Hotel weddings are back in vogue

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We are so used to thinking of weddings as being hotel-based affairs that it hardly ever occurs to us that there was a time when people scoffed at the idea of holding a wedding in a hotel. And, till recently, some top hotels believed that it was beneath them to rent out their banquet halls for weddings.

In the early 1970s, when the Bombay Taj was trying to raise banquet revenues, it hit upon the idea of tapping the wedding market. Except that there was no wedding market to tap. The thought of holding a wedding in the Crystal Room or the Ball Room seemed preposterous. The most that people would consider was a reception where the bride and groom stood awkwardly on a dais, while guests ate one ice cream each.

The Taj reckoned that guests could be persuaded to shift the whole shebang (pheras, sangeet, dinner, etc.) to its banquet rooms. It used ad films to popularise the concept. The first “wedding at the Taj” film was a game changer. Beautifully shot and slickly put together, it turned the idea of a hotel wedding into something that was desirable and trendy.

Five-star hotels were a big deal in India in those days (there were very few of them) so when the Taj threw in a bridal suite for the suhaag raat, the offer seemed irresistible.

As hotel weddings took off, there were the inevitable criticisms. Did guests at a luxury hotel want to be bombarded with shehnai music? Did they expect to bump into gaudily-dressed children running up and down the staircase that led to the Taj’s banquet rooms? Did it not destroy a deluxe hotel’s air of exclusivity if hundreds of wedding guests kept wandering through the corridors?

The Taj rejected the criticisms, arguing that a) if having a wedding at the Taj became the acme of social achievement then it reinforced the hotel’s position as the centre of Bombay society and b) that foreign guests at the Taj were delighted by the opportunity to see a joyous slice of Indian life, up close.

By the 1980s, the idea of a hotel wedding was so firmly established that every hotel vied for the business and most people forgot that the Taj had invented the concept.

But then, the criticisms (too loud, irritates hotel guests, etc.) that had dogged the idea from the beginning resurfaced. It got to the stage where the Oberois decided that they would turn away all wedding business.

I gather that, over time, the Oberoi group has become more flexible, hosting those weddings which it believes will not inconvenience hotel guests and the wedding market in India has exploded.

Step one was the Bollywoodisation of the Indian wedding. Even the sangeet, an age-old family and friends ritual was turned into a Bollywood song sequence. Step two was the increase in scale. Indian weddings have always been about the families and not about the hapless bridal couple, but now this process was stretched to extremes with ostentatious money-is-no-object celebrations that went on for several days. And step three was destination weddings. The super-rich went to Italy. The slightly less rich went to Thailand. And so on.

Oddly enough, hotels missed out on the big bucks that were to be made. Locations shifted from hotel banquet rooms to farmhouses, football fields, race courses and in North India to Wedding Palaces, banquet halls with guest rooms that were constructed solely to host weddings. By now, the urge to keep up with the Jhunjhunwallas and the Junejas was so great that crowds at wedding functions swelled to unheard of sizes. Most hotel banquet rooms simply could not accommodate those numbers.

Even the great advantage that the deluxe hotels had in the old days – the quality of their food – was swept away as other caterers entered the fray. For Marwaris, for instance, no hotel was ever going to give them food of the quality of the great Maharajs of Calcutta. And so the Maharajs set up their own catering operations and became superstars on the wedding circuit.

Some restaurateurs were savvy enough to cash in. Ritu Dalmia is one of Delhi’s best-known chefs but I am willing to bet that she makes much more money from catering weddings than she does from all her restaurants put together. Marut Sikka owns Delhi Club House, one of the city’s nicest restaurants, but much of his revenue still comes from wedding catering. Not only will Marut serve the Avadhi cuisine with which he made his reputation but he will also serve as a consolidator, gathering the best chaatwallahs from Lucknow and Benaras, for instance, and asking them to set up stalls at the wedding dinner.

So, ironically enough, the hotel industry which first turned weddings into deluxe affairs now finds that the wedding industry is too big and too personalised for Indian hotels.

I wondered how long it would be before somebody in the Indian hotel business would change the rules of the game the way that Taj had done, back in early ’70s. Ironically, when the counter-attack did come, it was not an Indian hotel chain that spearheaded the effort. It was an American chain: Marriott.

While it is true that Marriott is a global company, it is also true that since it acquired Starwood (St. Regis, Sheraton, W, Westin, Le Meridien, Luxury Collection, etc.) Marriott is now the largest chain in India. So its size gives it the ability to change all the rules.

Last month, at a glittering function, attended by the who’s who of Delhi society, the company launched ‘Shaadi by Marriott’, its new wedding programme. Marriott collaborated with India’s top couturiers, Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla to launch the concept with a show-stopping appearance by Sonam Kapoor. The evening was a strategic culmination of a month long effort at creating the pre-buzz. Not only were there some huge sets on display but there was also an extensive buffet, offering cuisines from across the Marriott chain of hotels in India.

The logic behind the Marriott initiative is not difficult to grasp: if everybody else is making so much money out of Indian weddings, why shouldn’t hotels get a bigger slice of the action?

But what surprised me was how well Marriott has thought this out. The Shaadi by Marriott project was finalised last year, and the company has been working at a 360-degree integration through all its functions – marketing, sales and operations. For some of its newer hotels, Marriott has rethought its banquet facilities and has designed its new properties so that they can accommodate huge wedding functions and related ceremonies without inconveniencing hotel guests.

The JW Marriotts at Delhi’s Aerocity, Calcutta, Pune, Mumbai, Mussoorie and the soon to open JW Jaipur, Marriott Jaisalmer, St. Regis, Westin Gurgaon, Marriott Indore etc. have all been designed as wedding-friendly properties down to the tiniest detail (Ballrooms even have bridal rooms attached to them for the bride to rest, fix her outfit etc.)

Because food is a major part of the wedding experience, Marriott is offering guests the opportunity to choose cuisines from any of its properties. So even if your wedding is in, say, Goa, they will fly down chefs from Trivandrum or Calcutta should you want that kind of cuisine. In a more startling departure, Marriott is even willing to consider allowing wedding guests to select Maharajs or special cooks who do not work for the company. If there is a Jain wedding, the kitchens have a separate set of utensils for vegetarian cooking.

The idea is to turn the large hotel into a one-stop wedding destination. So when you go into a Marriott to plan (a suitably large) wedding, you won’t have to deal with a mere banquet executive. A special wedding planner will handle your requirements and the General Manager will be personally involved. If the wedding is large enough, Marriott will even offer a buy-out: you can take over, say, the W in Goa for three days and they will not sell any rooms to other guests.

They will go even further. It is usually easier for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than it is for him to get an appointment with a top designer for his daughter’s wedding. The Marriott’s wedding organisers will fix those appointments and they will advise on everything from cards to decoration.

Nobody will part with figures but I am guessing that large chains like Marriott get around 25 per cent of their banquet revenues from wedding business. A substantial chunk of room revenues also comes from guests who stay in hotels during wedding. Neeraj Govil, who runs Marriott in South Asia, reckons that a focus on weddings can add substantially to those percentages. Plus, the wedding business is virtually recession proof: people will always get married. And because Marriott has a global footprint, the Indian operation will happily set up destination weddings in say, Thailand or Italy.

So finally, we come full circle. A hotel chain wants to recapture a market that hotels built – and allowed to slip away.

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