Do weddings spell happy ever after for your business, or are they a sure route to heartache? It all depends on whether you're committed, reports Rosalind Mullen
Anecdotally, not only are the number of weddings decreasing every year, but the average cost of a wedding is apparently slipping back from the heady heights of the £20,000 mark enjoyed pre-recession.
Economic uncertainty has forced the average cost of a UK wedding down 25% from £20,000 in 2008 to £15,500 in 2011, according to www.compareweddinginsurance.org.uk. In particular, it seems couples are cutting back on guest numbers and doing without fancy extras. The good news is that the reception still accounts for the largest proportion of the budget, at an average of around £4,000.
Of course, plenty of operators at the top end still command the equivalent of a small mortgage deposit for just one reception. But, it's fair to say the world economy and trend for civil partnerships, second weddings and "mature" bridal couples have opened up opportunities for venues that can provide more personalised weddings - such as pubs and restaurants.
"People want quality versus quantity - they want smaller budget weddings," says Heidi Da Re, joint owner of Prosecco restaurant in Clifton, Bristol.
There's also a trend for more relaxed surroundings, as Anna Ashmore, head of events at pub chain Geronimo Inns, explains. "People want intimate weddings that aren't at crazy prices. We get bookings from all walks of life. Pubs are open to all, so are not intimidating."
This trend also means businesses without formal wedding packages are being approached as reception venues - and they're finding it a handy way to augment regular income.
"We try to get weddings booked in the afternoon between lunch and dinner. It works well even though there is some disruption," says Gareth Johns, chef and joint-owner at the Wynnstay Hotel in Machynlleth, Wales.
He prices the average wedding at £30 per head plus wine for a maximum of 50 guests. It's not regular - there might be two or three bookings in one month and then nothing for a while - but the lack of wedding package means he can offer a flexible, bespoke service. On one memorable occasion this meant preparing a vegan wedding breakfast.
So is it worth the stress? Johns says it is: "It's valuable to add a source of income and if we've had to put ourselves out, so be it. There is room for a nightmare scenario if it's not your regular business and you haven't got the systems in place, but we treat it as a dinner party."
At the 56-room four-star Langdale hotel and spa in the Lake District, director of sales and marketing Dan Visser says weddings are seen mainly as a means to showcase chef talent and a source of additional F&B revenue, boosting it by about 5%.
But while the hotel has invested in an outdoor pergola as an option for the ceremony, Visser is keen to protect the core hotel business. As a result, they are restricted to 40 weddings a year "because of the potential effect on other guests in terms of noise, service, closed facilities and so on".
Certainly, with weddings you could become a victim of your own success, particularly if your venue is large enough to host more than one event at a time. At Coworth Park in Ascot, Berkshire, for instance, the layout means two weddings can be held in one day. As general manager Zoe Jenkins explains, every serious wedding venue has more than one honeymoon suite, but timing is crucial to ensure that the two brides never bump into each other. Equally, event organisers need to ensure hotel guests aren't encroached on.
So how do you reach the luxurious position of having to put a ceiling on bookings? The key is to hook your brides through visual marketing. Many operators have ditched the wedding brochure and gone online. Putting photographs on your website, using third-party websites and creating an album with testimonials of successful weddings all helps. You can boost your profile further by holding an open day and inviting couples who have made enquiries to see what your function suite will look like when dressed, meet the team and liaise with other wedding professionals in the area such as hairdressers and florists.
This has worked well at Geronimo where its first open day for weddings recently garnered eight bookings. The pub chain also relies on word of mouth and listings on www.weddingvenues.com and www.hitched.co.uk.
"People often haven't considered having their reception in a pub, so the key is to get good images," says Ashmore.
Kettners restaurant in London also markets itself online at www.confetti.co.uk, www.pinkweddingdays.co.uk and www.biggayweddingdirectory.com, and is featured in a local guide that goes to couples registering in Westminster. In 2011 it hosted 20 weddings and that is projected to double this year.
Perhaps one of the toughest aspects of running weddings is handling the high-octane emotion brides panic, there can be arguments, illness and even punch-ups. Jenkins explains how trouble is averted at Coworth Park: "We try to anticipate everything, but the band might not turn up, or the cars are late, maybe someone is ill, but by then we would have developed a close relationship with the family and they will trust us to deal with it."
Sarah Hammond, director at Rhubarb Cranleigh, advises. "On the rare occasion that a bride is panicked then I listen, advise, stay calm and be as nice as possible. The situation soon reverts to being pleasant."
She adds that there is particular scope for disaster at marquee weddings, as the electrics and bathroom facilities can fail. "If clients go down this route we always recommend they use a reputable supplier. However, we have a backup plan and carry gas cookers and candles on standby and ask clients to have all suppliers' contact numbers detailed in case of emergencies."
In addition, while you need to be increasingly innovative about plates, flowers and even the lighting, some brides' demands may take their toll. "We know what fits with the hotel," says Jenkins. "Black and purple satin chairs would not complement the rooms, but provided it doesn't damage the property we strive to satisfy the guests."
Tudor Hopkins, joint proprietor at the Gallivant hotel in Rye, agrees it can be painful to compromise. "We serve food on wooden sharing boards down the centre of the table. One mother, however, wanted black slate. It was like 1980s land. Anyway, we did it and now we have 80 black slates in a cupboard somewhere."
What's clear is that couples want to feel their wedding is unique, so you can lose an enquiry if you're too intransigent in your offer or not creative in your pricing.
"Where a venue has invested in a number of licences for different sized rooms or atmospheres then this can increase the conversion of enquiries," says Stuart Harrison, principal of the Profitable Hotel Company. "One client recently built a pergola at the side of a lake with input from the local registrar to complement the two existing licensed rooms and it has already doubled the number of weddings on the books for 2012.
"The ability to offer a complete service, including the ceremony, has become a sophisticated financial model for most hospitality venues. Selling weddings also requires a hard-nosed operating procedure. You have to build a relationship with the prospective client while at the same time removing any emotion that can impact on a business decision."
Pros and cons of the wedding planner
Outside wedding planners can be a staunch ally if you are hosting a big wedding because they can help with the organisation and act as a buffer between you and the bride. That said, it can work against you if they don't understand your property and are rigid in their ideas. Your own team will most likely understand the space best and can gently dissuade a bride from introducing something tasteless in your oh-so-chic dining room.
Tudor Hopkins, joint-proprietor of the Gallivant hotel in Rye, East Sussex, reckons an in-house wedding planner is a must, even if you only do 10 weddings a year. "You've only got one chance to get a wedding right," he says.
They can also help to instil trust in your business. For instance, London restaurant Kettners has a dedicated wedding co-ordinator to ensure that the couple deal with the same person from enquiry to the wedding day.
At Coworth Park in Ascot, Berkshire, general manager Zoe Jenkins says that an in-house planner can help promote your business. "Our wedding planner will help with the food, wine, cars, music, fireworks and the honeymoon arrangements if they are going on to another Dorchester property," she says.
Weddings are one of the most emotive events you will cater for - certainly, the tension to get it right can take its toll on the bride. So how do you manage this relationship?
● Focus If you drop the ball on the first or second meeting they will lose confidence in you
● Set the ground rules Some brides are difficult to please in the run up to the wedding and will make lots of challenging changes and requests
● Be accessible It's crucial you are available during the planning period because their marriage is their only focus
● Stay calm Things get blown out of proportion. What seems a huge problem to the bride is often just a minor adjustment for the events team
● Build trust Introduce the bride and her mother or other family members to the team
● Say no But only if you have to. Balancing the bride's wishes with reality is a big challenge
● Be prepared If their suggestion doesn't work on the day, they won't always remember that it was their idea so make sure you do everything else really well
● Pay attention to time-management This is crucial, particularly if you host more than one wedding on the same day
● Don't just focus on the bride Contrary to popular belief, it's the parents of the bride who are often the problem - after all, the bride is happy
● Communicate Manage expectations by listening to the couple and making them feel their day is unique
● Be available Aim to meet the bride so many times that nothing major can go wrong
● Brief your staff Make sure everyone from the head chef to the spa manager is briefed
• Avoid problems Ensure the wedding doesn't encroach on other areas with hotel or restaurant guests
The facts of life - and love
Figures from the Office of National Statistics for Marriages in England and Wales show the provisional number of UK weddings in 2009 is 266,950, a fall of 2.3% compared with 2008. About 65% of ceremonies were first marriages for both partners. The provisional mean age for men marrying in 2009 was 36.3, a decrease from 36.5 in 2008. For women, it was 33.7, down from 33.8 in 2008.
The neighbourhood restaurant
Prosecco, Clifton, Bristol
"I would describe our weddings as being aimed at foodies," says Heidi Da Re, who has been running neighbourhood restaurant Prosecco with her chef-husband Diego since 2006.
Prosecco, which is the couple's first independent venture, offers a rural Italian menu served in airy stylish surroundings. Menus include dishes such as caramelised red onion and goat's cheese ravioli in creamy walnut sauce or pork belly with three salsa accompaniments - verde, apple and chilli.
The 38-seat restaurant attracts a regular local clientele so it's no surprise the wedding business was kickstarted two years ago when a local couple got engaged over dinner and wanted to host their wedding reception there.
Since then, the restaurant has hosted five wedding receptions for between eight and 38 guests, with a couple more already booked this year. So far, they have garnered about £25 to £60 per head depending on the number of courses. For sole use, which depends on availability and spend, the Da Res add a 15% service charge to the bill. Tuesdays work well because that's when the restaurant is usually closed. In fact, it recently opened for a reception for 15.
Weddings are seen as an occasional additional revenue boost and so far the couple have only marketed it through word of mouth and the website.
"We tend to take wedding parties at our quieter times. They have all been at lunchtime because our main revenue comes from dinner. I don't think it would be financially viable to do a reception during a busy dinner service," says Da Re.
What they can build on to beat local competition is their personal service. Heidi and Diego both meet the couple and talk through their menu requirements. "The key is planning and plenty of it," says Da Re.
And the couple are happy to go the extra mile. "One group wanted a wine flight to match each course and a little bit of information about the food and wine - a bit like a wine tasting event. This is always available from our staff at no extra cost," she says.
The independent beach hotel
The Gallivant, Camber, near Rye, East Sussex
Tudor Hopkins and Harry Cragoe took over this 18-room New England style beach hotel three years ago and started running wedding ceremonies and receptions a year later, prompted by an enquiry from guests.
"I knew nothing about weddings then, but we got the hotel licensed," says Hopkins. "We did seven weddings in year one, 12 last year and this year we're doing 20."
They've advertised on third-party websites, but most of the enquiries that are converted into bookings come from the website. Pricing is roughly £97 per person, with a minimum of 80 guests. Exclusive use of the hotel would hit the £12,000-£15,000 mark.
"One bridal magazine reckoned we were too cheap, but I feel we're still in the middle of the recession," says Hopkins.
It's all very hippy chic. A typical wedding starts with drinks and shellfish served on the decking, followed by the wedding ceremony. Then comes homemade ice-cream cones and - weather permitting - a stroll over the dunes for photos, cocktails and hampers of canapes. Guests then move on to the wedding breakfast in the Beach Hut marquee with wooden sharing platters served on driftwood trestle tables. Afterwards there's live music and midnight munchies from the Beach Kitchen while lanterns are lit out on the dunes. The benefit of the beach location also means many people carry on the party or honeymoon there.
"For competition, you've got to go to Cornwall - somewhere like the Scarlet hotel is beautiful, but it takes nine hours to get there from London," says Hopkins. "We're only an hour-and-a-half away from London so we attract a lot of Londoners, cool couples, young professionals who are disenchanted with the country house hotel, silver service style. They want something chilled and relaxed."
You can't be too "chilled" if you organise a wedding, however. To that end, Hopkins employs a dedicated wedding planner.
"A wedding planner is an absolute must, even if you do only 10 weddings a year," says Hopkins. "You only get one chance of doing a wedding and there is an epic amount of work involved. I've had dinner with the bride and her family in the past because they want to get to know you. It's very personal. But at the same time I need to run the hotel."
As in other locations, winter weddings are on the increase - there was even a fish and chip wedding in January, but Hopkins wants to keep a balance: "We don't want more than 20 weddings a year. We've got a great head chef and want to develop the restaurant and hotel rather than being just a wedding venue," he says.
The contract caterer
Sarah Hammond, director at Rhubarb Cranleigh, the events arm of caterer Rhubarb, says weddings account for about 70% of the business, with on average three a week. She puts this success down to word of mouth recommendations and the fact the company has built up its reputation over more than 30 years.
"We've found that wedding clients prefer a trusted caterer who has a proven track record," she says.
An added attraction is that Rhubarb also offers a wedding planning service.
"We can match the right suppliers with our clients, from hairdressers, photographers, florists, stationers and fashion designers as well as creating bespoke menus and marquees. We even provide a honeymoon gift box that has food, drink and mementos from the wedding," says Hammond.
Her team meet the client at least 10 times and have constant dialogue. They even give out their personal phone numbers and encourage clients to call any time, including weekends.
"Weddings are an emotional and personal experience and clients often need a lot of care and attention," she says.
Hammond observes that clients on average are older than they used to be (the majority in their 30s), so they tend to be more affluent and established. More to the point, they want unique weddings, such as on board the London Eye or at a beautiful stately home. To meet demand, Rhubarb's creative department produces food displays and bespoke table presentations and constantly invests in new equipment.
"We're only as good as our last wedding," says Hammond. "But we have the ability and imagination to produce our guests' dream wedding, from on board a yacht in the Côte d'Azur to a Taj Mahal themed marquee in Surrey."
The small pub chain
Geronimo Inns, a division of Young's
"A lot of people are seeing pubs as a cheap alternative for weddings nowadays," says Anna Ashmore, head of events at Geronimo Inns.
"On top of that we are flexible - we don't have packages; we work with the brides."
Several of its 32 or so London pubs have private rooms that lend themselves to weddings. An obvious candidate is the White Horse in the City , which is closed - like many businesses in the Square Mile - at weekends. More unlikely venues include the Sir John Betjeman at St Pancras International station, which allows the happy couple to have their picture taken with the evocative The Meeting Place statue before jumping on a Eurostar train to Paris.
But it's the Red Barn property in Lingfield, Surrey (pictured) that is being identified as the company's main wedding venue. Not only has it capacity for 120 guests, but there is also scope for dancing and live music. It also has a paddock and a garden - sparking one quirky plan to convert an ice-cream van into a movable bar. The company is also applying for a wedding licence at the venue.
"People like to have their reception in the same place they have their wedding," observes Ashworth.
Some 20% of business at the Red Barn is weddings and the projection is that this will grow by 5-10%. Some 35 weddings are booked in the year ahead from April to April and the company expects 10-15 more.
What's noticeable is that business is not seasonal in pubs, with at least two weddings a month. In line with this, the hire fee for the barn is £500-£1,500, depending on the day of the week rather than the season. There is a minimum spend to ensure that weddings are worth their while and a section of the pub is usually kept open to the public.
Geronimo also provides an unexpected service. "Wedding planners tend to be used only by big budget weddings," says Ashmore. "We do, however, have dedicated events managers in our pubs. People don't expect it, but we give the same service without the price tag of a posh hotel."
The country house hotel
Coworth Park, Ascot, Berkshire
It's hard to ignore the potential for wedding business at the five-star Coworth Park (part of the Dorchester Group). There's every type of backdrop, from its own polo ground to the sumptuous honeymoon suites with copper baths. There's also the romantic wildflower meadow, which lends itself to a marquee and a licensed marriage pagoda, the three-bedroom Dower House or romantic Tower House. Alternatively, there's the historic mansion house itself with grand terraces, a fine-dining restaurant and three function suites. Bookings can be non-resident, resident or, more rarely, fully exclusive.
"It helps to have a great physical product," says general manager Zoe Jenkins. "The hotel has an intimate feel; there's no reception desk. It's like a country house within 45 minutes of London."
Coworth Park opened just 18 months ago and Jenkins concedes it can be difficult to build up wedding business when you have no precedent - after all, from the bride's point of view there's no second chance. Even so, between April and October there were two or three weddings a week and Jenkins expects this to double in 2012.
Business was partly jumpstarted by a few celebrity weddings that were featured in Hello! and OK magazine. More regular marketing includes the website and photoshoots in glossy bridal magazines. The team also recently held a wedding open day, dressing each function room differently and inviting clients who had made enquiries to see the level of bespoke service on offer.
While this luxurious hotel inevitably appeals to wealthier clients, the current climate means budgets are not bottomless. "They do shop around - weddings are a big personal spend," says Jenkins.
Clients also want venues that can accommodate a short lead-in time for bookings of four to six months and Jenkins says that despite capacity for up to 300 guests, there's a preference for smaller weddings. Other trends are for civil partnerships, Christmas weddings and kids club facilities.
To take the strain, Jenkins employs a wedding co-ordinator, although the hotel's events managers can handle weddings as well as retreats, conferences and meetings.
"Weddings are closely packed in the summer and are a drain on the team," she says. "You're dealing with the family and it becomes very emotional."