Best made plans

With the matrimonial season in full swing, our correspondent puts on her favourite hat and attends a class with Dubai's leading bridal consultant.
A wedding involves a lot more than simply saying "I do".
A wedding involves a lot more than simply saying "I do".

Wedding season has arrived. Not only are June and July boom months for Emirati weddings, but many of us are gearing up for summer weddings across much of the rest of the world - one weekend after another. Must we really wear a hat? Do we wear wedges or risk a whole day in heels? Where can men hire a proper morning suit? The fussing is relentless, but as you raise a cheer for the happy couple, remember that 250 hours of planning has gone into the event. Well, at least according to Sarah Feyling, who told a classroom full of students so last weekend at her wedding-planning course in Dubai.

What would such a course be like, I wondered before arriving at a classroom in the Knowledge Village. Would it look like Bride Wars, with women grinding their teeth in angst while planning the happiest day of their lives? Would there be insightful tips on wedding cakes, or how to choose the right flowers for your ceremony? Would there be helpful music suggestions for that all-important first dance? Shania Twain versus Nat King Cole, perhaps?

Yes and no, as it turns out. Upon arrival, there was a disappointing lack of prospective brides on the verge of a nervous breakdown. However, that was not to say that we attendees (10 women, two men) didn't spend the day ingesting facts on cake and flower arrangements or gleaning useful wedding-based tips. Make sure that bridal bouquets aren't bigger than a bride's waist, for example - the effect can make her look bigger in photographs. Also, remember that sweetpeas are a bad bouquet idea in Dubai because they are the kind of flowers that don't hold up well in heat. And did you know that red chrysanthemums mean "I love you"? I did not.

Set up by a Dubai-based events company, Couture Events, this was the fourth wedding course that Feyling has run in her five years of owning the business. It is a span of time in which she has built up an unparalleled black book of business contacts ("A challenge when only 40 per cent of businesses in Dubai are on the internet, though that is growing," she says), and built up a reputation as one of the most respected planners in the business. The Burj al Arab, for example, is just one Dubai hotel that sends all wedding inquiries it receives directly to Feyling's company.

The course is run by Feyling in conjunction with Dubai's Event Management and Development Institute. It came about two years ago following a plea from the Seychelles' Banyan Tree resort, which approached Feyling about giving its staff a course in wedding planning. Returning, she then decided to offer her own course in Dubai, to help both those looking to enter into the booming wedding-planning business and forthcoming brides.

I am not a potential bride, but some day, I presume, I might just venture into marriage and, like most, I appreciate that weddings are an organisational challenge. The minute detail that goes into them is illustrated in a checklist that Feyling distributes before the start of the class. This booklet runs to 30 pages. It includes a wedding cake checklist (asking for details of pastry chef, flavour, dimensions and finishing details among others), a list of potential first dance songs (Aerosmith's I Don't Wanna Miss A Thing, anyone?) and details on the roles of those involved in a wedding.

"Keep the bride laughing," it tellingly instructs the maid of honour. It lists styles of bouquets - round, cascade, contemporary or hand-tied. It also contains a list of recent wedding trends, such as eco-friendly ceremonies (where gifts may be donations to charity) and custom-designed wedding logos for napkins and cups. Towards the end, it lists a sample budget with allowances for such things as photographers, string quartets, a DJ, a classic car and canapes.

Among my class of 12 wedding students, only two are married, so only two can appreciate the magnitude of it all. One of these women, Gloria Irkal, 40, was attending to glean useful tips ahead of her niece's forthcoming marriage in India. Another, Sue Hunter, explained that both her children "will probably be getting married in the next year or so" and she wanted to know more about the organisation needed.

Others were there for professional reasons. "I have a lot of interest in events," explains Tabitha Miranda, 27, one of the unmarried class members. "So I wanted to see the wedding aspect because it's slightly different, very detailed." One of the male participants, Bobby Doren, 36, said that he was taking the radically different move from the oil and gas industry into event planning. "This is a passion actually, because eventually when I go back to the Philippines I want to start my own business there."

He is a sensible chap. The Association of Bridal Consultants (yes, there is an official body for them, with 4,000 members spread across 27 countries) recently estimated that 20-30 per cent of weddings across the world employed the services of a planner. Considering that the wedding industry in the Middle East alone is estimated to be worth US$700 million a year (Dh2.57bn), wedding planning can be a lucrative career choice.

Feyling won't be drawn on exactly how much she charges, only saying that it is always a flat fee instead of an overall percentage of a wedding's budget. But this flat fee "depends on the scope of the work", she says discretely. She does admit she has worked with Dh1million budgets, though adds that these days "one should prioritise getting value for money over the bottom line." Ah, of course. Like everything else, the recession has hit wedding budgets across the world. Though Feyling says that after an initial drop the industry is picking up. Now she's busy with upcoming Emirati weddings and from October she caters mainly for Western and South Asian clients again.

But, she says, there is no average number of weddings on the go. "It really depends on the seasons and our clientele; our local clients tend to plan from three to six months ahead, where the destination market [those coming into the UAE specially to marry] and expats tend to plan six to 18 months ahead." At one point, however, she has had to juggle 17 weddings in total. It is a job for which Feyling is clearly well suited. Married herself, she is impeccably turned out for our class in a purple summer dress and high heels and runs through the day with a series of exhaustive slide show presentations. "If you can plan a wedding, you can plan any event. Nothing is more detail-orientated," she says brightly at 9.30am, having handed out her special checklist booklet. "Please have a doughnut if you missed breakfast," she adds, pointing at two boxes of Krispy Kremes at the front of the classroom. We all sit shyly, too embarrassed to be the first to tuck in.

An hour and a half later, during our first break, we cave and help ourselves to the doughnuts. In the meantime, we have covered the preliminaries. For every expat wedding in the UAE, Feyling has told us, she consults the respective embassies of those involved because certain legalities are necessary and there is plenty of paperwork required. Oh. I had assumed that it would be all sugared almonds and white dresses. When do we get to the fun stuff? "I think there is a huge misconception about wedding planning that has led to an increase in the number of planners setting up in Dubai," she says. "People have an unrealistic and romantic notion of what the job entails. While it is a privilege to be involved with the most important day in someone's life, the industry is fraught with nerves."

The class is then moved on to wedding services. "What are the main services needed for a successful wedding?" demands Feyling. "Um, the ceremony," someone ventures. "Entertainment," says another voice. "Transport?" I suggest as a peripheral thought. Feyling pulls up a list which runs to 20 items, including those such as flower design, honeymoon specialists, photography and videography, and stationery. "I have had requests to put 'No children' printed on invitations," Feyling tells us solemnly. "But etiquette dictates that you can't put that so it's left to word of mouth."

Don't be fooled that stationery as a topic just covers invitations, either. We learn that it also incorporates save-the-date cards, RSVP cards, the order of service, place cards, menus and thank-you cards. I start to feel sorry for all these brides and the billions of things they have to remember. I'm not even engaged, I don't even have a boyfriend, and still a sense of worry about the day begins to creep up on me. "What if I forget the seating charts?"

It's the details that are so extraordinary. Feyling tells her budding planners that it is always a good idea to have cold towels and water on hand for weddings outside in Dubai, even during the cooler months. At another point, she tells us that bridesmaids should walk four paces behind one another. We devote considerable time to catering, because it is one of the trickiest areas to get right. One slide tells us that it is the single largest expense of any wedding, with 28-33 per cent of the total budget reserved for food and drink. Set menus can be done, though hotels in the UAE are mostly used to buffet wedding services, Feyling explains.

Then comes one of my favourite parts of the day - the wedding-cake debrief. "What trends are there with wedding cakes?" she asks. I jump in and shout with indecent haste: "Cupcakes." I then add "and cheese", remembering a Stilton concoction from my aunt's wedding last year. Feyling nods approvingly. We then move on to a discussion of "fake cakes". As a picture of the happy couple cutting into their cake is so integral to a wedding, in recent years it has become common for several tiers of a cake to be fashioned from polystyrene with icing over the top. "It means the real cake can be already cut up and ready to go out," Feyling tells us, "and that the icing can go on several days before while you still avoid having a stale cake."

"Do brides not mind cutting a fake cake?" asks a confused student. As long as their six-tier, flower-encrusted cake looks real in the photos, it seems not. Under a slide entitled "miscellaneous requests" falls the question of celebrities. Feyling relates a story of one wedding client whose choice of party venue, Al Hadheerah at Bab Al Shams, was nearly derailed when Richard Gere wanted to eat in the restaurant that night. The hotel asked the couple if it was possible to include him. They understandably said no. So the hotel set up a separate area outside for him, but when he walked through the restaurant with his guests, everyone from the wedding party tried to take pictures of him instead of the bride and groom. It was the same when another wedding client booked Nancy Ajram to perform for an hour as their entertainment. Beware, Feyling says, that celebrities don't take too much shine off the bride.

Another thing to watch out for is ceremonies, such as the Indian barat or procession that often incorporates animals and perhaps fireworks: a volatile combination that has the potential to backfire on a wedding. Grooms merit little mention throughout the day, and Feyling says that most of her clients are women, the majority of whom are brides, though some are the brides' mothers. Grooms, she says tactfully, are generally consulted when it comes to costs. "Budget management - that's where they get involved." How boring, I think to myself. Being a bride sounds like much more fun.

For more details on the next wedding-planing course visit www.emdiworld.com. To contact Sarah Feyling, visit www.coutureevents.ae.

Published: June 18, 2009 04:00 AM

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