It might not sound very romantic, but nowadays weddings are big business. The industry is worth a staggering £4.2b each year, according to the latest research by financial firm Brewin Dolphin.
What's more, marriage is back in favour. For the first time since the 1970s, figures show that the number of weddings is on the increase. Couple that with an escalating wedding spend (the average big-day splurge is now more than £16,000) and the market looks very healthy indeed.
But for operators anxious to seize a slice of the cake, the industry is seriously competitive, not just for the reception side of the business but the ceremony as well.
Couples can now get married almost anywhere, from Brighton Pier to their local football club, even an aisle in a supermarket, as one bride and groom in Wales demonstrated last month.
As a result, many hotels entice bookings with cut-price rates in low season or throw in little extras, such as free Champagne, a complimentary first night for the bride and groom, or free flowers.
But rather than thinking up ever more creative giveaways, seeing off the competition could come down to simply staying ahead of the game. Weddings are subject to trends just like any other business, and tuning into what's hot and what's not could make a real difference to the bottom line.
"Weddings are very fashion-led," says wedding planner Bernadette Chapman, managing director of Dream Occasions and founder of the UK Alliance of Wedding Planners. "There's a tendency for hotels to sit on their laurels thinking, ‘We don't need to change, we've done it like this for years.' But tastes change, and you need to show you are innovative. I cringe when I see hotels using the cheapest carnations or arranging napkins in an old-fashioned fan."
Right now, the buzz word is individuality. Brides and grooms are choosing to be more creative with their wedding day than ever before, and venues have to cater for all sorts of requests, whether it's laying on a chocolate fountain, booking an Elvis impersonator or tracking down a pair of wedding thrones ˆ la Posh and Becks.
"It is very much a buyer's market," says Mark Staples, food and beverage development director at midmarket hotel brand Corus. "Being able to cater for individual needs is becoming a major selling point. Couples don't want to feel as if they are just another package."
At Corus, which has 1,900 weddings booked across the group this year, weddings make up 10% of food and beverage revenue, a figure that translates into £5.2m a year. Despite the big numbers, though, the emphasis is increasingly on a tailor-made approach.
"For instance, we've just redesigned our wedding materials. We felt the corporate branding was too heavy, and we wanted to get away from that," says Staples.
Corus has also introduced individual wedding brochures for every one of its 60 hotels, to highlight specific facilities and character. Dedicated wedding co-ordinators are also on hand to do everything from conducting initial show-rounds to advising on reception etiquette, speeches and menu choices.
"It's a good idea to have an in-house organiser," says Chapman. "But you need to make sure there are clear channels of communication between them and other hotel staff." She warns that arrangements can get overlooked, especially if the co-ordinator doesn't work at weekends.
Wedding planner Kelly Chandler, director of the Bespoke Wedding Company, is seeing more clients hook their wedding to a certain theme.
"Themes aren't necessarily wacky, just maybe a bit different. Clients might want a cocktail party or afternoon tea, a James Bond casino evening or even a picnic, punting down the river." And why not have a barn-dance wedding or walk down the aisle to the theme music from Star Wars?
Fashions apply not just to design and decor but also to other elements of the day, such as the food. Again, anything goes, from buffets with a seventies kitsch theme, serving up party snacks like cheese and pineapple on sticks, to a full-on medieval-style banquet. And some people will always follow celebrities. Britney Spears served tiny cheeseburgers at her wedding, for example, while designer Stella McCartney opted for good old bangers and mash at hers.
"The latest trend, which is just starting to filter over from America, is to have a number of food stations," says Chapman.
Echoing the style of top-end corporate events at hotels like the five-star Mandarin Oriental in London, individual tables serve fish, salads, pasta and so on, rather than the traditional long buffet.
"It's less formal than a sit-down meal, and it also means menus can be tailored to a variety of tastes," adds Chapman, whose own wedding had a Caribbean feel, complete with authentic Caribbean menu and a steel band.
At the five-star Lowry hotel in Manchester, the growing number of requests for ethnic weddings and authentic cuisine has led to the introduction of an in-house kosher catering service specifically for Jewish weddings and parties.
The hotel now aims to attract five weddings in year one, stepping up to at least 15 in year two, while also catering for bar mitzvahs and other Jewish events. But before taking the plunge and setting up as a kosher venue, it's worth doing some research. Making a kitchen kosher requires the supervision of an appointed rabbi, and there are strict guidelines on food preparation and storage.
It also requires a level of investment. The Lowry has had to train kitchen and sales staff in kosher cuisine and recruit a dedicated co-ordinator to oversee events. While it's obviously not a cheap option, director of sales Jodie McGarry feels the outlay will be worthwhile. "There is a shortage of kosher food venues in the city, so it's a natural step for us. This type of event also tends to be very high-spend. We expect to cover our costs in the first year," she says.
Venues that cater for Asian weddings appear to be similarly limited. Numbers tend to be higher - 400 guests or more is not unusual - so space can be a problem. "There's a real shortage of places that can cater for this type of event. Consequently, people are prepared to travel further, and we have bookings from all over the country," says Corus's Staples, who has seen a sharp rise in Asian wedding bookings over the past few years. The budget for Asian weddings can be up to five times as much as western weddings.
Sixteen Corus hotels have now started to target the sector by attending Asian wedding shows and community websites. Staples points out that sensitivity to cultural tradition is important. "We work with a number of ethnic-food caterers that we audit very carefully. Service principles are the same, but the food must be authentic, and special diets or preferences may need to be taken into account, too."
Looking ahead, one trend that looks set to rocket is gay weddings. From December, under the new Civil Registration Act, gay couples will be able to sign a legal partnership register in a ceremony similar to a civil wedding, which can be held at approved venues such as register offices and hotels.
Leading the way is Elton John, who is planning a winter wedding to long-term partner David Furnish; and more than 20,000 gay people are expected to tie the knot over the next five years, according to Government figures.
"It's definitely a growing market," says Carole Devonshire, head of sales and marketing at the Macdonald Bath Spa hotel, which has already hosted a number of partnership ceremonies, as has its sister property, the Macdonald Francis hotel, also in Bath. "We're not actively targeting the gay market but we're getting enquiries anyway. I think some hotels would be nervous about it, but there's no difference really. It's a special occasion in just the same way."
Pink Weddings, the first UK wedding planning agency to specialise in the gay sector, has received a phenomenal number of enquiries since the act was passed. "We've had over 3,000 enquiries for dates next year and 2007, which is huge. It's a brand new market if you're looking at it from a business point of view," says Pink Weddings founder Gino Meriano, whose clients typically spend a minimum of £10,000.
"A lot of gay couples have a high disposable income. We have a couple at the moment who have hired an entire hotel as well as a full funfair for the party afterwards. Costs are already over £45,000."
He admits there is still an issue in finding venues. "Around 30% of places have said no, we're not gay-friendly, but I think this is changing. The National Trust, for example, has recently agreed that we can use their country houses for weddings, and the list is growing."
Chapel Down Winery Attracting wedding business was the driving force behind a recent refurbishment at the 70-acre Chapel Down Winery in Kent, one of the largest independent vineyards in the UK.
"As people turn away from religious ceremonies, it's becoming more important to get married in an unusual or beautiful setting. We want to tap into that," says managing director Frazer Thompson.
The vineyard's goal is to become a "one-stop wedding shop", with both civil ceremony and reception taking place on site. This will be one of the venue's main selling points, according to Thompson. "From the customer's point of view, it's a huge advantage. Everything's in one place, so there's no added cost or stress." One of the first steps was to apply to the local register office for a civil licence - a process Thompson describes as "pleasantly uncomplicated". Depending on the local area, an application usually takes a minimum of six weeks to complete, including an inspection. "The visit is really to check that the venue offers what the register office calls ‘suitable solemnity'," says Thompson. "And it must be a permanent structure - so marquees, for example, aren't allowed."
"The licence costs us about 900 for three years, plus 350 for the inspection, so in business terms it's a good deal. Just four ceremonies will cover the fee," he adds. Also included in the cost is an "approved venue" listing in the local registrar's wedding pack, which gets mailed out to prospective brides and grooms in the area. Eighteen weddings are planned in the first year. "Next year we're hoping to reach 50 - so, one every weekend," says Thompson, who is aiming at the 80- to 100-a-head market. "It's obviously worth checking your competition but, for us, there's a real lack of interesting venues locally."
People are putting off getting married until they are older. The average age for first marriages is 31 for men and 29 for women. 15,764 is the average spend per couple, up 40% from 1998, according to a study by You and Your Wedding magazine last year. Since the 1994 Marriage Act enabled venues to become "approved premises" for weddings, more than 3,000 venues have been licensed. Civil ceremonies are now more popular than religious ones, making up nearly 70% of all weddings in 2003. In 2003 nearly one-third of marriages in England and Wales took place in approved venues, such as hotels, compared with just 5% in 1996.
Source: Office for National Statistics
Tips on attracting wedding business
- If you offer wedding packages, be flexible. Tailor to individual tastes as much as possible. Allow couples to put their own stamp on the day.
- Make your website wedding-friendly. Don't bury wedding details under the conference section. Invest in good-quality photography (consider staging some wedding pictures showing table settings, flower arrangements, etc).
- Compile a fact sheet that can be downloaded from your website or posted. Include details like room capacity, whether the venue has a civil licence or not and approximate costs. Pricing should be easy to understand. If you charge extra for heating, electricity, corkage or confetti, say so.
- Put together a wedding portfolio. It's a great way of showing what you can offer. Include photographs to illustrate different styles, and quotes from clients.
- Children are becoming more accepted at weddings nowadays. Think about providing a crche or kids' entertainer.
Invite a local wedding planner to visit your property. Most will be happy to make a free inspection, and you may be put on their list as a supplier.
Source : Kelly Chandler, the Bespoke Wedding Companywww.thebespokeweddingco.com