Talk about wedding jitters.
With the worldwide disruption in travel from the coronavirus outbreak, couples planning destination weddings are caught between hope and a hard place. Meantime, the roughly $16 billion per year romance travel industry — an umbrella term for destination weddings, honeymoons, proposal travel, and babymoons — is holding its collective breath and chanting the mantra of “keep calm and carry on.”
Lisa Sheldon operates I Do Island Weddings & Honeymoons in Janesville, Wis. She is also president of Destination Wedding & Honeymoon Specialists Association, a network of 900-plus US and Canadian romance travel advisers. The honeymoon side of travel tends to be flexible, she notes, but “it’s a little bit harder when it’s a destination wedding. This is a day that a couple has dreamed about for a long time and planned and spent money on. It’s already an emotional trip — and then to have something like this come in and affect it. . . . That really is out of their control.”
A travel agent for 32 years, Sheldon has weathered SARS, flu epidemics, and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But even in the best of times, she suggests her clients have a backup plan — all the more so now when the situation is so fluid.
“We always ask our destination brides and grooms to consider what happens if it rains. What happens if a hurricane is coming and you can’t get to the island? We’ve got to have a Plan B in place,” Sheldon says. “Maybe they go to the courthouse and do a quiet ceremony. Then they can postpone the destination wedding until later when some of this all settles down and they can re-book everything.”
The Globe spoke with several local travel agents. By and large, their destination wedding clients opt for the Caribbean and Mexico’s Cancun, Cozumel, and Riviera Maya resorts. And so far, they don’t seem to be jumping ship.
Katie Vecchione, founder of Love Life Travel Club in Rockland, specializes in destination weddings and honeymoons and occasional adults-only romance vacations. “I have a destination wedding in May, June, July, and August, and another in October. So far I have not heard any panic from anyone.”
Her next wedding is planned for May 2 at Sandals Montego Bay in Jamaica. “Fifty people are going. So far, I have only had two of the guests ask me what would happen if Sandals or Jet Blue should cancel the reservations,” Vecchione reports. “At this time, none of them have wanted to cancel the reservation on their own. I think the scariest thing for people traveling to another part of the world is that they might get stuck somewhere.”
But everything depends on what happens next. In June, another couple is scheduled to tie the knot on Santorini, an island in the Cyclades archipelago of Greece. Despite US limitations on travel from Europe, “They have no plans yet to cancel,″ Vecchione says. “Everyone is waiting to see what the time will bring. The bride has been pretty quiet so far.”
Amy Grishman, founder of Charm & Awe Travel Co. in Swampscott, says that while she is hearing “a lot of fear about planning travel right now, I am not seeing a huge effect on honeymoon travel and destination wedding travel yet. I’m finding the younger demographics aren’t as concerned about the coronavirus.”
She is helping to plan her sister’s wedding in Aruba at the end of June. “Canceling her wedding isn’t even a consideration at this point,” Grishman says. “She’s not concerned. Everything will go on as planned.”
Grishman adds that one impact of the pandemic has been the increased flexibility of many travel suppliers. “They’re now adjusting their cancellation policies for new reservations to allow for more flexibility. Hopefully, that provides reassurance to those travelers who want to book travel for later this summer, fall, and winter.”
Destination wedding planning continues apace. Brenda Nazaire-Coulanges, a Somerville-based Platinum Key Travel Concierge affiliate of Travel Makers, is working on a 2021 wedding right now for the Riviera Maya. “The clients haven’t shown any signs of changing their minds. Weddings and honeymoons are very important investments, both emotionally and financially,” she says.
Lesley Hock, director of leisure development at Travel Leaders in Framingham, notes that travel planners are already moving into the prime season for romance travel. “June is the big bridal month,” she says, and her honeymoon and destination wedding clients who made their plans months ago are in a holding pattern. “No one calls for a destination wedding for next month. You plan these things almost a year in advance. Because they booked so far ahead, they’re sitting tight right now.”
A travel agent for 50 years, Hock likens the current situation to conditions after 9-11, when “people did not want to travel at all. The world seems to be on hold. People who are thinking about going away the end of the summer, the fall, next winter, they are in a wait-and-see pattern.” The advantage for those who wait is that “after this is over, I think you will be seeing some ‘welcome back’ sales.”
So far, none of Hock’s clients is considering relocating their nuptials closer to home. “When people think of a destination wedding,” she says, “they don’t necessarily think of going to Cape Cod.”
Like every agent with whom the Globe spoke, Hock advises her clients to purchase trip cancellation insurance. The gold standard — and most expensive — is “cancel for any reason” insurance. Depending on the insurer, such insurance generally reimburses travelers 75 percent to 80 percent of costs. And some circumstances may still remain uncovered. As a general rule, such insurance must be purchased at booking, or at least before final payment.
Because the travel situation is so fluid, most agents are also advising that clients with existing bookings adopt a wait-and-see attitude. DWHSA president Lisa Sheldon suggests waiting until it’s closer to your travel date.
“If we are still dealing with this through the end of May and you are traveling in July, then maybe we need to revisit it. As agents, we just deal with it calmly and provide our clients with the links to the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, and Homeland Security. That way the travelers can read it for themselves and without our interpretation. Then they can make informed decisions.”
Nazaire-Coulanges concurs. “People do not want to be treated like they are dummies. They want to be the ones to make the final decisions. It’s just a matter of giving them the right information.”
Sheldon grants that these “are scary times,” but she is also in the hope business. “I’ve seen stuff like this for so many years and we always come out on the other side.”
Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.