Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Meet the Expert: Larissa Banting

In this week’s Meet the Experts column, we interviewed Larissa Banting, APR, PBC, President of Weddings Costa Rica. Banting has been doing destination weddings in Costa Rica for several years. After struggling to plan her own wedding in Costa Rica, she decided to start a company that could provide full-service destination wedding services. Banting also writes The Lazy Bride blog.

What trends do you see in destination weddings?

I see couples looking for ways to make the wedding more personal, adding in unique touches. Signature cocktails are big as are bringing in unique experiences for their guests during the reception, such as having a cigar roller or a coffee expert to lead them in a mini-coffee tasting experience. We also see couples providing group excursions (such as zip lining, sunset boat cruises, sport fishing) to help bond their family and friends, many whom are meeting for the first time at the wedding.

How have the needs of engaged couples changed over time? What are they looking for now that they weren’t looking for a year ago?

Well, if I didn’t say the economy has had a huge hand in changing how people approached anything in Life, I’d be negligent. Cutting costs, finding ways to make the dollar stretch and keeping the guest list to a minimum are all the catch phrases we’re hearing on a daily basis. I think this is why destination weddings are gaining in popularity, since it’s an easy way to cut the guest list down dramatically.

If a couple is on the fence about having a destination wedding, why should they consider it?

A destination wedding offers couples many advantages. Foremost, marrying away cuts down on the guest list, since usually only the closest family and friends will attend. And a smaller guest list means less strain on the budget. Etiquette-wise, you are NOT expected to pay for your guests’ travel or hotels.

Marrying in a foreign country is usually much cheaper than marrying at home. For example, here in Costa Rica, our clients say they would have paid anywhere from 2 to 4 times the money they did for a similar wedding in their home town. Being a ‘developing nation’, prices for food, drink, flowers, décor, etc. are much cheaper.

A destination wedding usually means a beautiful location (ie a beach or rainforest) that you cannot find ‘at home’. A stunning locale makes for amazing wedding setting and photos. Much more memorable than a hotel ballroom. And a unique location means you can save a lot of money on décor.

Undoubtedly, though, the wonderful thing about destination weddings is having a unique travel experience with your guests. This is the thing our clients tell us over and over – how much they’ve enjoyed having the time to spend with everyone, creating lifelong memories. And best of all, the bride and groom are able to be guests at their own wedding, rather than running around dealing with all the last minute details they would have had they had the wedding at home.

We’ve been to Costa Rica before, visiting Tortuguero, Tambor, San Jose, Arenal and Monteverde. What the most popular destination wedding locations in Costa Rica?

While each of those areas are lovely and unique, none of those locations are super popular. We do the odd wedding in Arenal or Monteverde but by far, the beaches are where people want to marry. We have done some weddings in Tambor but given the difficulty of travelling there (either by ferry or small plane), it’s not on the top of the list. By far, the beach areas of Manuel Antonio (with it’s gorgeous beaches fringed by the rainforest), the beaches around Jaco/Playa Herradura (home to Los Suenos Marriott Resort and the incredible Villa Caletas boutique hotel) and the beaches up in the northwest area of Guanacaste (Tamarindo, Flamingo, Ocotal, Papagayo) are where 95% of the weddings take place. Other popular spots are Mal Pais/Santa Teresa (up from Tambor – difficult to get to but beautiful foilage and beaches make the journey worth it).

What are the marriage requirements for Costa Rica? Is it easy to obtain a marriage license? Is there a residency requirement, or could someone get married during a shore excursion on a cruise?

Unlike other locations, Costa Rica has very straightforward marriage requirements. You could marry literally the moment you walk off the plane or boat (our firm plans weddings for a luxury German cruise ship where they are in port for only a few hours here). By law, any wedding performed outside of a Catholic Church requires a lawyer to witness it and prepare all the paperwork. Our lawyer sends a questionnaire to the couple before the wedding (name, profession, if they’d been married before and if so, details on the divorce, etc.) and they just need to send that back with a scan of their passport photos. The lawyer can perform the ceremony or a family friend, pastor, rabbi – whomever the couple wishes as long as the lawyer is present to witness it. And you can have the ceremony totally personalized – feel free to include sand ceremonies, hand fasting, readings, whatever you want to make this day special for you. At some point (either during or after the ceremony), the couple and two witnesses sign the paperwork in front of the lawyer, who then registers the marriage in the civil registry of Costa Rica. It can take up to 90 days for this process but the couple is legally married from the moment they sign the papers. After the papers have been stamped and registered, they are sent to the couple’s home and they just present them to their local bureau of vital statistics to register their marriage took place abroad. That’s it. Very straightforward.

What makes Costa Rica unique as a wedding destination? What are things that can be done only in Costa Rica?

I think Costa Rica is unique for a wedding destination for the same reason it’s a one-of-a-kind spot on Earth. Although it’s small (about the size of West Virginia), it is the most bio-diverse place on the planet. We have 13 micro-climates here, so the landscape is incredibly varied. With two oceans, a mountain range, rainforests, cloudforests, volcanoes, vast savannahs, jungles, small towns and modern cities, there is something for everyone. It is an eco-paradise, with 26% of the country protected via national parks or reserves. Where else can you be on a beach, surrounded by rainforest as white-face monkeys chatter overhead while you exchange your vows against a heart-stopping sunset?

In addition to the flora and fauna, Costa Rica is a safe destination. We have the longest-running democracy in Latin America and have had no army since 1949 (prompting the nickname ‘The Switzerland of the Americas’). The water is potable so you can eat and drink without concern. And the Costa Ricans are some of the nicest folks you’ll ever meet. They love their country and are more than happy to share it with travelers. Lots of things to do, from white water rafting to zip lining, hiking, bird watching, golfing, sportfishing, spas, lounging by a beach, mountain biking, and, of course, surfing!

Unlike other tropical locales, the focus is on boutique hotels, rather than monstrous chains. And by law, all beaches are public. We are not encumbered by rules and regulations about beach use (so you can have that cocktail hour on the beach). The one law that is enforced is no permanent structures within 50 metres of the high tide mark – which means the beaches are not choked by buildings. You can stand on the beach and all you’ll see is palm trees.

We have two very distinct cultures in Costa Rica – on the Atlantic side, you’ll find strong Caribbean influences (reggae) and the rest of the country has strong Latin roots. Popular Costa Rican touches for weddings include Latin guitar trios, Salsa bands, traditional marimba bands (wooden xylophones which are the national instrument) and carnivale (similar to what you see in Rio de Jinero).

What is the most interesting and unique destination wedding you ever planned? What made it so memorable?

Wow, tough question! We’ve coordinated over 300 weddings so it’s difficult to just choose one. A recent wedding had the groom ride in on a white horse which was pretty amazing. Another wedding had touches of East Indian wedding traditions (as the groom was part Indian). We had an amazing rehearsal dinner at a private residence’s backyard on the beach. Lots of bright tropical colours, we used fruits filled with orchids to decorate and lights strung from the trees overhead. Delicious bbq with local fare (fresh dorado, local beef) and then the bride and her friends donned gorgeous saris and surprised the groom (and guests) with an expertly choreographed Bollywood number!

The wedding the next day was in the gardens in front of the beach. We had a bamboo ‘mandap’ and the country’s only sitar player accompanied the couple as they performed a modified Hindu wedding ceremony. After the ceremony, a local Latin guitar trio entertained during the cocktail hour. Then, after the sun had just set, a fire dancing troupe performed and then, with drums beating and torches blazing, led the 102 wedding guests across the street to the open-aired reception around one of the largest pools in Central America. Talk about an entrance! After dinner, everyone danced around and in the pool. Truly magical. What made it so memorable was how effortlessly we were able to weave in touches of the groom’s culture without it seeming ‘forced’ or obvious. And the unexpected touches, like the Bollywood number and the fire dancers leading the celebrations, are the things of a Hollywood movie. Different and truly memorable.

What is the typical size of a destination wedding that you see in Costa Rica?

Although we work with clients with weddings ranging in size from just the couple to celebrations of 200+, the average wedding we see is around 40 – 50 people.

In light of the economic climate, how are couples adjusting their destination wedding plans to cope?

Many are lowering their expectations for the final guest count, understanding that a trip abroad just isn’t in the cards for many people right now. Some clients have graciously paid for different aspects of their guests’ travel experience. One very generous couple paid for the group excursions (zip line tour, sailing tour) as well as their transport to/from the airport/hotel and then subsidized each hotel night by $50 to help their guests. Other couples have paid for hotel rooms, transport or a tour. This is not expected but for some couples, given the guest list for their wedding in Costa Rica is smaller than what they’d have had in North America, choose to allocate the money their saving by having a destination wedding to aide their guests’ travel.

What is the next big thing in destination weddings that you see couples doing?

We’re seeing more rehearsal dinners with everyone included and more farewell brunches. I think couples are really trying to make the most of their wedding weekend and maximizing the time people have together. Also, having a group excursion is gaining popularity.

As a wedding vendor with your company, Weddings Costa Rica, what is the single biggest piece of advice you would want to give couples prior to their destination weddings? What do you wish couples who contact you would know about working with a wedding vendor?

My advice is to go with the flow (guess that applies to any wedding anywhere though, eh?). Remember that you’re coming to what is still considered to be a Third World country. That means that things don’t happen in a New York minute. While we work with the most professional vendors and hotels, we aren’t in North America so be prepared for things to happen at a more generous pace than you may be used to. And once you get down here, you’ll more than likely fall into ‘Tico Time’ as well. People who are relaxed have a much better time and I find the Universe conspires beautifully to create magic for them.

Be realistic about where you’re coming to. If you want a big church wedding with a reception in a loft filled with Lilies of the Valley and ice sculptures, this isn’t the place for you. Embrace what Costa Rica has to offer and use it to its fullest. Doing so will not only lower everyone’s stress level but will make the wedding unique and memorable.

My other advice is to hire a wedding planner. I know that may sound self-serving but I’ve had brides who decided to ‘save some money’ by going through the hotel directly or trying to do it on their own and have written me afterwards saying they’d wished they’d hired us instead. Costa Rica is not Canada or the USA. This is likely the biggest, most expensive party you will ever throw so why not leave it to a professional who knows the country, knows the vendors and knows how to ensure everything runs smoothly on the day? Doing so will not only save you money in the long run but time and a lot of stress.

Hire a planner that you have a good relationship with. You’ll be working with them a lot so you want to have someone you trust, you like and feel comfortable with. And once you’ve hired that planner, trust them that they are going to make the best recommendations and choices for your wedding vision. Give them feedback and be honest and open if you aren’t sure about something. No one is a mind reader so be upfront about what your expectations are since disappointment occurs when they aren’t met.

Finally, partner with a good travel agent in the country to look after all the travel as this is usually the biggest barrier guests have to attending a destination wedding. An agency in-country will be far better equipped to handle questions, transport, tours, etc. than an agency in another country. The last thing you as a couple want to deal with is travel logistics for all your guests – leave it to a pro.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Meet the Expert: Jennifer Carfagno

In this week’s Meet the Experts column, we interviewed Jennifer Carfagno, the wedding planning expert at The Weather Channel. She writes the “Ask Jen” section on the Wedding Planner tool on and is also the travel analyst on TWC’s morning program, First Outlook.

What trends do you see in destination weddings for 2009-2010?

I definitely have noticed more requests for weather information for outdoor weddings near hometowns vs. island or other exotic destinations. It seems like Brides are still making the event a weekend destination, but instead to a location that perhaps is easier to travel to for the wedding.

Since most destination weddings are held outside, weather obviously plays an important part of the wedding. What things do couples need to consider?

Of course, every bride would love a sunshine guarantee for their wedding day! We can't do that, but we can help couples focus on the typically dry times of year for their location. It's also important to keep in mind not only the average temperatures for the date, but also how far the temperature can swing above or below that average - we can help with that too.

Are there general rules-of-thumb about areas or regions to consider with respect to weather?

There are definitely some rules of thumb to follow. The rainy season in the Caribbean (whether due to summertime thundershowers or hurricanes) is in the later summer and early fall. Hawaii's rainy season is during the winter, but even then, the weather is usually quite nice. Europe can be cold and wet during the winter, but August can also be quite hot, too. We have a great guide on - Where to Go When: Best Weather by Wedding Month.

How can couples minimize weather-related difficulties for their destination weddings?

Couples should definitely try to plan their outdoor wedding during the dry and mild season. But they should also find out the possible weather extremes, and have a contingency plan for those as well. For example, the possibility of a record-breaking 95 degree day when you were expecting 70 degrees will be much easier to handle if you at least know that the tent can be air-conditioned.

When we were planning our destination wedding in the Bahamas in June, we spent a lot of time thinking about the weather. As much as we enjoyed planning the wedding, we didn’t like to think about the contingency plan in case of rain. How do we get past it?

No one wants to plan for rain on their wedding day! But in an island location, it certainly is a possibility. Embrace your wedding day weather. Make it fun, make it part of your day. Give umbrellas as favors! Get pictures in it - rain or shine. After all, it's the backdrop for your wedding story.

How have the needs of engaged couples changed over time? What are they looking for now that they weren’t looking for a year ago?

Weather and weather forecasting is so much a part of our pop culture. And everyone seems to be savvier about the limits of weather predictions. When we first launched Wedding Planner on, I received a lot of requests for specific forecasts a year out, even two. Now, most brides and couples are inquiring about the rainy season, dry season, and "odds" of a bad weather day. Those requests we can answer!

In light of the economic climate, how are couples adjusting their destination wedding plans to cope? Are couples looking at different locations?

More and more brides and couples have been requesting weather information for destination weddings close to home, as opposed to on island or exotic locations. They still very much have a "destination wedding" feel to them, just at a local lake instead of at a white-sand beach, for example.

Is there anything that we haven’t asked that you want to share your thoughts on?

June is known as the most popular month for weddings, but I see October as the new June. Especially in light of more people planning destination weddings in the continental U.S. October is one of the driest months of the year across our country, humidity is often low, temperatures are comfortable, and it often boasts that brilliant azure blue sky that is a great backdrop for pictures.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

God Awful Wedding Presents

We recently posted about couples giving each other wedding presents. Some gentleman posted a comment asking about giving his wife a Babylicious necklace of himself. Babylicious are engraved etchings from designer Barry Kronen. Our initial reaction was that this was probably a joke. However, at the risk he’s serious, we need to address this.

Big gold jewelry is either very ethnic or very dated (circa 1990s). If ethnic jewelry fits your cultural demographics, OK. If not, seriously rethink this. A wedding present should be either extremely meaningful or classy. A Babylicious necklace of yourself probably doesn’t qualify.

You’re going to get enough god awful wedding presents, you don’t need to add another one. Our worst wedding present was a couple’s devotional – great if you’re Christian, embarrassing if you’re not, super awkward when the author is a Christian minister in the midst of having an affair…with a man.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Meet the Expert: Donnie Brown

In this week’s Meet the Experts column, we interview Donnie Brown – wedding expert and host of the Style Network show Whose Wedding is it Anyway? Donnie has planned and executed more than 2,000 weddings, including many destination weddings.

How have the needs of engaged couples changed over time? What are they looking for now that they weren’t looking for a year ago?

A year ago people were less worried about the economy and their wedding expenses. They are definitely looking for better deals now than they were then. Everyone has had to pull back their budget due to the fact that so many people have lost money in the stock market. Therefore, good deals are at the forefront of their minds when planning their weddings. Last year it was about saving the ecology. Now it is still about green but more about leaving some green in their pocket.

What trends do you see in destination weddings for 2009-2010?

a. If you are getting married in a non-English speaking country, in order to forgo any hassles, consider getting married legally at home perhaps with a justice of the peace and then get married symbolically at your destination wedding.

b. There is a resort in Fiji that has been built totally underwater. You can actually reside at the upscale resort called Poseidon and get married 40 feet under water. There are 24 underwater suites as well as event venues.

If a couple is on the fence about having a destination wedding, why should they consider it?

Couples are opting for destination weddings these days due to the economy and their personal wedding budget and its limitations. When you do a wedding at a destination, you can generally control your guest list by virtue of realizing many of the guests that would have come to your wedding had it been local will not be able to pay for the extra related expenses incurred by traveling to a location. Many couples are alleviating the large cost by doing the wedding in the Caribbean or Mexico so that it is not so far for them, and the immediate family and closest friends will hopefully still be able to make it. If they go abroad for their nuptials, they may find that they have limited themselves to only a small handful of people.

On the show Whose Wedding Is It Anyway?, we see a lot of wedding drama and weddings are notorious for drama. What is the single biggest source of wedding drama that you see and how can couples minimize it in our destination wedding planning?

Many couples have problems making decisions about how many people to invite to their wedding. It is a real source of concern because the more people you invite, the more the wedding will cost. They are concerned about diluting their wedding funds with guests that they have never met or perhaps seen since they were very young. There are some things that cost the same whether or not you have a large guest count or a small one such as attire and entertainment. But the big ticket items such as floral/décor and food and beverage can increase greatly for every person added to the list. Another good reason for destination weddings. The one thing to note here is that you can lose a cherished family member by doing a destination wedding such as a grandparent who cannot afford or is unwilling to travel a long distance. As for the drama; I have seen more family and couple fighting over the guest count and budget than any other component of the wedding. It all boils down to the budget.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of using a wedding coordinator for destination weddings?

When you plan a destination wedding there are many cultural and communication difficulties depending on where you plan your event. A wedding planner who is up to speed on these issues can alleviate the problems by cutting through the difficulties and ensure a trouble-free and perfect event. You don’t always have to hire the local wedding planner to travel to the wedding site and oversee the wedding implementation. Often, if the wedding is planned for you by your coordinator, you can then rely on the wedding expert at the destination to pick up the ball after the planning is complete and carry out your wishes with perfection.

What is the most interesting and unique destination wedding you ever planned? What made it so memorable?

I very much enjoyed the wedding we did on Married Away Season one. It was in Jamaica at Half Moon Resort and that is one of my favorite places on earth. It is a lovely location with people that treat every single person on property as if they were royalty. Celebrities flock to this resort every year because of the expert staff and incredible customer service. I recommend anyone looking for a tropical wedding to look into this resort. It is situated on 450 acres of private and secure land and has spared no expense in creating the perfect vacation and wedding location site for adults or families. And being in Jamaica, it is near the US and convenient for travel.

Destination weddings tend to be a little smaller than traditional weddings. In your opinion, what is a good size to strive for in a destination wedding?

Most destination weddings that I plan have between 25 to 40 guests including the couple. However, I have planned destination weddings with up to 175 people. It has everything to do with the couple, their guests, their pocketbook and their willingness to travel to be there for the wedding.

What is the next big thing in destination weddings that you see couples doing?

I think that more couples will be doing weddings on cruise ships. The cruise lines are becoming more interested in creating packages for larger groups that make the ticket price more affordable. As well, you can actually plan your wedding on one of the destinations the ship has scheduled on its itinerary. You can have your ceremony on the beach on a remote island all created and conducted by the cruise line’s personnel. Then, you can have the reception on board the ship. It is also a wonderful way for people to be able to be together when they want and have separation from the rest of the group when they want.

As a vendor with Donnie Brown Weddings & Events, what is the single biggest piece of advice you would want to give couples prior to their destination weddings? What do you wish couples who contact you would know about working with a wedding vendor?

A wedding planner is a must. You need a planner to insure your dreams are carried out perfectly. Don’t try to do this on your own. As well, try to have a list of questions pre-prepared for every person you are hiring to implement a component of your wedding. It is critical that you know everything you need to know about every vendor and insure that nothing slips through the cracks. I once had a local vendor on an island arrange for a disc jockey to supplement the steel drum band to cut costs. The DJ showed up with a two CD changer and no music. It was fun to run around finding music to actually have something to play for dancing. The African-American couple had Michael Buble for their first dance. Probably not what they had in mind, but in the end it worked.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Wedding Weight Loss

For many women, weight loss goes hand-in-hand with getting married. No one wants to wear a white (a notoriously slimming color, right?) dress and look unappealing in their wedding photos. Plus, most girls grow up waiting for their wedding day to be the best day of their life, so of course they want to look and feel their best.

An entire industry has been built around losing weight in preparation for the wedding. Everything from Bridal Bootcamp and Buff Brides to your local fitness club promise to help women get in shape for their special day. While I admit that my destination wedding (and particularly my wedding dress) was a huge motivation to slim down, I really wanted to get healthier and more toned as a life change. That meant the tried and true standby of eating less and moving more.

One tool that was particularly helpful in my journey to get healthy was SparkPeople is a totally free website that helps you keep track of what you eat and how much you exercise, but it allows help you set other goals such as drinking enough water, stopping self-critical thoughts and doing things for others. It's certainly a weight loss website, but it's also about overall wellness. The site also features numerous message boards that provide a lot of support from people going through the same experiences.

From the time of our engagement to our wedding, I lost 75 pounds. When I ordered my dress 9 months before the wedding, I ordered the size I was at the time -- I've lost and regained weight in the past and didn't want to get stuck with a dress that was too small. By the time my destination wedding rolled around, I couldn't have been more excited to have it taken in several sizes.

There are a lot of different programs out there. You just need to find the one that works with you and stick with it. If I can lose 75 pounds before my wedding, anyone can do it!

Friday, April 3, 2009

Wedding Presents

In some cultures, the giving of small gifts between the wedding couple is an important part of the wedding tradition. In recent years, that tradition has gone mainstream and many couples exchange small gifts. And in the bigger-is-better world we live in, the small wedding gifts have given way to larger and more elaborate tokens of affection.

For us, we decided that we would not buy each other presents for the wedding. Like many couples, we were paying for our own destination wedding ourselves and we did not need the additional expense. Dear husband decided to skip on our agreement and purchased me a beautiful pair of black Tahitian pearl earrings as a wedding surprise. And was I surprised!

When we returned from the honeymoon, I looked into buying my husband a nice leather briefcase (he’s a big fan of Bric’s bags). Even if you don’t want do something expensive, a small, meaningful wedding gift can be an important part of your wedding experience.