I spent this past weekend with my fiancé and parents in Tulum, Mexico, checking out venues for our November 2014 wedding.
Although I worked at TheKnot.com few years ago writing up “real weddings”, I remember very little advice I could actually use to plan my own – especially since I’m planning a destination wedding (The Knot is terrible for those). So I figured it wouldn’t hurt to share a few tips I learned from the first stages of planning our destination wedding. My biggest takeaways after our first big scouting trip:
1) Use a Google spreadsheet. Yep, it feels a bit like work…but Excel is the best way to compare costs across hotels, and doing it in Google meant I could share the doc with your fiance and parents, who can all edit it at the same time. We asked each hotel we were considering for a proposal (specific line items like reception/ceremony setup, food, drinks, etc.), then used one doc to compare per-person and per-hour costs (for dinner, open bar, DJ, etc.). While we figured the hotels probably didn’t include everything in their estimates, we got a feel for how specific items compared at each venue – which gave us a much better idea of which spots were overcharging and for what.
2) Stay at your top hotel picks. This seems like a no-brainer if you’re planning a destination wedding, but one hotel planner told us some couples don’t even visit the hotel before putting a down payment on their wedding! We found that you just can’t know some things until you visit: our top hotel pick looked great online, but the first night we stayed there we realized that besides ugly cracked paint and weather-worn wood, the bath mat (which we hadn’t yet touched) was covered in blood spots. Ew!
3) Take a walk. We went for a jog along the beach the first morning we were in Tulum and saw a few hotels that looked nice but weren’t on our list, and we would have otherwise missed them just driving by. We had emailed one of these hotels before our trip but nixed it because the reservations department took over two weeks to respond (not a great sign when you know you have to depend on them to arrange everything for you long-distance). But when we saw this same spot from the beach we knew we had to give it a second shot: it had gorgeous private townhomes, pretty white cabanas on the beach, the best cocktails we tasted in Tulum – and all at a similar cost of the other hotels we were considering. When we met with the hotel manager, he acknowledged that reservationist was not on top of his game and personally helped push our requests through to get a prompt new (and discounted!) quote on the rooms. It’s now #1 on our list.
4) Try the food. Our favorite hotel on paper had bland and boring food – not a great sign for the wedding reception (even if they’re hiring outside vendors to cater the meal). A cute hotel we hadn’t found in our online searches but saw on our morning jog ended up having the best food of any of the venues we tried…delicious fresh fish and spicy margaritas. It’s now #2 on our list.
5) Set deadlines. A lot of destination venues in the Caribbean are on island time: A colleague who married last June in Jamaica said that though she loved her hotel the planner rarely responded to her requests – so she ended up doing most of the arranging with vendors herself via email from New York. Asking for quotes on deadline is a good way to get a feel for how responsive the venue and planers are going to be when you’re 2,000 miles away and really need them – because if they can’t meet deadlines when they’re trying to sell you the hotel (or at least give you a reasonable estimate for when they can get back to you), they definitely won’t be there to help once you’ve already handed over a wad of cash.
6) Negotiate. Most venues assume you’re going to negotiate…so if you don’t you WILL overpay. You and your guests are bringing the hotel lots of extra revenue, not only because you’re booking a bunch (if not all) of their rooms for a minimum of three nights and paying for a pricey wedding party, but also because your guests will buy plenty of food/beverages the other days they’re there. That means the hotel will definitely give you a deal on the rooms you book if it means the difference between getting your business (or not). One hotel dropped their prices by 10% from the prices on their site the first time we emailed for an estimate and another 15% on our second request; the hotel manager verbally dropped the prices another 15% when we met with him.
And here were our top picks for boutique hotels in Tulum; they all range from ~$200-$400/night per room before negotiations:
1) Ana y Jose: A high-end, family-run hotel with cozy apartment-style rooms featuring air conditioning and a private Jacuzzi or pool.
The hotel’s restaurant is one of the oldest in the area (sand on the floor makes it feel casual); it serves yummy Mayan bread with every meal of seafood-based, local cuisine. The beach is covered in perfect soft white sand.
2) The Beach Hotel: Minimalist and modern; spacious. The “deluxe” rooms have a swim-up pool, an outdoor bathtub on the roof and an indoor Jacuzzi.
The adjoining restaurant/bar has the best food in Tulum (and an awesome Xmas tree made out of wine bottles when we visited!).
3) Hip Hotel: Owned by Ana y Jose, this hotel has more of a casual palapa-style feel; the rooms cost about 1/3 less. A wide-open, plaza-style restaurant overlooks the ocean and serves yummy casual Mexican food.
4) El Pez: In Turtle Cove, a protected, quiet and private beach area surrounded by rocky cliffs, a casual Mexican-style hotel with a small pool and a big grassy lawn by the ocean.
Lots of rocks in the beach (not great for swimming) and the paint is a bit worse for wear – but prices are totally reasonable so we’re figuring it’s a good overflow for guests who want to pay less.
And our top pick outside of Tulum?
Le Reve hotel in Playa del Carmen:
It has a beautiful, big, clean pool, a spacious outdoor restaurant with the best haut Mexican food (think really really yummy quesedillas, shrimp tacos, guac) we ate anywhere in Mexico.
The only drawbacks were the location (it’s not within walking distance of any other places where guests could go out) and the beach (a bit more rocky than sandy). But it’s still high up on our list of hotels depending on what the other spaces can offer (we’re still working on learning to negotiation in Tulum…).