Destination Wedding Planning Tips  from a Wedding Pro turned Travel Advisor

Destination Wedding Planning Tips from a Wedding Pro turned Travel Advisor

Danielle Thurston, January 2023

I have worked in the wedding industry for over 10 years as everything from event planner to untrained ‘pinch-hitting’ florist, a catering director to wedding party wrangler, many years as a venue manager and when needed a brides divorced parents’ mediator- you name it- I’ve done almost it all. I’ve planned my own destination wedding, assisted in planning the far-away weddings of 3 best friends while also shouldering maid of honor and bridesmaid duties. So, when I start to see a spouse-to-be’s palpable stress show I quickly remind myself this is the BIGGEST event they have ever orchestrated in their life and want to help them see the trees in a very big pintrest-instagram-filled forest.

Often, when sharing learned advice, it was knowing I would be playing a role in both their wedding planning and execution. I knew my team and I were who would carry parts of the planning burden and they’d be in good hands. This meant they could rest a little easier and we would manage by also finding them the right help in all the other wedding-related arenas too. Now that I am in the honeymoon planning business, I feel compelled to put some of these pointers in writing… especially for those couples I only get to connect with after much of their wedding planning is done and they’ve lived the stress they might’ve been able to mitigate.

If you could heed some lessons learned from my own missteps and those witnessed over a decade of working with wedding couples they would be…

Build your village. Wait, is there a village?

Usually, one of the first steps in wedding planning is choosing the area. Next comes choosing the venue and if done well, these are happening at the same time. Before you fall in love with that remote Joshua Tree house or private island 10 suite getaway think about who you really want to be there, where they will stay and if the area even has the resources to support your vision. I’ve seen couples choose a beautiful Appalachian farmhouse that was moved across the US to a Californian mountain top, off a small dirt road 45 minutes from the nearest small town that shuttles and rental trucks could dare reach without 4 wheel drive. There have been southern Caribbean islands chosen when their guests were mostly west-coast based requiring 2 stop flights and boat transfers ending in only 40% of their guest list coming. Then that same island had almost no wedding vendors so those people too must be flown in from the states, often with their teams too.

I encourage you to think about the size of your wedding and if there are enough lodging options (ideally of varying rates to suit varying budgets) in the area. If it is a popular wedding destination, check some hotel websites to ensure you see lots of availability and you are ahead of the planning curve. I’ve seen almost no availability in parts of Europe or Hawaii over 8 months out for peak season. Go on websites like theknot or weddingwire and run a search for your dates to see if there are a good amount of quality vendors servicing the area. Better yet, much like you would do when finding a place to live and enlisting an agent, enlist a wedding planner from the onset. They have so much local knowledge and know what you’ll need before you do. They have the vetted connections in the area and can get you out of problem before you even get in one. i.e booking the wrong venue to fit your vision, wedding size, needs and budget. It often is not a considerable amount more to hire a planner long term, plus they help you avoid pitfalls that can in turn cost more in the end.

That village should not only be your bridal party

Be wary of asking too much from your bridal party, especially with a destination wedding. They are spending a lot of time and money to come to your wedding (a lot more than they would if at home) and asking them to be in the role of planner or florist is taking away from their vacation and frankly making it so they can simply be there for you and with you having fun and supporting you. They likely are coming in for multiple days pre/post for the rehearsal dinner, after wedding brunch and of course did (and probably helped shoulder costs for) the bachelorette and bridal shower too. Keep expectations realistic for them and be mindful of their sacrifice to be at your wedding. Plus, are they really the right one to do the appetizers for your welcome party at the dude ranch. Have you ever even been to a dinner party of theirs or seen them use their oven? Avoid adding stress for you and them, by giving DIY tasks to your wedding party, the last thing they want to do is disappoint you or let you down and the last thing you want is to feel that way too on your big day.

Because your mom says she can do it… should she?

My mom is a hobbyist florist. She has taken community college courses for years in anticipation for her post-retirement career. She was ecstatic to do my wedding flowers, note- in Jackson Hole, note- 15 hours from her home. I was able to convince her we needed a florist (read above where I have jumped in as an untrained wedding florist already, so I know the commitment is real). She persisted and settled by requesting we find a florist who would let her come in and help with centerpieces. We did, they were generous to allow it. She ended up missing a whole spa day with the gals, and also recruited my cousin to help her, who in turn also missed a full day of vacation. She then showed up to the wedding 4 hours earlier than others to help put everything out, another ½ day of prep and pictures missed. In hindsight, those moments would have meant more with her, versus looking at her pretty floral creations.

Make the list of your most important elements and divvy the budget accordingly

Those wedding budgets can go like that (snaps fingers quickly). Even a seasoned gal like myself was shocked when my budget ended at (gulp) 35% more than originally planned. I think it is important in the beginning to sit down with your spouse to be and get to the heart of your top most important things for your wedding. Then find the commonality between both of your lists and use that as a way to zero in on those combined top 5. I suggest rating them in descending order. This will help give you a road map of where you should, based on what you want, allocate your budget (noting there are musts in any wedding of course).

Let’s say your partner REALLY wants to have a full open bar. Fair enough, it’s a destination wedding and people came a way to be there. It’s not as important to you as having that renowned photographer, but rates #2 for them. Maybe concede with a drink package option at a set budget. Or don’t allow shots and only do mixed drinks hosted at cocktail hour, maybe limit the better wine for cocktail hour and a mid-grade wine for dinner.

A DJ, dancefloor and specialty dance lighting is not on any of your top lists… great. Look for a DJ one that might just be starting out, maybe was an assistant before and is branching out on their own.

Let’s say your one that feels that where you have the ceremony is more important than what venue you have the reception at. Great, you might even find it makes more sense to have the ceremony in a public permit kind of place (like on the beach, in a forest, at a river or park) or maybe at a winery that allows ceremonies only yet would be much more expensive, and out of budget, if you booked it for a full wedding buyout. You have a beautiful outdoor reception then you shuttle the group to a reception spot that does food, beverage, in-house rentals and knows how to throw parties really well.

Three big things a month

I learned this as an entrepreneur, the recommendation was to put 3 things only on your to-do list a day, but let’s be real friends, 3 a month for your wedding is far more plausible. You likely have a job, have a social life, have a partner (duh!), have a home, have all the celebrations around a wedding to… you know…celebrate, so is doing more than 3 big wedding tasks a month realistic? If you are planning a destination wedding, chances are you have a 9 to 14 month lead. Get smart about what needs to be done when (hint: start with venue, room blocks, vendors, save the dates) and break it up over time to manage your sanity. That wedding coordinator you hired very early in the process is there to help you with game planning this too!

If it does not bring you joy… outsource

Going back to the ‘just cause you can, does not mean you should’ saying… put those aces in their places. Find what you do and don’t like to do or honestly don’t have the time to do and delegate it out or hire the right vendor. Do your research early on ALL of the things you will need to think of, double it for a destination wedding and star the ones that suit your interest and skillset.

You’re both foodies and salivate over coming up with the foods that suit you both. Check. Plan to take the lead on choosing your menu and of course enjoying the caterers sample tastings.

You are a music enthusiast and love making playlists. Check. You’ve got the DJ’s intake form on lockdown.

You don’t know any artists post 1990… why not ask for song suggestions on your rsvp from guests and send that along to the DJ to fill in form there.

You loathe any kind of design but your sister lives for all things aesthetic and has canva on lockdown. Check. Ask her to design your save the dates, invites and wedding stationary

You stress at the thought of negotiating room blocks, things for guests to do in destination or managing countless questions about flights and how to get to the venue and airport. Check. Get yourself a travel advisor… I know a few great ones :)