How to be the bride's perfect venue

10 July 2003 by
How to be the bride's perfect venue

Traditionalists may be forgiven a wistful sigh when they hear that fewer people are getting married these days. On a happier note, those seeking a lucrative revenue stream from weddings have little to fear because the die-hard romantics that are tying the knot are spending more money than ever on their big day.

While the number of marriages has been steadily declining since 1973, the average cost of a wedding in the UK has rocketed in the past five years from £10,715 to £15,213 in 2002, according to the latest annual survey by You and Your Wedding magazine.

If that seems quite a lot of money for a newly-wed couple starting out, it may come as little surprise that a fair proportion of the marrying types (20%) are now second-timers, making many wedding couples older, arguably wiser, and more likely to have the money to spend on a lavish wedding.

And because many couples are second-timers, hotels have become popular venues for the ceremony and the reception since the de-regulation of civil ceremonies in 1995.

"We re-launched our Just Married package in 2001," says Kay Smith, corporate marketing manager for Jarvis Hotels, "because we saw that weddings were moving away from the big white weddings with 100-plus guests. We are catering for more second- and even third-time marriages and they tend to be much smaller wedding parties."

Subtle alterations to the package offered to the wedding party include post-wedding celebrations for those getting married abroad. Many hotels are also throwing in incentives such as free weekend breaks for the bride and groom to give to whomever they deem deserving, and discounted prices on accommodation for the wedding party. Both are good ways of boosting business during the low periods and competing with other hotels for lucrative wedding contracts.

And although weddings are great business, it's sobering to look at the figures. While spend on the extras such as food, dress hire and flowers has gone up, spend on the venue itself has gone down from £1,639 five years ago, to £1,377 last year. Not only that, there is more competition than ever before and the pressure is on to offer special deals. "There are more venues on offer, with cricket clubs and golf clubs getting in on the scene and people are generally more inclined to shop around," Smith says.

So who's doing what?
Functions, conferences and meetings are vital to big hotel groups, but midweek business is more vulnerable. As a result, the domestic leisure market has received renewed focus and weddings have been packaged up and branded.

Since 1995, the ability to host civil wedding ceremonies has provided a terrific opportunity for hotels to offer a one-stop-shop wedding package. And while there will always be brides and their bustling mothers who relish organising every last detail, using a wedding co-ordinator has become another sales tool you can offer to take the strain out of the event for the couple. But so competitive is the market that the pressure is on to come up with more incentives and brighter ideas.

Hilton launched its Hilton Weddings package this March across 76 of its hotels after conducting extensive research to find what it could offer that others couldn't.

"Part of our research found that the bride or groom often woke up in the night thinking about some small detail, like whether the napkins should be red or blue. People are very keen that every element is right but they are not used to organising a very expensive and significant event and they need support to take them through the process," says Hugh Taylor, Hilton's vice-president marketing UK and Ireland.

One simple but effective element of the package was to introduce a wedding hotline, where the customer can phone day or night with an idea or problem. If it is during the dead of night, the message will be recorded and the couple's wedding co-ordinator will respond to it in the morning.

A benefit of being a large group is the opportunity to sell a number of add-ons to the couple, who typically spend about £3,000 with Hilton per wedding. Airport hotel accommodation and honeymoon bookings are offered as part of the package, as well as the all-important stag and hen night arrangements.

Hilton has introduced stag and hen packages that include accommodation, activities or beauty treatments, entrance to a nightclub. If there are more than 10 people, the bride and groom go free.

Stag and hen nights are a significant potential market, but as Taylor advises, price it right (from £149.95 per person) to reduce the risk of bad behaviour. "They are quite expensive packages and the type of market we get is right for our hotels. A lot of the activities are outside the hotels, such as local nightclubs and generally people behave," he explains.

Hilton's research also suggested a need to cater for children at weddings - another sales opportunity for entertainment, and half-portions/half-price and children-under-five-eat-free deals.

"We benefit from economies of scale in the size of our business but it's not a cost relationship. We price our weddings in line with what the wedding market will pay, but they have to know that they are getting value despite the price," Taylor says.

Other groups, such as Macdonald Hotels, take an individual approach to their marketing, with each hotel responsible for its incentives. The Houstoun House hotel in Edinburgh, which hosts about 100 weddings a year, offers 10-20% discounts on midweek weddings but sees an increasing reduction in the need to offer seasonal discounts.

General manager Anne Yuille says that the wedding season is gradually changing, partly because of the fact that couples now tend to plan their wedding around their honeymoon.

"There are definitely fewer weddings in August and the season is spreading out, which I think is a result of the change in choice of honeymoon destination. Fewer people go to Europe and more to places like the Caribbean or Mauritius and these are places that are out of season in our summer," she says.

"Instead of straight discounts during winter months, we tend to give added value, such as free flower arrangements for the tables and complimentary canapés."

So who's the main competition?
Hotels and dedicated conference centres are increasingly competing for a slice of the events market, and weddings have become a big part of that pie.

After a slump in meetings business following the events of 11 September (corporate events fell by 5% in 2001-2002), dedicated meetings and conference venues began focusing their attention on using their space more profitably, particularly at the weekends, by targeting the weddings market.

Alexandra Palace in north London, for instance, caters for huge weddings of 500-plus, largely for Asian and Jewish clients. Its wedding business has risen from an average of two weddings per week in 2001 to five each week in the past year.

Few hotels can offer such a large venue, with parking for more than 2,000 vehicles, but there are plenty of smaller venues that are competing head-on with their local hotels.

Since taking over the Elvetham in Witney, Hampshire, two years ago, managing director Philip Warden has increased the number of weddings from 12 per year to 60. And while meetings and training events are its bread and butter, weddings now account for 15% of turnover at the Elvetham.

Although the venue has the capacity to hold more than one event, a couple who choose to hold their wedding at the Elvetham have exclusive use of the property and grounds and this is a unique selling point.

"Every bride's fear is to bump into another bride on her very special day. Our only competition in the area is two other hotels that will often cater for two weddings on the same day," Warden says.

However, most hotels are well aware that keeping wedding parties separate is very important.

Thistle Hotels has imposed some rules on this issue. "It's important that only hotels that are suitable cater for two weddings at the same time. That means hotels that have two entrances and at least three rooms that can be used," says David Hornby, director of meetings and events.

Wedding co-ordinators at individual hotels also ensure that careful timing is applied to reduce the risk of wedding parties meeting. However, this is no guarantee.

"If you have two separate parties in different rooms there are always going to be guests that meet, but if you are looking for complete exclusivity there is a price to pay," Hornby adds.

Marketing for success
Type "wedding services" into a Google search and up pop no less than 1.7 billion responses, an indication of how thousands of suppliers are using the internet to capture this market.

Just as websites such as lastminute and expedia have become everyday devices to arrange travel and holidays, so have websites such as Confetti, one of the UK's leading weddings site aimed at the young female market, to glean information on planning a wedding. These all-encompassing sites include everything from advice on etiquette to listing thousands of UK venues and what they offer.

In addition to getting your own website message right, subscribing to major wedding sites is a further chance to get noticed, particularly if you can differentiate from other hotels in some way.

"Our big push this year is to get on all the websites, but then to build relationships with those sites so that we can make sure we get pop-up advertising to get noticed," says Jill Stephens, sales and marketing manager of Cotswolds Inns & Hotels, which has six hotels.

The 22-bedroom Grapevine Hotel in Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire, is also looking to increase its wedding business via the internet.

"The internet is certainly our biggest and most cost-effective marketing tool," says Mark Vance, marketing manager. A major benefit, Vance says, is that while traditional advertising for weddings focuses largely on the local market, with the internet you can capture those further afield.

However, with so many other websites promoting weddings, the trick is to ensure your site stands out. An internet consultant can help you with the structure of your web content using keywords that people will systematically use in a search for wedding information. For instance, if someone types in "weddings AND Cotswolds" you can make sure that your web site will be one of the first five responses.

Hotels marketing their weddings in this way, should also ensure that their wedding package has a section of its own on the site.

"Don't lump it in with conferences and meetings. If you are marketing your wedding package on your website, it has to have its own clear, distinct segment," says hotel consultant Stuart Harrison of the Profitable Hotel Company.

"It's a myth that people will actually book on the web, but they might narrow down two or three venues to look at. So it is vital to get the message right and show that you can provide a seamless event from the ceremony to the bedrooms," Harrison adds.

However, traditional methods of marketing hotels in the wedding arena are still proving beneficial. Having a presence at the National Wedding Show at London's Olympia in February provided the Crowne Plaza London St James Hotel with a database to launch its own wedding event.

"We had a prize draw on the stand, which generated 250 enquiries, and from this we organised our own event," explains Charlotte Moore, marketing services manager.

The hotel hosted its own wedding brunch in May, a two-day event to give brides-to-be a taste of how the hotel would be presented for a wedding.

"We had the honeymoon suite made up with petals on the bed and Champagne and strawberries, as if ready to welcome the bride and groom," Moore says.

A fee charged to suppliers offering flower arrangements, wedding cakes and bridal wear and limos helped offset some of the costs and Moore is ready to repeat the exercise next year with a few amendments.

"We will definitely be doing it regularly, but next year we will hold it earlier in the year and only on one day," she says.


Breaking from the norm
Providing the venue and catering for a wedding demands imagination, and while there is still a hard core of traditionalists wanting an old-fashioned wedding, many couples are looking for something a little different.

Themed weddings come in many forms, from the subtle black-and-white theme chosen by Posh and Becks to more outlandish dress codes. One couple, according to website Take2weddings, recently held a Star Trek themed wedding, with the bride in an original series red dress, the husband in the captain's uniform and the best man dressed as Spock. The cake was a replica of the Star Ship Enterprise and after dinner coffee was served in Star Trek mugs.

However, many brides hanker for a fairy-tale wedding and country house hotels are ideally placed to market themselves on this theme. Many can even suggest an theme to match the history of the venue.

Couples wanting to put an individual stamp on their wedding can also do so with the choice of food. At Kate Winslet's first wedding, guests were served starter-sized portions of fish and chips served wrapped in newspaper, while her wedding dress had a fishtail pleat. Summer events especially lend themselves to breaking away from the usual evening buffet. According to wedding and events website Confetti, picnics and barbecues are becoming ever more popular and can make a strong selling point for venues with beautiful grounds.

Suggestions for alternative table decorations are another way to help the couple break from the norm. Traditional sugared almonds can be replaced with alternatives such as jelly beans or even lottery tickets.

The price of love

The average cost of a wedding in 2002 was £15,243, with the biggest chunk being spent on the honeymoon. But how much are hotels getting out of this?
Cost of venue
North £1,060
South £1,663
Midlands £1,250
Catering £2,345
Drinks, wine, Champagne £979
Wedding cake £226
First night hotel £183

Source: You and Your Wedding magazine

Marrying types…

  • Getting married is becoming less and less popular. There were 249,000 marriages in 2001 in England and Wales, compared with 330,000 in 1990.
  • First-time marriages for both parties still account for 60% of the market
  • 20% of marriages are second- or third-time marriages for both parties
  • The average age for marrying for the first time is 30 for men and 28 for women
  • The average age of men marrying second time around is 34; for women the average is 32

Source: Office for National Statistics

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