The tiny island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, where TLC filmed my reality show Wedding Island, was destroyed a few weeks ago by Hurricane Maria. After 10 years of planning more than 500 weddings on beautiful Vieques Island, everything I built is pretty much gone.
It’s not that our home was damaged—it’s concrete and we were fortunate—but the island is going to have to start over. The trees are gone. The beaches are littered with debris. Many of the bars and restaurants are badly damaged along the little tourist strip where we’ve planned so many wedding welcome parties and after-hours. All of the beautiful multimillion dollar properties we rent for weddings are damaged. Some were lucky, but some villas lost their roofs entirely, or sustained catastrophic damage.
Vieques, like most of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, is without power, water, or phone communication. The tiny hospital that I’ve always joked was just the island’s biggest medevac landing pad has been reduced to a six-bay tent in the emergency room parking lot, fueled part-time by a generator, and sporting resuscitation equipment held together by duct tape. It will be a while before I can responsibly recommend that brides and grooms bring large groups of family and friends to Vieques Island for a destination wedding. I was lucky enough to be stateside when Hurricane Maria hit, and I’m not going back until there’s power and water.
So what’s a destination wedding planner to do when her most-popular destination is devastated by a natural disaster? Recommend other, similar destinations that we can move the wedding to, of course—except that all of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands (St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John), the British Virgin Islands (too many to name), St. Maarten, Antigua, and Barbuda are as badly damaged as Vieques, so there aren’t many options for relocating their weddings in the same approximate price bracket. Nevis and St. Kitts seems to be bouncing back rather quickly, but the price of flights to get there make it tough for many wedding guests.
Many of my clients have relocated their weddings to their hometowns, or someplace else in the continental United States. And although my November and December clients’ wedding guests have reported that the major airlines are being nice about giving credit for their cancelled trips, it’s not quite as easy for people with tickets booked in 2018. I guess, theoretically, they’re hoping the islands will be up and running by then, so they don’t have to take the loss just because the guests don’t want to go anymore. Or they’re not willing to take the hit yet. But you can’t ask an entire wedding group to stay in limbo because the power MIGHT come back on in the next few months.
Some of my clients are married (pun intended) to a wedding in Vieques, and they’re willing to wait until the little island bounces back enough to handle their group. They know that we cannot begin to reschedule things until after the power comes back on. Seriously. The power company estimates it will take AT LEAST three to nine months to return power to all of Puerto Rico, and Vieques is an outer island, seven miles of its eastern tip. We are not first on the list.
It would be irresponsible for me to promise brides and grooms that things will look the same as when they visited the island before—and this can be said of all of the Caribbean islands whacked by Irma or Maria. The trees are gone. Many of the familiar bars are gone. Lots of famous landmarks are no more. Some will be rebuilt, and some can’t be replaced. The islands will all recover, it’s just going to take some time. Our friends in Vieques report buds on the trees and things starting to grow after being left brown and desolate less than a month ago.
Tourism is the main industry on all of these little islands, and they’re going to need our support, and our weddings, in order to recover. But we can’t start rebooking things until the hotels and venues and wedding vendors are all back online. Lots of vendors have left the islands because they cannot afford to sit and wait; they have to make money in order to pay their mortgages, and keep the businesses afloat so there will be jobs for their employees when the islands have healed a bit. Not everybody who leaves will return. And that makes it a shaky time to be putting down deposits with people for weddings in places that are still in the dark.
If you’ve always wanted to have a Caribbean wedding, best to look to the most southern islands for the time being. The islands that were hit by the storms will be slowly coming back online one by one. But unless you’re willing to put your wedding plans on hold for an indefinite period of time, choose islands that sustained less damage. And don’t start rebooking anything until their power is back on.
For those brides and grooms who already had weddings planned on the affected islands in the next few months, I have great sympathy. Figuring out what’s going on is the first major challenge, as most of the islands have no power and little ability to communicate with the outside world. Hopefully, most couples used a wedding planner who has found a way to communicate with their clients post-storm. Do not assume that not having heard from your wedding planner, or any wedding vendor, means that they have forgotten about your wedding. That’s not the case. Lots of wedding vendors in the islands have no cell signal and no internet. They’re just trying to survive without electricity for the time being, and they’ll be in touch as soon as they can be. Right now, brides and grooms watching the news about the Caribbean from stateside have more information than the wedding vendors on the ground there, who are essentially cut off from the outside world.
If you are unable to communicate with your wedding vendors, and your wedding date is before the end of 2017, it’s time to consider activating Plan B, and begin notifying your guests of an impending postponement or a relocation of your festivities. First, do your research on what happened to that island, and make every possible effort to reach out to the venue and vendors through every available channel (some can’t get email but can receive texts, others have enough signal to get on Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp). Ideally, you’ll get in touch with somebody on that island who can verify its general condition, and help you get a message to the venue. Even if you can’t reach them, you may be able to safely determine whether you’ll be able to get married there on your wedding date.
Brides and grooms are the ones who ultimately have to make the judgment call about whether to change their wedding plans. On many islands, power will come back long before the wedding vendors and venues are ready to bring their usual A-game to the table. Some couples won’t care if most of the businesses on the island are gone, and the palm trees have no fronds. But some brides and grooms won’t want to continue their plans someplace that needs a large grace period to reclaim its former beauty, because they’re not comfortable asking all their friends and family to vacation in a disaster zone.
The devastation of some of the most popular islands in the Caribbean is a crippling blow to the destination wedding industry, but it’s not the end of tropical weddings for brides and grooms who want them. Expect to see massive marketing campaigns to attract couples back to the islands as soon as the local wedding industries are ready to receive them. And that will be the best time to plan a destination wedding, because the venues will be freshly renovated, and they’ll be offering incentives to lure brides and grooms back to their island.