Weddings are often viewed as an orphan kid of our industry, and special attention to this stream is only given at a narrow set of dedicated properties. Lest I remind you, however, that weddings are ‘recession proof’ whereby every bride wants her day to be as immaculate as possible. But it takes time and commitment to develop a successful weddings program, and to this end there’s no better place to look for inspiration then a five-star, five-diamond hotel with a stellar reputation in this arena.
The Fairmont Grand Del Mar is a majestic, sprawling property tucked away in the foothills north of San Diego. When I first visited the resort, I instantly noticed how important weddings were as a major source of revenue. And so I reached out to the Director of Catering and Conference Services, Charles Stuart, to elucidate some key details as to what makes their wedding program special. As always, there’s learning for all!
Give us an idea as to the size of your wedding facilities.
All told, we have 25,000 square feet of usable outdoor space and 20,000 square feet of indoor banquet space. The marquis space is our Elizabeth Ballroom which is 9,700 square feet with 20-foot ceilings and a built-in recessed stage, able to accommodate up to 550 people. Padded, gold-framed air walls can divide this space into three separate ballrooms if needed.
Our Manchester Salon and Terrace has 2,250 indoor and 1,925 outdoor square feet, with 13-foot ceilings height and accommodating up to 120 people. Meanwhile, our Capella Room is 3,070 square feet and accommodates up to 160 people with a recessed dais. The unique feature of this space is its dual purpose; it can be used for the reception dinner and dances as well as the inside venue for wedding ceremonies. The décor is that of a traditional chapel with high wood ceilings, inlaid marble walls and floors, stained glass windows and removable ornate wooden pews.
Our outdoor spaces include the Aria Lawn at 8,160 square feet, which overlooks the golf course and canyon with a unique Mediterranean-themed pavilion. The area is used for the outdoor ceremonies and can double as a space for pre-dinner receptions as well as the dinner venue itself. Next comes our North and South Reflection Lawns and Gazebo which are located around the reflection pool and fountains. These offer another outdoor venue for the smaller ceremonies up to 120 people as well as for pre-dinner receptions.
What’s the typical wedding like?
The wedding business accounts for a significant proportion of the local catering business and the weddings range in size from 120 to 550 guests. When quoting an approximate amount, one should budget for between $300 to $375 per person plus service charge and tax. This would cover the food and beverage requirements; décor, entertainment and guest room needs would be in addition to this figure. Great skill is needed in balancing and managing the two families’ needs and who is paying for what, along with the bride and groom’s plans. Our job is to calm and reassure; that everything is under total control and the day is going to be a picture perfect day.
How many room nights does the average wedding yield?
The number of weddings varies each year (and whether it is a destination wedding, for instance), based on available space but they have averaged between 40 and 45 – our peak year was 48. We have seen events where as few as 10% of the guests will stay all the way through to an almost-total buyout of the hotel over the whole weekend, when there are multiple events that are planned in association with the wedding, such as rehearsal dinners prior and farewell brunches the following day.
Apart from unique facilities, how else does the GDM uphold its leadership on this segment?
First is customization. We do not offer all-in packages where a price per person is set and everything is included, as these often limit choice and flexibility. We listen carefully to the bride and groom’s dreams balanced with the parents’ input, and then offer suggestions with a solid team to ensure flawless service and attention to detail.
Next is the desire to make the bride and groom feel special. We will only host one wedding on any particular day, even though the facilities could accommodate two or more weddings on the same day. After that is food and beverage quality. As is with the resort in general, no frozen products are used, items are made from scratch and ingredients are of the best quality we can find (using organic where possible).
How are weddings integrated into other operations?
As a special surprise for our bride and groom, each receives a personalized Grand Del Mar monogrammed bath robe, beautifully presented in the bridal suite upon return to their room. Special golf days for the groomsmen and special spa days for the bridal party are often arranged. Additionally, themed welcome amenities and gifts have been arranged in the past which tie into the wedding theme and delivered to each guestroom.
What changes have you experienced in the weddings over the past years?
The booking window has shortened to between six and nine months. Leads are now coming in from all types of vendors these days – in particular photographers, indicating that brides are securing their photographer before other vendors or even the venue. Interestingly, wedding planners are no longer the main source of vendor referrals for weddings.
People are getting away from the old traditions and are customizing their weddings to exactly what they want. With the influx of social media sites such as Pinterest, more brides are becoming their own planners; they have greater access to all the ideas that are trending, and are often looking to incorporate these into their special day. Our specialty is in knowing which concepts will work and which will not when recreating a small snapshot of an idea for a large event.
What other types of events use the wedding facilities?
Our event spaces accommodate all types of events including Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, Quinciñeras, birthdays, anniversary parties, celebration of life events, fundraisers and high profile black tie galas. We customize each event for so many of our clients that it’s not so much the type of event but the client’s overall needs. For example, we have Bat Mitzvahs that have had as extensive décor as weddings and birthday parties that have outdone black tie galas in both décor and entertainment. In general, though, weddings usually require a lot more setup time than other events due to the extensive amount of décor, floral arrangements and lighting needs.
Why is GDM so popular for celebrity weddings?
The reason is that we are not a wedding factory. It is now common knowledge that LeBron James got married here. He is but one of many celebrities to do this over the years, many of which are never reported because of how we handle confidentiality for all our guests. Privacy, intimacy and confidentiality are offered in both accommodations as well as the venue itself. The resort is off the beaten track and we have the ability to manage who has access to the drive-in. It was quite the accomplishment that it was never released where LeBron was getting married right up until the party was almost over, much to the frustration or TMZ!
SoCal has quite a few five-star, five-diamond wedding venues. How do you differentiate your product from a marketing standpoint?
Our venue is unique in every sense of the word. Still relatively a new hotel (eight years as of October 2015), the old-world design and décor of the property, landscape and manicured grounds, and the intimate internal ambiance all create a world away from other Californian properties. Many guests liken us to being at a family estate in the Mediterranean; couple this with the unbeatable weather of San Diego and you have a venue like no other.
We focus our efforts on relationship building with other top industry professionals. Much time is spent networking with high-end planners and vendors to build this personalized relationship where understanding and trust is key. In addition to these one-on-ones, we host a memorable FAM trip for these professionals each year where they will be our guests for a couple of days and experience firsthand our level of service and quality of food and beverage. It’s fun; it’s a blast; we all let our hair down, and they experience what’s trendsetting and what sets us apart from the other venues. All this leads to word-of-mouth recommendations from some of the top planners in the country and Europe targeting the marketing at guests who are looking for an exceptional venue with the best service.
Can you convert wedding customers to leisure or other segments?
Yes, we have found that many guests who have stayed with us over a weekend and attended a wedding will return for a special getaway, be it for their own engagement dinner and subsequent wedding or a special occasion such as an anniversary weekend. The brides and grooms tend to be the most frequent returning guests, celebrating their anniversaries each year with a night or weekend stay. Often we will recreate part of their dinner menu or a tier from their original cake for them. One of the main reasons for this is due to the great amenities we offer including golf, spa, tennis, world-class dining and offsite activities. With all these options, we can offer a different celebration for each year and for every visit.
(Article by Larry Mogelonsky, published in Hotel Executive on December 7, 2015)