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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

Look like a million on the big day

The wedding industry across the Gulf is massive, with couples from wealthy families willing to spend seven figures on their big day.
Mennat Al Hammami, a wedding planner. Silvia Razgova / The National
Mennat Al Hammami, a wedding planner. Silvia Razgova / The National

It is worth as much as a Ferrari and took more than a month to make - but it will be used only for a few hours on one day.

A Dh1 million (US$272,234)Swarovski crystal-encrusted wedding dress, which was created by the UAE haute couturier Dar Sara Fashion, was unveiled at the Bride Show Abu Dhabi this year.

"The price of crystals [alone] is approximately Dh300,000," says Jihan Hanna, who designed the dress. The dress is made from Tulle Lagatolla and Dontaile Sofia Halett combined with crystal chatton bending.

It may seem an outrageous sum to spend on a dress, but the cost pales into significance when compared with the size of the wedding industry in the Gulf.The Saudi Wedding Fair estimates it at about US$2.8 billion annually.

During the boom years before 2008, some investors and entrepreneurs spotted the industry's potential in the UAE and got in on the industry. But like most sectors, it was hurt by the downturn.

Still, while some sectors are still suffering, the wedding industry appears to be back in business.

"A few wedding organisers did well during the peak time, but 2010 and 2011 saw those who couldn't really survive [close]," said Daphne Cota, the exhibition director of The Bride Show, which runs in Abu Dhabi in February and Dubai in April.

"Those who are still there are doing very well for themselves. That's where we benefit," she says.

Emiratis are the biggest spenders, but research by Ms Cota's company suggests that Asian expatriates, particularly Indian couples, come out on top when it comes to booking hotel ballrooms.

As for the figures, the average cost of weddings for middle-income families in the Emirates is Dh300,000, according to The Bride Show, but wealthy families can rack up seven-digit bills.

"I really can't disclose my client's budgets, but we have worked with several million-dollar weddings," says Sarah Feyling, a wedding planner and the managing director of Couture Events in Dubai.

The typical budget of couples using Couture Events to plan their weddings varies, from a couple hundred thousand dirhams up to several million. The high cost of weddings is partly due to their size.

"Typically, Emirati weddings cost more, but that is largely due to the fact they have a lot more guests. When you break it down to cost per head, then it can sometimes be on par," Ms Feyling says.

Emiratis typically invite 600 to 1,500 guests. The number of guests at expatriate Arab weddings typically ranges from 150 to 400. Other nationalities usually have 50 to 100 guests. But the scale of spending is also related to Arab cultural norms and traditions.

"Marriage is a huge deal. Whether the younger generations admit it, the families do want to make a big deal about it, and they do intervene, and they do want to be a part of it. So it's not really about the couple any more," says Mennat Al Hammami, who recently set up her own company, Cloud Nine Wedding & Event Organizing.

"Even if all else around is falling apart, the wedding has to be spectacular. It's all about society and what people say," she adds.

Ms Al Hammami previously worked in Dubai but based her business in Abu Dhabi to capitalise on what she perceived as a gap in the market: wedding planners in the capital tend to target Emiratis, while she caters more for expatriates.

"There are a lot of weddings, there is a lot of demand, but it's a very volatile market. If anything goes bad in your event, the next day you're done. Nobody wants you any more," she says.

Planners price differently. Couture Events charges a flat fee, regardless of the cost of the wedding, while Ms Al Hammami mostly bases hers on a percentage of the budget.

And the really popular planners in Dubai charge a fee just to sit down with potential clients, she says.

"Time is money in the industry if you have a name for yourself," Ms Al Hammami says.

In the biggest Emirati weddings, the halls or marquees - and there are separate ones for men and women - are decorated elaborately with flowers, carpeting and rich cloths. And many brides strive to outdo other weddings.

"There's a lot of word of mouth still here. If someone had a wedding that is something to remember, they like to go and make it better," Ms Cota says.

Some couples spend as much as Dh100,000 on flowers and table decorations alone. According to the Abu Dhabi family business Antheia Flowers, the company's biggest wedding order last year was Dh70,000.

"I ordered the flowers 15 months before to make sure they were there. I started preparing them at least four days before [and it took] six hours at least to set up," says Samia Darseh, a florist and co-owner of Antheia.

Wedding dresses can be another significant slice of a budget. A gown from a high-end designer in the UAE back in 2008 would have cost at least Dh50,000.

But the cost has fallen in recent years. Dar Sara dresses typically start at about Dh40,000.

"Nowadays they even make dresses for less because the workmanship is less. They would rather have a very expensive fabric and be subtly embellished rather than go for all the bling," Ms Cota says.

But of course, brides can still always opt for a wedding day with a Ferrari budget.

gduncan@thenational.ae

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