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For hotels, a perfect match

Recession-hit hosts embrace Indian weddings

By Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Staff / June 8, 2010

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MARLBOROUGH — On a hot, sunny Saturday in early May, a raucous wedding procession of women in bright, shimmery saris and men in long embroidered kurtas and sunglasses danced through a hotel parking lot behind a van blaring bhangra beats. The groom brought up the rear on a dappled white horse.

It was the first time the Marlborough Best Western had hosted a traditional Indian wedding and, in keeping with Indian culture, it was an elaborate, all-day affair, with 450 guests.

Best Western is among the many hotels actively pursuing this lucrative market as they struggle to make up for last year’s recession-diminished revenues.

The InterContinental Hotel, the Ritz-Carlton, the Taj Boston, and the Westin in Waltham have all hosted Indian wedding expos in the past year. Hyatt Hotels Corp. developed an Indian wedding webinar to educate staff about ceremonial customs, cuisine, even popular brands of alcohol.

And India New England, a newspaper published in Waltham, has had so much demand from advertisers that it put out two wedding supplements instead of one last year and plans to do the same this year.

“Literally, this market is just exploding,’’ said publisher Upendra Mishra.

In the Indian culture, marrying off a child is a matter of pride, and parents spare no expense to throw a traditional wedding, said wedding planner and decorator Shobha Shastry. The weddings, she said, typically range from $50,000 to $150,000 and can go as high as $300,000.

The average cost of a wedding in Massachusetts, by comparison, is closer to $30,000, according to the research company the Wedding Report Inc.

“It’s a great revenue generator,’’ said Christine Kelly, a Best Western sales director. She estimated the wedding of Tanmay and Divya Patel that Saturday brought the hotel about $11,000.

The Patels are among a growing number of young Indian-Americans holding their weddings locally instead of making the trek to India to tie the knot. There are about 1,500 Indian weddings a year in the region, according to India New England — more than double the number 10 years ago. Back then, Shastry recalls, she could find only a handful of hotels that allowed outside caterers or could deal with the logistics surrounding Hindu wedding rites such as the saptapadi, in which the bride and groom walk around a fire. “I had great difficulty in convincing some of the hotels,’’ said Shastry.

These days, Shastry has no such problem. In fact, it’s often the other way around. Her Northborough-based company Alankar plans about 70 Indian weddings a year. To host the Patel wedding, the Best Western lowered its rates for tableware and labor from $29 to $24 per person, slashed the $1,200 ballroom fee in half, waived the $500 cleanup charge, and threw in complimentary rooms for the wedding party. The price helped the couple settle on the Best Western, but it was the new carpet in the ballroom that really sealed the deal. The first time the couple toured the hotel, Tanmay Patel said, “It was hideous.’’

Having an Indian chef on staff is also a big selling point for local hotels. When Kathleen Gilbey took over as general manager of the Westin Waltham a year ago and realized the hotel wasn’t taking advantage of its executive chef from Delhi, she encouraged him to learn how to prepare new Indian dishes, started taking out regular ads in India New England, and put on an Indian bridal show. Gilbey’s goal is to bring in at least $300,000 from Indian weddings this year.

Last fall, the InterContinental put on an extravagant celebration with a disc jockey, fashion show, and a vast array of dishes such as tandoori lamb, Bengali scallops, and Madras sea bass to introduce its Indian chef and facility to the community.

“They’ve begun to realize that this is a relatively affluent community,’’ said photographer Nabil Kapasi, who worked the Patel wedding at the Best Western with another photographer, two videographers, and an assistant to capture all the action. It’s a growing community, too, with about 66,000 residents in Massachusetts in 2008, according to US Census estimates, up from less than 44,000 in 2000.

But Indian weddings come with many rituals, and they often require extra effort. Hindu ceremonies are conducted at what is known as an auspicious time, determined by the bride and groom’s birth dates and based on the Hindu calendar, and it’s not always convenient.

Nadine Reibeling, special events manager at the Taj, once reported to the hotel in the middle of the night to help the bride get ready. “Her hair and makeup started at 2:30 in the morning,’’ said Reibeling, who has also looked into getting an elephant for the groom’s procession, known as a baraat.

Four hours after the rowdy baraat at the Patel wedding in Marlborough, the newlyweds climbed into the back seat of an Acura sport utility vehicle. The two families engaged in a symbolic struggle, with the bride’s family preventing the groom from taking her away until they were given a cash bribe; when the car finally pulled away, it crunched over a coconut to ensure a safe journey.

The bride and groom and their guests returned a few hours later for a buffet dinner of chicken tikka masala, basmati rice, and samosa pastries — and more dancing. “A lot of us as we’re growing up, we identify with our American upbringing,’’ said Shelley Chhabra, a Cambridge bridal gown designer. “But when it comes to your wedding, that’s the one time where everybody pulls out all the stops in terms of following all the customs and traditions and identifying with their Indian heritage.’’

Katie Johnston Chase can be reached at johnstonchase@globe.com.