By Mariah Ashley
Aaah, the elusive tropical destination wedding.
The question always asked is: "How do I book one?"
I think the more important question might be, "How do I survive it once I book it?"
Booking a destination wedding is relatively easy. Executing one, well... that's a different story altogether.
Come along for an adventure while I break down the most difficult wedding we've ever shot in the prettiest place we've ever worked. A destination wedding can be broken down into 10 separate categories: Travel Arrangements, Packing, Traveling, Arriving/Acclimating, Scouting, Relaxing, Shooting, Networking & Making Friends, Relief and Debauchery, Dragging Your Butt Home, Regrouping and Recouping.
Travel Arrangements: Setting yourself up for success starts before your flip-flop ever hits the tarmac. As a rule, Trish and I always make our own travel arrangements. We've arrived at one too many mildew-coated hotel rooms, sending Trish into anaphylactic shock, to rely on our clients to set up our accommodations. We've stuck to this rule for ten years--that is until last week when we traveled to the Dominican Republic.
The bride and the wedding planner assured us we'd have a lovely villa to stay close to the wedding in a swanky, exclusive, gated community. We were asked if we wouldn't mind sharing the villa with the female videographer and her husband/partner, female singer for the band and female wedding planners. That was all cool with us. They also chose our flights based on our preferences, scheduled a shuttle to get us back and forth from the airport, and agreed to provide us with a stipend for food and a car for getting around to the various event locations.
*Tip: Whenever possible make your own travel arrangements. If it's not possible make sure that your travel arrangements are clear and written into your contract. Things to consider: flight, airport parking, shuttle to location and back to airport, meals, customs fees, baggage fees, tipping.
Packing: We had to pack light for our trip so that we could fit all the equipment we needed into two backpacks that we would carry onto the plane. This meant leaving behind much of our backup equipment and peace of mind. After some creative packing we managed to squeeze 3 camera bodies, 70-200mm lens, 24-70mm lens, 60mm macro, 85 mm lens, 35 mm lens, 3 flashes, 3 battery packs, a large video light, a small video light, a reflector, a monopod, a rogue flash bender, phototix transmitters and receivers, lots of batteries, compact flashcards, and a lens cleaning kit into our two backpacks.
*Tip: Take only what you need, but have backups. Pack, unpack, and repack. Don't forget battery chargers (we did). Camera equipment arises suspicion and almost always results in your bag being searched at customs, usually when leaving the country you just shot in. Arrive early to the airport to allow for this. You don't need to panic if you have the right documentation and work visa if applicable.
Traveling: We breezed through security and customs with our backpacks and arrived in the Dominican at... 2 a.m. The flight the client booked for us was a redeye; it was... you guessed it... cheaper. But, it was also a direct flight which we were thankful for.
I assumed the airport was not too far from our villa but I was mistaken. By the time we got to bed it was 4:30 a.m. Lack of sleep=bad. Luckily I had the foresight to insist we arrived at least two days before the wedding. This gave us an entire day to ourselves before we had to shoot any of the festivities.
*Tip: Definitely allow for time to yourself. In this instance the wedding was on Saturday but we arrived early Thursday morning. Delayed flights and unforeseen circumstances can put you behind right from the beginning and you don't want to be running to the wedding having just landed.
Arriving/Acclimating: We spent the morning catching some Z's but were driven out of bed by a possessed woodpecker determined to drill his way into our villa. Waking up in the light of day we discovered our villa was all the bride had promised and more. The villa had 6 bedrooms, each with its own bathroom, a pool and hot tub, a maid and a cook! Our friend Dave, one of the videographers, dubbed us the 1 percent (of wedding vendors)!
Reading the itinerary we discovered that we would also be sharing the villa with the band. (Say what?) Not quite how it had been sold to us, but at least we arrived the day before them so we could stake out the bedrooms we wanted, relegating the band to the bottom floor of the villa where they could stumble in late and do whatever musicians do in the privacy of their own floor. We had been told there would be a stipend waiting for us, but there were no pesos in sight so we set out in search of food with credit card in hand. In addition to the car we also had a golf cart for exploring so naturally we opted for that mode of transportation! Golf cart antics=good.
*Tip: Be self-sufficient, arrive with cash and credit card. Exchange some money at the airport for local currency, just in case your all-inclusive... isn't.
Scouting: After procuring some grub we decide we better scout our locations. We needed to find the beach, the villa where the groom was getting ready, the first look location and the house that the bride's family owned where the ceremony and reception would be happening. We took our time, (partly because our golf cart only went about 2 miles an hour, and partly because we didn't have a schedule to keep).
Our mission started at 11:30 a.m., we found the first look location and scouted the area that we would use for formal photos. By 12:30 we were scouting the beach and I discovered... a beach bar! Eureka, rum punch and lunch! After about two hours we spent the afternoon relaxing. After dinner we went out again for another two hours with the videographers to take some atmosphere photos of the scenery and sunset. Keep in mind, none of this time is technically "on the clock," it's us using our own time to get prepared so that we could do a great job the next day. Because we were leisurely and there was rum punch and palm trees involved, I didn't feel weird about "donating " my time.
*Tip: Familiarize yourself with all the locations you'll be shooting at, preferably at the time of day you'll actually be there.
Relaxing: We had most of the second day to relax because we didn't have to be at the rehearsal into late afternoon. We took a nice walk, went to the beach, swam, ordered 11 a.m. mojitos, ate a big salad and took a little nap. After about six hours to ourselves, we were refreshed and ready to photograph the rehearsal. Turquoise sea, palm trees, beach bar, and bathing suits... balmy.
*Tip: Eke out a little time for yourself. This is the perk to all the other headaches!
More Scouting: I had included 2 hours of rehearsal dinner coverage in the contract but we went an hour and a half early so that we could watch the actual rehearsal at the bride's home. The set up was a little unorthodox, with the bride walking over a platform serving as the aisle for the ceremony, built above their pool so we wanted to make sure we understood the set up and we also wanted to touch base again with the wedding planners in case any changes had been made to the schedule. Again, this is time we "donated" so that we would be prepared for the wedding day.
Shooting: The whole reason we've come... the wedding day! Is there a personality type that is more intense than type A? Is there an A++? We give our lovely little bride an A++. She weighs about 85 pounds soaking wet, but she's a force to be reckoned with. She had expectations and requests--lots of them. We knew we'd be working our butts off but we had no idea the level of effort and energy we'd be exerting over the 10 hours of shooting that ensued.
To begin with, the very tight, very strict schedule (in 15-minute increments) prepared by the bride went flying out the window when she and the groom ran an hour later than planned. Guess what that means? Less time for photos, that's what. We needed to keep the bride happy by getting her 100 requests filled, the planner happy by making up an hour of lost time, all the while fulfilling a 100 more spontaneous requests from the bride as we went. I can say with cramped trigger finger that I have never shot more images at a wedding, at least twice as many as our normal 2500-3000 shots. Between the locations we guzzled water, blasted the air-conditioning and scarfed down peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Oh, and just to keep us on our toes, sprinkle in a rainstorm just as we were about to start family formals. Change-of-plan. The first bathroom break I took was at 8:30, 6 hours into our day. Luckily for me I was sweating so much I didn't have much liquid in me to begin with. We left no guest unturned (200 guests to be exact), as we fired off table shots (aargh), college group photos, high school friends photos, neighborhood friends , work friends and commuter -train friends (huh?). The evening was a blur of groups shots that we snapped happily knowing that our bride's high expectations would be met.
At 12:30 when the band finished playing and the party ended we packed our cameras away and made our way over to the bride to say our goodbyes. Only she had one more request. So we wiped our tears and reassembled our cameras and shot one more group of her college friends. We were finally finished.
*Tip: Dig deep. Your clients are going to have very high expectations of you because they feel they are doing you a favor by bringing you to a tropical location for a mini vacation. They won't have any understanding of the amount of preparation you have made for their event. That's okay. You're a professional and you don't need to toot your own horn. Just make it happen for them.
Networking and Making Friends: I've heard that after people go through an intense event together they form a deep bond. I guess that's what prompted me to pick the wedding planner up around the waist and spin her around with a big hug at the end of the night. She had spent four days of battling customs, managing the bride and the families, keeping track of the vendors all flown in from the Boston area, overseeing the event set up, and praying for good weather.
She had also watched us keep calm under pressure, never waiver in our upbeat and positive attitude and get done every shot that needed to happen. She rewarded us with a couple bottles of wine for winding down and a reciprocated hug. Hopefully having this experience with the planner will lead to many other confident referrals from her and her company.
*Tip: Photograph the vendors. Everyone working at the wedding is probably pretty excited to be there. A destination wedding is a big deal for most vendors. Take photos of them! Share on Instagram, tag them on Facebook, blog about it after. Make some new BFF's, and be REALLY easy to work with.
Relief and Debauchery: Maybe it was the dehydration, maybe it was the elation that we had made it through the event. Maybe (probably) it was the wine, but 2 photographers, 2 videographers, and 6 band members all ended up in the pool at 1 a.m. Enough said. What happens in the Caribbean...
*Tip: Ignore Relief and Debauchery and go straight to bed.
Dragging your butt home: Only ten more hours till we were home in our beds which included: a ride on a Muppet bus (some of us hungover), 2 bag searches in customs, pouring rain on the tarmac, less than ideal aisle mates on the plane and a dead car battery waiting for you in the airport parking lot.
*Tip: Don't get too used to the cook and maid service. It will make you soft. And don't leave the dome light on in your car at the airport.
Regrouping and Recouping: Conservatively, it will be two days before you feel human again and take two days to return all the emails and phone calls you received while away.
So, is a destination wedding worth all the trouble? Hard to say. I guess it depends on you. I can tell you that it's a lot more work than you might imagine. Over the course of 4 days Trish and I spent 19.5 hours traveling, 6 hours scouting locations, 15.5 hours shooting the event, and about 10 hours "on vacation."
Over the course of 91 hours that we were away and not in vacation mode, I've calculated that Trish and I made roughly $34 per hour each to go and shoot the destination wedding. Because we priced ourselves properly, I feel like there's a lot of worse things we could be doing making a lot less money. The ten hours I got to have to myself for "vacation" were priceless after a long, cold, grey, New England winter.
The connections we made with the coordinator and the friendships we forged with the band and the videographers? Also priceless. Does that mean I am ready to start marketing myself as a destination wedding photographer? No. Well, maybe. Visions of palm trees sway in my head.
To see a behind the scenes look at our tropical tribulations go here: http://www.snapweddings.com/blog/wedding-photographers-ri-head-caribbean/
About the author:
Mariah Ashley is co-owner of Snap! Photography in Rhode Island. She is blonde, loves to bake fruit pies, wears flip flops way past the summer season, should have been born in the 50s, paints and writes when the mood strikes her, is mother to Jacques and Vianne, vacations on Block Island, is vegan, never has proper or stylish outerwear, fears frogs and toads but loves turtles, has really skinny legs, personal Style- Bohemian Chic, wants to own a VW van, grew up on a cranberry farm and is happiest when snorkeling is happiest when sipping a rum punch under a palm tree.