A week after resigning from her career in the investment industry to stay at home with her young son, April Schmitt, CEO of Divine Destination Weddings & Honeymoons, found herself looking for home-based businesses for sale. As a self-described Type-A personality, Schmitt couldn’t just sit around the house all day while her son napped. Despite no experience in the industry, she purchased a travel agency.
Schmitt set a sales goal of $50,000 for the first year, but after attending one bridal show, she reached $300,000 in sales within the first three months. Her original plan was to find a hobby to work on at home, and wait until her son had grown to open a storefront near her home in Granite Bay, CA. Schmitt knew immediately that she couldn’t wait that long before turning it into a full-time job.
“I didn’t tell my husband yet, but I thought, ‘This is going to be a real thing. This is going to be my business,’” she says.
Schmitt maintained her relationship with the original agency from 2005 through 2011. In January 2012, she opened her own fully independent agency — Divine Destination Weddings & Honeymoons. Schmitt tells us a major factor in opening her own agency was the desire to “completely control” her own business. “I wanted to determine what my goals and business model should be without restrictions,” she says. “Which suppliers I sold, and how I handle my clients should be up to me.”
In six years, Schmitt’s agency has accumulated several impressive accolades. It has ranked No. 1 in Classic Vacations’ group sales three times, is a member of The Knot’s Hall of Fame and ranks among the top performers for WeddingWire. To boot, the agency, which comprises Schmitt, nine independent contractors and two management employees, has an annual volume of business of $4.3 million. On top of her management responsibilities, Schmitt still pulls in about $1.8 million per year in sales.
Schmitt tells Luxury Travel Advisor she chose the name Divine Destination Weddings & Honeymoons when she was still considering selling travel as a part-time job; she hadn’t seen any other advertising for destination weddings in 2005.
“When I got started, I thought, ‘Oh well, that seems like something I could focus on, that’s small, that’s not going to take over my life, and that’s what I’m going to advertise for,’” she recalls.
Her wedding and honeymoon clients are in their 30s and 40s, but are located all over the U.S. We’re told that Divine Destination Weddings & Honeymoons has even planned high-profile weddings for several celebrities and professional athletes, many of whom continue to book travel through the agency. “I have been told that celebrities feel comfortable with me because I don’t treat them any different than my other clients, and I understand and respect their desire for privacy,” Schmitt says.
Matt and April Schmitt at the Montage. Experiencing destinations firsthand is also of utmost importance for the owner of Divine Destination Weddings & Honeymoons.
“My first-ever destination wedding happened to be for a bride that married into a very high-profile family,” Schmitt tells us. “The guest list consisted of several celebrities. I retained a few of them as ongoing clients, and have had several referrals from them.” She even received a call from a pro baseball player’s business manager, who told her she came at the recommendation of Tahiti Tourism. She coordinated his wedding group to Bora Bora and formed more relationships from that guest list.
This became a common trend for Schmitt. Through planning destination weddings, Schmitt gets access to a whole spectrum of travelers — from the 85-year-old grandmother down to the five-year-old niece. Schmitt says the name was never prohibitive of the type of travel she sold, since the real thing she was pitching to clients was neither weddings nor honeymoons — it was herself. She adds that for most of the agency’s existence group travel and her FIT business grew at a near-equal pace but recently FIT has actually surpassed group travel. Currently, Divine Destination Weddings & Honeymoons sells 58 percent FIT and 42 percent group travel. There’s still plenty happening in the weddings sector, however.
While destinations like Mexico, the Caribbean, Hawaii and South Pacific remain strong options, Schmitt is seeing some transition to new destinations. Italy and Greece — as expected — continue to grow in popularity, but a destination Schmitt is really excited about is Ireland due to its beautiful castles and green fields. “Who wouldn’t want to get married in a castle?” she asks.
“Its proximity to the U.S. makes it an easy destination for flights — and the dramatic coastlines, beautiful landscapes, culture and historical relevance make it very attractive,” she adds. To learn more about the country, she will be spending two weeks there with her family this July. Other destinations she is bullish on are India, Bhutan, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Arctic.
Schmitt is also in the process of working with several luxury hotels in Mexico and Hawaii to create exclusive wedding packages for Divine Destination Weddings clients.
“Many luxury hotels and non-all-inclusive hotels offer a wedding package that leaves a lot of the pricing wide open,” Schmitt notes. “The hotel believes they are leaving the packages open for customization, but they are often too vague for the couple to really get a true cost of the final wedding. Couples like to know that they can afford the wedding they desire at the hotel they love. If there is any doubt, they will change hotels before they compromise their wedding wish list.”
For example, Schmitt says, a package may be listed at $3,000++ with F&B minimums but doesn’t include all the components that a couple needs for a wedding. “The couple has to hope and pray that they can afford all the extras: décor, linens, centerpieces, photography, aisle runner, music, microphone and flowers,” she says. “The couple would rather see the package cost $18,000 inclusive of the extras.
“We are working together to create these more inclusive packages that will help couples see a truer final cost and big picture — but they will still have freedom to make changes and to customize.”
Not only are wedding destinations changing, but what couples are asking for is also changing, according to Schmitt. While several traditions remain strong, such as the ceremony or a reception with dancing, many couples are looking for “something unique” to do the night prior to the wedding — such as catamaran charters, private tequila tastings or, in Mexico, taking the group to a temazcal to get cleansed by a shaman “and have this bonding experience together, that’s more spiritual,” as Schmitt explains.
This isn’t to say all weddings follow the same blueprint; some clients are asking for non-traditional ceremonies, as well. Schmitt tells us of a wedding she recently worked on where the groom was Jewish and the bride was “spiritual,” so he brought a rabbi and she brought her yogini to split the ceremony for both beliefs.
With destination weddings and honeymoons making up roughly half of her business, Schmitt says that Zika did pose some problems for her agency. In most instances, Divine Destination Weddings & Honeymoons was able to reroute the wedding to avoid certain delimitations if someone in the wedding party was pregnant or planning to be by the time of the wedding. There were a few cancellations, but Schmitt notes Zika had “a very minimal impact” on business.
Not Just Weddings
In 2017, Schmitt had set several goals for her business. The first was to increase her planning fees, which now range from $50 to $500 based on the group size and complexity of the itinerary. As she only has ICs, she couldn't force any of them to add fees but strongly suggested it. "Our consultants are now successfully collecting those fees and strengthening their businesses," Schmitt tells us. By charging fees, Divine Destination Weddings & Honeymoons is able to vet potential clients based on how serious they are — thus eliminating price shoppers.
"You want clients that value your planning and your expertise, so I'm a huge proponent of charging fees," Schmitt says, adding that she must speak with clients on the phone before deciding to do business with them. "It's a personality check," she says. "I don't take on all clients. I take on the clients that I feel I can add value to, and that value my services, have realistic expectations for travel and hear what I'm saying. There has to be a connection that this is going to be a successful relationship — even if I have to work really, really hard for it, I'm okay with that."
April Schmitt: “You want clients that value your planning and your expertise, so I’m a huge proponent of charging fees.”
Another goal of Schmitt's was to see growth in FIT business, including safaris, private-driver vacations, river cruises and Signature hotel bookings. Schmitt tells Luxury Travel Advisor she gives plenty of credit in achieving this to Signature's marketing platform, which she describes as "very focused, very targeted."
Part of Divine Destination Weddings & Honeymoons is Travel by Divine, which Schmitt started four years ago. "We call that the after-the-wedding plan," she says.
Once guests travel under Divine Destination Weddings & Honeymoons, the marketing converts to Travel by Divine. Because it's the same faces and same umbrella, as Schmitt says, clients are comfortable making the branding switch. Currently, they both operate on the same Divine Destination Weddings & Honeymoons website, but Schmitt has her fingers crossed that she can get Travel by Divine operating on its own site by summer.
Schmitt tells us she recently completed a six-week itinerary through Europe, which ended up as a much different vacation than the one proposed to her by her clients — 60-year-old high-school sweethearts who recently reunited and are celebrating their one-year anniversary. The plan was to visit several European capitals, spend a week in each, and rent apartments where he could cook for her to save some money.
"I could see that was not at all the kind of trip that she envisioned," Schmitt tells us.
"Part of the job is working as a mediator between two people with different ideas that love each other and bringing them together to agree on the same type of trip where each of them can have a bit of what they want and overall have the perfect experience together," she adds.
After Schmitt's input, the couple decided to abandon their plan almost entirely. Instead of apartments, they are now staying in four- and five-star hotels, and instead of a week in each capital, they will be doing more moving. The itinerary currently includes a stop in Paris, followed by a Viking River Cruise through France before a flight to Italy, where they will be visiting Florence, Siena, Rome and Sorrento. Stays in Athens and Santorini conclude the trip.
"They did come up in their budget quite a bit, but after showing them, 'This is what you're asking me for and this is what you're telling me you want,' and showing them the differences, they both came back and said, 'Yes, what you're showing us is what we want,'" she says.
Schmitt does have a bit of a secret when it comes to her clients — television, and, in particular, reality television. (Promise not to tell anyone.)
We're told that she recently booked a $26,000 vacation for a mother and daughter who wanted to tour "Game of Thrones" destinations in Ireland and Scotland. Schmitt wasn't familiar with some of the destinations, so she had to rely on the knowledge of her destination specialists to guide her. In some instances, some of the suppliers weren't sure of how to meet all the requirements, but they reached out to Schmitt as she said they would figure it out. ("I don't like brick walls unless everything else has been knocked down first," Schmitt tells us.)
Other shows that Schmitt, let's say, does her "research" on are "The Bachelor," "The Real Housewives," "Survivor" and "Keeping Up With the Kardashians." When "The Bachelor" showed an engagement in Tahiti and filmed in Costa Rica, Schmitt points out it was a boost to the economies and for business to the destinations. When "The Real Housewives" filmed at Grand Velas, Schmitt had a booking directly because of the episode. And when "Survivor" filmed in Fiji, she had clients come to her asking, "What is it like? Does the water really look like that?"
Recently, U by Uniworld made an appearance on "The Bachelor." Schmitt's agency immediately began to strategize a social media and marketing plan to bring attention to the product. "I was thrilled to see the U by Uniworld on 'The Bachelor,'" she says. "It is a fun, new product that was needed in this space. It will absolutely help close sales to the younger-than-45 demographic."
Staying up to date on pop culture is more than just booking topical trips for clients; it's about building a relationship with them, as well. "Sometimes people will ask for these destinations without saying where they saw it, and then if I say, 'Oh yeah, well 'The Bachelor' just filmed there, did you watch that episode?'" Oftentimes, the client admits that's where the idea came from, and it gives Schmitt and her client something to bond over.
Experiencing destinations firsthand is also of utmost importance for Schmitt. "I cannot imagine trying to sell the world having not experienced it myself," she notes. Each year, she tries to visit a couple of new destinations. Most travel, including to new destinations, are self-guided educational trips that she puts together. Last year, Schmitt took her team to Fiji; the year before it was Saint Lucia. This year, the team trip will be to Hawaii, while other short trips include Mexico, Dominican Republic, Italy and Spain where the team will pack in as many hotel visits as they can, just to stay up to date.
"We can fit in six to nine hotels in one day," Schmitt tells Luxury Travel Advisor. "We don't mess around when we do an educational — there is no beach time, no feet in the sand; it is go down, get serious business done, come home and sell."
She is also always on the lookout for new advisors to add but tells us growing in size isn't extremely important to her.
"I am quite picky when it comes to working with people and expanding the company because our standards and our service goals are so high," she says, noting service goals — not sales goals — are the most important. "If I met a few amazing consultants, and that everything lined up with our business practice, then I would consider bringing on a few more high-quality people. But I would rather be small and mighty than large and average."
Having control over her business is something that Schmitt is very proud of. "Being in travel is an amazing career but running my own business has been truly fulfilling," she says.
"I was in the corporate world for a long time — in a man's world in brokerage and investments, and when I left that world I thought: No. 1, I never want to work for somebody else, No. 2, I always want to choose who I work with, and No. 3, I'm never going to wear pantyhose again."
That isn't to say she takes her industry for granted. "I feel like a treasure hunter," Schmitt says. "I wake up every day wondering what new discovery I can uncover. I am inspired when I learn something new, something special that can really make the client experience more memorable."
Divine Destination Weddings & Honeymoons
Headquarters: Granite Bay, CA
Top Executive: April Schmitt, CEO
Number of Agents: Nine independent contractors
Annual Volume of Business: $4.3 million
Affiliations: Signature Travel Network
Advisory Board Positions: Signature Hotel Committee, Classic Vacations Groups Advisory Committee