Move over Switzerland and Jaipur, the big fat Indian wedding has just found a new venue. As South East Asian countries vie for the Indian bride and groom's attention (and that of their 700 guests, as well), the wedding planner has become the new junket junkie, finds Yolande D'Mello
His office walls are filled with pictures of newly wed couples standing hand in hand, smiling ear to ear against picture-perfect white-sand beaches with white veils swaying in the wind. At his Nariman Point office, Sethphan Buddhani, director, Tourism Authority of Thailand searches for the words and then turns to a glossy brochure to describe the Indian wedding experience in Thailand.
"Last year we had 100 large-scale weddings held in Thailand, and we helped 40 per cent of them by arranging for faster visa procurements and lessening the duty on the jewellery that the families brought into the country. This year, we expect the number to increase by at least five per cent.
The wedding season will continue till February and we are happy to welcome our neighbours to celebrate their special day," smiles Buddhani. The sales pitch Buddhani is offering isn't new, but by the looks of it, his customers are. In the past few years alone, at least two tourism boards of South East Asian countries have begun taking Indian wedding planners on 'junkets', or familiarisation tours, so that they in turn, can sell foreign destinations as possible wedding venues.
In June 2011, Thai Air Asia and the Tourism Authority of Thailand jointly conducted a six-day tour to the country for 22 wedding planners from across India, to showcase the services in Thailand available to organise Indian weddings. This was the second time they had organised such a tour -- last year they had taken 15 wedding planners to Trat, Bangkok, Phuket and Krabi in June.
Malaysia Tourism Board, on the other hand, began conducting such tours in 2007. Till date, more than 300 Indian weddings have taken place there. Maldives will be starting tours and promotion campaigns to promote the small island country as a wedding destination in 2012, informs the honorary consul of the Republic of Maldives, Shalin Tandon.
Regal Weddings, an Udaipur-based wedding planner company attended the event with 22 other wedding and event planners from Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai. "The tourism board invited planners who had an online presence and have been in the industry for nine years. They were made to explore 16 resorts and were introduced to vendors who would aid in organising the wedding," says co-founder Ankit Bhargava, whose partner Vishv Vijae, attended this junket.
Regal Weddings already caters to foreign clients who wish to have a wedding in India, and Bhargava is in talks to organise a wedding of an Indian couple in Phuket -- his first such business deal. "We cater to foreigners, who choose Indian destination weddings. We also cater to NRIs who want a big Indian wedding." he says.
However, he feels that Indian destinations are facing competition from countries like Malaysia and Thailand that are more cost-effective and fit in well with the burgeoning aspirational quality of the Indian middle class experience.
"Fiji and Hawaii were top destinations at one point of time. Today Jaipur's palaces and Goa's beaches are popular, no thanks to the states' tourism boards. Kerala is the only state that is depicted as a 'romantic' destination. The rest of the Indian destinations for weddings are promoted by hotel conglomerates and airlines," he adds.
Gurleen Puri, who has been a wedding planner for the last 25 years feels foreign destination weddings are a logistical nightmare. "Europe and UK are turning out to be too expensive to cater to the big fat Indian wedding. While Southeast Asia may be cost effective, the hidden costs are several. There are factors that you must consider like declaring jewellery, travelling with older relatives, medical matters in a foreign country and availability of Indian materials in foreign countries."
The Thailand Tourism Board, however, is promoting Thailand as a wedding destination aggressively. On September 1, they promised special incentives to the first 50 couples who approached them to get married in Thailand.
"We help couples out by putting Visa procedures on fast track, relaxing custom duty and making special consideration for luggage. In addition, we had a police escort for the couple at the airport and a traditional welcome dance at the hotel. This is our way of promoting our culture," explains Buddhani.
For Manoharan Periasamy, director, Tourism Malaysia, campaigns to promote the country as a wedding and honeymoon destination is a work-in-progress. "We focus on the rich variety of experiences available in Malaysia -- the beaches, theme parks, modern cities, shopping, friendly people and the comfort level that an Indian would feel in Malaysia due to the large local ethnic Indian presence."
Some of the hot wedding destinations in Malaysia are the Pangkor Island, Langkawi Islands, Tioman Island and wildlife destinations like Sabah and Sarawak, Periasamy informs us. Unavailability of venues during peak wedding season and noise restrictions are other reasons why Indians choose to go abroad to get married, says D'Abreo, director Sales and Marketing, Marry Me. "Thailand, Sri Lanka and Bali have been popular for a while now, and will continue to be. Then, the Maldives and European countries like France and Venice are also gaining in popularity," says D'Abreo.
"Thailand has always been a popular wedding destination for European tourists though India is just catching on to the trend. While European weddings have around 30 to 40 guests, Indian weddings come with a guest list of 600-700 and at least 400 extend their stay. Each Indian tourist spends approximately one million Baht, which is a significant amount for tourism revenue. Also, Thailand and Malaysia can be a whole lot cheaper than Rajasthan. It has been observed that a guest attending a wedding ends up spending more during their visit to a particular country, than other corporate travellers," says D'Abreo.
Buddhani offers up an example. Anand Jain, owner of Jaicorp Ltd, planned his son Harsh's wedding at the Royal Flora hotel in northern Thailand last year. "They booked three hotels for 1,000 guests -- it was the talk of the town. The event was attended by the family's close friend Anil Ambani."
But he hastens to add, "You don't need to be an industrialist to afford a wedding in Thailand. At the same price that you would pay for one hotel room in Mumbai, you can get three such rooms in Thailand." It's a smart move, agrees Bhargava, "You get great value for money in Thailand. In a budget of Rs 60 lakh, if you can cater to a crowd of 700 for a one-night outdoor reception in Mumbai or Delhi, you can accommodate 100 people for a two-day affair in Thailand and give them the experience of going to an international locale. The cost works out to Rs 25,000 per head including accommodation, but not air travel."
A (typical) Indian wedding Destination weddings follow the format of a two-day itinerary, which starts off with guests arriving in the morning, mehendi ceremonies in the afternoon, and sangeet in the evening of the first day. The following day is reserved for a puja and the wedding ceremony, with a reception at night. Guests are given two days after the wedding to sightsee. Regal Weddings also organises cricket matches between the families of the bride and groom to help them get acquainted.
Bhargava also has an in-house marketing and production unit to organise food and decoration. "Local vendors in Thailand are aware of Indian and specifically, Hindu customs and can handle food, decoration and entertainment. Families prefer to take along their own pandit or priest to make sure they don't miss out on specific rituals, but other than that, Thailand has every service you could need."
D'Abreo agrees, "Some international chains hire top Indian chefs and staff so that Indian customs are taken care of." However, wedding budgets can go up to Rs 90 lakh or Rs 1 crore. "The biggest cost is accommodation.
Then comes transport, food, d �cor and entertainment. Foreigners let guests foot the bill for air travel, but Indians prefer to take care of all costs." A celebrity guest, hired to mingle with the crowd, can add an additional Rs 50 lakh. With wedding planners increasingly sold on the idea of a foreign destination wedding, the whole world's your stage if you're next in line.
The photo finish wedding brigade The Rock 'n' Roll Las Vegas Marathon started out like any other marathon on December 4 with 44,000 runners competing on the 26.2-mile course. But it wasn't just about sport for 41 couples that took a break from the half-marathon to exchange vows in a run-through wedding ceremony. Brides with veils tucked into ponytails and grooms with bow ties above T-shirt collars recited vows and then rejoined the marathon to complete the race. Though they didn't make first place and the $1,000 prize went to Peter Omae, an athlete from Kenya, the brides did make good time with wedding bands that made sure everyone was a winner.