With international travel still uncertain, and concern for guests’ safety, resorts in the U.S. are reporting that not only have they not seen a decline in bookings, but are even seeing interest in new bookings. 

“Health and safety is the number one [concern], and brand reputation is high on the list. Closer domestic destinations are top choice,” says Bryan Hunter, public relations director for Kiawah Island Golf Resort in South Carolina. “A lot of folks who had booked or were planning international destination weddings are now switching to domestic destinations, and top choices are places like Kiawah with a lot of open space, beach, outdoors activities and also an established reputation for offering service at the highest level.”

Hunter notes that there’s been “a shift away from international destination weddings to domestic destination weddings, and places within shorter travel distances reachable either by driving or direct flights.”

Laura DePalma, director of travel industry sales for Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa, says, “Top concerns are safety, what precautions is the hotel taking to make them feel safe, and what is the overall experience in the destination (town) going to be—they want to know that enough shops and restaurants will be open so they can enjoy to the fullest as they are making the choice to travel.” 

According to Barbara Steele, resort director of catering and conference services for Kiawah Island Golf Resort, about three-fourths of weddings have been rebooked so far. “Nearly every wedding at The Sanctuary that we had to cancel, we have rebooked for late 2020 or next spring,” adds Terry Treuting, The Sanctuary’s director of catering and conference services.

“We have had some new bookings, which is a really encouraging sign, and we have three site visits planned for this week alone. Really, we’ve not seen the pace of interest drop,” Steele points out.

Stacie Hallinan, director of catering, and Tim Byrnes, director of event management, both for Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa, say that, “A majority of our spring and summer weddings have rebooked to the fall, and they remain optimistic that we can still host their events as planned.”

Wedding set-up at Kiawah Island Golf Resort.

New Guidelines, New Looks for Weddings

Though wedding bookings are continuing at a steady pace, much of how these celebrations will transpire has changed. For starters, both Eau Palm Beach and Kiawah are working with healthcare professionals to ensure the proper safety protocols.

“[Kiawah] has partnered with the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), which has developed a comprehensive plan for the resort that goes well above and beyond the ‘new normal’ practices of social distancing, increased sanitation, etc. The doctor who led the team also leads the teaching hospital’s COVID response and is also an ER doctor, so no one is better suited for knowing what has to be done,” says Hunter. “The most important point is that these are not protocols we simply developed on our own as hospitality professionals, but we developed them on the advice of experts in how to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.”

“Obviously, we won’t be doing buffet receptions the way we did them pre-COVID,” adds Hunter. “MUSC developed stringent guidelines and training protocols for how to safely prepare and serve food for wedding groups. For seated events, table settings will look very different than before, with fewer guests at each table and tables spread farther apart. For open bar service, having a mass of people huddled around the bar is a thing of the past. Most people seem eager and willing to do the responsible thing, and we’ll do everything on our end to encourage and accommodate that. Things we’d never dream of doing, like conspicuously placing reminder signage in prominent places throughout every venue, we’re doing that now. Obviously there will be some adjustments to how things look—servers in masks, etc., but that will be true anywhere a couple would care to go to get married.” 

Eau Palm Beach is also working with health professionals. Both Hallinan and Byrnes stress that the hotel has “partnered with occupational health and safety service consultant, NV5 Global Inc., to review current operating standards and develop new standards to ensure everyone’s safety…while delivering the utmost protection for a luxury experience without compromising on quality. 

“With weddings there is no normal as we always customize each celebration to be tailored to the bride & groom’s vision. Nowadays, we are elevating our levels of service with additional staff to deliver a more hygienic and individualized event experience.” 

[Destination weddings] will be much more intimate, consisting of smaller group sizes due to social distancing restrictions. It is also possible to see an increase of
open-air events (outdoor events). There are several factors that may affect this—elders, children (now affected), out-of-state guests, international guests, and social distancing restrictions set on venues.— Jaya Dillard, Sales & Services Manager, St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches VCB

Jaya Dillard, sales & services manager for St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches VCB, points out that, “The meetings and events industry is working diligently in rebuilding consumer confidence in hosting their programs. Destination weddings is no exception to this effort; it’s a double-digit billion-dollar industry affecting more small businesses than ever. Taking into consideration each hotel is unique with not only their accommodations, event space, services provided, onsite amenities, staff training and resources. There are also standard COVID-19 safety guidelines that have been set by the government—main one being social distancing requirements.

“There has been more creativity in exploring how to use event spaces, F&B preparation/presentation and services, as well as an increase in incorporating more social media access.”

“As new guidelines will mean the elimination of self-service buffets and family-style dining, we expect to see a re-emergence of seated, plated dinner service,” points out Amanda Cox, director of marketing at JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort. “We’re already working on creative solutions that combine the best of the recent trends, such as small plates and live action stations with a plated service.”

And the wedding group size has shifted as well, with many vulnerable guests opting to stay home due to the pandemic. 

“From what we’ve been seeing, some weddings plan to be smaller, more intimate affairs, but only by about 25 percent, so not a drastic reduction in guest numbers,” says Steele. 

For St. Augustine weddings, the new normal, says Dillard, “is they will be much more intimate, consisting of smaller group sizes due to social distancing restrictions. It is also possible to see an increase of open-air events (outdoor events). There are several factors that may affect this—elders, children (now affected), out-of-state guests, international guests, and social distancing restrictions set on venues.”

Cox concurs, noting that “Two of the biggest trends will be a shift to outdoor venues, to allow for easier social distancing, and the incorporation of technologies, which will allow couples to include guests who may not be able to attend. Our attention to detail and customer service means that we can work hands-on with each couple to develop a design that meets their vision while addressing the unique challenges of this time. ”

“Interestingly, market research on weddings still shows a strong interest in guests traveling for weddings. A major tourism marketing enterprise found that the majority of people surveyed said they were either very likely or likely to travel to a destination wedding, particularly if the wedding is smaller,” adds Hunter.

“Travel advisors are mixed at this time. Many are saying their older guests, believe it or not, are ready to come and travel. They have faced times similar to this in the past, and they are not as fearful, maybe because they’re not traveling with young children,” points out DePalma. “Other agents definitely do have clients that are looking for shorter getaways, and want beach, sun, relaxation after all of this stress.” 

“People still want to celebrate love and share this experience with their family and friends. If they choose to do so now or later, they will still be married and very much look forward to their wedding day.– Stacie Hallinan, Director of Catering, & Tim Byrnes, Director of Event Management, Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa

Eau Palm Beach has created an Intimate Wedding Package, “based on the short term trend of micro-weddings and elopements. We have also developed video streaming capabilities for virtual options to include those guests that cannot physically attend,” say Hallinan and Byrnes.

Honeymoon Escapes

When it comes to the romantic escape post-celebration, Hunter says, “The shorter the distance, the more attractive the destination. Every bit of research I’m seeing from established authorities reiterates this point: there is a lot of pent-up desire for travel, but folks are going to be much more prone to travel domestically than abroad, and that’s no different for honeymoons. Couples still want to get away to a place that feels exotic. Even before COVID, I’ve always said Kiawah Island Golf Resort feels like being a million miles away, but without needing a passport.”

Dillard, too, notes the shift, saying that, “Due to safety concerns, couples may have to [change] specific locations that were hit a little harder; but overall rebooking for a later date.”

Cox notes that JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort is, “as always, committed to providing the best possible guest service, experience, and atmosphere possible, while addressing the unique concerns of this time. Romance is about thoughtful details and shared experiences. Couples can indulge in in-room champagne, cabana rentals, beachfront dining and more—with necessary modifications made to meet health recommendations.”

Contact Information
Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa: eaupalmbeach.com
JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort: marriott.com/hotels/travel/mrkfl-jw-marriott-marco-island-beach-resort
Kiawah Island Golf Resort: kiawahresort.com
St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra VCB: floridashistoriccoast.com