it’s true – we’ve won some awards and stuff!), this is going to come from the perspective of working with a destination wedding planner – both what we do and what you do throughout the process as well.

This is a long read but it will give you a true step by step of what really happens (even some of the behind the scenes stuff) when you and your wedding planner are working to plan your wedding.

Side note – If you decide to do all the work on your own, this should help you understand and navigate the process a little better, but seriously, after reading everything here, I don’t think you’re going to need any convincing that having a destination wedding pro in your corner is the way to go.

The Planning Process

1.) Choose a destination wedding planner – Yes, this IS the FIRST step! Here’s why – EVERYTHING you do right now, in the beginning, will determine how awesome – or how awful – the rest of your planning experience, travel, and actual wedding, is going to be.

Your destination wedding planner will help you narrow down a location, choose a date that is right for you and your guests, negotiate rates and concessions for you, etc. They can look logically at your spending plan (or help you establish one) and guide you to the right places to help you get as many of your dream items as possible.

They really are the first person you should seek out! I’m not being biased here, just speaking from experience.




Quick story about a past destination wedding, then we’ll get back to the planning process…

Let’s say you decide on a place and a date – Mexico and September 16th (because that was the day you met and so you want to get married on September 16th). You looked on Travelocity and you found some really great hotel room rates so you book your room and then let your guests know. And some of them book a room right away, but most of them don’t (because destination wedding guests tend to wait to book until the absolute last minute). And as you get closer to your wedding date you start hearing from your guests that the rooms at your hotel are SO EXPENSIVE but you can’t figure out why because your room was such a great deal when you booked it 13 months ago. And that’s when you find out that September 16th is a National holiday in Mexico. And now the only rooms left available at your resort are the most expensive ones, or worse, the property is now sold out and only 8 guests even have rooms! Oh yeah, and the service at your resort is going to be very limited on that weekend/day. And that all banks, government buildings, etc. are closed. And transportation routes are altered.

Would you have known these things? A professional event planner with experience in your destination would have!

*And by the way, this was not a “make believe” scenario. This actually happened to one of my past couples and that’s when a friend referred them to us. So, if you’re reading this, you know who you are, and we’ll just leave it at that. Wink wink

2.) Talk it out! You’re going to discuss so many things with you destination wedding planner that you’re going to need a nice soak in a tub, a large bottle of wine (obviously), and an hour of uninterrupted silence, after you get off that first call, just to take it all in! Seriously! Oh, and it will be fun and exciting, too!

My initial “details” call with a couple can last anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours! Yes, there’s a lot of things to talk about! What in the world could take this long? Questions like these –

  • What are your wedding absolute musts? The non-negotiables? The “if they don’t have this thing, we’re not going” things?
  • What kinds of activities do you want to have? What about for your guests? And maybe even for just the two of you on your honeymoon?
  • How many guests are you anticipating?
  • Are you going to allow children?
  • Are you flexible on your wedding dates?
  • Are you looking for an all-inclusive resort or a private location?
  • Where are your guests coming from? (Where do they need flights from?)
  • Do you have any guests with mobility issues? In a wheelchair? Etc.?
  • Do you want an outdoor or indoor ceremony? How about a reception?
  • What kind of ceremony do you want? Legal or symbolic?
  • Are you planning on bringing any of your own vendors? A photographer, perhaps?
  • And a lot more questions!


Be honest with your destination wedding planner!


If you really want something or really really don’t want something, you need to tell us about it. We can’t know what you don’t tell us! Also, please don’t lie about your spending plan – this is the worst! A lot of people have a spending plan in mind but they give their destination wedding planner a number much lower – you know, “to see what she can do”. This is a HUGE waste of time, for both you and us. Give us the real honest info and we’ll give you the best options we can find!

3.) Your destination wedding planner gets to work! We’re going to use all the things we discussed on our call, combined with your overall wedding budget, to help determine what properties make the most sense for you, your wedding, and your guests. Once we’ve narrowed it down to a few options, we contact each resort and inquire about open ceremony dates and times. This may narrow the search even further because your dates may not even be available at every location.

4.) Now that we have 1 – 3 locations in mind that actually have your wedding date options available, we put together room rates for you and your guests, based on the types of rooms that are available and the options you’ve asked for.

How does this happen? #bts

Sometimes we work directly with the resort location, but not normally. Usually, a destination wedding planner will work through something called a tour operator. A tour operator buys (and sometimes owns) a very high volume of travel components and then packages these for travel agents to sell. You need to be an actual travel agent (with a CLIA or IATA number) to be able to purchase this way.


Why would we use a Tour Operator?


Several reasons – the number one being the overall protection that it gives to travelers (our wedding couples and their guests). When you book your travel/rooms directly with a hotel or resort and something goes awry, you have one option – complain to the hotel or resort – and hope you get resolution. If you use a tour operator through your destination wedding planner, you have 3 channels – the hotel/resort, your planner, and the tour operator. The tour operator spends millions and millions of dollars with these hotels/resorts. They have a lot of authority when it comes to making things right if you can’t get resolution directly.

They also offer travel protection in the form of travel insurance – it’s a must to protect yourself. This is a big purchase and this is a once in a lifetime event – Get it!

And lastly, though it’s what most people think of first, they often give us the same rates as you would have received directly with the hotel/resort.

5.) Your destination wedding planner calls you back with some options. In our office, we prepare a full presentation with photos, details, and pricing and then schedule a call with the couple to go over the presentation we’ve put together. Then we talk about the actual process of booking the wedding itself and the room blocks and travel – these are two separate things. This call lasts anywhere from 1 – 2 hours. There’s a lot to review!

6.) You say Yes! Once you’ve decided on the place you want to host your wedding and your guests, you give your planner the thumbs up to proceed with a contract to get your show on the road.

7.) Confirmation and deposit time! Your destination wedding planner will first re contact the resort that you chose and ask them to proceed with a contract for the wedding ceremony date and time. We will need to give the resort your exact names – very important – address, email, and phone numbers. They will prepare a contract with this information and it will be emailed to you to sign. You will have a small window to get this contract signed and returned – usually 1 to 2 days. You’ll fill out the contract and sign each item and return it. The resort will ask for your credit card and your bank routing information at this time and will charge you a small ceremony deposit – usually around $250 or so, but each location is different.

Once this information is received by the resort, they will email confirmation of your deposit payment and then you are officially on the books and your wedding date and time is held! I usually email our couples with the confirmation receipt.

In most cases, at this point you’ll be assigned an “on site wedding planner” from the resort. More about this person later!

Important Note – This is where things slow down a bit with communication from the resort. Once your ceremony is booked and you’re assigned the on-site wedding planner, the email replies can take 1 day or 7 days – depends on how busy your planner (and resort) is.

It doesn’t mean that you’re not important to them – it just means that they’re on island time. You may be on New York time or Texas time or whatever, but they ARE NOT! But as your wedding gets closer, replies typically pick up in speed. Please try to keep that in mind if it’s 6 months before your wedding and you just must must must decide on which shade of pink the roses on your wedding cake will be, like right now!

I totally get you – I’m type A too. But they are not. Deep breath in…deep breath out…repeat. And wait for that email. Seriously wish I was kidding here, but I’m not.


8.) Now on to room blocks! Once your on-site destination wedding planner receives this confirmation, we send it on to the tour operator and they proceed with the contract for the room blocks for your guests. If you’d like more clarification on setting up room blocks for your wedding, or why you should do so, check out this blog that explains it.

You’ll get the room block contract by email and you’ll have a short window to sign this and return it with the initial deposit. Our office usually schedules a quick call with our couples to go over the block contract and discuss any questions they might have. Your room block contract will show the deposit amount, when it is due, all of the payment milestones along the way, and then the date for the final payment. It will also list any other costs associated with the travel – travel insurance, attrition rates, etc.

How much is the deposit? It varies with each block. It could be as little as $50 – $100 per room to 50% (or even the whole amount) of the room rate, depending on where you choose, how many days before your wedding you book, and a number of other factors. The more time in advance you book your room block, the more agreeable the deposit will normally be.

Remember, up until you have signed the contract on any part of your wedding – room pricing, ceremony details, airfare – the rates are subject to change. Travel components change VERY frequently. Until you have a signed contract, the rates could change at any time! That’s why you have a short window to sign the contracts each time.

Once you sign and return your room block contract with payment, your destination wedding planner will be given a confirmation email, that we send on to our couples, letting them know that their contract was received and accepted.

9.) Now we have to let people know! In our office, we set up a wedding website where our couples will send their guests. It will have all of the information about the wedding – the location information and photos, times of events, how to book their rooms and travel, info on transportation to and from the location, things to do in the area, passport information, and just about anything guests need to know. Our couples can also post information about themselves – how they met, photos of themselves together, where they’re registered, a timeline/itinerary, what people should wear, etc.

This will be the one place where you can send guests that gives them all the details they could possibly need – and it helps eliminate a ton of calls to you asking about everything under the sun. You can just tell them to go to your website!

9A.) You’ll be compiling a list of your invited wedding guests and you’ll give this list to your wedding planner.

Couple in Hammock on Beach10.) You visit your resort! If you have the time, and you’re able, I’d recommend that you visit the resort you’ve selected for a few days. Some resorts even offer discounted rates or other perks to “preview” the resort once you’ve selected it as your wedding location. You can taste the food, check out the resort and the surrounding area, meet with your on-site coordinator to talk wedding details, look at Plan B options, and then just have a little fun.

Your destination wedding planner can help you book your trip and set up a meeting with your on-site coordinator. Remember that you’ll be assigned one once you confirm your ceremony. If you’re not working with a full service wedding coordinator, they are going to be your contact for anything involving the actual ceremony and reception. He/She will take all of your wants/desires/ideas for your wedding ceremony and reception and assemble the on-site vendor team to make it all happen.

If you do have a full service destination wedding planner, the onsite venue coordinator will still be available for you, as needed, but your full service wedding planner will be the person most in contact with the on site coordinator.


Can You be My On-Site Wedding Planner?


All destination wedding planners have their own way of doing things but in our office, our standard wedding planning fee covers us being your sole point of contact for all wedding and travel related items. We would be your on-site wedding planner on the day of your wedding, and will also oversee the rehearsal, set up off site events, and more.

About half of our clients use us as their main full service wedding planner and half of our clients choose to work with the resort directly on their wedding, working with us only for the travel elements of their wedding. It all depends on the details – the more details, the more likely our clients want us for everything. The more simple a wedding, the less likely we’ll be needed on site.

For the sake of this article, we’re going to assume that you’re now working with the on-site planner. He/She will be your contact at the resort until 30 days before your wedding.

11.) What are you doing between now and the wedding? You’re doing all of your personal things – buying a dress, picking out the groom’s attire, choosing a wedding party, making for sure you have up to date passports and documents. You’ll also be choosing all of your wedding related details with the on-site wedding planner – you musical preferences (DJ or Band), the flowers you want, the style of food you plan on having (buffet or seated service), the linens and décor for the ceremony and reception.

11A.) During this lead up time to your wedding, your destination wedding planner will be connecting with all of your guests, helping them confirm their rooms, processing their travel payments, answering any travel related questions they might have, confirming their travel documents are in order (things like making for sure they know they need a passport), etc.

12.) 45 days before the wedding. All of your onsite ceremony and reception items will typically need to be chosen by 45 days or more before the wedding. They really like all of this completed by then. Most resorts have a policy that they won’t guarantee any item you choose will be available if you haven’t decided on it by the 45 day mark.

And the 45 day mark is usually when final payments will be due for all travel and wedding related items.

13.) 30 days before the wedding! Now you get a new person assigned from the resort – the onsite wedding planner. I know – YIKES! A new person 30 days before the wedding? This is quite honestly one of the reasons that some of our client’s choose us as their full service wedding planner. Yes, I know it’s kind of unnerving to feel like you’re starting with someone new so close to the wedding date, but don’t distress. That’s just the way most resorts work. Your onsite coordinator will now pass you along to the onsite wedding coordinator. They are there to confirm all the services you’ve hired for your dream wedding and will be assisting you once you get to the resort as well.

14.) 2 days before the wedding. You are almost always required to be on site at your resort at least 48 hours before your wedding – and that means both of you together! You’ll need to arrive accordingly, and consider the possibility of any weather or unforeseen delays. So, play it safe and arrive 3 days in advance if this is an option for you.

Once on site, you’ll meet with your wedding coordinator to confirm all the details of the ceremony and events.

Now you can chill out – and wait for the most awesome day of your life (so far)!

Why wait…Let’s get started now!

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