South Asian destination weddings, one of today’s fastest-growing and most lucrative travel segments, are drawing increasing interest from resort hotels and travel advisors alike. But while the rewards are great, experts say the knowledge required is as complex as the intricacies of the weddings themselves.
Destination wedding specialist Jennifer Doncsecz, owner of VIP Vacations in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, learned just how steep the learning curve is when handling her first South Asian destination wedding over a decade ago.
“Explaining what we needed to the resort in Mexico was very difficult and tedious. When we said that we needed a special bowl for the fire ceremony they kept saying they don’t do bonfires on the beach,” she said. “Destination weddings are already complex, but South Asian weddings have even more complexity than most.”
Over the years, Doncsecz has seen an increasing number of hotel companies with properties in Mexico and the Caribbean, the two most popular destinations for South Asian weddings, become better-versed in the market. Some such as Palace Resorts and Hard Rock Hotels have developed South Asian wedding packages and specialist training.
In 2016, Hard Rock Hotels launched Ishq Rocks Wow, a specialist training program for travel advisors about South Asian destination weddings. According to Carilis Felipe, director of field sales, Hard Rock has seen its South Asian wedding business increase by well over 40 percent each year since the training program started.
“Hotels, particularly all-inclusive resorts, are really jumping on the bandwagon, as they see interest growing by leaps and bounds,” said Tom Varghese, owner of Travel Tom in Rockwell, Maryland, which includes a division devoted to South Asian weddings. An Indian American who started his agency six years ago after a career on Wall Street, Varghese has played a consultancy role in helping hotel companies develop South Asian wedding packages.
Why are South Asian destination weddings garnering more attention these days? The rapid growth of Indian communities in North America (the Indian immigrant population in the U.S. increased by over 70 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to U.S. Census figures) is part of the answer.
At the same time, Indian immigrants tend to be an especially lucrative clientele, according to both Varghese and Doncsecz.
“They are well-educated and affluent — many are doctors, Ph.Ds and engineers,” Doncsecz said. “They’re well-traveled and have not been scared off, as many others have, by the Zika virus in the Caribbean or the travel safety warnings about Mexico.”
Varghese, whose clientele is about 40 percent South Asian, agreed, adding that “they do a lot of research and know what they want. They’re willing to spend money on the right experience.”
In particular, destination weddings have strong appeal to South Asians because of the considerable cost savings they bring over a traditional wedding, which typically lasts for multiple days and can cost up to $1 million, Varghese said.
“Indian weddings tend to be huge. My brother had over 800 guests at his and my wedding, which was the smallest anyone had ever been to, had 400,” he said. “By contrast, a South Asian destination wedding averages around 150 to 200 guests, so it typically costs much less.”
Pros and Cons
Because South Asian destination weddings tend to involve a longer stay and draw considerably more guests than other destinations weddings, they are an especially lucrative specialty for travel advisors, said Doncsecz. While only comprising 10 percent of her overall destination wedding business, South Asian weddings bring in over 30 percent of the revenue.
Also a benefit is the other types of travel business South Asian weddings have brought to her agency, she added.
“The bridal party and their guests tend to book over and over with us, including for family vacations,” Doncsecz said. “South Asians tend to be big on group travel for things like birthdays and other celebrations. We’ve even gotten some corporate incentive business, including a program for House of Spices.”
Varghese, who also enjoys a strong repeat business, said his business is entirely driven by word of mouth.
“It’s an anomaly in this day and age, but I don’t have a website,” he said. “That’s partly because 100 percent of my business comes through referral, but also because we’re not the type of agency that will try to match the cheapest price found online.”
While lucrative, the South Asian destination wedding segment comes with challenges.
“Many travel agents do not understand the complexity within the market, including that there are different types of religions to address such as Sikh, Hindu or Christian,” Varghese said. “You really have to get the proper training and make sure that your internal team is well-versed.”
Megan Valez, director of marketing for the Destination Weddings Travel Group, also notes the necessity of specialist training and said her company is currently developing an education program of its own.
“These weddings differ in comparison to American weddings,” she said. “South Asian couples celebrate three days of events, which include a few rituals that have to be performed prior to the wedding.
Even travel advisors who are well-versed about destination weddings, may not be prepared for the logistics required by the South Asian variety, Doncsecz said.
“South Asian weddings usually have more events involved and there may be double the people than is typical with a destination wedding,” she said. “You often have people coming in from all over the world, so you have to know the visa requirements. It’s also multi-generational, so you need to ask if handicap rooms are required for the elders. You just don’t know how challenging it is, until you try it.”