5 Questions to Ask a Destination Travel Specialist

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Choosing a Travel Agent for Your Destination Wedding
special series by guest expert Larissa Banting

We've found an agent we think may the 'the one' to help our wedding group.  Before you commit, do a bit more probing to make sure they are familiar with Weddinglandia and have experience working with groups. Ask them the following questions:

1. When was the last time they visited Weddinglandia (if they are an out-bound agency)?  
Ideally, the answer should be within the last year.

2. Do they work with a variety of hotels?  
Many out-bound agencies who don't specialize in Weddinglandia only work with large tour operators who package flights and large all-inclusive hotels together. For some brides, this is fine but if your client is seeking something off the beaten path or an intimate boutique hotel, you'll need someone who knows the country well.

3. Can they offer international flights?  
If you're working with an in-bound agent in Weddinglandia, they probably  won't be able to book the international flights since airline rules are such that you must be a travel agency operating in the departure country to issue tickets. Which means only US agents can sell flights out of the US. Some Weddinglandia agencies may have a partnership with a flight agency in North America and are able to sell flights so be sure to ask. If they don't it's not of much concern since most travelers are able to find reasonable fares via the internet (sites like Travelocity and Expedia usually have the best prices).

4. Do they charge a service fee?
Most agents don't as the travel industry operates on a commission basis.  There is the 'rack rate', which is the price posted and charged to Joe Public. The agent charges the rack rate and pays the hotel the 'net rate', which is usually 10 - 20% less the rack rate. This difference between the rack and net rates is the agent's commission.

5. Are they able to organize group transport to and from the airport and hotel?
This may be a seemingly small detail but it can make a huge difference to the guests' pocketbooks and stress levels. Although many hotels offer free airport shuttles, this is not the norm for all countries. Here in Costa Rica, for example, the airport can be a 30-minute to a four-and-a-half hour drive from the hotel so free shuttles aren't included with the room rates.  Ideally, the agent should arrange for the guests' transfers, maximizing the number of people per shuttle according to their flight times. Instead of each couple or family taking a $80 taxi, the agent groups the guests arriving around the same time into a larger van, dropping the price for each person. And they may even be able to arrange to have a cooler of cold drinks and snacks waiting on the van, have welcome gifts on each seat or any other small touches the bride may want to help kick off the wedding welcome.

Some agents may create a wedding travel site for your client, with photos of the hotels, room descriptions, pricing, transport information and tour options along with the agent's contact information. The more information they can provide the wedding guests, the better. Remember the idea is to make this an easy experience for everyone, especially the bride and groom. The couple should not get involved in any of the guests' travel planning as it will drive their stress levels through the roof. And trust me that you, as the wedding planner, do not want to assume the mantle of travel coordinator.

One question you're bound to hear from your bride is "What about group discounts?" It's common practice for many large hotels in North America to offer wedding groups discounts to help fill rooms on the weekends since business travelers during the week usually account for the majority of their clients. Destination hotels however, are focused on the tourist so their occupancy is steady throughout the season. Smaller hotels may find group blocks difficult since it limits the reservations they can accept before or after the block. They may also have to ask agencies with long-standing blocks to release them in order to accommodate your group. For these reasons, many hotels do not offer group discounts and if they do, it's usually 10% or so and taken from any commission they would have paid to the agent. Ask the agent about the hotel's policies but if it comes down to a 10% discount and no agent or paying the rack rate and having the agent look after everything, my advice is to go with the agent. A $20 a night saving on a $200 room may not be worth foregoing professional travel assistance,
especially if the hotel is difficult to get through to or work with (remember that other countries have wildly differing approaches to work ethics, organization, time . . . you get the picture).

As for airlines, there are a few that offer group discounts and even upgrades to the bridal couple. Discounts range from 5 - 10% usually but there are often restrictions. And it's not guaranteed that the group discount will be lower. One client had negotiated a group fare only to find that fares dropped $300 a ticket a few months later - and she was locked in at the higher rate.

Depending on where the wedding is, these airlines may be of interest for their wedding/group programs:
Hawaiian Airlines
American Airlines
Air Jamaica

Next week, we continue with considerations about the location.

© 2008 Larissa Banting for The Smart Planner™

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