Written By: Lisa Sheldon
“How did DWHSA start?” People ask me that all the time about the Destination Wedding & Honeymoon Specialists Association (DWHSA)!
And, they’re always surprised that our group was launched by two people who had a vision, who’d met for just a brief introduction two years prior, and who created DWHSA with just emails and phone calls. As they say, here is the rest of the story.
On Oct. 7, 2010, I attended a destination wedding and honeymoon workshop near the Chicago/O’Hare airport. Having focused on this niche since 2000, I was always looking for educational opportunities. The room was full of travel agents who were either interested in the niche or who were already actively selling destination weddings and honeymoons. John Hawks – an agency owner and the former president of the Association of Retail Travel Agents (ARTA) and senior vice president of the National Tour Association (NTA), had organized the event. Several agents in the group shared their expertise in the niche, and we received materials in a binder and on a CD (which turned out to be helpful tools with sample forms and timelines). I introduced myself to John and thanked him for organizing such a great class.
Now, jump ahead to 2012, when I started using Facebook as a marketing tool for my travel agency. Prior to that, Facebook was just a social means for me. I found several groups for travel agents where ideas and issues were shared among participants with varying levels of experience – from brand-new agents to those with many years of experience. Some agents asked very basic questions, while others posted more detailed questions – but, one thing I noticed is that, when someone asked about honeymoons or destination weddings, only a handful of agents would answer those questions!
Because I knew there were other agents like me who were as serious about selling romance travel as I am, I chose to start my own Facebook group in July 2012 and called it “Destination Weddings & Honeymoon Specialists.” I invited those agents whom I always saw posting in other online groups, and I asked them to invite others they might know who’d benefit from it. I created this group to ask questions and share information specifically about honeymoons and destination weddings. Much to my surprise, the group grew very fast, proving once again that this niche continues to be very popular based on demand and that travel agents were eager to learn more about it.
Going through some old notes, I came across the binder that I’d received in the 2010 training near O’Hare. I reached out to John asking if he’d share the Facebook group information with his list of agents from the workshop. He explained that he planned to offer that workshop as a webinar series (rather than in-person classroom sessions) – and, by the end of that call, we seemed like old friends and I’d volunteered to present one of the first online classes!
The Facebook group continued to grow, and I spoke at the very first Mexico Romantico conference and then again at the annual Love Mexico event. Again, I noticed that there wasn’t much specific romance travel training out there for agents, so I started asking questions: What types of educational opportunities were the agents looking for, and what tools did they need to help them manage and grow their businesses? Other niche-specific associations like the Association for Promotion of Tourism to Africa (APTA) and the Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality (SATH), but nothing that focused on the romance travel area.
Just before I left for Love Mexico’s event that December, I mentioned to John in a phone call that there was a need for an association for destination wedding and honeymoon specialists. “Funny you should mention that!” he said. “After doing those workshops around the country and moving the course online, I’ve wanted to start an association like that – but, I haven’t found the right person yet to help me with it. Would you be interested?”
That’s how DWHSA launched on Feb. 1, 2013! With a platform of education and networking for agents focused on romance travel, the association accepted almost 100 members from all parts of the United States and Canada in just the first month. Now, less than four years later, we’re more than 800 members strong!
Here’s a quick rundown of the benefits that membership in DWHSA offers:
Online Networking: Odd as it sounds, members tell us that our private, closed, secret Facebook group for members only is one of the top DWHSA benefits! They post specific questions about resorts and destinations, the tools used to manage a travel business, sales and marketing challenges, and other travel-related inquiries. Every day, we throw in topics for discussion that cover everything from technology and time management to marketing and motivation (and even the occasional “Throw Back Thursday” where seasoned agents will share photos of their Rolodexes or handwritten train tickets!).
Webinars: DWHSA conducts 60-minute webinars twice every week (Tuesdays and Thursdays at 1 pm Eastern, usually), and we record those sessions and store the videos in DWHSAMembers.com (our members-only web site). Topics range from destination overviews by tourism offices and in-depth presentations by hotel/resort companies, cruise lines, and wholesalers about their romance travel packages and policies to hands-on marketing and management classes that help our members grow and run their businesses. Now, DWHSA has the world’s largest online library of romance-travel-specific content! John and I have personally created many of the webinars, from “The Anatomy of a Destination Wedding” and “From Hosted to Independent” to the basics of creating an Adobe Spark proposal and finding creative content and photos for email newsletters.
Newsletters: We send members two email newsletters each week. The Monday issues focus on news from the bridal and romance industry, while the Friday issues recap the week’s travel industry headlines from the U.S.A. and Canada. They’re a great way to catch all of the highlights that happen during the week – especially for agents who don’t have time to keep up with their travel trade magazines!
Online Training and Certification: We created a 55-module video-based “How to Sell Romance Travel” course that members can run through from start to finish or “cherry pick” the specific lessons they want. After the course, members can take an online exam to qualify for DWHSA’s own professional designation with its own logo: “Certified Destination Wedding, Honeymoon, and Romance Travel Specialist.” (This is the only romance travel certification in North America that’s been created by agents who work every day in this niche!) The next step is a “Master Specialist” qualification that requires a theme paper and other steps for more experienced agents.
Fam Trips: Since DWHSA began, several wholesalers, resort companies, and tourism offices have partnered with us to offer fam trips focusing specifically on romance travel. On these trips, our members see destination wedding ceremony setups, they learn the most popular ceremony locations at key resorts, and they discuss “Plan B” options in case of rain or other problems. That training helps those members sell the resorts and destinations more confidently and gives them firsthand knowledge with lots of their own photos! Also, we’ve organized three-day workshops in Mexico to give agents specialty certifications in LGBT romance travel and South Asian destination weddings. They learn how to market to and serve the needs of clients in those market segments.
Consumer Marketing: We’re now doing joint programs with national bridal and travel publications such as “BRIDES Magazine” (special articles featuring DWHSA members giving advice on destination wedding planning) and “Destination I Do” (consumer webinars on key romance travel destinations) to encourage couples to work with a romance travel specialist. And, members also receive a free listing in the agent directory at RomanceTravelSpecialists.com where consumers can search for us based on geographic location or our areas of expertise.
Romance Travel University: From our first year, DWHSA has hosted an annual educational conference that highlights current trends and topics in this niche. What sets our training events apart is that members present seminar topics, speak on the panels, and share their best practices – so, we’re always learning from agents who work every day in romance travel with brides and couples! Our conferences have grown from a one-day event to the multi-day Romance Travel University which will be held in Las Vegas on May 2-4, 2017 (TheRomanceTravelUniversity.com). The newly revamped conference will feature certification workshops with the Gay Wedding Institute and the brand-new Jewish and Interfaith Wedding Institute, a “Romance Travel Boot Camp” for newer agents, an advanced boot camp for agents with more experience, and pre- and post-conference tours focused on romance travel. Plus, we’ll welcome special seminars with top North American speakers such as Jeff and Stephanie Padovani (BookMoreBrides.com) and Cherie Ronning (Wedding Network USA)!
When we started DWHSA in 2013, our focus was destination weddings and honeymoons. Now, we’ve expanded our training and networking to cover all areas of romance travel – a broader terms that also means proposal trips, elopements, babymoons, familymoons, anniversary trips, vow renewals, and all types of romantic getaways. As this recession-proof niche continues to grow, membership in DWHSA gives travel agents a foundation on which to build a strong, profitable romance travel business. Most of all, we’d love to have you join us! Check us out at JoinDWHSA.com, or contact us at [email protected].