Rhiannon Downie-Hurst, 38, recalls with a smile the memorable but unconventional moment her partner got down on bended knee. “My husband proposed to me in his pants, in the hallway,” says the Briton. “He was planning on doing something, I knew he was going to propose, but I was getting fed up with waiting and then…”
That marriage request was in stark contrast to the ones Downie-Hurst has put together since through The Big Proposals, the company she co-owns in Dubai and that is known to arrange high-end, glamorous proposals. Her friend and business partner Tasneem Alibhai cites both an underwhelming wedding and “non-existent” proposal as part of her motivation to start the company, as well as her own destination wedding planning firm.
“We were very young and just got married,” says Alibhai, 43, a mum of two who is originally from Norway and now lives in Dubai. “I was 20 years old and madly in love. Our parents were against our marriage, my clothes and jewellery were borrowed: it was like a typical Bollywood movie. Now in every wedding I do, I’m seeing a bit of myself, how I would have done it.”
That inspiration also feeds The Big Proposals, which the duo launched last September. Alibhai was advertising with Downie-Hurst’s Bride Club ME, a wedding-inspiration website for couples sourcing suppliers and venues. “We had put out a blog on top UAE places to propose - to this day it’s Bride Club’s most-hit article,” says Downie-Hurst, a mum of one.
“We were having a lot of men messaging [about proposals], asking for help. I saw a need, but I’m not an events planner, Tasneem is. We were having coffee one day and it clicked.”
A month later the pair staged their “hidden room proposal”, the first of 10 successful set-ups. “It was in a restaurant’s secret room, behind a wall that looks like a library and requires an element of acting among the staff,” says Downie-Hurst. The “plot” involves seating the couple at the least appealing table, an error-prone waiter, and a manager rectifying things in stunning fashion with a secret room filled with petals and the bride-to-be’s favourite music.
Another activation saw an Englishman propose to his Nigerian girlfriend on her birthday, during a private cinema screening on the Palm.
Until contracts are finalised, The Big Proposals doesn’t reveal locations to clients, other than sharing mock-up images, partly to obscure curated proposal addresses from people simply fishing for locations.
Some men have very specific ideas, others nothing, says Downie-Hurst. “There are the perfectionists who know exactly what they want, down to texture of balloons and colour of lightbulbs; all they need is someone to execute it. Then there are men who’ve no clue and need hand-holding from A to Z.”
All of The Big Proposals’s clients so far have been from outside the UAE, and include Australians, Chinese and British Indians. Alibhai says: “They contact us before they’re coming [on holiday] and are usually very easy to deal with; they just want packages, give us a budget and don’t complicate it.”
Downie-Hurst says personal factors are researched before themes - such as beach, desert, cinema – and photography and video requirements are agreed upon. “We really get to know the couple we’re working with,” she says. "So we ask the guy about their relationship, how they met, what they enjoy doing together, her favourite colour and flowers, and so on.
“If she’s an introvert, she’s not going to want a flash mob proposal, with everyone watching. If she's an extrovert, she might want something to do with theatre or galleries, something creative.”
The demand for lavish proposals is often driven by Instagram and other social media platforms. Downie-Hurst believes grooms do feel greater pressure, although she notes: “These days, most men have access to more resources and information to do grand gestures, whereas back in the day they couldn’t go online and search.”
As Ben Davis did when deciding to pop the question during his Dubai holiday earlier this year. “I already had in mind proposing on the beach,” recalls the electrician, 26, from London. “I was just trying to find the right company that could make the idea possible.”
A Google search led him to The Big Proposals, where prices range from Dh10,000 to Dh30,000. “They guided me as to what was possible and the place, shared ideas, and sent helpful pictures,” says Davis.
He told his housing association supervisor girlfriend Charlotte Newell, 28, they were going skydiving, adding: “The experience was just amazing, 10 times better than I imagined.”
The March 15 proposal was the last the company could fulfill before the coronavirus pandemic restrictions halted travel and restricted public contact. It has since postponed two bookings, including potentially its most elaborate yet.
“Things like this cause you to think outside the box, be creative, come up with solutions for clients,” says Downie-Hurst. “We’re talking about video proposals; can we work with suppliers to create some kind of magic online for guys who want to propose to a girl in a different country? We’re also using this time to set up meetings, connect with people, introducing ourselves, setting everything in motion for when things get back to normal.”
And when that happens, they hope to work with more UAE residents, too. While cultural considerations could present challenges - some engagement formalities go beyond a groom simply proposing - Downie-Hurst believes they could provide a “romantic cherry-on-the-top occasion”, to inspire non-tourists already familiar with the UAE’s charm.
“We’ve had inquiries from people based here and we have a marketing campaign ready that promotes unique places people wouldn’t think of; off-the-beaten-track UAE locations to propose,” she says.
With Covid-19 restricting any such outdoor events from happening anytime soon, the duo realise that things could be slow even once the all-clear arrives. "A lot of people will be struggling financially and, as a business, it's important we take that into consideration. We might need to adjust pricing or cater to a different type of market, but we don't want people to miss out on that joy. We're in the business of making dreams happen - and we always cry, at every proposal."
Plus, there’s the potential for follow-up business if a couple then aspires to a Dubai wedding. That includes Ben and Charlotte, who are now planning their big day. “Yes,” confirms Davis. “We’ve discussed the possibility of getting married in Dubai, in the future.”