Destination Weddings And The Extra Challenges Involved for Planners

April 12, 2020  |  by:

Destination weddings are a uniquely challenging event to plan, especially for event planners who are new to it. I sat down with Dorienne Levitt, of African Stay, to talk discuss the surprising problems that arise. 

Now, there are two essential things to note about this article. First, many of the issues I’ll mention will apply equally from Zanzibar to Honolulu. But to be sure, in developing nations, like those in Africa, there is less infrastructure, so thorough planning and patience are critical. African Stay’s expertise lies in planning travel, and events, in beautiful, remote locations across Africa, and we’ll use that as our focal point. I trust you’ll be able to transpose these issues onto the locales in which you plan on working.

Second, Dorienne is my mom. I’m lucky to have a travel expert in the family, and we keep these real-world scenarios in mind when building event planning software. As you’ll see, auto-updating timelines are critical!

Destination Weddings in Africa
Elephants on the Zambezi river, photograph by me, on my 1 year wedding anniversary in Zimbabwe

Destination Weddings Have Limited Accommodation

Southern Africa offers remote and unique destinations, with breathtaking beauty. The region has sweeping savannah landscapes and primal granite mountains. The jewel of it all is the game reserves offering lodging and safaris. There is nothing in this world like a giraffe posing quite naturally as the backdrop to a couple’s vows.

Destination Weddings in Africa
Giraffes at sunset, photograph by me, on my 1 year wedding anniversary in Zimbabwe

But accommodation is ordinarily limited to ten or twelve chalets, and often, children under twelve may not be accommodated. Dorienne recommends confirming with the lodges that they not only have child-friendly facilities but that they allow children at all. 

And on the big day, if you’ve invited more than twenty-five guests, you can’t really include a hairdresser or a makeup specialist, or professional photographer. You might not be able to find a vendor close-by who matches your clients’ needs. Unless that is, you’re prepared to transfer them for a few hours from the larger towns or cities, and you’ve booked them lodging of their own. Both options are expenses to consider. But they’re also logistical concerns.

Dorienne recommends keeping the event party small. And if you need vendors on-site, you’ll need to know those details up-front when booking the venue and lodging. 

Related article: The 2020 Guide To Event Planning Associations

Fallbacks Are Limited When Planning Logistics 

This section is more of a cautionary tale. In remote locations, complicated plans can fail without any hope of a fallback. So when planning a destination wedding, you’ll need to account for Murphy’s Law. 

What happens when a vehicle breaks down? In fact, my ride broke down at my wedding, but I was in Vegas (and Elvis was driving), and able to hail a cab within minutes. In the bush, when a vehicle breaks down, the replacement can take hours to arrive.

And what if the marriage officer or minister has a health problem? Is there someone who can step in to officiate?

These destination wedding problems sit right alongside the common event planning challenges. You’ll still need a backup plan if it rains at the outdoor wedding. Even if you don’t have an indoor backup, you’ll want to discuss this with the client. 

Logistics matter for all types of destination events. For incentive travel group tours and multi-day conferences, there are always concerns with coordinating guests and the times for the meetings, team-building exercises, the bar, the equipment, and specialized mics, etc.

And if you’ve hired vendors who are staying with the wedding party, you’ll have to take into account special catering needs and meal requests. Which brings me to the food. 

While the obvious answer is to keep things simple, the client may lose out on a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Dorienne recommends taking risks, but being clear that they are risks. If the client can embrace chaos, then it’ll make for a beautiful story, even when things go wrong. Destination weddings have a unique charm, part of which requires accepting localized challenges.

Destination Weddings In Africa
Photo by Monica Dart Photography at Grootbos

Food At A Destination Wedding

Usually, different food items are flown in or sourced from the nearest town, or, in Africa, from the largest cities in the province. So, you’ll need to make sure the lodge can deal with the items being brought in. 

That means storage, refrigeration, and careful handling, in areas where power outages are commonplace. And this applies to special décor too. You can’t rely on items arriving on the morning of the event, so you’ll have to confirm with the lodges that there is safe storage on-site and that they’re willing to accommodate the decor. 

Some of the very high-end lodges can cope with dietary requests, but it is not always possible to have a traditional wedding cake baked on site. 

At a wedding held in a resort or wedding venue, whether in a rural area or close to a town, your caterer needs full details on how many children, special meals, times to set up and break down the venue. So, not terribly different from a typical wedding you might plan, but in baking semi-tropical heat, the culinary stakes are higher. 

Dorienne says, “I have often had to get permission to bring in an outside caterer, and it creates tension with the lodge or hotel chef and kitchen staff.” 

Related article: Tips for Planning a Wedding Abroad

Special Planning Is Needed For Children

For larger destination weddings at a resort, and where children have been included, will your clients need babysitters or supervised programs? 

Once you have found the childcarers, you will still need to check their references and make sure that all those coming with children get full details about the care staff.

Then the food comes into play again. The event planner is responsible for meals for these carers and what times they are working and who pays them. Can they order room service if necessary? And who has the final say on what they can spend?

Razor Thin Time Margins

Many destination weddings are held in remote areas, hours away from the airport. The event planner will need to coordinate transfers, flights, luggage trailers, buses, and even then, you’re not entirely done. The slightest delays can derail the entire event.

So the event planner will need to ensure not only that the drivers are reliable and confirm with them multiple times up to the very moment. Clients and their guests need to be wrangled too. If you think herding cats is difficult, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Because travel from the city to the venue can take hours, you’ll have to consider food, especially for those with dietary needs. You can’t always rely on pit stops along the way to meet the needs of all guests. Dorienne recommends carefully planning the stops along the route and calling ahead too. 

It’s always reassuring to clients to arrive at a remote teashop where they’re expected and catered for. These small details can make or break the overall experience, especially for the guests.

Destination Weddings in South Africa
Photo by Nikki Meyer Photography

Destination Weddings Change Lives

All events change lives. Event planners create memories that last forever and are immortalized in photographs, stories, and videos. In this, destination weddings are no different from a wedding held in Chicago or Miami and planned locally. 

But with a destination wedding, clients, and guests, and even vendors are brought together. Over days of travel and sometimes travail too, relationships change. People return from destination events with broader minds and open hearts. And being involved in those changes is uniquely rewarding.

With special thanks to Dorienne at African Stay, and Anke at African Synergy for help with the imagery and advice.

ThymeBase Community