"Where have you always dreamed of getting married?"
Andrea Luckoo-Edwards, a wedding coordinator at Beaches Negril resort in Jamaica, is used to asking engaged couples tough, probing questions that only psychoanalysts and mothers-of-the-bride would dare broach.
"You just said the beach," she gently reminds groom Vincent Tobias Bell, 38.
"But we've always said the garden, and now you're saying the beach?" Rhonda Spears, 36, asks her fiance.
Luckoo-Edwards rises from her desk in the cramped Wedding Centre, leans into the D.C. couple facing her and shifts into mediator role. He wants beach, she wants garden -- so they'll wed in a gazebo on the lip of the white-sand beach, but with enough potted plants and floral arrangements to re-create Eden. Now, about that cake. He wants chocolate, she wants vanilla . . .
The Spears/Bell wedding was just one of six held at the Caribbean resort on a recent muggy Saturday -- and that's a normal day. In the past decade, destination weddings have boomed, growing 150 to 200 percent among U.S. couples, according to TheKnot.com, a wedding-planning Web site. For its part, Beaches Negril hosted 606 nuptials in 2003, while 226 brides had already gone down the aisle through May of this year.
Luckoo-Edwards has been the resort's wedding coordinator for five years and, when pressed, can't pin down exactly how many she's organized -- though it's easily in the four digits. Just follow her around for one day and you'll see that after five couples, a quintet of frosted cakes and countless bottles of bubbly, Luckoo-Edwards is the mother of all mother-of-the-brides.
"You have to be very detailed. There's no room for error," says the 28-year-old Jamaican, who can be spotted from early morning to early evening zipping around the resort in a sharp blue suit and heels smudged with grass and sand. "It's not like a vacation. . . . Once you mess up a wedding, they'll remember it for life."
And with numerous back-to-back ceremonies -- for example, following the Spears/Bell 10:30 a.m., Luckoo-Edwards attended to weddings at noon, 1:30, 2:30 and 3 p.m. (another coordinator handled the 11 a.m.) -- it's often hard enough just to remember names. "They keep on calling my daughter Paige," complained a St. Louis bride's mother during a reception in the Safari Room. "Her name is Kristen."
Destination weddings, especially those in the Caribbean, are an escalating craze among couples who no longer want to have their first dance in the same hotel ballroom that just wrapped up the annual meeting of Midwestern podiatrists. Instead, many newlyweds-to-be -- young and middle-aged, first-timers or divorced or widowed, with kids or without -- want a tropical backdrop in their wedding photos, a reggae band at their reception and a honeymoon that starts before the ink has dried on their marriage certificate.
These days, 10 percent of Americans hold their weddings in far-flung locations, according to The-Knot.com. "It's one thing to have your wedding at the Minneapolis Marriott," says Liz Zack, the site's senior online editor. "It's another to have it during sunset in St. Lucia." The Sandals and Beaches Resorts chain, for example, held 11,527 weddings at its 18 properties in Jamaica, Antigua, Bahamas, St. Lucia and Turks and Caicos in 2003.
Besides the patented romantic setting of many exotic locales, all-inclusive resorts like Beaches have the added appeal of ease -- nearly everything needed to build a wedding is on-site, including at least one coordinator -- and smart economics. Beaches, for one, offers free wedding packages (including a cake, reception for four, "Just Married" T-shirts, etc.) to guests staying five nights or longer (for less than five nights, weddings start at $750, plus the nightly rate from $245 per person double). Sandals, its sister property, has a similar deal, though many couples opt to marry at Beaches, which allows families and singles, and then honeymoon at Sandals, which is couples only.
"This is my second wedding. I had a big-church traditional wedding the first time," says Spears, who picked Beaches because of its family-friendly bent. "We had heard that Sandals weddings were great. "That you didn't have to deal with anything, you didn't have to plan. That was the reason for coming down here -- to not worry about anything."
And that's where Luckoo-Edwards and the Beaches wedding staff of four come in -- to make that fantasy wedding happen. Or at least some variation of it.
Couples usually don't convene face-to-face with Luckoo-Edwards until the day before their wedding, after they've settled into their suites and started counting down till their wedding time. Spears and Bell met with her a scant 19 hours before their trip down the aisle, while their 22 guests were arriving in boisterous clumps.
Luckoo-Edwards's initial contact begins months before The Day through e-mail, during which the pairs sketch out their vision and the coordinator tries to match it. Most of the unromantic details, such as pre-paying, are handled through a travel agent in the States or the resort's Miami headquarters. Luckoo-Edwards's expertise is in the frills and flourishes -- flowers, hair styles, music, cake.
"Oh, she has my list. I don't have to go through it again," exclaims Spears, discovering that she and Luckoo-Edwards both had folders filled with the stacks of e-mails and notes detailing months of co-producing. "And she highlights, too!"
For many couples, Luckoo-Edwards is more than just hired help; she is often a friend, a confidante, a fashion consultant. She always carries a box of tissues to mop up sweat and tears (sometimes her own). At the smallest of small ceremonies (bride, groom, minister), she acts as a witness and signs the marriage certificate. And during the reception, she leads the toasts and cake-cutting ritual, not budging until she is certain they can manage without her.
It's early Saturday morning, and while most guests are sleeping off their hangovers, Edwards-Luckoo is deep in preparations for the five weddings she will handle today. She's ticking off the items on her "Things to Do by 9:30 a.m." list for her first ceremony of the day: Spears/Bell at 10:30.
The sun blazes for the couple's wedding, making the groom sweat in his black formal attire (or at least that's his story). Luckoo-Edwards pins a purple boutonniere to his lapel and escorts the entourage to the gazebo, which she had turned into a jungle of plants and flowers just minutes before. After depositing Bell, his 12-year-old son and Spears's brother/best man beside the minister (his first of the six weddings that day), Luckoo-Edwards heads to Room 404, where Spears waits in her white-and-lace armor and tiara-ed updo.
Under the wedding coordinator's charge, Spears, her sister and a pair of poised flower girls wend through the hotel corridors in a straight line. They pass guests splashing in the pool and bellmen pushing carts full of luggage.
Luckoo-Edwards instructs the bride to wait at the corner of one of the two hotel room complexes, where a high pomegranate-red wall hides her from view of the guests and groom. A stirring mix of gospel songs that Spears made booms from a P.A. system, and Luckoo-Edwards, standing in a patch of cracked earth, her back to the ocean, first directs the flower girls to walk, motioning like a beauty pageant mom to "smile" and "throw the petals." When it's Spears's turn to go, Luckoo-Edwards shadows her moves through a minefield of palm trees and sandy clumps, never losing sight of the bride, the groom and the narrowing distance between them.
After months of e-mailing, hours of planning and some last-ditch scurrying, the file finally snaps to a close with the minister's words: "I present to you Mr. and Mrs. Vincent Tobias Bell."
"It was perfect," says Spears Bell later, posing with her new husband under a palm tree for her wedding shots. "It was exactly how I pictured it. Andrea did a great job, and I got my garden." At the reception, the Bell party gets started with a clinking round of toasts. As Luckoo-Edwards prepares to take leave, the newlyweds shout a final toast: "Andrea, thank you."
She smiles, then slips out the door for her 12 o'clock.
The rest of the day is a blur of wedding marches and champagne toasts, with a few "uh-oh" moments.
Though the noon nuptials of two Georgians proceed flawlessly, there'd been a scare earlier when the bride waltzed into Luckoo-Edwards's office and requested white orchids for her bridesmaids' hair. Never mind that the coordinator had asked her if she wanted flowers. Yesterday, no. Today, yes. The florists were no help, their cases empty. So, Luckoo-Edwards did what any resourceful coordinator would do: She plucked a few spare blossoms from another bride's order.
"They think the florist is here. But I have to call around to find flowers," she says. "Luckily, I ordered extra. You never know."
Luckoo-Edwards dodges another potential botch for the 1:30, when the dry cleaner sends the groom the wrong jacket. The Texas couple handles it with grace, though, waiting at the bar until 2:10 to walk down the aisle -- thus allowing the bride some extra time to get ready. A win-win situation, really.
Until now, the weather has been well-behaved: blue skies and no hint of the thick clouds that swoop in during afternoons and release hard, cruel rain -- not a light sprinkle. Luckoo-Edwards warns couples about the rainy season (for all you June brides, it's now) and how their sunset weddings may be a washout. The 2:30 p.m. party had heeded her advice, moving their late-afternoon time up. But the storms come early today; just as the North Carolinians finish signing their marriage certificate, the drops start falling. Right onto the 3 p.m. wedding.
"We've got to get this wedding started. It's never going to stop raining," says Luckoo-Edwards, as strong winds and rain rattle the windows and blow over a tent. "I'm making the call." After a two-hour delay, she admits defeat and starts scouting indoor locations that could hold 32 people, including the concierge's office (she won't budge, even for love) and a second-floor walkway that leads to the disco.
"This is when it gets hard, when I have to tell [the bride] we have to have it inside," says Luckoo-Edwards, who often acts as liaison between the bride and groom on whether to wait it out or surrender to the rain. "It's tough sometimes, because the bride will cry, and I will feel it."
So did the young Texans have a happy ending? While the groom and guests chill in the bar and the bride and bridesmaids hide in the buffet-style dining area, Luckoo-Edwards scrambles to convert the grand reception area into a makeshift aisle and altar. The striped couches are pushed to the wall, the tall, wide windows are adorned with bouquets, the riffraff dozing on the furniture is kicked out.
Yet a lobby is still a lobby, even if the marble floors and classical archways are lavish and incoming hotel guests are held at bay -- at least until the groom can kiss the bride.
The bride gets kissed, but Luckoo-Edwards is nowhere to be seen. She's busy setting up the reception upstairs, the last one of the day.
Andrea Sachs will be online to discuss this story Monday at 2 p.m. during the Travel section's weekly chat on www.washingtonpost.com.