As a destination wedding planner and avid traveler, clients trust me to show them how to choose a wedding venue that not only fits their style and budget, but also provides a great experience to their guests. I’ve seen a thing or two since I started my business in 2013. To serve my clients well, I research destinations inside and out, and I apply my hospitality background to venue evaluation. Over the years, I’ve gained a good sense of when something is oh-so-right or just plain wrong.
Today, I’m going to share 3 of the small but meaningful details that can tell you whether a destination wedding venue is a cut above the rest – or just needs to be cut from the list. First, we’ll talk about preliminary research on Tripadvisor, and then we’ll get into two things you can observe during your venue site visits.
One of the best tools to choose a wedding venue you can trust is available to everyone, not just wedding planners. And, you’ve probably used it before. It’s time to make a visit to TripAdvisor!
Overall, I recommend you avoid any hotel or resort with less than 4.5 stars out of 5. As a percentage, this is 90% performance, or an “A” student, if you will. While 4 stars might seem high, 4 out of 5 is only 80% performance. In my professional opinion and experience, a “B” average is not high enough for a once-in-a-lifetime event. Time after time, despite the possibility of fake reviews and complainers on Tripadvisor, I’ve found the 4.5 threshold to be a reliable indicator of great service and food at a destination wedding property.
That said, even two resorts with a 4.5 star rating are not necessarily the same. This is when what I call the “raving fans ratio,” not just the overall average, can be very helpful. Check out these two properties as an example:
Both of these properties share a 4.5 star review average, so at first glance they seem about the same quality. 68.6% of reviewers for the first destination wedding hotel gave an excellent, 5-star review. These are what I’d call “raving fans” – they are the people who left the property and just had to go tell everyone about how awesome their experience was. The bartender remembered their name and their favorite drink. A special welcome gift was placed in their room. The dinner server recommended the most perfect appetizer. The sheets were so soft that the bed felt like a bucket of cuddly puppies. These are the kinds of experiences that make for a great destination wedding venue.
However, 81.8% of reviewers for property #2 are raving fans. This is a 13.2% difference, which is nothing to sneeze at. This implies that property #2 works even harder to create that elusive raving fan experience. On the other hand, we can also see that the number of total reviews is much smaller. This may suggest that property #2 is a smaller, more boutique style property, or it could be more difficult to access due to remote location or higher pricing. This can be a fair trade-off depending on the purpose of your event.
I dig into this kind of data during the preliminary venue research process to help choose the top sites for a visit. I also call and email my wedding industry connections to ask them more about their experiences. Then, I travel to the destination wedding properties in person to get a real sense of the experience for my clients. Let’s talk more about what to look for when you’re actually there!
You did it! You honed in on a destination location, chose your top 2-3 favorite venues, and now you’re on site to make a final decision (or you’ve sent your destination wedding planner on your behalf – yes, we totally do that!). The plane landed, finding ground transportation was a breeze, and you’ve finally arrived to the property.
If you want to choose a wedding venue that actually lives up to its image, when you arrive, ask yourself immediately: “Does this destination wedding venue look and feel like the marketing materials?”
The answer to this should be a resounding, “Yes!” Bonus points if it’s even better in person. This is so important because this trip is not just for you. Your beloved family members and friends will be allocating precious vacation days and spending significant money to travel all the way to your destination wedding. You invited them here to share in a very special celebration rooted in purpose. It is vital that when they arrive, they know that they’ve made a good investment in celebrating with you. A bait-and-switch feeling absolutely will not do. The first impression must be, “Wow!”
This feeling should continue as you see the rooms, eat the food, and interact with the staff.
I’ll never forget the time my husband and I spent good money on a large-chain-resort-that-shall-not-be-named, and immediately upon arrival, something felt off. The resort wasn’t ugly or run down, but it just didn’t have that special something from all the glitzy marketing materials.
The second morning of our trip, we figured out why. As we walked to breakfast, we came upon a pair of gleaming teak wood beach chairs with thick, plush pads on them. They were tucked under a photogenic palm tree, with “caution” tape wrapped all around in a large circle to keep guests away. I glanced toward the beach where the rest of the chairs sat in their bright blue plastic and nylon glory, my spidey senses annoyed and intrigued. I commented to Matt, “This has all the signs of a photo shoot.”
30 minutes into our good-but-not-great breakfast, my prediction came true. We watched three diverse hardbody couples waltz out to the beach in full hair and makeup. A camera crew captured them prancing on the beach, laughing on paddle boards, and lounging on the luxurious Pottery Barn style furniture – which was not for actual guest use.
This experience taught me that reviews and photos can often be insufficient for selecting the right destination wedding venue. Sometimes time limitations might not allow for a site trip, but whenever possible, you or a trusted, experienced wedding planner should visit the location before booking. If anything seems inconsistent from the marketing material to real-life execution, pay attention to that. Great wedding properties look and feel just as wonderful as they seemed online, and the best venues are even better in person.
Consider 3 scenarios:
You’re walking along an idyllic path beside the ocean, considering booking this property for your destination wedding. All of a sudden, you run into a roadblock. Staff members are watering the plants and sweeping the path, but they don’t even notice you. When they do finally realize you’re there, they barely acknowledge you and slightly shuffle out of the way like you inconvenienced them.
You arrive at your destination wedding venue for the tasting for your special event meal. The valet is staring down at their phone and doesn’t come out to your car. You don’t want to be late, and you’re in the kind of glowy mood where nothing can get you down, so you get out of your car yourself and bring your keys to the valet stand. The valet driver asks, “Last name?” and hands you a ticket. No smile, no eye contact.
It’s the first bright, sunny day of your honeymoon. You can’t wait to relax by the pool after all that wedding planning! You swim up to the poolside bar, ready for a margarita. All the bartenders keep talking to each other. They don’t acknowledge you until you finally pipe up, “Um.. excuse me, could I please have…” A bartender nods and makes your drink. She hands it to you with no eye contact, and then gets back to the conversation with her friend.
These are all real situations that have happened to me while evaluating wedding properties. Sure, one-offs happen at great wedding resorts – but in many cases, these small misses are symptoms of a pattern of bad service. I cannot tell you how often wedding clients will observe service misses like this and try look past them. There’s a tendency to assume something like, “Oh, they’re just a maintenance person/just a valet driver/just a bartender, this is a well rated resort, it’s probably just a small glitch.” The property might be so beautiful that it can be heartbreaking to walk away from it over bad service.
I’m here to tell you that it’s OK to call bad service what it really is. You don’t have to be a “chill” bride or groom and let it go. You are totally empowered to take your business elsewhere – and if you see a lot of instances like this at a property, you probably should.
Nobody is “just” a server, housekeeper or maintenance worker. These are real people, and if they aren’t taking pride in their work, something is wrong at a higher level. When team members at a property do not acknowledge you with their body language or words, it’s a sign of a systemic issue at the property. Training may be lacking, teams may be burnt out or understaffed, or there may be a lot of turnover. Do you really want to invest your wedding budget in a property that doesn’t train and care for their staff? Are you sure you want your guests to feel unwelcome in exchange for the beautiful views?
Of course not! So how do you know when service is going to be great and the employees are well cared for?
An effective standard in the hospitality industry is the “10 and 5 rule,” which means that when a team member is within 10 feet of a guest they should smile warmly, and within 5 feet they should verbally acknowledge the guest. Elite luxury destination wedding venues will even go beyond this; you may see team members put their right hand on their heart when they pass you, or they’ll stop to ask you if there’s anything they can do to be of service instead of just saying hello.
When employees are happy and eager to serve the guests, chances are you’re in the right place. It means the team members are being trained well and treated with dignity. I’ve always loved how the Ritz Carlton brand puts it: “We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” The best hospitality brands instill in every employee – from general manager to housekeeper – the importance of acknowledging the guests. They also value their employees and treat them well. After all, what does it matter if the rooms are clean and the plants are watered if nobody feels welcome at the property?
Look for the 10 and 5 rule when evaluating potential destination wedding venues. It’s a small but reliable detail that tells you the strength of customer service on property.
I always love learning new tips and tricks to suss out destination wedding venues and vacation spots. What are some of the signs you look for when doing travel research? I’d love for you to share in the comments below!
Meggie Francisco is a destination event planner based in Columbus, Ohio who can help you bring your wedding purpose to life. She plans and designs intimate and intentional events with clients all around the world, and she’d love to work with you!
Some of her favorite destination wedding locations include Cabo, Tulum, Riviera Maya and Puerto Vallarta in Mexico. She also adores planning events in Colorado and Italy, and of course in her hometown of Columbus, Ohio!
If you’re interested in working with an event planner who sincerely cares about your experience, contact Meggie today to get started.