Podcast | Digging Deeper: The business of weddings

Podcast | Digging Deeper: The business of weddings

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In 2010, a sleeper Yash Raj hit called Band Baaja Baraat rejigged a lot of things not just in the Hindi film industry but in the way middle-class India looked at the business of weddings.

It spun a story that blended the youthful yearning for a better life with the idea that even small budget weddings could be managed professionally. Just a delicious twist of fate that both stars of the film ended up having designer weddings though of course, the budget was far more than Bittu or Shruti in the film could have envisaged.

By 2016, many young aspirants like the protagonists of Band Baaja Baraat had joined the recession-proof, ever expanding wedding market.  In May that year, a Business Standard piece reported that booming start-ups and wedding planning websites had replaced uncles and aunts as event managers of the quintessential Indian wedding and the industry, was hovering around the staggering figure of $40-50 billion.

The piece reported how even Wharton-graduate Dharam Mehta had founded Wedwise in October 2015 and 25-year-old Sanna Vohra’s Wedding Brigade had raised Rs 4 crore in pre-series A round of funding led by Blume Ventures.

In this Moneycontrol Deep Dive podcast, we will try to examine the all-consuming business of the big, fat, Indian wedding.

But what really drives this business? The numbers, of course. As Business Standard reported, “There are 10-12 million weddings in the country in a year. Also, India is set to become the youngest country in the world by 2020, when the median age will be 29 years and the wedding industry will benefit from this demographic dividend.”

Big money, bigger aspirations

 Even before professional planners began to take a bite out of the layered confection that is the Indian wedding market, Wharton alumnus Dharam Mehta  had put his finger on exactly why it was lucrative to tap into its endless possibilities.

“People tend to spend almost 30 per cent of their life savings on weddings, “he had said and the spending patterns are only increasing with Instgramable celebrity nupitals fanning aspirations like never before.

In 2016 alone, as Manas Wadhwa, founder of Weddingplz, had told Business Standard, The industry was clocking 25-30 per cent growth, and there were 300,000 vendors across the country, which together employed three million people during the peak season.

Another savvy trend sniffer and the brain behind WedMeGood, Anand Shahani, had said that seasonality was increasingly coming down, making weddings a round-the-year industry and that with more couples actively involved in the decision making, weddings were becoming more personalised, thus necessitating a planner. Almost 25 percent weddings are now ‘destination weddings, he had said.

His company was aiming for Rs 100 crore revenue by 2020.

The optics of a designer wedding

 The Instagram generation has taken the Indian wedding away from the thermocol backdrops in overdecked halls and turned it into a consummable fantasy where every moment must be orchestrated to perfection to leave a virtual trail of wistfulness among onlookers. Scroll down your social media feed.

Even regular, middle-class couples are getting pointers from Karan Johar’s  films. And  having pre wedding  shoots, creating customised  floral themes, sending unusual invites, name dropping designers and wearing them, inviting a famous face  to drop by for a photo op. All of this has become part of what is now known as #weddinggoals.

The recent Veere Ki Wedding has also unleashed a copycat hashtag frenzy.  The inescapable hashtags that all wedding guests must use while posting pictures of the social media-savvy couple on their twitter handles and elsewhere, establish one thing. Weddings are no longer about who you are marrying. They are also largely  about  the optics that tell people who you are.

According to the Hindustan Times, “Anisha Padukone wore the same Sabyasachi lehenga as Alia Bhatt at Deepika, Ranveer reception”. Weddings though personalised, may no longer be personal. They are about brand names, recall and repeat value and they drive business and trends.  But getting back to the wedding of the season.

The HT piece recalled Alia’s neon lehenga at Sonam Kapoor’s wedding reception, where she wore a statement choker in uncut diamonds with intricate kundan work and a jadau maang-tika from the Sabyasachi Heritage Jewelry collection, and compared it to Anisha’s midnight blue lehenga, uncut diamond earrings and emeralds, tourmalines and Japanese cultured pearls necklace.

Can you read between the lines here? And count just how many retail triggers are strewn across the article?

Watch Band Baaja Bride, the wedding show presided over by  Sabyasachi Mukherjee on NDTV Good Times and you will  glimpse  aspiration levels that are now stratospheric.

You see the brides-to- be in the show, being catered to by a whirlwind industry populated with specialists offering dental and cosmetic treatments, fitness tips, hair and makeup services, wedding photo shoots and decor plans and at the top of the many tiered wedding cake is Sabyasachi’s  finery dressing them from head-to-toe.

The fact that even  Sabyasachi was trolled on social media recently after forgetting to mention that his claim of dressing Deepika Padukone head to toe had excluded the mention of her wedding saree from Angadi Galleria , shows just what is at stake here. The credibility of big brands built on the backs of bigger weddings. Not surprisingly, there has been a clamour for the two sarees Deepika had picked from Angadi.

Celebrity weddings drive business

 Post a big celebrity wedding, the industry swings in to cash on the mango people’s obsession with envelop and budget busting dreams.

So when The Economic Times posts a piece with the headline, “Want to recreate Deepika Padukone’s bridal style? Bookmark these tips, “what it is telling you is to bookmark chikankari and Benarsi dupattas, Kanjeevaram sarees, style gurus, jadau jewellery and multi-strand pearl necklaces, well, you get the drift.

In a recent interview with Everything Experiential-Business World, Bhavnesh Sawhney, Director, even management company Wedniksha spoke about the shift that wedding industry in India has witnessed over the years. Wedniksha incidentally can even organise for you a cruise wedding that can cater to over 1000 guests with the help of 75 chefs, 42 beauticians on call, a dazzling 13 tier cake and tonnes of flowers.

Says the piece and we quote, “The size of the wedding industry in India is estimated to be in the range of over Rs 3 lakh crore. Given the size of the wedding market, it is also one of the biggest drivers of sales especially in sectors like jewellery, auto and consumer durables and one of the biggest employers too. With almost two crore weddings taking place in India annually, a fraction of them fall in the category of high profile weddings. One of the reputed names which designs and executes such big fat weddings is Wedniksha.”

Wedniksha began this year with Shriya Saran and Andrei Koscheev’s wedding  and managed all aspects for them right from décor to hospitality and logistics. It was a supposedly an intimate wedding, though solemnised at a royal palace in Rajasthan.

And then came the  biggie. Said Bhavnesh, “We then organised Sonam Kapoor and Anand Ahuja’s wedding which took place in the month of May followed by Poorna Patel and Namit Son’s wedding in July. “

He unabashedly says that extravagance and opulence with detailing are his company’s strength, The company has after all organized the first Indian celebration at Hotel Palazzo Versace in the City of Gold, Dubai.  For the Sangeet celebration, a stage and bar were set up at Al Maha in the middle of the desert.  And of course, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan had to perform at the occasion to make it complete.

What Wedniksha does is to take care of all the errands for the clients – small or big and it has teams to handle different departments. Based on the guest list, bookings and preparations are made and every detail is ironed out.

Says Bhavnesh to Business World, “The industry has evolved a great deal. Technology and innovation have altered the entire game. There are multiple domestic as well as international vendors and specialized services available and clients have a whole range of options on their fingertips. Today, clients can choose any exotic destination, entertainment and décor, and create everything personalized considering what suits their pocket.” Unquote.

Some of the less extravagant trends he is beginning to see are green weddings, e-cards replacing wedding cards, potted plants   instead of expensive flower arrangements and what he terms as eco glam décor with a choice of accouterments which are reusable.

Another interesting shift, according to him, expectedly is that now well-heeled families want an intimate, yes that word again, wedding with near and dear ones at an exotic international location, followed by a lavish celebration in their hometown. No prizes for guessing which celebrity weddings are giving them these ideas.

The bigger, the better

 Aspirations aside, not every young couple can afford a destination wedding or a once-in-a-lifetime wedding venue and that is why you have Elle India to rub your nose in the fact that there are those who can and do get to throw themselves the biggest, most lavish wedding parties that money can buy.

As Elle put it, “From Lakshmi Mittal’s daughter’s Palais de Versailles blowout to Adel Sajan’s Dil Dhadakne Do-themed cruise wedding, these affairs are the height of first world-ness. Love them, hate them, you know you’ve ogled at them.”

Some of us may not have been ogling but those who can spend Rs 240 crore on a wedding possibly don’t care that much about our disinterest.  Steel mogul Lakshmi Mittal’s daughter Vanisha’s wedding at the Palais de Versailles was  the second most expensive  in the world with a guest list including Shahrukh Khan and Kylie Minogue and made headlines around the world in 2004.

Sanjay Hinduja, the UK-based millionaire and secret Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani binge-watcher, as Elle India diligently informs us,  tied the knot with fashion designer Anu Mahtani in Udaipur and festivities even included Jennifer Lopez’s benign presence  and cost the happy couple  over  Rs 147 crore . Oh, and the guests were driven around in BMWs and showered with rose petals.

Elle India also reminds us also the not so pleasant months of demonetisation when Karnataka mining baron Janardhana Reddy’s daughter Brahmani married  Rajeev Reddy, weighed down by allegedly a  Rs 17 crore Kanjeevaram sari and Rs 90 crore worth of jewels. Not to forget wedding invites that were sent via LCD screens.

Unique twists on tradition sell

 Unlike the Reddy wedding, the #DeepVeer wedding  has engaged the media and trend watchers in the last few days, in mostly a positive manner. For a few striking reasons. Despite the intense scrutiny of the imagery of the wedding, it is the manner in which it was conducted that is impressing people.

Sure, they got married in the 18th Century Villa del Balbianello in Lake Como, Italy which was once featured in a Bond film with its rolling greens and the spectacular architecture. And which supposedly costs EUR 8,000 to EUR 10,000 per day, i.e. between Rs 6,54,208  and Rs 8,17,815.

But it is also remarkable that in this age when every private moment is milked for public response, the ceremonies were fiercely guarded and even guests were not allowed to click or post any pictures during the wedding.

This ironically stoked collective curiosity even more and when  carefully rationed pictures clicked by ace photographer Errikos Andreou were released, fans instantly zeroed in on to Deepika’s dupatta with its imprinted blessing of Sada Saubhagyavati Bhav, the mojris and silver frames they gave as wedding favours,  the Sabyasachi styling, her jewellery and the pastel colour theme of the mehndi.

Watch out for young brides-to-be taking cues from the wedding just as they had done when Anuskha Sharma and Virat Kohli  tied the knot in a  heritage property called,  Borgo Finocchieto, in Tuscany.

How different can you be, seems to be the celebrity wedding mantra that gains favour with the onlookers, and the media gaze is already beginning to shift to the forthcoming wedding of Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas to see what they will do differently to unbox more dreams.

The business of wedding gifts

Well, things sure have come a long way from the time when uncles and aunties fished out envelops stuffed with money on the meet-and-greet podium and handed them over to the couple. Celebrities are setting trends here too.

While many of them refuse gifts or ask for donations for their favourite causes, their much publicised wedding favours are of interest not just to brands in the business of creating customised gifts, but to those who are looking for them.

And as Deccan Chronicle reported, while many celebrities refuse gifts,  bride-to-be, Priyanka Chopra, has rumouredly set up a gift registry, and shared it on Amazon. Items in her list vary from kitchen items like utensils, pet accessories, travel bags, household items and fitness instruments like snowboard, skates, indoor bike, dumb bell set and table tennis set.

“She hasn’t forgotten her dog Diana for whom she wants a pink-coloured dog collar, GPS pet tracker, dog raincoat and pet bed. The list also includes tech products like a Canon IVY Wireless Mini Photo Printer, $2,500 LG OLED TV, Levoit air purifier and Amazon Echo Look.

While many wondered why would a super-rich couple such as PeeCee and Nick ask for a dog collar or a pet bed as their wedding gifts, the concept of a wedding or bridal registry is almost like a wedding tradition in countries like the US or UK.”

Wedding planner Gurleen M. Puri who planned the wedding of Kareena Kapoor and Saif Ali Khan says in the piece, “Although widely prevalent in the west, wedding registries are a relatively new concept at Indian weddings. Despite not being a big thing so far, we are happy to see this trend finally enter the Indian market.”

Her excitement is understandable because the more money people are willing to spend, the more business companies like hers get. Plus it makes sense for couples to ask for exactly what they want and leave the rest to the guest.

Ramola Bachchan, founder, RB Concepts conveys that it is imperative to be mindful of the price of the gifts while choosing items for your registry. She says, “There is no set rule for pricing and cost of the listed gifts but ideally when someone registers on a wedding registry website they should keep in mind the affordability for guests.”

Wedding by design

 Every season, a new layer of vendors and clients is added to the wedding business in India. Just decor themes can cost a couple a fortune if they have one to fritter away.

Architectural Digest’s Indian edition quoted Darshan Shroff, Partner, Momente Wedding Planners, in this regard and he said, “The tea will be as sweet as the amount of sugar you put in. Similarly, the sky is the limit for wedding decor. You can spend as much or as less as you want depending on the budget, but as a thumb rule you should allocate about 20 percent of your wedding budget towards the décor.”

And the feel good wedding decor could entail picking up the right lights, flowers though as many conscientious couples are indicating, sometimes less is more and so the upcoming trend as we mentioned before and Shroff endorses, is eco-friendly weddings with an emphasis on reusability and conservation. He says, “So we will see less emphasis on floral decor. Needless to say, plastic is on its way out too. We are seeing a lot of play with lights and technology to create stunning visual elements for wedding decor.”

Other trends mentioned in the piece include conversation starters like a photo booth or a message wall, local musicians playing folk music et al.  And of course safety precautions must be taken around linen, drapes , candles and combustibles.

Believe it or not, daytime events should not have deep-toned cloth mandap coverings which cast a deep-toned shadow on everyone underneath it!  It is not perfect you see, if it doesn’t look perfect.

And this hunger for perfection is going international.

Global expansion

 In 2017, Business Insider quoted Aashni Shah, creative director of boutique wedding brand Aashni & Co and the founder of the Aashni & Co Wedding Show who believes that the Indian wedding industry is worth £12 billion worldwide, and much of that money is spent by expats living in the UK.

Her wedding show, which is one of the largest  for Indian and South East Asian designers in the UK, was first launched in 2015, and has grown bigger every year, said Business Insider. It has scooped over £200,000 and counting in sales of rapturously elaborate, mostly hand-crafted dresses, jewellery and decorations from more than 20 high-end designers.

In just one wedding, a typical Indian bride in the UK could spend between £10,000 and £18,000 on dresses alone, stated the piece and added that families could spend anywhere between £5,000 to £200,000 on elaborate necklaces, bracelets, and earrings for the whole family.

The average Indian couple will spend one-fifth of the money they make in their entire lives on the event, and some weddings have been known to cost millions of pounds according to the piece.

Aashni’s design team have catered for weddings all over the world. “Florence, New York, Guam, Istanbul, Venice, India, Thailand, Bali, Paris and Spain,” she told Business Insider, just to name a few. Aashni now even counts celebrities like Jennifer Lopez and Rihanna as past clients.

Nobody has ever measured, not even poets, how much the heart can hold, “said socialite, novelist and artist Zelda Fitzgerald.  And as we are discovering, we can’t measure just how many nebulous dreams the budget for a big, fat Indian wedding can hold either.