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A one-stop wedding destination

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 large reception (well, large by the standards of that era) where the bride and groom stood awkwardly on a dais, their eyes glinting with excitement only when the guests handed over the envelopes of cash. (In those days, Rs 101 was a big deal as a wedding gift.) No food was served and guests had to be content with an ice-cream (bought in bulk from Volga or Joy or one of the other ice-cream biggies of that period) and perhaps, if they were lucky, a small glass of some canned or bottled drink.


   The Taj reckoned that guests could be persuaded to shift the whole shebang (pheras, sangeet, dinner, etc.) to its banquet rooms. As this was well before the age of TV, it decided to use the ad films played in cinemas before the main feature began, to popularise the concept. The first “wedding at the Taj” film was a game-changer. Beautifully shot (I think Zafar Hai, the top ad-film guy of the Seventies was the director, but I am not sure; certainly Zafar went on to make many great documentaries for the Taj), and slickly put together, that film 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 critics. 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 marital 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. Nobody is denied entry at an Indian wedding, so many foreigners would walk in on weddings at the Crystal Room and go berserk taking photographs.


   By the end of 1970s, 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. Though there is no official confirmation of this, the decision was widely credited to Bikki Oberoi who said that he hated walking into one of his hotels, smelling rich shaadi food, hearing raucous wedding music and being jostled by inebriated revelers.


   I have no idea whether Bikki ever raised these objections or whether the stories were apocryphal but, from the point of view of the Oberoi chain, it was a smart move. Oberoi properties seemed more discreet, more elite and more focussed on the needs of the resident guest.


   But even while the Oberoi stuck to this policy (I gather that, over time, the chain has become more flexible, hosting those weddings which it believes will not inconvenience hotel guests), the wedding market in India 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 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.


"Marriott is now the largest chain in India, bigger even than the Taj. So its size gives it the ability to change all the rules."

   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. The Taj group might have a great Italian restaurant. But could it really compete with Michelin-starred restaurants from Italy whose chefs were only too happy to fly down and cook at Indian wedding because of the fortunes that rich Indians were willing to pay? For Marwaris, 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 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 deluxe 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 counterattack 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, bigger even than the Taj. 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 initiative. Part of the evening was devoted to a fashion show by India’s top couturiers, Abu-Sandeep with a show-stopping appearance by Sonam Kapoor but there was also a fabulous buffet, offering cuisines from across the Marriott chain.


   The logic behind the Marriott initiative is not difficult to grasp: if everybody else is making so much money out if 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 project has been in the works for several years so the company has designed its new hotels (mainly the Marriott properties; the Starwood takeover came after this initiative was planned) so that they can accommodate huge wedding parties without inconveniencing hotel guests. The new JW Mariotts at Delhi’s Aerocity, Calcutta, Jaipur etc. have all been designed as wedding-friendly properties down to the tiniest detail. (Ballrooms even have little 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.


   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 meet with you. 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.


   At an intuitive level, the idea makes perfect sense. 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 India, 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.



Posted On: 10 Aug 2017 03:15 PM
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