How India's lavish wedding industry is adapting itself to the pandemic

Those in the industry say that while they have faced some losses, people are still largely hopeful of conducting weddings later in the year.
Indian bride
Indian bride
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The big fat Indian wedding— it has been enjoyed, criticised and exoticised aplenty. The 50 billion dollar industry has even been called “slowdown-proof”, because it’s not like Indians will ever stop getting married, right? But the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a curveball— how do you have a big fat wedding when most of your big fat guest list must be cut down to 50 people? Or when you cannot have that lavish buffet, open bar or a dance floor?

TNM spoke to service providers to the Indian wedding industry to see how the pandemic has impacted them, and what weddings in the near future would look like.

Postponements and cancellations

Sandeep Lodha, CEO of the Oyo Rooms-owned Weddingz, a wedding planning company, tells TNM that 80% of clients have rescheduled functions to between November 2020 to February 2021. “We had 5,000 events booked for March through mid-June. Those will not be happening now,” he says.

Oyo has announced  announced furlough for thousands of its employees globally, and slashed salaries for employees earning over Rs 5 lakh annually.

It’s a similar story for smaller service providers in the industry. Bengaluru-based wedding designer Nilma, who runs the popular Facebook page ‘With Love, Nilma’, says, “I have had to ask my 10 colleagues to work on alternate days, and based on that their salaries will be adjusted. It has been difficult to handle office expenses, paying loans and so on. We had been looking to invest in some props but now, all that budget has gone.” 

Due to travel restrictions, Nilma has been compelled to take bookings only in Bengaluru now.

Emmanuel Sathyadass, General Manager of Visthar, a six-acre property located on the outskirts of Bengaluru, says that before the pandemic, the venue was booked for events like weddings and conferences till August-September 2020. “We have had to ask our newly hired staff to be on standby. We have told them they can join back once things start looking up. People at the mid and senior levels of management have taken paycuts,” he says.

Changing demands, emphasis on sanitisation

Not everyone is postponing weddings though. Visthar, for instance, has three weddings happening in June. Weddingz has been organising some functions in Bengaluru, keeping in line with the rule of not having over 50 people on the guest list. Further, Sandeep says that people who are postponing weddings are largely doing so with the same guest list— they hope that the pandemic will pass and that they would be able to have the wedding with as many guests as they want at a later point.

Across the board though, there is an increasing demand for disinfection and sanitisation – of the venue, furniture, décor and so on. Sandeep says people have been asking them queries along similar lines - is the venue sanitized? Would the company provide masks? Are there sanitizer stations? Will temperature checks be included in the package?

Nilma, who focuses only on décor, notes that people are asking for the materials used for decorations and even flowers to be disinfected. “If people are doing the functions at home, they want more personalisation, like a personalised sanitizer and a mask for each guest. Because they are not having as many guests anymore, they want quality over quantity,” she notes.

People who can afford them are also likely to prefer larger venues because they allow for better physical distancing, observe Emmanuel and Sandeep. For Emmanuel, this has meant a change in marketing too. “We were doing events with 300 people but now we can’t do that. So while physical distancing is not a problem here, the lack of footfall can be. We are now marketing ourselves more as a place nestled in nature, away from the bustle and ideal for healing,” he says.

Changing setup, behaviours and protocols

Round tables seating anywhere from five to 10 people, dance floors, and open bars with free mingling – looks like all these will be done away with in lieu of coronavirus-safe weddings, at least in the near future.

The planners at Weddingz, for instance, are making sure that they have not more than four people at a time and that tables themselves are further apart from each other. Hand sanitizer stations will be set up throughout the venue. 

“We are also making sure we have the exact guest list so that in case of something inadvertent, we have a record of everyone who attended the event. We are also requesting that all the guests have the Aarogya Setu app on their phones,” Sandeep says. To the clients who ask for it, the company will also provide temperature checks for the guests before they enter the venue.

There is also a drop in additional extravaganza such as the sangeet and mehendi. Service providers say that in some cases, families prefer to do these functions on a smaller scale within their homes. 

Bharat Matrimony, the online matchmaking service, is also capitalising on this – it has rolled out a ‘Home Weddings’ concept which is open to the public, not just its members, to help organise weddings at home for up to 50 guests. This will see vendors like makeup artists, decorators, caterers and priests come home, removing the need for clients to step out.

For ceremonies like the wedding reception, Sandeep says that could likely have circles indicating safe physical distance around the stage for people to stand in line. “And if the restrictions ease and more guests are allowed, perhaps a token system or staggering the number of guests who come at a given time could help,” he says.

There is also an impact on food and beverage (F&B) catering in weddings. Cedric Fernando, F&B manager at Visthar, says that safety must begin at the level of kitchen staff. “They have to wear masks and gloves. We are also ensuring that we have them as well as the servers tested and stressing that they should let the management know if they have a cough or fever, and practise physical distancing,” he says.

Buffets could see a dip, or one would have to strictly ensure that only the servers are serving the dishes onto the plates of the guests standing in line at the buffet to avoid multiple people touching the cutlery, Cedric adds. “Beverages will be reduced a lot, especially things like welcome drinks, except water. As for alcohol, people can place their order and have it served. But the bar won’t really be possible during the pandemic.”

Emmanuel adds, however, that the onus to be safe is on wedding attendees as well. “We can disinfect the infrastructure, provide safely-distanced seating and ask for a set guest list. But beyond that, I don’t think it is right for us to police them.”

Going digital

Recently, Kriti Agarwal, a technical programs manager at travel website Expedia, and Avinash Singh Bagri, founder of gogoBus, an inter-city bus service, had 80 people attend their wedding in Gurugram. However, of these, only two were physically present – the rest observed and participated online via video-conferencing platform Zoom.

This is something that could pick up, say wedding industry insiders. 

“We are also recommending that older persons such as grandparents avoid coming to the wedding or functions if they can as they are more vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2. We are adding the facility of live streaming wedding functions, so the vulnerable or elderly can watch the ceremonies from the safety of their homes,” Sandeep says.

This could mean a push towards digital gifting, and online wedding gift registries, an up-and-coming stream in wedding services in India. A gift registry allows the giftee to create a list of items that they would like. Depending on the platform, one could choose from appliances to fashion to experiences to philanthropy, or even a cash amount for the couple to spend in their own time. A gifter can see the wishlist on the registry, pick their gift and purchase it. 

Tanvi Saraf, co-founder of Wedding Wishlist, which provides, among other services, an online wedding gift registry for couples, says that they are expecting the coming wedding season to be their best one yet. 

“Even apart from the dangers of physical exchange of gifts at this time, with the rise in virtual weddings, your guests aren’t physically present in the first place. So, wedding registries are not only economical and allow for couples to wishlist what they really want, but also safe and convenient for the couple and the guests,” she says.

Tanvi adds that Wedding Wishlist has forayed into facilitating and organising virtual weddings, which includes tech-checks, setting up different rooms for family, cousins, friends etc. on Zoom chats and live streaming.

Even venue selection could go digital, or contactless, says Sandeep. Weddingz is providing a service called ‘touchless recce’ for clients to decide venues. “One part is making venue selection digital – via sharing of videos. Another option we are giving is where a time is fixed for the clients to see the venues and the doors and everything is left open in the venue so that no one has to touch handles or door knobs,” Sandeep shares.

Will wedding expenditure increase?

With all the focus on sanitising and personal protection equipment like masks, gloves and face shields, expenditures for weddings are likely to go up not just for customers but also for service providers as they work to keep their own staff safe.

Emmanuel says the prices at Visthar have gone up by around 10%. “But it is a competitive industry and if there is a recession, then I can’t afford to increase my prices beyond a point. I think for a year now I am not going to look at making profits but look at Visthar as a startup though we have a 30-year history. If we break even in one year, that is good enough.”

Sandeep says that prices for wedding services are likely to go up at the end of the year because many of the postponed weddings and functions will be happening then. He says, “We are already training our venue partners to be COVID-safe for November-December weddings. Overall, I think people are willing to pay more if it means more sanitisation and safety.”

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