Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Let’s celebrate the business OF BIG FAT WEDDINGS

Indian marriages may be a very private family affair, but organising them is increasingly becoming a pursuit for professionals.

THEY say gods and angels shower their blessings from heaven when two young people get married. But at a wedding in Andhra Pradesh, there were also three helicopters. As the daughter of a rich timber merchant went round the holy fire and stuck her neck out for the mangalasutra, the choppers showered flowers on the entire town. The 10-minute adventure cost the father about Rs 10 lakh. It had a more lasting impact on Deepak Chawla, then 22-year-old, who began marvelling at the great business opportunity that Indian weddings have become.

Mr Chawla soon quit the event management company that organised the chopper spin and the rain of flowers and has started his own firm, Elan Entertainment. He has picked up experience handling the lucrative, but less colourful corporate events and has geared up for the wedding management business. “The business is a sure-shot for six months a year... People are too busy to arrange the weddings themselves. So they get wedding planners to do it.”

Nitinn Raichura has built palaces and set up beachfronts as part of his business spanning 35 years, but an Egyptian pyramid in Mumbai was a novelty even for him. A 25-foot tall structure forming the backdrop for a decor that cost Rs 14 lakh. A wedding attended by as many as 2,500 guests in lavish clothes. This was Mr Raichura’s biggest moment. It was also a sign that Indian weddings, perhaps the most elaborate ones globally, have become a veritable industry in their own right and offer a compelling opportunity for entrepreneurs.

But it is not just the lavish weddings that spell big business for entrepreneurs. It is an industry catering to all economic sections from the very poor to the very rich. Though a very private family affair, organising a wedding is increasingly becoming a pursuit for the professional. In Mumbai alone, an estimated 10,000 service providers have fashioned their business around the concept of wedding covering venue decor, saree draping, fashion designing, flowers, jewellery, make-up, nail-styling, music management, logistics, honeymoon travel, photography and a growing list of other options. With a different culture every 200 kilometres, many of these businesses are highly localised but there are certain common business themes that have a national market.

The Indian wedding defies a single description. Depending on the region, religion, caste, language or beliefs, a wedding may be over in five minutes or go on for five days. Some have horseback processions, others have tractor caravans. Some families place emphasis on clothing, others on decor, still others on music and partying. The jewellery could just be a ring or a mangalsutra or it could be a truckload. It is this variety that attracts innovative business aspirants who make a killing every time a soul in love steps into the bliss of matrimony.

Organising a wedding in India starts with the toughest customer in the world: the mother-in-law. Gender roles have changed over time, but traditionally, it is the boy’s parents who lay out the specifications but it is often the girl’s parents who pick up the tab. In either family, it is the lady of the house who dominates the negotiations and rightly so. They have better expertise in caring for family and guests and they do remember the nuances of rituals. Successful wedding business providers say an entrepreneur must master the art of working with the mothers-in-law in order to get business and achieve customer satisfaction. “Dealing with a corporate is easier as compared to dealing with a family hosting a wedding. It is very personal and it is their own hard-earned money,” says Partib Thyagarajan, co-founder of WeddingSutra. In fact, the idea for an online wedding portal came to WeddingSutra’s founders when Thyagarajan’s colleague Madhulika Mathur got married and had to go through the offline route.

Weddings in India have always been a big occasion for the women of the family and the business around weddings is no exception. Industry players say that the business is dominated by women, often rich women with a sense of feminine style building a part-time operation. “In Malabar Hills, every building will have at least one rich lady with the contacts and the skill to run a wedding related business,” Thyagarajan says. Such a neighbourhood, housing as it does some of India’s richest, also enables these entrepreneurs command a comfortable premium for their services. “If these women were to operate from Dadar or Vashi, they would be able to command only a tenth of what they are currently doing.”

With all discussion for the contract beginning with the matriarch, the wedding solutions business has a formidable entry barrier. Youthful energy doesn’t count for much here as experience, track record and knowledge of traditions. “You need some sort of experience and grey hair to get respect from the family. If a person were to try and plan a wedding straight out of an event management course, I would call him a fool,” says Thyagarajan. No family would trust a wedding with an inexperienced start-up. So, experts say, entrepreneurs can break into this market effectively by joining hands with veterans and specialise strongly in one field.

Some families emphasise on what they need and budget doesn’t matter there. But there are several weddings where the requirements have to be fitted within a budget. As young couples increasingly fund their own weddings, the latter form will gain currency. So, entrepreneurs must have the flexibility to plan for both spending and saving, depending on the client. There is also a tendency among urban families to move to hotels and other such venues to allow for late-night partying as part of the wedding festivities. “A lot of people want to go for a five-star event with a smaller crowd” instead of large open-air venues where music and the noise of partying will have to be wound up by 10 pm, says Lloyd D’Souza of RozBridal.

Raichura says the industry is transforming with the changing tastes of the younger generation whose consumption patterns have been fuelled by the rapid economic growth over the last 15 years. “Nowadays, we see new colours, new flowers and lighting techniques in Indian weddings.” Earlier, floral decorations were mainly about marigolds and lilies, but now ‘English flowers’ such as carnations, lilium and gladiolus are all the rage. Also, “earlier we had shamianas. Now, we have iron structures that can be put up in half the time.” Entrepreneurs planning to enter the wedding business must start by watching films. Experts say Bollywood fashion, with all its bling, determines much of the style in today’s weddings. Even make-up artists of stars are found to be much in demand at elite weddings.

The stock market boom may have inspired the nouveau riche to spend lavishly on themed weddings and helicopter floral blessings, but the Indian wedding is an evergreen business irrespective of the economic conditions. The rules may change and so may the rituals, but the wedding remains the central part of Indian family life. Not surprisingly, more and more entrepreneurs are saying “I do.”

Article Resource:
Author: Jacob Cherian is the Chief Editor in the The Economic Times, Mumbai and the article appeared in one of their successful columns on Entrepreneurship/Start-ups called "Starship Enterprise".

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