How Wedding Planners are Coping With Surge in Indian American Marriages Amid Lingering Pandemic
Indian weddings are a weekend-long extravaganza with many guests and numerous colorful fun and festivities associated with diverse cultures and religions. This year marked a wave of desi weddings after two years of drought. My family and I have been invited to half a dozen weddings this year.
In a Feb. 4 report in The New York Times, Tammy La Gorce writes that roughly 2.5 million marriages are expected to take place this year, the most since 1984, citing the 2021 Wedding Report which gathered data through a survey of vendors and consumers. “A majority of the planned 2022 celebrations are rescheduled events from the last two years,” she writes. “The rest are likely to be dominated by couples who became engaged during the pandemic.”
The two-year-long pandemic has brought several challenges to the multibillion-dollar wedding industry. Couples that were scheduled to get married in 2020 and 2021 have been affected in myriad ways. For example, a Hindu groom and his beautiful Buddhist Vietnamese American bride are finally getting married in the Summer of 2022 on a Spanish island after postponing their wedding twice since 2020. I am looking forward to being part of the 190 guests in Mallorca, Spain.
Some couples got married in intimate family settings without much fanfare. Many others had to reconcile by tying the knot without family members who were able to fly from India to attend their children’s weddings. Many resorted to modern technology, including Facebook Live and Zoom, to include families in India in their weddings.
To find out how Indian weddings have been affected during the pandemic, I talked with a few wedding planners. They discussed elements that have changed the most and how they are getting a grip on them.
Impact of Covid on the Wedding Industry
Thirty-year-old Kristen Miller, the founder of Cultural Event Rentals, one-stop-shop service for Indian weddings specializing in exclusive mandaps, sacred rest for the Holy Book required for Sikh weddings, Hawan Kund for the sacred fire, jhulas, haldi bowls, henna accessories, a variety of collection of furniture, backdrops, and specialty decor for ceremonies. Her wedding rickshaw was featured in the August 2021 New York Times article “Hippie Hindu” wedding that brought in the bride to tie her nuptial knots at the wedding at the Holly Farm in Carmel, California.
Miller began her career in the industry even before she graduated high school. She quickly learned about the beauty, complexity, and cultural nuances of a three-day Indian wedding. Starting with a mehndi party on a Thursday, haldi during the day, and sangeet in the evening on Friday; baraat and wedding on Saturday morning on a well-crafted mandap, lunch after the wedding, and reception with dinner and dancing. After successfully planning over 50 Indian weddings for a Bay area event planning company, Miller started her own in 2018.
She says Covid was hard on her business. Besides government compensation for small businesses, she did a few rentals. “Sometimes, people needed a mandap delivered for their private estate or a tent.” But the industry hurt as the beauty of Indian weddings lies in the extended family and community coming together.
Miller did a south Indian wedding in September 2021 where the bride’s mother could not come from India. The couple live-streamed it so that everyone in their family in India could see it, and it turned out beautiful. “It was late at night, and the family was partying in India.” With Covid, a lot of videographers got into the live streaming business.
This year, Miller finds people are cautious in reading between the lines of the wedding contract and are keen on incorporating the Covid clause. Some clients don’t want to sign a wedding contract to cancel it abruptly without that clause. As a result, she has lost some business.
Another significant change this year is the effect of price increases, a clause she incorporated in her new contract drawn in January. She had initially made all these contracts for the rental company based on last year’s gas prices. “I shot myself in the foot!”
Tara Melvin, the founder of Perfect Planning Events in Washington, D.C., said the added expense this year can be blamed on inflation and continuing supply chain kinks. “Our vendor partners, especially floral designers, are having a hard time getting things from manufacturers,” she said. “Even paper for invitations is hard to come by.”
‘An insane and Crazy Roller Coaster’
Minoti Mehta is one of the top wedding planners in Silicon Valley. In 2015, she launched Vermilion Weddings and Events, inspired by her father, who passed away in July 2012. “My father was a tax accountant by trade, but he always dreamed of starting a wedding and event planning company and selected the name Vermilion Weddings and Events,” she says. He planned and executed weddings and events on the side and sent me to college to study hospitality at the University of San Francisco.”
For Mehta, the pandemic was “insane and a crazy roller coaster.” She was due to leave for a destination wedding in India on a Friday in March 2020. “I remember doing all my meetings, and then Wednesday morning, I woke up. My uncles from India had messaged me Prime Minister Modi had shut down the borders. I was shocked.”
India was closed down when life was still as usual in the United States. The emotions kicked in as the wedding was a week away. The New York-based bride and groom were ready to fly before the border closed on Friday night.
Chaos ensued. She was left with the task of rescheduling a 500-person wedding at the 11th hour. Mehta says the first two months since the pandemic began were an insane amount of work to close down the wedding event “Probably the most work I’ve ever done.”
And then there was unemployment. As an entrepreneur, the worst fear is that “I will be unemployed and my business will stop. That fear came true in 2020 when everything stopped,” Mehta said. She never thought she would apply for unemployment benefits. She felt her whole life was on hold at that moment.
Dennis Silknitter, a well-known planner for Indian weddings recalls being on hold. “My friends who work in this industry were shutting down their restaurants,” Mehta says. “They can’t make payments. This was truly the bottom.” Silknitter was planning two weddings at the time, and says he “simply waited to have their as normal wedding as possible.”
Similar Challenges in 2021
However, 2021 did not become more manageable. With facilities opening up, the most challenging time of Mehta’s career was to learn Covid-related rules. The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) introduced events based on strict protocol: 120 -150 people maximum and no provision for the buffet. “Weddings are very emotional, so we could not serve breakfast as we needed to hire many service people without a buffet breakfast,” she says. “Clients say that it is part of our culture.” So the pandemic made it harder to do events with the tough choice of venue, food, and social distance protocol.
Along with financial loss, Covid caused a severe emotional and mental health crisis. For Mehta, 2019 was their best year; they worked so hard and had a great beginning in 2020. The pandemic brought this forced break, and it took away their social calendar on top of unemployment. For her mental sanity, Mehta prioritized self-care like meditation, yoga, cooking, and journaling.
This year, she tells her clients to be realistic and prepared. “Let’s not invite 500 people because we won’t be able to cut it down to 150, and it will offend so many people. With 250 invitees, if we have to cut it down to 150, in case there’s a new variant, it’s doable”
Mehta is very skeptical and apprehends a Covid resurgence in the winter months. She said, “we’re not taking any events during the deep winter season of six to eight weeks; there may be a new variant. As a business owner, I have to protect my business, and if rescheduling keeps happening, it’s hard on the business.
How to Cope With Wedding Surge
With new celebrations piling in, 2022-2023 is especially hard for the vendors with their time crunch and insane workload. After two years of the Covid insurgency, the demand for vendors this year is much higher. “There are vendors who have already booked 75 weddings for this year. When the wedding season starts, the vendor’s communication with the wedding planner becomes very limited and scarce. So the planners have to design the entire wedding now before the wedding season in Spring to have a smooth event.
This year, Mehta is rolling out a consulting service for vendors and venues trying to get into the Indian wedding market. With almost half a million Indian population living in California, there is tremendous demand for Indian weddings. Mehta says everyone wants to be in the Indian wedding market now. She also got her sommelier license as a wine expert. As a consulting firm, she would help restaurants understand what wines parallel the foods they’re serving and help them create a wine menu.
The pandemic has helped Mehta realize the massive waste associated with weddings. She sees the enormous waste of flowers. For the more recent wedding design, she uses fruits and vegetables as the centerpieces that the guests can take home. She designs weddings more for sustainability which will help redress the climate crisis.
Managing Marriages During Covid
New Jersey-based Srishti Viyulie and her partner Bhawana Rathore started the company Events by Srishti in 2017. They specialize in Indian weddings and have been awarded WeddingWire’s Couples Choice for three years. Viyulie, born and raised on the East Coast, grew up with her grandparents and always was fascinated by the rich culture and the extravagance of Indian weddings from an early age. She has been keenly interested in mehndi designs and Indian outfits as a marker of cultural identity. She did a thesis on Indian weddings while getting her entrepreneurship degree at Rutgers. She and her close friend Rathore who also went to Rutgers decided to take up wedding planning as a career bringing people’s visions of weddings to life.
How have Viyulie and Rathore managed during the global pandemic? In many cases, weddings did not stop during the pandemic but became smaller and more intimate, emphasizing photoshoots, unique decor, and more outfits and quality. Pandemic has helped couples realize that it is impossible to invite everyone they want to their wedding because the limit on attendees forces them to keep their guest lists smaller. A sure impact is weddings have become smaller, with 50-100 people. Since their company opened up in July 2020, they have had about 15 events that year.
In 2021, they tried to be creative by booking bigger venues with reduced guest lists. For example, a wedding with 1800 guests was moved from Nov 2020 to Nov 2021. The Covid compliant reduced guest list of 1,200 was allowed, under the 50% capacity for 3,000 indoors at the convention center banquet hall, New Jersey.
Viyulie says the pandemic has shifted things in perspective. “I see a huge surge in how many people want to marry.”
Rathore says another reason for the wedding boom is that couples get to spend more time together during the pandemic and move forward in their relationships. This year, Viyulie and Rathore have capped the number of weddings at 42. They say, “there are 52 weeks, and taking more than 42 is not beneficial for many other vendors. For a wedding planner, it is a lot of weekly phone calls, building the schedules, the designs, and a vision board for all the clients so they can talk about color palettes, outfits, decor, and what is working together for the ceremony.”
This year feels different, Viyulie and Rathore have about half of 2023 booked because many brides and grooms have reached out about 18 months in advance. The majority of the couples plan before a year as they are nervous about things getting booked out. There are not enough venues and not enough decorators and other vendors. The couples don’t have many choices to choose from.
Shifting Trends in Weddings
Covid has brought in a few changes in how people are choosing to celebrate their big day. One of them is the guest list. Mehta observes: “The biggest thing I see is that the couples don’t want weddings anymore where they are meeting people for the first time at a wedding.”
Many of them combine events like haldi, mehndi, and a sangeet into one event on one day, making it grand with a pre-reception and then just the wedding followed by lunch.
Money is a big factor in this trend. The cost of a wedding has gone up more than two times, with the increasing cost of the flowers, venues, and catering. For multiple events spanning three days, the cost per person is about $500, especially in the Bay Area. With post-Covid inflation, the couples want to make sure they invite guests who have played a role in their life.
Destination weddings are gaining popularity because of the number of people and price. Also, they are more relaxing for the bride and groom. “It is the most relaxed I’ve ever seen my couples. Everything is there,” Miller says. Viyulie and Rathore agree.
The Need for a Wedding Planner
These changing trends have resulted in the need for a wedding planner. For Viyulie and Rathore, the need for a wedding planner in the post-pandemic period has become necessary, due to the profound change in the way people approach weddings. The wedding planner works on the choice of the venue and top-tier vendors, namely, DJ, decor, photo, video, and catering. Once those are booked, the planner focuses on the more minor things like entertainment, mehndi artist, makeup artist, family items like horses, cars, and smaller pieces like coordinating outfits.
Ishani Behera had to wait a year to get married and slashed the number of guests. “Our wedding coordinator took over all our planning the month before our wedding date, went through contracts with us, timelines, vendor management, and made sure everything ran the day smoothly,” she says.
Like Behera, several clients have started noticing the value of having a planner to take care of things for them. The two years of the pandemic have created a lot of frustration as people haven’t been able to have formal events. They realize the importance of handing over their vision to a planner to implement it.
Annapurna Devi Pandey teaches Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and was a postdoctoral fellow in social anthropology at Cambridge University, the U.K. Her current research interests include diaspora studies, South Asian religions, and immigrant women’s identity making in the diaspora in California. In 2017-18 she received a Fulbright scholarship for fieldwork in India. Dr. Pandey is also an accomplished documentary filmmaker. Her 2018 award-winning documentary “Road to Zuni,” dealt with the importance of oral traditions among Native Americans.
(Courtesy AmericanKahani.Com where this article was first published)