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Asian destinations that have been successful in attracting Indian weddings are heartbroken that the market vanished faster than a groom with cold feet due to the Covid-19 crisis.

Destination marketers, wedding planners, and hoteliers catering to the market are also scratching their heads over what will become of these roaring events when new guidelines, such as social distancing, are the antithesis to the highly social nature of an Indian wedding.

Fondly dubbed in Asia as The Big Fat Indian Wedding because of its size, scale, and superabundance, the Indian wedding industry is touted to be worth $50 billion a year. Some 10 to 12 million weddings are held annually, according to media reports citing a KPMG research. With people under 30 years old forming nearly half of India’s 1.3 billion population, the industry was trumpeted as recession-proof and tipped to grow at 20 to 25 percent per year.

Rising disposable income coupled with travel-thirsty Indian millennials transformed the industry, turning weddings into a year-round rather than seasonal affair and increasing the popularity of destination weddings.

Although no data is available on the overall size of overseas destination weddings by Indians, Thailand’s earnings reflects the bounty. The kingdom last year hosted around 400 weddings, each spending between $320,000 and just under $1 million (10 to 30 million baht), according to Pinki Arora, the marketing representative for India for the Tourism Authority, during a recent webinar organized by the Phuket Hotels Association. In 2019, Indian weddings bolstered Thai tourism coffers by $128 million (4,000 million baht).

The average number of guests was 250, staying an average of three to six days. Most people, including Arora, would agree that’s modest: Indian weddings can draw up to 800 guests and go beyond six days.

But the market has dried up.

“We had an amazing start in 2020, with weddings outlined and tons of enquiries. Suddenly, February came and it all stopped. Phones rang, asking about the pandemic Thailand. At the time we were still positive and thought we’d be ok. Of course it worsened in a radical way. We were busy assisting clients with downsizing, then another downgrading, then change of dates, then cancellations. It wasn’t back and forth with just one client, and a major thing was the force majeure, what it meant for contracts,” said wedding planner Sally Mangharam, managing director of Mantra Events Thailand.

There is no question Indian weddings will return, with the majority (78 percent) of webinar participants believing they will come back in 2021, 19 percent in 2022 and only 9 percent this year.

Not When But How

But the key question is not when but how will they return.

Anyone who’s been ever so lucky to be invited to one of these weddings will bear witness to an exuberant event filled with rituals and ceremonies that are all about interactions. A highlight, for example, is the Barat, a singing and dancing procession as the groom, family and friends make their way to the wedding venue. Now this could go for half a mile if it’s under social distancing, quipped David Barrett, a veteran events and meeting venues consultant in Thailand. He also finds it hard to see how the “epic” buffet spreads in Indian weddings could continue under new hygiene standards; yet neither meals in bento boxes nor tiffins would work either.

Indian weddings are all about the “fun, human touch, personal emotions,” said Neha Mehrotra, founder of Foreign Wedding Planners India. “Social distancing defeats the whole purpose of doing a wedding, she said. People would rather wait. “Nobody wants to get married with a mask on.”

Mehrotra shudders at the thought of yellow tapes and red crosses all over the place at a wedding banquet to guide guests in new normal arrangements. “It’s all about the beauty of the decor and if we have those things, it’s a reminder of a pandemic that’s just gone by or is still happening.”

Parthip Thyagarajan, founder and CEO of WeddingSutra, a leading wedding planning website in India that claims to have some two million followers, laments the number of guides that hotels are sending him everyday. “The more information you deluge people with, the more they will say, hey, are you a hotel or hospital? [People] go to a hotel for the good energy, if you give them a 50-page note, they’ll say sorry, we’ll do it at home,” he said.

Hotels such as Hilton Arcadia Phuket are mindful of balancing the highest hygiene standards with guest convenience, clearly a mind-boggling task.

“In the beginning there will be temperature checks, et cetera, but we depend on the destination and the airline to take care of those before passengers are allowed to board or enter a destination,” said Ranjeet Viswanathan, commercial director of Hilton Phuket Arcadia.

He believes post-pandemic, having big venue spaces will be important. “The epic buffets can’t go away. If we do a Western-style dinner, Indians won’t like it. They love 10 food stations and filling their plates with anything and everything. [That’s why] big venue spaces are important [to spread out banquet],” he said.

But that’s assuming Indian weddings will return in the same size and spending as before, which they aren’t likely to. Another poll done during the recent webinar shows that the majority of attendees (73 percent) expect Indian weddings to become much smaller.

Even before Covid-19, some planners have sensed a trend towards smaller, but more beautiful and personalized Indian weddings. The pandemic is set to seal the shift.

“More intimate weddings that are held in vacation rentals, small farms, private villas could see a huge increase,” said Mehrotra. People might have only a handful of guests who are very close to them even if the ban is lifted, and focus more on the experience rather than the flamboyance, the personal touches rather than the grandeur, especially when their spend is smaller, she said. The “ideal” size in order to manage such a wedding and under certain restrictions is 50 to 100 guests, she added.

This is why wedding planners will still be needed in the future, despite an expected pricing blood bath by hotels that will bombard Indian couples with low deals and packages as they come through the crisis with a financial challenge.

“Intimate events need more management, thus clients will need wedding planners more to maximize what little financials they have to make the event more personal than flamboyant as I mentioned,” said Mehrotra.

Mantra Events’ Mangharam added: “It’s not just [about arranging an event]. We’re there 24/7, we’re their best friends, they cry on our shoulders and when they go back, a little of our soul goes with them. I believe like any industry, in an adversity like this, there are those who will remain, those who will move out and new ones who will come in. I’m here to stay, and Thailand will be there too.”

First Mover

Tourism Authority of Thailand’s Arora maintains that the kingdom is the top or one of the top three destinations for Indian weddings. That’s a result of being a first mover, targeting the market since 15 years ago. Phuket was the first destination for these events although Hua Hin is widely believed to be the top Thai destination in the past seven years, with the Sheraton Hua Hin even referred to as the “wedding factory” by Indians, according to a source.

Thailand keeps the lead despite competitors such as Bali and emerging ones such as Cambodia because of its proximity, a two to four-hour flight from any point in India, which is helpful for elderly guests attending a wedding, said Arora. Apart from location, attractive beaches, affordable prices, another key factor is the Thai hospitality and the presence of many Indian hospitality professionals who understand what an Indian wedding entails, she said.

Barrett believes the key factor that will open up business again is “a bilateral travel agreement between India and Thailand, and entry requirements of health certificate and Covid-19 insurance,” adding “the general view is we could be in for a good 2021.”

Until then, the industry no doubt hopes that absence will make the heart grow fonder and, come 2021, Indian couples will say I do again to Thailand.

Photo Credit: An Indian wedding: A feast for the eyes, stomach and soul. VIP Vacations