It’s the ultimate dream of many – getting married on a paradise island in the Caribbean. Destination weddings, as they are known, are increasingly popular with the bride and groom flying out parties of close friends and family to not just share in the happy day but also enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime holiday. And whilst the economic downturn has hit harder elsewhere, the sector has remained relatively robust.
The wedding season in Cayman runs during high season, roughly between January and June. Rebecca Bateman-Green, head planner with Parfait Weddings and Events, noted that the season has been pretty good in 2012.
“As usual, there are many large destination and local weddings around the months of March and April. In addition to these there has been a large volume of smaller wedding groups, including cruise ship passengers only in port for the day. Weddings for our company this season are up almost 25 per cent compared to last year,” she noted.
Joanne Brown of Celebrations, however, sounded a different note regarding the industry.
“It appears to us that there has been a decline in weddings coming to the Cayman Islands this year. This is very concerning as the destination wedding industry contributes a great deal to the tourism of our Islands.
“The average size of the group of people who will come to Cayman for a destination wedding is 25 to 30 people. They will stay at our hotels and partake in on-island activities, restaurants, et cetera. This is a large income to the island that should not be taken for granted,” she said.
The same experience was shared by Grand Old House, whose planner Desiree Evans said that whilst 2010 and 2011 saw a similar amount of weddings, there had been a decline in bookings at the start of 2012. Party size, however, had remained relatively stable, she said.
“[It has been] about the same; average guest number is 40 to 50 for evening weddings, cruise ship weddings around 15 to 20,” she noted.
Bateman-Green said that group size was getting larger, a factor she put down to the amount of direct flights available.
“A wedding with an added holiday to Cayman is becoming more affordable and also more accessible, which makes for a stress free journey for the bride, groom and all their guests,” she told the Journal.
Joy Basdeo, owner/manager of Simply Weddings, which deals mainly in smaller parties, said that things still looked good.
“[The high season has been] excellent,” she reported.
“Stay-over tourist weddings were particularly strong, and these couples were likely to spend more money on additional wedding services. [The size of the party} was about the same for us – four to six persons on average.
“The luxury wedding market tends to have much larger groups, sometimes over 100 guests at the bigger properties. Our niche market is for small groups looking for a simple, elegant and personalised wedding.”
Looking for value
Basdeo said that in comparison to the previous couple of years, people were looking for more value.
“I get the impression they are doing a lot of comparison shopping on the Internet. In 2012 we have seen more cruise couples economising on extra services. Our all-inclusive packages are also very popular because people realise there is no hassle involved.
“If they are on a cruise, we meet them, finish the paperwork, and perform the ceremony and it takes one and a half hours maximum so they have time to enjoy the Island,” she explained.
It is that search for a good deal that appears to be part of the ‘new normal’ across the board for tourism and the weddings sector is certainly not inured to that aspect, explained Bateman-Green.
“Couples are always looking to spend their money in a more economical way. I am finding it’s not that they don’t want to spend the money whilst in Cayman, it is that they want to have a more laid back wedding and then spend the extra funds on group activities during their stay.
This way, their guests can not only remember the wedding day, but also remember the whole wedding weekend experience,” said the planner.
Desiree Evans added that people are spending less, which can be seen from the decrease in decorations and general set-ups.
The traditional market is North America with local weddings and Canada coming in second. During the winter, there is an increase in couples seeking to escape the UK weather, which reflects the general tourism demographic. Of those American sources, Bateman-Green revealed that Texas made up 50 per cent of Parfait’s market, with Chicago and New York City coming in close behind.
Basdeo elaborated further about the USA source market in the case of Simply Weddings.
“The mid-west and middle America followed by the southern states are our strongest areas. [This season,] 88 per cent of our couples came from mainland US. Another 10 per cent came from Canada and 12 per cent came from the United Kingdom and the rest of the world.”
Cruise ship weddings
Destination weddings bring in largeish parties for a reasonable stay on island. However, many couples do take advantage of just a very short time in Cayman to get hitched – this is most evident in the trend for cruise ship weddings. Brown said that this sector is on a downturn.
“These are definitely on the decline, which obviously is a direct link to the fact that less cruise ships are coming here,” she noted. That was echoed by Grand Old House, which also handles cruise weddings.
Evans further noted that toward the end of 2011 bookings had been steady, but the start of 2012 had shown a decline.
Bateman-Green explained why cruise ship weddings are so popular.
“We do many cruise ship weddings during the week. I love these weddings as they are very intimate and romantic. It is unfortunate that many people see these weddings as drive through weddings, in and out the same day although we certainly give these couples as much attention and customer service as any other wedding.
“We don’t offer ‘package’ weddings as we feel that every wedding is so unique and personal to the couple, so we allow the couple to customise every detail to suit their needs,” she noted.
Basdeo’s company opened five years ago as cruise wedding specialists, so she is in as good a position as anybody to comment on the relative strengths of the industries.
“In 2011, a little less than 50 per cent of our visitor weddings came from cruisers. So far in 2012, there has been a distinct reversal because for the first six months of the year, to mid-June, 77 per cent of our visitor weddings have been from stay-over visitors.
“I think this is reflecting the overall trend of more stay-over visitors, which is a good thing for the Cayman Islands,” said the wedding expert.
The summer, agreed all the interviewees, is traditionally slower in terms of weddings. As Brown put it, ‘the high season for weddings is really in the earlier part of the year, when the likelihood of rain is less and it is a little cooler.’
In the case of Simply Weddings, Basdeo revealed that May was ‘outstanding’ and that June and July were looking good.
“August is a bit on the weak side, but that is not unusual. The fall is shaping up nicely right through to the end of the year, remembering that we get most of our bookings three to six months before the event.
“Of course those special dates like 12-12-12 and 10-11-12 were sold out months ago,” she said, alluding to the popularity of memorable dates that is a factor in decisions for some people.
Rebecca Bateman-Green said that summer generally produces the same kind of results.
“[It is] a handful of bookings, which we have been working on long term, and then a flood of bookings weeks before the wedding.
“Summer is always steady with couples wanting to make the most out of the amazing flight and accommodation deals and then the couples on cruise that take the plunge at the last minute.”
Easy to do
That all said, Basdeo said it was important to note that the Cayman Islands was the easiest place in the Western Caribbean to be married.
“We have a very efficient system with high standards, which is easy to understand. Overseas visitors should make sure they receive their Registered Marriage Certificate from their Civil Registrar of Marriages or Marriage Officer. This is an important legal document, which proves that the couple were legally married in the Cayman Islands by an official Marriage Officer, and their marriage has been recorded.
“My second comment has to do with wedding vow renewals. This is an untapped market for Cayman, and an opportunity for couples to add a special touch to their Cayman vacation by having a special ceremony performed for them, in the presence of their friends and often their families,” noted Basdeo, who is also a civil registrar of marriages and marriage officer.
Brown also said Cayman’s industry could up its game somewhat.
“[The sector is not faring] as it should be. Our tourism product for weddings has slipped for a number of reasons, one being that the marketing of the Islands on a whole in the wedding realm seems to have lost some focus or been diluted in the last couple years. And unfortunately the Caribbean is exceedingly competitive for this very lucrative and ever-growing segment of tourism, which is destination weddings.
“The Cayman Islands as a whole has to ensure that we are always in the right places and seen as being truly invested in the romance business as other countries are. We need to step up our game as there are so many attributes that make Cayman the most perfect destination for weddings, but this is not a known fact and we are therefore continually being overstepped for other destinations that are making a lot of noise about themselves and what they have to offer,” said Brown.
Bateman-Green said that one challenge was something that nobody could really control – the weather. But there are people whose job is to mitigate the effects, she added.
“Everyone wants that beautiful sunny day for their wedding day. Of course we all know that this is not always the case.
“Having a planner on site to assist you with this challenge should it arise by having a backup plan is critical for their big day to continue to run smoothly,” noted the wedding planner.
With more literate couples comparing destinations, said Evans, there is a tendency for people to ask for bargains, in particular cruise ship couples who have a lower budget. However, Evans said that whilst 2012 had seen a decline, she also had a positive outlook for 2013.
Staying with the game
Basdeo also noted increased competition on-island.
“There are many more companies competing for the same number of weddings as there were five years ago. In other words the competition has increased a lot, but the overall number of weddings taking place has not risen significantly. This puts added pressure on businesses, especially small businesses such as ours to stay competitively priced, but also to preserve our reputation for excellent customer service, and good value for money. In the age of Internet marketing, we have to stay ahead of the game with a strong inbound marketing programme, utilising social media in particular to make the most of our marketing dollars.
“However social media marketing works in another way as well. The more people who have an excellent experience with Simply Weddings, and put that on their Facebook time-lime for all their friends to see, especially with pictures of our beautiful Islands, the better it is for us. A good review or recommendation is the best possible type of marketing,” said Basdeo, putting a contemporary spin on the power of word of mouth.
She concluded that costs could continue to affect business and that the increased competition also brought with it responsibilities for all concerned.
“It occurred to me that the rise in the cost of the Special Marriage License four years ago has undoubtedly affected the number of weddings Cayman is getting overall. My guests complain that $250 is very steep.
“I also think the time has come to have some kind of wedding industry association. I am appalled sometimes by the fact that so many people in the industry either don’t know or don’t understand the Marriage Law that we operate under. The industry is largely self-policing in terms of standards, but we need to be able to ensure high standards and professional behaviour across the industry,” she warned.