Business commitment: 'Engagement-cations' spawn the betrothal butler

The Woodlands Inn’s “betrothal butler” Dale Wherry helps men plan the perfect proposal at the prestigious Summerville property.

Brad Nettles

Some people credit the royal engagement of Prince William to Kate Middleton, that fairy tale proposal thousands of feet high on the slopes of Mount Kenya, with the growing engagement vacation trend.

But here in Charleston, the get-engaged getaway is nothing new. Ryan Phillippe proposed to Reese Witherspoon at The Planters Inn on Market Street in 1998, arguably before the Holy City became an "it" spot for getting hitched.

You won't find it in Webster's yet, but the so-called "engagement-cation" numbers among American Express' top five trends to watch in 2011.

Specialists with the global credit card and travel company say their customers taking romantic trips most frequently ask for recommendations on where to propose.

One local property decided to capitalize on that trend by giving its director of catering and sales a second title beginning this Valentine's Day: "betrothal butler."

Ring bearer

Meet Dale Wherry, a 10-year veteran of the only property in the Carolinas to receive a AAA Five Diamond and a Forbes Five Star for both accommodations and dining.

In addition to running catering and sales at Summerville's Woodlands Inn, Wherry also works as betrothal butler, bride adviser and, in some cases, guidance counselor.

And since we know you're wondering, the answer is no; in that decade of proposals, he's never once heard a denial.

When nervous grooms-to-be call Woodlands with plans to pop the question, the staff connects them with Wherry, who invites them out for a chat. He walks the men around the inn, through the dining room and into the gardens at no charge.

Sometimes he recommends Table 41, a two-topper isolated from the rest of the restaurant and nestled between two white columns.

Wherry also brings them through the Winter Garden, a secluded little spot where prospective grooms can take the traditional one-knee approach. He's seen rings tied to croquet mallets and dropped in champagne glasses, after boyfriends hand off the diamonds to Woodlands staff in advance.

"Which is very scary, by the way," chimes in general manager Casey Lavin.

Wherry already has helped two men who plan to propose at Woodlands on Valentine's Day this year. Lavin said the engagements often cluster around Feb. 14 and New Year's Eve, plus extra activity in the spring months.

Lavin himself turned to a hotel general manager in the Bahamas to make sure his own proposal played out as planned. He and his fiancee will marry this April.

"By nature in this industry we're romantics, and the majority of dudes aren't," Lavin said.

So what's the benefit to the property for all the extra effort? Plenty of people who get engaged there might return for rehearsal dinners, wedding ceremonies and anniversary celebrations, Lavin explained.

"People who have gotten engaged here are loyal to the Woodlands," he added.

Isn't it romantic?

That's the point: making a place special in a couple's story, so they come back to relive it again and again.

Local matrimony master David Rister, who owns A Charleston Wedding and serves on the board of the National Association of Wedding Professionals, said he often sees couples who live in another state get engaged in town and return for their ceremony.

"There's the old tale that we're No. 2, behind Vegas," Rister said.

Debbie Dos Santos, a Mount Pleasant-based travel consultant, said she helps couples who know about Charleston's charm and want recommendations on the best places to stay and dine during their visit.

"It's such a romantic city, and I've found people come here to get engaged and come back for the wedding," she said.

In 2009, Travel + Leisure readers ranked Charleston second in the country for a romantic escape in its "America's Favorite Cities" survey, losing out only to Honolulu.

Last March, Southern Living ran a cover story titled "Charleston's Romantic Charm," highlighting the architecture, landscape and cuisine that bring visitors back again and again.

The January issue of Southern Living named the Restoration on King as the South's best new romantic stay.

Like Woodlands, the boutique hotel overlooking King and Wentworth streets ran with the engagement vacation concept and recently rolled out the "Simply Yes Package."

Starting at $1,500, the package includes a two-night stay in a balcony suite with a five-course meal prepared by a private chef, a private carriage tour and a hot stones couples massage, plus extra perks.

Michael Tall, senior vice president at Charlestowne Hotels, said couples seem drawn to the company's Restoration on King property for the look of exposed brick and tall ceilings, but also for the private kitchens and quiet setting in the heart of the shopping district.

"Once that Southern Living piece came out, you see a ton of people coming in, and their age is a little younger than somebody who has discretionary income," Tall said. "It's not our entire market, but you can tell when you've got a couple in there that's 26 or 27 years old. They're on their honeymoon or engaged or they're going to get engaged."

Reach Allyson Bird at 937-5594.