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The all-inclusive wedding guide

Updated: Tue, September 3rd 2013 3:05 pm
© iStockphoto / Thinkstock © iStockphoto / Thinkstock


By Katie Mcelveen

Why try an All-Inclusive?


They make budgeting easy.

Wedding planning isn’t just time-consuming; keeping track of the cost of every detail down to the number of sweetheart roses in your bouquet can be downright mind-boggling. That’s not the case with an all-inclusive resort, where rooms and wedding packages in a variety of styles and at different price points let you choose a look, plan your stay and determine your spending — all for one set total.

Your guests will appreciate the upfront pricing as well; they can park their wallets for the duration of their visit, raid the mini-bar with abandon and take in live entertainment without paying an extra penny. What’s included varies from resort to resort and even within the same resort by packages. But most all-inclusives include all meals and snacks; alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages; and activities like pool games, theme-night parties and sports equipment from kayaks to sailboats.

Janice Shortier, president of destinationweddingstore.com, based in New Haven, Connecticut, likes to steer couples toward all-inclusive resorts, saying the trip can turn out better for friends and family. “It’s a great equalizer because everyone can have the same experience,” she says. “The last thing you want is for a guest to have to watch what they eat and drink to save money.” Even better: no awkward moments at the pool bar trying to figure out whose turn it is to pay for the margaritas.

If you’re not sure if a resort you’re considering does all-inclusive pricing, ask. Some boutique properties, like the elegant Calabash Cove, on St. Lucia, and chic La Samanna, on St. Martin, aren’t traditional all-inclusives but offer packages that include food and alcoholic beverages in the per-night room rate. You’ll also find the option offered a lot in Europe; called Full Board or the American Plan, it includes three meals per day in the room rate.

There’s one for every style.
These days, all-inclusives come in every size and shape, from exclusive hideaways like Montana’s Triple Creek Ranch, a 23-cabin escape (and a member of Relais & Chateaux), to sprawling cities-by-the-sea such as St. Lucia’s 331-room Sandals La Toc Golf Resort & Spa, which offers dozens of choices for dining and drinking, plus villa-style rooms complete with butlers and private plunge pools.

Dana and Greg Trinks of Fairview, New Jersey, wanted to hold their May 2011 Dominican Republic wedding at an intimate hotel but didn’t consider an all-inclusive because they thought all-inclusive meant big — and probably impersonal. But when Shortier suggested they take a look online at Zoetry Agua Punta Cana’s thatch-roof cottages, pretty gardens and quiet beach, they were pleasantly surprised. Further research into the specifics — the couple had established a no-buffet rule when they started looking — sealed the deal. “When we realized we could have the experience we wanted at an all-inclusive, we were excited,” says Dana. “They even let us personalize turndown service each night by delivering meaningful quotations we’d had printed to our friends and family, and they allowed us to decorate the public areas with photos and other mementos for the duration of our stay. We never could have done that at a larger property.

Dominique and Matthew Richardson of Amherst, New York, had different criteria for their December 2011 wedding. They were slipping off to marry alone, so they didn’t need to worry about guests. But the pair did want diversity — a place where they could enjoy lots of activities during the day, dine in a different restaurant every night and still find a perfect nook in which to say their vows. They found what they were looking for at the 529-room Sandals Grande Riviera Beach & Villa Golf Resort, in Ocho Rios, Jamaica. “We loved the energy and all the choices in everything from entertainment to wedding sites,” says Dominique. “For most brides, it’s all over so fast, but we had a whole week to celebrate. Everyone in the resort made it a point to congratulate us the whole time we were there. It really made it special.”

They make planning simple.
If the thought of one-stop wedding shopping appeals to you, you’ll also appreciate that all-inclusive packages let you limit decision making to as few choices as you’d like. “The options are all there; they’ve just been refined,” says Sharon Little, U.S.-based planner for Couples Resorts, which has four outposts in Jamaica.

Most all-inclusives offer a wide range of extras: special lighting, extra flowers — even day-after, trash-the-dress photo shoots. Excursions, after-parties and other events also take on no-hassle status when they’re part of the program. At Grand Velas Riviera Maya, in Mexico, wedding groups (up to 40) can reserve a section of Chaka or Frida restaurant for the rehearsal dinner without extra cost, while at Bolongo Bay Beach Resort, in the USVI, couples can marry barefoot on the beach or aboard a 53-foot sailboat. One of the most popular packages at Couples Tower Isle, in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, includes a ceremony and party on the resort’s private island; that’s what appealed to Angela and Chris Brindisi of New York City, who held their Dec. 10, 2011, wedding here. “Marrying at Tower Isle gave us the best of both worlds,” says Angela. “We had the run of a big, fun resort with lots of activities, plus a private island for the actual wedding. Even our rehearsal dinner was special — all 26 of us went on a catamaran cruise.”


What to Look For


The right amenities

Most all-inclusives are designed to show the best of their destination, removing the need to leave the retreat. “The key is to find a resort where you can match your resources to your dreams,” says Shortier. “Prioritize the must-haves, and go from there.” If you want activities without extra cost, search out a resort that offers scheduled group events, such as sunset cruises, volleyball tournaments or dance parties. If your bridesmaids are avid spa-goers, pick a spot where pampering is included; at Secrets Resorts & Spas, guests booking the Unlimited Spa package get free access to the spa facilities and four 25-minute treatments per day. The opposite holds true too — there’s no point in paying for scuba diving if no one in your party is certified.

It also may help your budget to extend your stay for a night or two: Booking a certain number of rooms for a certain number of nights may earn you room upgrades, resort credit and even a free wedding. For instance, book seven nights at Calabash Cove, and the resort will pick up the $100 tab for airport transfers and throw in drinks along the way. But find out the specifics: Sometimes resort credit is limited to spa and boutique purchases and can’t be used to chip away at wedding upgrades.

Flexibility
All-inclusives have a stick-to-the-rules reputation, but in many cases, wedding planners are willing to bend over backward for their brides, particularly if they’ve established a good working relationship. “If you want to work well with your planner, stay focused and organized, and be patient but diligent,” suggests Shortier. “The other tip is to know exactly what you’re getting. You don’t want to be surprised when the vases are the wrong height or the DJ starts packing up to leave after an hour set.” So ask in advance, and read the fine print before you agree to a detail.

Also key is the ability to change venues if needed. Don’t sign on the dotted line until you’re sure the resort has great wedding venues and you can change your mind once you’re onsite — especially if you can’t make a scouting trip in person. You may book a beach wedding site based on planner recommendation but find when you arrive that you’re more fond of a pretty garden, dramatic bluff or treehouse platform.

For their December 2011 wedding at Grand Velas Riviera Maya, Washington, D.C.-based Karen Kanis and Chuck Ghoorah pulled off not one but two ceremonies — a traditional Indian ceremony on the first night and a Christian wedding the next. Grand Velas’ staff worked with them every step of the way, even finding a local chef who could prepare the Indian dishes she wanted to serve and allowing him free reign in the property kitchen. “We had a lot of unique requirements, and they were very, very amenable,” says Karen. “They customized everything.”

Due to a scheduling mix-up, Alyson and Brady Gaudin of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, ended up with a wedding date that coincided with a college bowl game near and dear to the hearts of most of the guests. Konrad Wagner, general manager of Calabash Cove, saved the day by transforming the resort’s clubby library into a media room for the night. After the reception, the whole wedding party piled into the space to cheer for their team. “The staff made it seem like it was nothing, but I know a lot of work went into it,” says Alyson. “They couldn’t have been nicer. It was perfect!”
    
Custom options
Wedding packages may come with an element that doesn’t mean a lot to you or your fiance — or include everything you want except for one tiny detail. Ask in advance about your options if a single package doesn’t fill the bill; many resort planners will do what they can to ensure you get the wedding you want without paying for a ton of extras. “I thought we’d have to upgrade a lot of things to get the look we wanted, but we didn’t,” says Angela Brindisi of her Couples Tower Isle wedding. “Instead, they let us mix two packages. It saved us a lot of money, and the flowers were even prettier than the ones in the pictures.”

To help Rachel and Jamie McCollister of Phoenix, Arizona, stay within the Fiesta Americana Condesa Cancun wedding package, which includes a one-tier cake, the staff supplemented the single layer, which could be ceremonially cut, with two perfectly decorated faux layers for photos. “The planner told me that since dessert was already part of dinner, no one would miss eating wedding cake. It was a great idea that took our interests to heart,” says Rachel.

Packages can vary widely, so Shortier tells clients to keep close track of all the potential expenditures at every resort and tally up the final cost before making their decision. “That way, you can compare apples to apples,” she notes. “One resort may offer flower centerpieces as part of its package but charge more for activities or group meals.”


What to Watch For


Guest and vendor restrictions

Some all-inclusives are adults-only, so they admit only those age 18 and over — and these limits apply to everyone who sets foot on the grounds, not just overnight guests. Even at family-friendly resorts, such as Grand Velas Riviera Maya, certain restaurants are open to all, while others don’t allow guests under age 12 — and some don’t allow minors at all. If you’re planning a multigenerational event, ask about age limits throughout the resort — you don’t want anyone to find out on arrival that they can’t attend the rehearsal dinner because it’s at an adult-only restaurant.

Another area you may encounter restrictions is with outside vendors. If you plan to stick to the resort package but want to bring in your own stylist or photographer, make that clear upfront, and get in writing anything you need to do to make that happen. In some countries, anyone who provides a service at a wedding — even your uncle, the ordained minister — is considered an outside worker and needs to get an official work permit from the government before performing their task. Resorts can be penalized for unauthorized workers, so make sure your chosen hotel knows your plans before you sign a contract.

Limited privacy
In most cases, if you decide to hold a ceremony or reception in a public area of the resort, be prepared to see — and hear — other resort guests milling about as you say your vows. And unless your resort limits weddings to one a day, expect to share your day — as well as the lobby, the salon and maybe even the wedding site — with other couples. Which isn’t always a bad thing, as Sandals Resorts bride Dominique Richardson can attest. “I loved seeing all the other couples who were getting married,” she says. “We ran into each other all over the place. By the end of the day, we’d turned into a support system for each other.”

Upcharges and extras
The property may say all-inclusive in the name, but when it comes to weddings, it’s rare for everything to be included as part of the package. It’s not that resorts are trying to be sneaky; you’ll have paid a base rate for food and beverages, but private parties require dedicated servers and often special menu items that need to be prepared separately. Those costs are reflected in the prices on banquet menus and why reception packages limit the number of guests. Add in the photographer, DJ, florist and other vendors, as well as the fancy draping, cool lighting and other embellishments you see in photographs, and before long, you could be spending serious money.

Still, there are ways to minimize sticker shock. Anything done in-house is easier to negotiate than something for which a resort needs to bring in outside help, so find out what resources the property has onsite. To save on your rehearsal dinner and reception, ask if it’s possible to piggyback on a scheduled resort dinner or cocktail event. Or ask if your party can all be seated together at a public restaurant — you might be surprised. “They treated us like a private party and gave us a special menu for the night,” says Rachel McCollister about her wedding at Fiesta Americana Condesa Cancun. “Even though we were in the regular restaurant, our whole group of 28 was able to sit at a few tables they’d grouped together. We never missed being in our own space.”

Including non-resort guests at your reception is another way to run up the cost, since entry passes can easily run upwards of $50 a day. If some of your guests intend to stay at a nearby hotel and join you for the big event, ask if you can apply any resort credit or room upgrades earned to defray the costs.

Finally, if it’s a tossup between spending more on the wedding package or paying extra for fun activities during your stay, Shortier suggests going with the activities. “Destination weddings are less about the wedding day and more about the total experience,” she says. “Your guests will remember all the time they were able to spend with you, not just the few hours of the wedding and reception.”


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