How to land that big fat Indian wedding

Arjun Channa, director of sales and marketing at Westin Calgary with Seema Jain, Marriott's director, Multicultural Affairs.
Arjun Channa, director of sales and marketing at Westin Calgary with Seema Jain, Marriott’s director, Multicultural Affairs.

By Colleen Isherwood, Editor

CALGARY — A little cultural understanding can go a long way in establishing relationships with clients of Indian background. Marriott’s director, Multicultural Affairs, Seema Jain was on hand earlier this month at the Westin Calgary for Cultural Training 101, to talk not only about Indian culture, but Mexican, Chinese and LGBTQ culture as well.

Marriott’s Culture Days were launched in 2014 as a way to help their associates become more culturally competent dealing with international guests. The one-day courses are structured to provide a deep dive and immersion into a chosen culture and best practices.

Clients from India can be very important to Canadian hotels, in terms of business travellers or for Indian weddings. Those weddings can be lucrative — while the $9 million Indian wedding held recently in Las Vegas is the exception, it’s not that unusual for clients to spend $100,000 on a three-or-more-day traditional ceremony. Jain herself is of Indian background, and was married in a traditional ceremony.

Here’s some of the background Jain provided for about 50 representatives from Marriott’s Calgary-area hotels — and one Edmonton property — on May 31 at the Westin Calgary.

Namaste is suitable for social interactions, but for business the handshake is the norm and English is the common language for the whole country. Indians tend to do very well in engineering or IT. The “Indian head wobble” is ambiguous and we like it that way; it can mean maybe, yes or I’ll see, Jain said.

In general, short last names like Gupta or Patel indicate people from Northern India; those with long last names generally come from the south. The name Patel is particularly common in the hotel industry. Jain’s family is among those who came over to the U.S. or Canada in the late 1950s and early 1960s, started by opening ice cream shops or economy hotels that could provide employment for the whole family.

Seema Jain (right) shows how much material is needed for a sari.
Seema Jain (right) shows how much material is needed for a sari.

“They’re really good at accounting,” Jain said, adding that this should determine how best to present proposals. 

In business, they generally work at a slower pace, with no sense of urgency. Hierarchy is important — if you are making a presentation to an Indian group, make sure the general manager, or the highest-ranking person at the hotel, comes by to say hello, with humility.

On a site tour, buy instant packets of Chai, and little biscuits or sugar cookies to dip in the Chai. “Chai is served many times a day, especially in North India. Coffee is more prevalent in South India,” Jain said. Ice water should be served at room temperature.

“We are the kinds and queens of bargaining and negotiating,” said Jain, joking that at the hospital as a baby, she asked for two pacifiers! “You want to be prepared for this, and have five things in your back pocket — come up with a plan that will offer them extras but still make money for the hotel,” she added.

The younger generation is trying to adapt to North American culture, and may be embarrassed by their parents’ bargaining. “Our job is to bridge the generations,” Jain said.

“Indians are the most affluent minority in the U.S. — they are looking to get the best deal possible. It’s not uncommon to have an uncle call to check on the deal after the negotiations. Indians will negotiate even after the contract is signed. If you have to, be strong. Walk away. They need to see that you’re tough — it’s all about negotiating.

“Excel spreadsheets are your friend,” Jain added. “Show the rack rate and the discounted rate, so that the $100,000 costs become $85,000 and they are getting value for their money. They don’t understand “plus, plus” — that means nothing. Write everything out.

“We are a collectivistic culture in India — many people make the decisions. If there is a marriage between two families, they need the blessings of everyone in those families.”

Integrity is important both in business and personal relationships. In business, deadlines will be met. In personal matters, including weddings, you might want to give yourself a buffer in the timeframe, Jain said.

“Indian weddings are not on time — you have to adjust for that mindset, and don’t get upset. It’s called Indian Standard Time,” said Jain. “If a meal is supposed to be served at 6 p.m., check on the time that you can reasonably expect to serve it, saying that you would like to staff according and that you don’t want the food to be cold. There’s one Ritz-Carlton chef that tells them if the event starts at 6, she will give them a 30-minute grace period. After 6:30, she starts charging for staff.”

Mention that if the client wants the DJ to stay longer, you will have to charge them for your staff time. But that price has to be negotiated before the event.

Be sure to note on your contracts the names of the two people who can make those types of decisions.

It’s important to note Indian holidays, including the Festival of Colour in March and Diwali in the Fall. Most Indian holidays are lunar-based. If your client has no flexibility regarding a date, that could mean the priest has given them an auspicious dates. Hoteliers can increase their ADR by charging more for auspicious dates.

With food, it is important to know who is vegetarian and who is non-vegetarian. In a buffet, the vegetarian items should be first and meat items at the end, so that the spoon from the meat does not touch the vegetarian foods.