The wedding venue was still under construction, but the wooing had already begun.
Six months before the Marriott Marquis Washington, D.C. was to open, Christopher Otway got to work securing the hotel’s first wedding, a 600-person Indian ceremony complete with a horse, multiple choreographed dances and a drone for aerial photographs.
He knew the competition would be stiff: The couple, Monica Vohra and Shalin Shah, were also considering the Lansdowne Resort in Leesburg, Va., and the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Md.
But Otway, director of sales and catering for the Marquis, had a selling point that no one else did: Shalin and Shah could be the first couple to get married at the new convention center hotel, a property that had been two decades in the making.
“What a talking point that would be for them,” Otway said. “It would be their first wedding here. Nobody else could say that.”
He sat down and wrote them a heartfelt letter. A few days later, Shah and Vohra booked the hotel for their July 5 wedding.
Large Indian weddings — events that can cost six, sometimes seven, figures — are increasingly coveted by the area’s largest and more luxurious hotels as a way to make up for lost government and corporate business. Meeting rooms that were once filled with conferences and training sessions now sit empty, and Indian weddings, which tend to include several ceremonies over multiple days, have become crucial sources of revenue.
The average cost of an Indian wedding in the United States is expected to hit $250,000 this year, roughly 10 times the national average, according to Indian Weddings Magazine, a San Francisco-based publication.
The Four Seasons Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue has an “Indian-style” wedding package that, for $225 per person, includes a menu of tandoori lamb kabobs, naan pizzas and spicy fish curry. The Willard in downtown Washington hosts so many Indian weddings that it has created a designated route through Pershing Park for grooms to ride in on horseback. And at the Hay-Adams, wedding packages include flexible timelines to accommodate hours-long ceremonies.
But nowhere have those efforts been more pronounced than at Marriott International, where 415 Washington-area Indian weddings have accounted for more than $12 million in revenue over the past three years. The Bethesda-based hotel giant has assembled a Multicultural Affairs team to travel the country teaching employees about Indian, Chinese, Jewish and Brazilian culture, cuisine, clothing and wedding traditions in a bid to nab even more business.
There have been other efforts, too. The Baltimore Marriott Waterfront has installed its own tandoor oven and hired an Indian chef to cater large South Asian weddings. The Mayflower Renaissance in downtown Washington, which hosts about one Indian wedding a month, has a backup horse provider on call, just in case. And a number of other area hotels have begun stocking their pantries with chai and frozen samosas to serve to potential wedding clients.
“There is a clear business opportunity here,” said Apoorva Gandhi, vice president of multicultural affairs at Marriott. “With the rising demographics come rising [spending]. We’re in a competitive market, and we want to make sure we’re doing all we can to have that business come with us.”
Each piece of business, he added, can lead to much more. At the Marquis alone, the Vohra-Shah wedding has spurred at least six new wedding inquiries for this year and next.
“Their wedding has really done a lot to promote this hotel,” Otway said. “Much more than we could have done on our own.”
Wedding chatter permeates the room on a recent weekday morning: Did you hear about the groom who rode in on a $13,000 elephant at the Mayflower Renaissance? Or the six-foot-tall cake at the Wardman Park Marriott? What about that $9 million Indian wedding in Las Vegas?
It is Indian culture day, and two dozen Marriott sales and catering employees are assembled at the College Park Marriott Hotel & Conference Center for “India 101,” a three-hour crash course in wedding basics.
Seema Jain, director of multicultural affairs for Marriott, has flown in from Chicago for the event, which includes afternoon trips to an Indian restaurant, clothing shop and grocery store.
The morning begins with a quick introduction to India: capital city (New Delhi), population (1.2 billion) and currency (rupee).
Then the talk turns to logistics.
A typical guest list for a wedding can range from 400 to 800, Jain says. Indian brides and grooms are more likely to bring their parents, grandparents and other family members to vet the hotel. It isn’t unusual, she says, for 10 people to show up for a tasting, so be prepared. Different aunts and uncles may call to negotiate rates.
“Another thing that’s really important is, block off three or four hours on your schedule to meet with them,” adds Mary Lynn Portzer, who oversees Mid-Atlantic sales and catering for Marriott. “As we said, they’re on ‘Indian time.’ They’re probably going to be running late.”
After that, more pointers: Serve chai and biscuits during site visits. Have a Bollywood movie playing in the background during negotiations. Know licensing rules for horses and elephants. Be familiar with the building’s fire codes because many ceremonies will require an open flame.
“If you get all th is down, they’re going to realize you genuinely get it — and that’s the key,” Jain says.
And finally, she offers some practical advice.
“We love the word ‘free,’ ” says Jain, whose parents immigrated from India in the 1960s. “Free hospitality suite? Great. Free concessions? Great. Just know that negotiation is definitely going to be part of the culture.”
“And,” adds Gandhi, “always make sure you have Johnnie Walker Black Label.”
If there is a formula for attracting Indian weddings, the Westfields Marriott in Chantilly, Va., seems to have it perfected. The hotel has hosted 118 Indian weddings — more than three per month — over the past three years. The elaborate affairs have brought in more than $3.3 million, accounting for more than half of the hotel’s wedding business.
Almost all new bookings come from word-of-mouth referrals, says Scott McClinton, the hotel’s general manager. It’s not uncommon for people to have attended five, six, seven weddings at the hotel.
“In fact, last week, I had a gentleman tell me he was at his 20th wedding here,” McClinton said. “When you look at the opportunity here, it’s huge. It’s high dollar for us. High revenue, high profit.”
A decade ago, before the recession, it was almost unheard of for large hotels to allow outside caterers into their kitchens or open flames in their ballrooms. Business was plentiful and there was no reason to make special accommodations.
But much of that has changed in recent years, as companies cut back on their travel budgets and the federal government slashes spending for conferences. Local hotels have reported tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue in recent years, and those losses are expected to continue.
“In the boom day, not a lot of hotels would even consider going out of their way,” said Portzer, who oversees sales for 34 area hotels. “But now it’s a little bit slower and the dynamics have changed. That has opened up a great avenue for us to focus on weddings.”
Jain and Gandhi were hired in 2010 to help lure more multicultural business to Marriott. Much of their work centers on Indian weddings, but increasingly they are also looking to other opportunities: quinceaneras, gay and lesbian weddings, bar mitzvahs.
“As we’re seeing these growing groups, we want to make sure that everyone who works at Marriott knows about them from a cultural perspective, from a travel perspective and from an intellectual perspective,” Gandhi said. “We want to make sure we’re culturally competent, and we want to be authentic.”
For Deepika Shukla, who was married in May, finding the right venue had been a months-long process. She needed a large space that could accommodate 350 guests and five events, ranging from a Friday night pre-party to a Sunday morning brunch. Outdoor ceremony space and proximity to an international airport were also important.
The Westfields Marriott had everything she was looking for, she said, including a list of South Asian vendors to choose from. But there was one detail that impressed her the most: On the day of her wedding, employees showed up dressed in traditional Indian clothing.
“That was really meaningful,” said Shukla, 31. “You could tell they knew what they were doing.”