Wedding business thrives in Thailand.
Sages would say it was putting the cart before the horse, when in the enthusiasm of the moment we fumble the order and start where we should end.
So when people tell me they are in the honeymoon travel market, I wonder if they were in a hurry and skipped the wedding altogether.
As weddings precede honeymoons in the world of romance, we should start there. It’s a business segment that has been identified as a golden opportunity for Thailand’s travel planners to carve out a lucrative niche.
Honeymoons are by definition private, romantic and linked to a few very enchanting destinations where solitude is a premium. Thailand has many luxurious beach resorts that fit the bill competing head-on with the world’s best.
Of course, weddings can be as cozy as you please, but they are just as likely to be mega affairs where friends and relatives arrive by the droves to bankrupt the hapless parents for the rest of their lives.
If you asked me where Thailand really shines in the business of romance, then it has to be weddings. Its event planners have successfully tapped the popular trend that ships a wedding and guests off shore in a grand manner usually reserved for movie stars.
On a single auspicious day in Bombay, India, as many as 3,000 couples will tie the knot in elaborate expensive ceremonies that can almost take a week before the happy couple can embark on their honeymoon.
Just a few of them will transfer their elaborate wedding ceremonies to Thailand. Yet the wedding market from India alone is worth an estimated Bt550 million a year according to knowledgeable travel executives who watch this niche market with a keen interest.
The secret of success for those who serve this market is to remember by heart the auspicious days when weddings are considered blessed by good fortune. In India that sends thousands of couples and their parents into a flurry of activity to ensure they tie the knot in a manner guaranteed to keep relatives gossiping for decades.
India is the most outstanding example of success for Thailand’s wedding sector. Entire clans from urban India board chartered aircraft and book entire hotels for celebrations that can take a week or more in one of Thailand’s popular resorts. It’s a nightmare and a dream come true all rolled up in one nerve wrecking week of bedlam for the hired travel planners.
I chatted with one who views the Indian wedding market as his rice bowl.
“It’s just amazing,” he explains over a coffee and that’s coming from an events planner who has worked the ropes of the some of the world’s biggest events to grace Asia.
“It’s not all plain sailing, there are the tedious negotiations on hotel rates, always the starting point that can take weeks and drive a wedding planner insane before hotel and customer reach a truce.”
Indian weddings are hands-on for the families, who take a personal interest in driving a hard bargain on rooms. It usually reaches a conclusion when the proverbial penny drops in the sales offices of five-star hotels. What you lose on the roundabouts you will gain on the swings.
At an average daily rate of US$90 for a top flight hotel Thailand, that’s the roundabouts for the tired sales team. “Wow,” they might ask, “where do we go from here?”
Actually, it’s the bottom of the curve and from here it’s an amazing climb skyward in spending as the parents’ splash out on the wedding of the year as if they own a national bank. Perhaps they do, or perhaps the airline they will use to transport 500 or more guests on the VIP list.
“They take over entire resort hotels, batten down the property for daily feasts and entertainment that is out of this world in scope and budget,” the travel planner tells me.
“Is it worth the haggling over the room rate,” I ask, amazed at the effort and will power it takes to haggle a room rate to the bare earth.
“You bet. Any hotel that has a department set up to serve this market will keep the bottom line profit a secret. It’s just too good to be true, right off the revenue graph.”
So mega weddings in Thailand are fashionable for an elite segment of the Indian populace. They are flush with cash and ready to spend at five-star resorts.
But they are robust too. I recall disembarking from a Thai Airways International flight wondering why the aircraft was packed to the gills with expatriate Indians from all corners of the globe.
Bangkok’s airport was almost deserted in the aftermath of a particular nasty political upheaval that shook the country’s tourism to its core. I had a question for one of the cheerful Indians as his group waited for their luggage to fall off the carousel.
“Not likely”, he answered. “We are here for a wedding, 400 of us travelling from all over the world for a week-long celebration in Hua Hin. Planned months in advance nothing is going to change it.”
They did ask their wedding planning a week earlier if there was any security hiccups and here they were ready to party in Thailand.
That scene is repeated around the year as Indian couples tie the knot at famous Thai resorts across Thailand.
Are we really up for this boom in off-shore wedding bookings, I thought, or is it just a fad; a lucky but short business curve?
My telephone rings. My sister is on the line asking me if I am free to meet the wedding planner. Oh and also the party planner and as I have nothing to do at the weekend could I drop by a posh riverside hotel and chat with the hotel’s event department which is recommending a photographer and video crew?
She is getting married and like so many wedding celebrations in Thailand guests will be travelling from around the world to share the moment. I also suspect they will tack on a vacation at a beach resort as a suitable bonus for all the air miles spent getting here.
So I begin to learn first-hand about Thailand’s very sophisticated wedding services. There are wedding planners who take the pain out of planning for the weary, budget shocked parents. They remind me of film directors on location eager to make it work with professional precision, prompting the stars and herding the support players so lean their lines according to script.
There is nothing for the family to worry about. Just enjoy the moment and be on cue.
Then there are the party planners who take over from the wedding planner for the entertainment component. It could involve a take-over of a disco, organising party themes, arranging bands and performances. They are a relatively new generation of experts who cut their teeth on corporate events and have moved to the wedding business as a sideline. They will come with their floor plans, artist impressions of venue decoration and recommendations on a variety of entertainers. They appear to have an endless supply of artists, both Thais and foreigners, who specialise in dinner party gigs.
Whether the wedding is a cozy affair for less than 100 or a mega event that will attract up to a thousand, the same professional and tactical planning is applied.
Hotel sales teams play a vital role setting up the venue arranging rooms for make-up artists, take-a-break rooms and somewhere in the negotiations the concessions on free rooms for VIPs determined by the event’s budget.
On the sidelines, professional photographers and video crews are hired to record the beauty, romance and sheer family pride that is reflected in these special celebrations. Photography and video shoots can cost from Bt90,000 to Bt200,000 depending on the scope of the project.
Wedding planners and party planners charge similar fees.
The bottom line indicates that Thailand is not the cheapest wedding destination, but it has depth, skills and a remarkable ability to deliver superb, unrivalled hospitality.
Nothing is too small for a wedding planner to handle. It could involve 80 guests flying in from around the world. Instead of a huge buffet spread they might requires a classy eight-course European menu specially created for the occasion by the bride and groom. Wines might be selected for their significance in the romantic journey that will culminate in one of Thailand’s oldest churches, an impressive stain-glassed cathedral adjacent to Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River.
While most weddings, that wing in on international flights, are on a grand scale there are some hotels that have earned their stars by welcoming the custom-designed fine-dining experience European style for smaller weddings.
“We love a challenge, creating something different to fulfill a bride and groom’s dreams,” the hotel chef tells me as I sip a glass of wine, while the younger guests head for a late-night theme party.
“That’s what we gave you today,” he says, hinting he had loved every minute of it from cooking to delivering a flawless dinner experience.
“If I had a hat as white and tall as yours,” I tell him,” I would take it off to you and everyone in your team that made this a perfect for a family celebration.”
What more can you say, I am a happy customer, having experienced Thailand’s wedding business first-hand.