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.

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