Most couples grow up to discover that Prince Charming and Cinderella are very much mythical figures, but that doesn't mean the biggest day in their lives can't live up to the fairy-tale dream.
Luxury weddings are standard in the UAE, where the industry is worth more than Dh2.5 billion annually, according to the organisers of The Wedding Excellence bridal fair, which finished yesterday in Dubai. To demonstrate how elaborate weddings here can be, we asked for help from Jennifer McGarrigle, an Irish wedding planner with Dubai-based Exquisite Events, which specialises in Emirati women’s wedding parties; and Patrizia Cilli, an Italian luxury events and weddings planner with The Wedding Excellence, whose A-list clientele includes Tom Cruise, George Clooney and Sir Paul McCartney.
Each wedding location has something different to offer, but Cilli says the best are those that can be transformed to align to the theme you have in mind. “Basically, a space that engenders creativity,” she explains.
Most weddings at Dubai’s Burj Al Arab take place in the regal two-tier Al Falak Ballroom, furnished in the style of an 18th-century Viennese opera house. But two floors makes it a hard sell for McGarrigle. “Nobody wants to split their guests,” she says. “People tend to get married there because of its reputation. ”
Price: Dh705 to Dh735 per person, for 150 to 250 guests.
Fit for a queen
Emirates Palace’s marble-and-gold-furnished ballroom has the wow factor. The lavish room sparkles with 15 chandeliers made from Swarovski’s premier Strass crystals, including a centrepiece chandelier that weighs 2.5 tonnes. The room accommodates up to 3,500 people, and can be split into three sections divided by a gold, padded, removable wall.
Price: Dh180,000 venue hire (or Dh60,000 per ballroom section), plus between Dh350 and Dh550 per head for food. Venue free from June 1 to September 30.
A touch of couture
“There is a deep appreciation in the Middle Eastern market for European – and specifically Italian – style,” Cilli says. Palazzo Versace Dubai is dripping in overstated Italian elegance. Weddings for up to 500 guests are held in the neoclassical-style gala ballroom, which like all the hotel’s rooms, was designed by Donatella Versace. For those who prefer a more modern feel, Armani Hotel’s ballroom, for up to 450 people, features backlit resin walls, black Italian marble detailing and a dark-grey carpet. The outdoor pavilion, for up to 1,000 guests, boasts the iconic backdrop of the Dubai Fountain.
Price: Palazzo Versace is Dh400 to Dh500 per person. Armani Hotel is Dh300,000 for both indoor and outdoor venues.
Hotel ballrooms may be elegant, but if acres of space is what you need, the UAE’s exhibition centres have it covered. Dubai World Trade Centre (DWTC) can accommodate up to 6,500 people; Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre can hold up to 5,000. “You can keep adding halls to increase capacity,” an Adnec spokesperson told us. The price is bespoke, but “is sometimes in the millions”.
Price: Packages at DWTC cost from Dh150,000.
For a smaller wedding, hire the ultra-luxurious three-bedroom suite of the St Regis Abu Dhabi, suspended between the 48th and 49th floors of Nation Towers, with panoramic views of the city skyline. The 2,200-square-metre suite is spread across two storeys and has a spa, cinema, bar area and two kitchens. Weddings here are boutique (70 guests or less), making it all about privacy – guests are escorted by butlers to the venue via the suite’s private lift.
Price: Dh50,000 to Dh250,000.
At Madinat Arena in Madinat Jumeirah, you can throw a grand party for up to 4,500 people across a large lagoon. Built in the style of an old fortress, it features an exclusive entrance, a balcony with separate seating for close family members and a majlis area.
Price: From Dh210,000.
Wedding photography and videography is big business. Often, a whole team of photographers and videographers are hired, McGarrigle says. Two photographers and two videographers cost from Dh25,000, but if you want to go really high-end, Filmotography provides a team of producers, editors, directors, cinematographers, retouchers, colour graders and sound engineers for the big day.
Price: Filmotography's services cost from about Dh80,000.
St Regis Abu Dhabi offers a chauffeur-driven Bentley; Emirates Palace has a Rolls-Royce. You can also fly in by helicopter to Emirates Palace, Burj Al Arab or St Regis Abu Dhabi.
Price: A Rolls-Royce costs about Dh1,000 each way, McGarrigle says. Platinum Heritage in Dubai hires a classic 1965 Bentley for three hours for Dh800. Helidubai provides a one-hour helicopter charter for Dh10,028.
Celebrity singers are an option, if the money is right. “We haven’t flown Beyoncé in yet, but we just suggested it to a client who is interested,” McGarrigle says. “For our Emirati clients, we’ve flown in Abdul Majeed and Myriam Fares, and Sonu Nigam for Indian weddings.” Musicians who have performed at Emirates Place include Fares Karam and Asma Lamnawar.
For Emirati women’s wedding parties, male singers are forbidden from entering the ballroom, so they perform in a separate room. “We do live feeds using a projector screen,” explains McGarrigle.
Price: Famous singers cost from about Dh320,000.
Hotels offer tasting sessions before the big day. Ouzi is the preferred dish for Emiratis, with a selection of mezze starters. “We also get lots of requests for whole roasted camel,” Emirates Palace’s executive sous chef Carmine Pecoraro says. Emirati wedding food tends to be served “family style”, with a few dishes in the middle of the table.
For western-style weddings, Cilli claims fusion cuisine is popular. “People are also gravitating towards a more organic, sophisticated selection because they’re becoming increasingly conscious about their health. Truffles, buffalo mozzarella and fresh olive oil often make the cut.”
Price: From Dh350 to Dh750 per guest.
After venue hire, the second biggest wedding expense in the UAE is flowers. “It can be completely extreme,” McGarrigle says. “We’ve hung flowers from the ceiling down to the tables; we’ve hung them like chandeliers. ”
Price: McGarrigle says floral centrepieces cost from Dh2,000 to Dh25,000, while Cilli says some floral arrangements can cost up to €250,000 (Dh1m).
For Emirati wedding parties, a themed stage decoration, where the bride and groom bask in royal splendour, is the standout feature. Trends revolve around fairy-tale settings, as well as Venetian and Baroque styles. “The Gatsby theme was really popular for a while,” McGarrigle says. “Minimalist black and white is in this year.”
Some couples like to add their own twist. McGarrigle recalls a wedding for about 1,400 people at DWTC in which the whole ballroom “snowed”. “We hung snow machines on the ceilings. There was snow everywhere. It was amazing.”
Emirates Palace’s chefs were once assigned to make an eight-metre-high cake for a royal wedding. “We often bring in a large false cake, with eight or nine tiers, made of styrofoam and with icing on the outside,” McGarrigle says. “There is one real section for the bride and groom to cut into. Pieces of a real, pre-cut cake are then brought out for the guests to eat.”
Price: From about Dh3,000 (sometimes included in a hotel package). "I've been quoted Dh15,000," McGarrigle says.