V.I.’s Destination Wedding Business on the Road to Recovery

Mainlanders are beginning to rediscover the magic of a wedding in America's Caribbean. (Photo by Kelly Greer Photography)
Mainlanders are beginning to rediscover the magic of a wedding in America’s Caribbean. (Photo by Kelly Greer Photography)

Tracy and Robert Quist were married by Anne Marie Porter of St. John Weddings on Hawksnest Beach on St. John in 2002. Since then, they’ve returned to renew their marriage vows nine times, most recently on Jan. 31 while on a Caribbean cruise.

Working with their wedding planner, this is couple had to move their ceremony to a restaurant and rearranged their plans in two days. It took place the day before Hurricane Maria hit, and the bride's family had to ride out the storm on island. (Photo by Lindsay Kammerzelt Photography)
Working with their wedding planner, this is couple had to move their ceremony to a restaurant and rearranged their plans in two days. It took place the day before Hurricane Maria hit, and the bride’s family had to ride out the storm on island. (Photo by Lindsay Kammerzelt Photography)

Porter said she’s married more than 5,000 couples on St. John in the 25 years that she’s been in business.

“Destination weddings are a major [economic] force in these islands,” she said. “I’m working as hard as I can to restore the wedding business.”

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When Hurricanes Irma and Maria tore through the islands in September 2017, all tourism essentially stopped while hotels made repairs and storm recovery personnel snatched up whatever accommodations were available.

Now that hills are green again, the beaches are clean, and storm debris has been cleared away for the most part, couples like the Quists are finding their way back to the islands.

As Valentine’s Day approaches and notions of romance are in the wind, it seems like an appropriate time to survey the state of the destination wedding industry in the Virgin Islands.

Unfortunately, no one has been keeping track of the economic impact of the destination wedding business, according to Lisa Hamilton, president of the USVI Hotel and Tourism Association for the past 11 years. This has partly to do with the Bureau of Economic Research’s lack of automation, she said. Individual hotels could probably quantify the percentage of their income that derives from weddings and other events, but no one has figures for the territory overall.

The difficulty of quantifying the impact also has to do with the fact that so many different businesses are involved: wedding planners, hotels and villas, car rentals, taxis, florists, restaurants, bakers, caterers, musicians, and photographers are the obvious service providers for the wedding industry.

An island wedding offers the opportunity for the kind of photo you just can't get in, say, Cleveland. (Photo by Alain Brin, Blue Glass photography)
An island wedding offers the opportunity for the kind of photo you just can’t get in, say, Cleveland. (Photo by Alain Brin, Blue Glass photography)

And of course, there are others, like charter boats that take wedding guests on cocktail cruises, helicopters that transport guests to remote islands, and crafts people who package little bottles of rum or hot sauce for wedding souvenirs. Finally, there are all those businesses that supply fuel, import food, repair air conditioners, and prepare income tax forms for other businesses.

One measure of how the wedding industry is faring is by the number of marriage licenses issued by the Superior Court of the Virgin Islands. In 2016, the most recent year that could be considered typical, more than 3,000 licenses were issued. In 2018, fewer than 1,000 licenses were issued, according to one official.

Perhaps the biggest impediment to the resurgence of the industry is the absence of hotel accommodations since the hurricanes struck in 2017.

“It’s our biggest challenge,” said Jenn Johnson of Jenn Events, one of the planners who specializes in luxury weddings at upscale hotels.

On St. John, the two biggest hotels remain unavailable to wedding planners who want to book blocks of rooms, sometimes years in advance. Caneel Bay Resort remains closed with no reopening date on the horizon. The Westin Resort has partially re-opened, but it’s shifted to a time-share business model, and blocks of rooms have not been made available.

Couples who come to the territory to be wed are often drawn by a love of nature, island wedding planners say. (Photo by Alain Brin, Blue Glass Photography)
Couples who come to the territory to be wed are often drawn by a love of nature, island wedding planners say. (Photo by Alain Brin, Blue Glass Photography)

On St. Thomas, Bluebeard’s Castle Resort, Marriott’s Frenchman’s Reef, and Morning Star Beach Resort aren’t scheduled to reopen until 2020. The Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas is scheduled to reopen this summer. Sugar Bay Resort and Spa is still renovating and has limited rooms.

On St. Croix, Colony Cove Beach Resort, Divi Carina Bay Resort, and Renaissance St. Croix Carambola Beach Resort are all scheduled to reopen in late 2019 or early 2020.

Two resorts on St. Croix that have traditionally hosted weddings actually never closed in spite of the storms. The Buccaneer, now in its 71st year, “is totally self-sufficient” – able to generate its own water and electricity – according to Vicki Locke, director of marketing and sales.

“We’ve had a three-person wedding department, and we’ve held weddings throughout the year,” she said.

Ted Bedwell, one of the owners of Sandcastles on the Beach in Frederiksted, said his hotel continues to average between 15 to 20 weddings a year. He noted that rather than declining, inquiries for wedding bookings “have maybe increased a bit with the oil refinery coming back on line,” he said.

Nichole Reed of Events by Nichole on St. Croix agrees with Bedwell’s observation.

“Our wedding industry has gotten bigger; I work with four other planners, and there’s enough business for all of us,” she said.

Couples who come to the territory to be wed are often drawn by a love of nature, island wedding planners say. (Photo by Alain Brin, Blue Glass Photography)
The popularity of a place like Magens Bay makes an intimate wedding portrait tricky. (Photo by Alain Brin, Blue Glass Photography)

The same, however, cannot be said of St. John and St. Thomas. Several long-time wedding planners have closed up shop, and those that remain say bookings have declined between 60 to 75 percent.

The absence of hotel rooms at major resorts has led to opportunities for smaller hotels to capture some of the trade, like Gallows Point Resort on St. John, which was quick to make repairs and redesign landscaping after hurricane Irma.

“It’s forced us to be more creative. We’ve had more adventurous brides, some who are getting married on yachts,” said Johnson.

It has also opened up the market for villa rentals. Wedding planners on St. John say they have acquired expertise on villas that can accommodate large numbers of guests.

Wedding planners say it’s becoming more common for couples who want to marry to arrive on a cruise ship in the morning, pick up their pre-arranged marriage license, head to a beach for the ceremony, then continue on back to the ship for their honeymoon.

Weddings in which couples arrive on a cruise ship, get married on island and depart that evening have gained popularity, but there can be issues. (Photo by Alain Brin, Blue Glass Photography)
Weddings in which couples arrive on a cruise ship, get married on island and depart that evening have gained popularity, but there can be issues. (Photo by Alain Brin, Blue Glass Photography)

But mid-day weddings on popular beaches when there are a lot of cruise ships in port can lead to disappointment, according to wedding photographer Alain Brin. He decided to invest in a villa to serve as a venue for weddings and other events after too many couples complained about the beach crowds at Magens Bay and asked to have them edited out of the photographs.

It’s not just the “4,000 people” that Brin was asked to edit out. Last year, when the islands were repeatedly inundated with sargassum seaweed, shorelines became clotted with unsightly (and smelly) mats of seaweed. Editing the photographs became time consuming and expensive.

This waterfront villa is a popular wedding venue. (Photo by Alain Brin, Blue Glass photography)
This waterfront villa is a popular wedding venue. (Photo by Alain Brin, Blue Glass photography)

Villas “cost more for site fees, but you’re paying for privacy and intimacy,” he said.

One site that had been extremely popular for wedding photographs was shut down with minimal fanfare last September following a tragic event. Brin said he had just arrived with a couple for a wedding photo shoot at Peterborg Point at the tip of Magens Bay when a rogue wave swept another couple off the rocks and into the sea; only one of the two survived. The owners of the property have since put up a gate to block access.

Couples started flocking to the Virgin Islands for weddings in the mid-1980’s as tourism boomed, particularly on St. Thomas and St. John. One of the first people to recognize the trend was Erica Hebert who was working as a perfume rep at the time and met lots of honeymooning couples. Recently married herself, Hebert chatted to brides about her own wedding, a relatively simple affair on the beach, and some of the newlyweds would sigh, and say “I wish I had done that.”

In 1988 when she launched Weddings the Island Way, Hebert didn’t have the internet to market her business.

“I took out print ads in bridal magazines and travel magazines. In those days, magazines had little cards that could be returned for further information. I put a lot of brochures in a lot of envelopes,” she said.

“The whole industry has changed,” Hebert said. “In the early days, it was usually just the bride and groom, and a couple of others. Now it’s common to have anywhere from 20 to 150 guests. People try to bring stateside weddings down here.”

Hebert said couples often want to post stunning photos of their weddings on social media, and this has led a demand for more elaborate décor and creative photography.

But the “barefoot wedding” still exists, particularly on St. John, where it’s a common sight to see a wedding ceremony with a handful of people quietly underway at one end of a National Park beach while beachgoers splash in the water.

The National Park grants permits for beach weddings for up to 60 guests, and with the temporary closing of resorts and the permanent closing of several upscale restaurants since the hurricane, the wedding planners on St. John have to be even more resourceful.

Mary Castle Bartolucci of Island Style Weddings had five weddings booked at Caneel Bay when the hurricane hit.

“Several could be relocated, but people who want Caneel want [only] Caneel,” she said.

Mary Bartolucci, left, and Brenda Sonson of Island Style Weddings. During a wedding event in April 2018, Sonson had to change out of her party dress and into her firefighting gear when a WAPA  structure caught fire. (Amy Roberts photo)
Mary Bartolucci, left, and Brenda Sonson of Island Style Weddings. During a wedding event in April 2018, Sonson had to change out of her party dress and into her firefighting gear when a WAPA  structure caught fire. (Amy Roberts photo)

Bartolucci correctly figured that business for the remainder of 2017 “went out the window.” She optimistically planned the first wedding following the storm for January 2018, and then postponed it until April. Everything was going marvelously well for the couple and their 65 guests at a welcome party on the evening of April 4 when a fire broke out in a power plant in Cruz Bay, plunging the entire island back into darkness.

At the time, Bartolucci was being assisted by Brenda Sonson, an off-duty firefighter. Sonson dropped what she was doing, slipped out of her party outfit, threw on her firefighting gear, and took off to fight the blaze. Power was restored to the island within 24 hours, but in the meantime, guests staying at one villa learned the hard way that turning on a tap during a power outage, and then not closing the faucet when power is restored, leads to flooding in the villa and an empty cistern.

Bartolucci says she hasn’t encountered any “bridezillas” in her 18 years as a wedding planner on St. John. The couples she marries tend to have been together for six or seven years and have a love of nature. Those who choose to have their weddings on St. John realize “there’s only so much you can do here on a small island.”

To control for unexpected supply shortages, she keeps two trailers full of linen, glassware, chairs, and party décor.

Just like a good marriage, a good wedding in the tropics depends on communication and flexibility. (Photo by Kelly Greer Photography.)
Just like in a good marriage, a good wedding in the tropics depends on communication and flexibility. (Photo by Kelly Greer Photography.)

Michelle Cawthron of Paradise Planning said, “When you’re working in this industry, you find people have a mindset of what they want. Fortunately, my clients are more open to change.” Following the storms, she found that managing expectations and maintaining communications – despite problems with the phone system and the internet – were paramount. Only one of the six weddings she had booked prior to the storm followed anything like the original plan.

“Trust came into the mix,” she said of her clients. “We went through a lot together. It was an emotional season.”

Since she started her business six years ago, Cawthron has learned to put a number of things in her contract, like requiring clients to purchase wedding insurance. It’s not just a matter of hurricanes. When the zika virus swept through the Caribbean in 2015, many clients cancelled.

As the months go by without a natural disaster, inquiries for weddings are slowly coming in, planners say. Cawthron said a client who lives in New Orleans and survived Hurricane Katrina told her it would be three years before the economic recovery would feel secure.

Anne Marie Porter is impatient for that to happen.

“Our beaches are beautiful. We have summer year-round. The storm chapter is over. We’re ready for business. That’s what we need to emphasize.”

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