Travel trend: More couples choose exotic wedding destinations – TribLIVE

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More couples are saying “I do” to exotic wedding destination locations in place of traditional church weddings.

According to the 2023 Destination Wedding Global Market Report, the destination wedding industry is projected to grow from $27.6 billion in 2023 to $36 billion this year.

Mexico tops the list of tropical locations selected by engaged couples, with the Riviera Maya, Akumal/Tulum and Cabo San Lucas areas leading the list, followed by the Dominican Republic and Jamaica.

Guests usually spend an average of four nights and $2,000 to attend a destination wedding, and all-inclusive resorts offer nuptial planning packages that take the stress out of wedding planning.

“It’s definitely a trend I’m seeing,” said Colleen Peterson, owner of Greensburg-based Port of Call Travel.

Meet Pittsburgh-area couples who chose travel over tradition for their nuptials.

Barefoot brides

Courtesy of Nicolette Drag

Barefoot newlyweds Andrew and Nicolette Drag of Tarentum on their wedding day in 2017 in Jamaica.

Nicolette Drag of Tarentum had her dream wedding planned her entire life.

“I wanted a barn wedding and to wear my cowboy boots,” Drag said.

But a trip to a local wedding expo with her fiance, Andrew, changed both of their minds.

They chatted at a booth for Sandals, an all-inclusive resort, and decided to forgo their Pittsburgh wedding plans and book a destination wedding trip and invite 16 guests.

“We decided for two reasons: It was too expensive, and my husband’s mother had died and we wanted it to be a happy time for the whole family,” Drag said.

The Drags booked a weeklong
wedding package in Montego Bay for $7,000, a substantial savings from the estimated $35,000 price tag of a wedding in Pittsburgh.

They’re not alone. According to data from a 2023 economic survey conducted by theknot.com, 7 out of 10 engaged couples said the economy has impacted wedding planning decisions.

“They made it so easy. All I did was tell the resort my wedding colors, and they took care of everything,” Drag said.

They planned their arrival early enough to satisfy the 48-hour waiting period required in Jamaica before applying for a marriage license.

Nicolette and Andrew married sans shoes, she in a traditional white gown during the 2017 oceanside service.

“We wanted our toes in the sand,” she said.

One guest Facetimed the ceremony for an elderly relative who remained stateside.

“Everyone still talks about how fun it was,” Drag said.

Stacee and Shawn Shannon of New Kensington were in the throes of wedding planning when Stacee suddenly lost her job.

“It was the worst timing,” Stacee Shannon recalled. “And everything was so expensive.”

The couple felt discouraged and wasn’t sure how they were going to make a wedding with 300 guests happen.

Heeding her sister’s high praise of a recent vacation to Jamaica, Stacee skipped watching a Steelers game to research destination wedding options online.

She booked an all-inclusive wedding package in Lucea, Jamaica, for under $10,000 and invited 50 guests who were able to pay their transportation and lodging costs in installments.

Stacee’s mom, Gwendolyn Johnson of Allegheny Township, had always wanted to visit Jamaica.

“It was wonderful and the best time of my life. Once we got there, it was all-inclusive and we didn’t have to worry about coming up with more money,” Johnson said.

Reasons given by couples for choosing destination weddings include enjoyment, ease and cost, according to 2022 wedding industry data provided by the Wedding Planner Institute.

Camie and Mark Piccola of Kittanning booked a luxury wedding two years ago at Dreams Punta Cana resort in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic.

The couple normally books their own travel, but for their wedding, they hired travel agent Lonnie Exotic Vacation Getaways in Kittanning.

“I wanted someone else to take responsibility for everything with the planning, and I didn’t want the stress. She took all the stress away,” Camie Piccola said.

The Piccolas love to take cruise vacations and this was their first trip to the Dominican Republic.

They chose a new locale for two reasons.

“We just figured it’s later in life for us, and we decided we would get married on vacation,” Camie Piccola. “We chose Punta Cana because it was the most cost effective.”

The couple spent about $4,500 for a week for the Honeymoon suite.

Camie spent $200 on her beachy wedding dress and Mark donned khaki shorts and a white shirt as they tied the knot in a beach side ceremony.

“A standout memory was our post-wedding private excursion with everyone to a cove for snorkeling and swimming,” Camie Piccola said.

Nautical nuptials


Courtesy of Donna Ludwig

James and Donna Ludwig of Indiana Township married off the shore of Hawaii in 1983.

Jim and Donna Ludwig of Indiana Township met on a blind date in 1981 and married on a sailboat off the shore of O’ahu, Hawaii, in 1983.

Now married 40 years, the Ludwigs reflect back on their special day on the ocean.

“Our parents knew. We wouldn’t have done it if it would’ve upset them,” Donna Ludwig said. “We mailed out announcements from Hawaii right after the ceremony, and by the time we returned to Pittsburgh, people knew.”

Their matrimony decision was based on several factors.

“I was married before when I was 19, and he doesn’t like fuss,” Ludwig said.

But choosing the right body of water for their nautical nuptials took a bit of research.

“We looked up and down the East Coast but we wanted to do something that we picked,” Ludwig said of choosing Hawaii for their offshore wedding.

The couple now own a boat named “Beach House,” moored in a marina in Chesapeake Bay near Annapolis, Md.

“I know it sounds hokey and made up, but we sailed off into the sunset. He’s just the nicest person,” Ludwig said.

Extreme nature nuptials

Mara and Frank Intrieri of Gilpin never planned to get hitched on an Alaskan glacier.

“We were looking into bear hunts in Alaska and stumbled upon a photographer in Alaska,” Mara Intrieri said.

The couple (pictured atop the story) decided to plan an adventure-filled, nature-themed secluded wedding and chose Knik Glacier in Palmer, Alaska, for their September 2022 nuptials.

They rented a helicopter for five hours and flew into the site.

They didn’t have any guests except for the photographer who officiated the wedding and the pilot who served as their witness.

“It was like a dream come true,” Intrieri said of their choice of wedding venue. “Our friends thought we were photoshopped into the pictures.”

The wedding day photos, all real, documented avid paddle-boarder Mara standing on a board decked out in her wedding day finery that included boots with toe warmers.

“It was freezing,” she said. “The helicopter was heated so we could warm up inside.”

A celebratory champagne toast on the ice was the only food and drink after the wedding.

The couple later attended a pig roast reception when they returned to Gilpin.

Frank described their wedding as a “once-in-a-lifetime” event.

“The beauty was breathtaking,” he said. “Any photos you take in Alaska just don’t do it justice. I think everyone should go there.”

The couple honeymooned in Palmer, Anchorage and Seward and enjoyed salmon fishing and jet skiing.

“We’re 100% glad we did this. It was stress-free,” Mara Intrieri said.

Italian “I dos”


Courtesy of Kate Giacche

Josh and Kate Giacche of Pittsburgh chose Florence, Italy for their destination wedding.

Kate and Josh Giacche of Pittsburgh love to travel and chose Florence, Italy, for their wedding destination.

“Josh is Italian American, and the first city we fell in love with was Florence. We’ve gone back almost every year so it’s special to us,” Kate Giacche said.

The Giacches exchanged vows in Italy during a rooftop ceremony at the Weston Excelsior and enjoyed a reception at the St. Regis.

Many of their wedding guests had never visited Florence.

“We loved giving our friends and family the opportunity to travel abroad,” Kate Giacche said.

Travel professionals weigh in

Port of Call Travel’s Peterson has worked 36 years in the travel industry, and said she noticed the trend of destination weddings about a decade ago.

“There’s pros and cons but it’s advantageous for the couple because usually the resort has their own wedding planner and it’s much less stressful in that respect for the couple,” Peterson said.

But it’s sometimes more of a con for invited guests.

“It does put an additional expense on a guest to attend. It’s nice for them because it can be a nice vacation. But sometimes when couples book it and they think it’s great, but the reality, once reality sets in to their guest, there are added expenses.”

Peterson said the Caribbean all-inclusive resorts comprise the bulk of her destination wedding bookings.

Destination weddings frequently involve beach settings, but Europe is popular, too.

Pittsburgh-based wedding planner Timothy Komen owns TK Event Studio and has planned destination weddings in Bel Air, Calif.; Aspen, Colo.; Anguilla, Miami and Italy.

“Couples love the idea of a destination because it makes the wedding day even more special and memorable,” Komen said. “It’s a built-in vacation for everyone. Depending on the location, destination weddings aside from travel expenses aren’t necessarily more expensive.”

Komen added guests often feel more connected to the wedding when it’s a destination ceremony.

“If you’re traveling to go to a wedding, you’re invested in the experience. Think about it, if you’ve made the effort to travel for a wedding, you’re committed to the event,” Komen said.

Her advice to engaged couples looking to go exotic for their wedding?

“Do your research. I think they see things on TV that look romantic and they want to not have much stress and be able to enjoy it,” Peterson said. ”Right now I have a destination wedding booking in Greece, but the couple is finding out that there are extra fees. When you see a destination you want, you really have to do your research.”

Peterson recommends selecting a local, reputable travel agent and beware of online travel agents.

One Mercer County couple went all out with their destination engagement in France.

Erin Bonner and Joshua Buchholz started early in the destination wedding department, jetting off to Europe last year for a special engagement event Sept. 25 in Paris.

Their engagement photo session lasted several hours, and Bonner donned two formal gowns for photos that included red rose petals, flowers, the Eiffel Tower as a backdrop and Buchholz on bended knee.

“It truly was my fairy tale dream engagement come true,” Bonner said.

The couple are planning an out-of-town wedding later this month at The Grand Resort in Warren, Ohio.

“I wanted to keep it closer to home so I could have all of my closest friends and family with us on our special day,” Bonner said.

Joyce Hanz is a native of Charleston, S.C. and is a features reporter covering the Pittsburgh region. She majored in media arts and graduated from the University of South Carolina. She can be reached at [email protected]

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