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Indian destination weddings – minding the big, fat, business

Industry estimates show that about 350 such weddings were solemnised in overseas locations in 2014, with an average guest count of 300-400 per event. The size and volume of such weddings celebrated overseas are growing exponentially with a year-on-year growth of 18 per cent.

Marriages may be made in heaven but Indians are celebrating them in splendour and style at exotic overseas destinations, with revenue from such events exceeding US$ 30 billion annually. Industry estimates show that about 350 such weddings were solemnised in overseas locations in 2014, with an average guest count of 300-400 per event. The size and volume of such weddings celebrated overseas are growing exponentially with a year-on-year growth of 18 per cent.
 
Weddings are a time for family bonding and hence the elaborate rituals, some religious and others fun-filled, are spread over 3-4 days. The destination wedding programme includes, mehendi (decorating palms and forearms, with intricate designs with a colourful paste that stays for a week), ring ceremony (formal blessing cum engagement ceremony) , sangeet (a day of singing and dancing), haldi (smearing of the bride and groom with turmeric paste), and finally shaadi (the wedding). A priest reads the mantras (wedding vows, repeated by the couple) and finally exchange of floral garlands and seven steps walked together around the ceremonial fire.
 
Nearer home, Thailand has stolen a march over other destinations in hosting about 170 weddings in 2014 according to Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) sources, a fact, emphatically corroborated by the travel trade. Hua Hin and Phuket are the most popular destinations as they offer proximity (most large cities are connected by direct flights to Bangkok and the transit to Hua Hin is very quick), world class accommodation at reasonable cost, Thai hospitality – the “Can Do” mind set, familiar environment (many Indians have visited Thailand more than once) and shopping. Most of the major hotels in Hua Hin are well geared for the often unusual requests of Indian wedding clients and have an Indian wedding expert on board to coordinate with guests, local and overseas suppliers. The hotels usually have Indian chefs or allow clients to bring in their own to work in their kitchens since there are many different communities in India with varied dietary requirements. The demand for bands to play Indian music, event planners to arrange Indian dance parties, fireworks, elephants or horses for the groom to arrive on, are de rigueur at Indian weddings. Indian sweets or special floral decoration and Bollywood themes with celebrity entertainers are very common. In Thailand, Khao Lak, Koh Samui, Chiang Mai and Bangkok are also popular for Indian weddings.
 
Vijay Dadhich, managing director, Blue Moon Travels said, “With a rapidly growing urban Indian middle class who want to have an exclusive wedding, away from home and yet be talked about; Indian weddings in overseas destinations are becoming more and more popular.” On an average, wedding functions span over 3 to 5 days of festivity. Guests usually extend their stay in Bangkok when they go for a wedding to Thailand. The group size ranges from 200 to 500 guests but have been known to touch 800 or more in some instances. 
 
Runjuan Tongrut, former director, TAT New Delhi office said, “Hotels and resorts in Thailand interested in the wedding business can send the hotel details and facilities to TAT via email, and it will be released in TAT Face Book as well as in wedding web site. TAT organizes Wedding Planner’s FAM trips, in which we invite top wedding planners to experience the destination that they can suggest to their clients.” TAT also organizes road-shows and interested hotels can participate in the road-show to promote their offerings. TAT also advises them to study the Indian market, get familiar with the modalities of Indian weddings. Dadhich added, “hotels need to provide open spaces for various religious rituals like the traditional fire, a stage set-up for entertainment and Indian cuisine are a must. They should use their NTOs and invite wedding planners for familiarisation.
 
Bali, the peaceful haven, is a very popular choice for Indian brides and grooms to tie the knot and exchange wedding vows. Many hotels in the Nusa Dua, Ubud and Jimbaran area in Bali have hosted Indian wedding groups. The key reason for their popularity is that they are away from the madding crowd, convenient flights, visa on arrival, cultural similarity that creates a homely environment and a huge range of hotels and resorts at affordable prices. The common denominator among the preferred locations, is peace and tranquillity. Beach weddings are a favoured choice and Indonesia hosted 30 or so weddings. 
 
Paul Edmundus, managing director, Floressa Bali Tours said, “Indian weddings are very colourful, and music and food play an important role. In Bali we are able to understand the need of the Indian guest and offer innovations whenever required. It is important to understand that for the bride and groom and also for the family it is once-in-a-lifetime experience that fond memories are made of.” 
 
New destinations are emerging with success stories of Indian weddings. Oman hosted a 700-guest event at Shangri La Al Waha in Muscat in November last year over 3 days. Another wedding with 1100 guests, 880 were from India and the rest were friends and family from other countries; was celebrated in January at the same venue. Lubaina Sheerazi, India Representative, Oman Tourism said, “In 2015 we will promote Oman as a wedding destination. The destination has an expatriate population of about 600,000 and the local people are very comfortable with Indians. This makes for a very warm and hospitable experience. Moreover it’s just a 2 hour 10 minute flight from Mumbai.
 
Vivek Anand, country manager India, Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority (MTPA) said, “We hosted 9 weddings and one silver wedding anniversary in 2014 with 300 guests at each event for 3 nights. Jain (strictly vegetarian Indian food) was served wherever required. 70 per cent of the local population are of Indian origin so the comfort level runs high. We have 10 weddings already confirmed for 2015.” Food and flowers are allowed into the country without quarantine restrictions and entry and exit with heavy jewellery that Indian women wear is permitted.
 
MTPA offers cash incentive of Mauritius Rupees 100,000 for a group of 100 guests and Mauritius Rupees 200,000 for a group of 250 or more. Special immigration counters, complimentary Sega dance performances, duty free alcoholic beverages and VIP security cover are some freebies that the NTO offers. In addition Air Mauritius offers 30-33 kilos of baggage, 10 kilos over the normal 23 kilos offered on their flights informed Girish Vidwans, head of sales & marketing India, of the national carrier. “We can personalise the in-flight catering too for wedding groups,” revealed Vidwans.
 
Weddings in the Indian milieu are once-in-a-lifetime events that need to be special and spectacular at the same time cementing the social (and economic) standing of the bride’s and groom’s family. Money is saved by parents for the child’s education and wedding. Consequently, the budget for a wedding is often disproportionately higher than the income of the family who feel it is the parental duty to marry off their children well, and often ostentatiously. The expenditure from accumulated savings renders this niche segment to be recession-proof.
 
Seema Kadam, area manager, Switzerland Tourism informed that 3 Indian weddings were held in Montreaux, St. Moritz and Interlaken in the last year.
 
Langkawi, in western Malaysia is also a hot choice for Indian weddings. The serenity of the destination combined with all the common factors that enable the acceptance of the destination for a wedding, are all present in Langkawi. A large selection of beach-front resorts is an added plus.
 
A major destination wedding-planner, Anshuman Mitra, director, Starlite DMC said, “USP’s of favoured destinations are: 
* Direct connectivity from major Indian airports.  
* Good seat capacity/inventory as major airlines are flying into these destinations 
* Competitive pricing for both air and ground logistics 
* Branded and attractive stand alone hotels/resorts 
* Easy availability of ‘authentic’ Indian Food  
* Feel-at-home factor as all of the chosen destinations, Indians are well respected and accepted. 
* Transparent tax structures, unlike India, where every State has different tax structure on Food, Beverage, Hotel, Transport followed by GST and VAT.
* Ease of obtaining visas, preferably on arrival.
 
Ease of payment by cash is a major plus. Majority of rich and aspiring Indians are ‘cash rich’ and no longer have the comfort in India of spending large sums in cash for a big fat Indian wedding. Due to stringent Income Tax laws, major hotels and resorts in India, insist on cheque/credit card payments or else ask for the PAN (Income Tax Payee) details, if paying in cash. This is a deterrent and people look at international destinations with alternative payment facilities.  
 
The right venue must be a resort or a hotel with a resort ‘feel’, which will give an edge over a typical hotel. A large banquet hall, space for a party by the pool side, kids activities and a spa. Close proximity to a trendy shopping mall will provide an edge! The ability to adapt to last minute changes and demands and dollops of patience are a must.” added Mitra.  
 
The big, fat Indian wedding will continue to add weight in a growing market. Many branded and popular hotels are getting hooked to this business as it not only gives enhanced gross volumes, better Return on Investment but also helps in increasing the ever growing FIT/Family holidays and repeat clientele. Few of these brands are Starwood, Hilton, Kempinski, Shangri-La, Fairmont, International Hotels Group, Royal Cliff, Marriott, as well as some stand-alone properties” asserts Mitra.
 
Manas Sinha, director-key accounts India, Banyan Tree Resorts said, “India is a very promising source market for luxury weddings. Many clients seek our exclusive pool villas and spas.” 
 
Recently, a wedding group of 170 guests was flown in to the Alila, Hua Hin by Starlite DMC, a New Delhi-based outbound events company. Says Mitra, the final bill for five days stay and celebration was Rupees 25.4 million (US$600,000 approximately). “The reason for choosing a reputed hotel chain is the assurance of service levels,” said Mitra. “We had the owner and the general manager of the property and all staff present till 4 a.m. when the fireworks were on”. Most wedding parties do not travel only with kith and kin but also with an entourage of wedding facilitators from home including videographers who know the key moments to capture. Kolkata-based fashion designer Kiran Uttam Ghosh recently designed an ensemble for a high profile wedding at a vineyard in the breathtaking Napa Valley, California. Ghosh, an invitee, described the event as “a moment out of time”. The bride’s trousseau and the family’s outfits are generally designed by Indian designers. 
 
Among other destinations that are increasingly appearing on the wedding planners’ and honeymooner map are Maldives and Sri Lanka. Both have good weather, unique combination of culture and beaches, hotels that fit all budgets from moderate to luxury categories and visas on arrival. 
 
Sushil Wadhwa, chairman, Platinum World Group said, “We are organising weddings in off-beat destinations like the Napa Valley in California, Las Vegas, Monaco, St. Tropez, Istanbul, castles in Ireland and Tuscany. To lure Indian weddings a hotel must be able to offer high quality Indian cuisine above all else. Requests for horses, elephants, late night outdoor events, open space for fireworks are par for the course.” 
 
As affluence levels rise in India, the need to mark out a higher social standing and an opportunity to spend on this legitimate celebration of a person’s life makes for the transformed nature of the wedding. The idea of destination weddings with all the accompanying stardust (yes, popular Bollywood actors often dance and sing at the weddings for an astronomical fee) is a consumerist trend. Says Vijay Bokadia, managing director of Kolkata and Mumbai based Moksh Events Pvt. Ltd., organizer of overseas weddings and coordinator of celebrity appearances, “The minimum spend on a Bollywood celebrity appearance at a wedding overseas is Rupees 5 million and can go up to Rupees 100 million. In 2012, an Indian wedding of a family from Rajasthan, held in Bangkok had Shakira and A.R.Rahman making appearances and belting out a few songs. The sum involved is anybody’s guess”.
 
A case in point is the wedding of Hotmail founder Sabeer Bhatia and Tania Sharma, heiress of the Baidyanath group in 2008, on a private island in Langkawi. The apparel designers, make-up artists, favourite DJs to mix the best of Indian and popular music to dance to, and catering by the Taj Group of Hotels, who flew in their best chefs from all over the world.
 
Says Jatinder Gupta, partner of Amritsar-based Dove Travels, “We organized one wedding at Royal Cliff Beach Resort in Pattaya and one in Four Seasons Hotel in Koh Samui in the last few months with about 120 guests each and a stay of four nights. Suppliers based in Bangkok arranged the construction of the mandap (the floral canopy under which the wedding rites are performed), mehendi artistes, an elephant for the groom and priests from the Arya Samaj, all in Thailand”. Shreyash Shah, director of sales MICE at Royal Cliff Beach Resort Pattaya confirmed that they hosted 8-10 Indian weddings every year.
 
Destination wedding bookings are done through outbound travel agents and tour operators who have a track record of arranging weddings and honeymoons. They in turn work with their ground handling agents in the respective countries. A venue inspection is arranged and a few members of the family may go for a couple of days to see the hotel/resort and proposed venues for the various events to be held over 4-5 days of celebration. Generally, a country that the family has often visited before, and have an affinity for, is chosen. Food and beverage, probably the most important aspect of the event is carefully planned with chefs reputed for Indian cuisine. If necessary, the chefs are flown in from India prior to the wedding group’s arrival to arrange the logistics with the inbound agent and local suppliers. All booking of flights and confirmation of venues is made at least 8-12 months in advance. 
 
K.D.Singh, managing director of New Delhi based Travel Bullz India Pvt. Ltd. is a prominent wedding event organizer who picks hotels that have experience in handling Indian guests for a decade or more, like Royal Cliff Beach Resort, Pattaya and Royal Orchid Sheraton Hotel & Towers in Bangkok among several others.
 
Istanbul is slowly appearing on the Indian wedding map because of excellent hotels on the Bosphorus and its romantic setting”, say Bokadia of Moksh Events. “Not only weddings but other celebrations like 25th wedding anniversary, 50th birthday, 25th year college alumni reunion, children’s college graduation are also being taken to overseas destinations. The enhancement in social status is a big motivator, while sometimes the cost of organizing a wedding in Goa may be more expensive than doing so in Thailand”. 
 
Hotels are eager to capitalize on the traditional lavish Indian wedding, which can be a week-long series of multiple celebrations. The Venetian Hotel in Macau, owned by Sands, hired an Indian chef to entice people to bring their weddings to them. The hotel offers Indian cuisine catering and will help plan the special event according to traditional customs and rituals. 
 
The luxury hotel in Singapore, Marina Bay Sands, held a road show in India where it lured Indian couples for weddings at the property by offering ‘Pheras in the Sky’ and glamorous casino receptions.
 
Indian destination weddings have proved to be an enduring segment for the travel trade. Budgets are not restrictive, but the logistics of movement and events are often challenging. Most destinations, NTOs and DMCs are actively courting this clientele with avid interest.

 

 

Consultant Editor - TravelDailyNews Asia-Pacific | Website | + Articles

Shekhar is a veteran journalist and destination marketing consultant. With over three decades of experience in covering MICE and all aspects of tourism, he continues to travel extensively and contribute news, analysis and commentary on trends in the industry, globally. Email: shekhar.niyogi@gmail.com

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