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Wedding bells or death knells?

In a world where picky but price-sensitive couples want more for less, wedding studios have had to overhaul packages to better fit their needs.

Is the honeymoon over for wedding boutiques?

Wedding bells or death knells?

Japanese wedding planning company Watabe Singapore's bridal label Ethereal retails gowns, has a photography joint venture and outsourced make-up services, and can offer venue services as well.

Ms Fatimah says the biggest challenge facing the industry is manpower.

"Venuerific started with parties and corporate events, and we realised people having weddings are spending much more." - Venuerific CEO Ricardo Sentosa.

"The biggest misconception about being in the wedding industry is that it's all about pretty things and design. You have to be very sensitive to the numbers, and I can't emphasise that enough." - Teo Peiru, owner, La Belle Couture.

Mr Toyama credits the new services, as well as a secondary venue contract at the Chijmes complex, with raising revenue by "10 per cent to 20 per cent" since Ethereal was set up.

Pan Pacific Singapore's Keyaki Garden Pavilion, which can seat up to 40 guests and is linked to a restaurant with space for 140 more, is a popular wedding venue.

WEDDING boutique owner Teo Peiru has had to cut the price of her packages, which can include not just gown and suit rentals, but also make-up, bouquets and photography. Package prices at La Belle Couture now top out at about S$4,000 - around half its previous premium package. It used to offer a range of between S$3,000 and S$8,000. "Our accountant may not like this, as costs are not fixed," she says. But Ms Teo acknowledges that, "to satisfy customers, we will need to be more nimble and do our maths carefully" to balance business considerations and changing consumer tastes.

Gone are the days when newlyweds accepted one-size-fits-all prix fixe for their big bash.

They have become more discerning about their celebrations, industry professionals told The Business Times - though no less discerning about keeping costs down.

And razor-thin margins leave service providers with no room for error, with Ms Teo - who caters to a well-heeled white-collar clientele, counting teachers and lawyers as brides - citing an industry net profit margin of some 10 per cent.

She fingers high implicit costs, such as marketing, as well as fixed costs - rents, labour and inventory, which for her can involve stock of up to 600 gowns and 300 suits at a time.

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"The moment you make a mistake, you can go down very fast. There is very little buffer."

No room for error

Ms Teo is not wrong: Over the past two years, leading gown retailers in the United States have tottered on the verge of catastrophe.

Florida-based Alfred Angelo Bridal abruptly closed its 61 stores in 2017 and filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy - the precursor to liquidation - while debt-hit industry leader David's Bridal headed to bankruptcy court late last year.

Here at home, Singapore was faced with the sudden closures of For You Wedding Services, as well as The Aisle Bridal Boutique, in 2018. Customers lost at least S$164,000 in payments.

The Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) then fielded 138 complaints about bridal service providers - such as photographers, studios and co-ordinators - up from 102 in 2017.

The recent five-year high took place in 2015, when upset patrons made 339 complaints - a move that Case executive director Loy York Jiun said was driven by the shutdown of wedding studio Sophia Wedding Collection.

"The wedding and bridal market is crowded and there are many up-and-coming brands," says veteran Fatimah Mohsin, who runs the eponymous Fatimah Mohsin The Wedding Gallery.

And the appeal of all-in-one service packages - a traditional selling point for these studios - may have faded for couples. Patrons can now also opt for do-it-yourself touches or go on the prowl for their own service providers, rather than be saddled with the studios' vendors.

"Assume the demand in bridal services, or in wedding services, remains constant," Jochen Krauss, partner at pricing consultancy Simon-Kucher & Partners, tells BT. "You have one part of that demand shifting towards direct offers. Quite logically, the demand for bridal studios will drop."

Yet, in a world where picky but price-sensitive couples want more for less, the trick has actually been to overhaul packages to better fit their needs, wedding studios tell BT.

"People definitely want more control," says Ms Teo. "In the past, they were okay paying more for that, but today they are not necessarily willing to do so; and if that's the case, that's the case."

For example, La Belle Couture has tweaked its mix-and-match packages, letting customers buy "wishing stars", or credits, that can be spent on wedding-related items such as corsages or hairstyling and make-up trials.

She says her firm "used to have quite a high à la carte pricing, that was meant to discourage people so they would think it make more sense to take a package" - but she threw that idea out of the window after a poll of more than 300 clients last year.

Based on customer demand, she tore packages apart "and made it a lot more bite-sized". For example, "in the past, we thought gowns were just one category" but they now come in different price tiers, based on design: "Customers can see the difference, and why make them pay so much if they want something simpler."

La Belle Couture also introduced a money-back guarantee, and online payment and self-service options.

After tweaking the studio's offerings to meet customers' changing tastes, mix-and-match services went from less than one-tenth of revenue, to almost one-third, Ms Teo says.

Dr Krauss says: "You cannot artificially differentiate prices and then think that your consumers will accept it. They will not, and nowadays, again, it's a function of transparency."

La Belle Couture also embarked on a wedding planning joint venture, Rosette Designs, last year - a decision that Ms Teo says she had put off until the right partner came along.

But she adds: "We managed to double the revenue within just a year. We see that as a good complement to what we have. We can't just do gowns and photography forever."

The sentiment goes both ways: Japanese wedding planning company Watabe Singapore, which manages heritage venue Chijmes Hall, set up bridal label Ethereal in 2016.

"I want to not just provide the venue and food, but also assist with some other parts," says chief executive Koichiro Toyama, on the decision to expand into new lines.

Ethereal retails gowns - including a signature "kimono cheongsam" look - with a photography joint venture and outsourced make-up services.

Mr Toyama credits the new services, as well as a secondary venue contract at the Chijmes complex, with raising revenue by "10 per cent to 20 per cent" since Ethereal was set up. Since Watabe is able to bundle gowns with rental of either Chijmes Hall or the smaller Alcove at Caldwell House, about half of Ethereal clients also take up venue services, he says.

And Ms Fatimah's company lists a slew of preferred venue, decoration and photography partners on its website, with joint packages on the table for wedding couples who are keen.

"I believe in collaboration," she says.

"Some couples prefer to have an all-in-one package vendor as it's convenient. However, some prefer to have different vendors to cater to their different preferences."

Ms Fatimah notes that these industry stakeholders "are all crucial and important players to make a wedding run smoothly", but adds: "I need to know that my partner and I share the same objectives and our services or products complement each other."

Another opportunity has been the growing trend of overseas wedding photography, as tie-ups with vendors abroad could potentially translate into inbound clientele as well.

New sites excite

"Over the last 15 years or so, prices have remained fairly stagnant in the industry, unfortunately - with the exception of hotel banquet services," Ms Teo observes, a trend that she dubbed worrying, since other business costs rose over the same period.

William Hofmann, a senior analyst at personal finance website ValueChampion, noted in March that typical prices for wedding banquets have jumped by 2.6 per cent on 2018.

This has pushed up the cost of the average mid-range wedding to S$54,500, or 1.9 per cent higher, according to his number-crunching.

But that's assuming wedding parties are still opting for the traditional dinner banquet - hotels can't seem to take that for granted either.

Weddings at the Marriott Tang Plaza have shrunk from 50-table gatherings to an average headcount of about 200, says the hotel's sales and marketing director, Alvin Lim.

And, although weddings at the Pan Pacific Singapore still draw 350 to 400 guests on average, general manager Kurt Otto Wehinger tells BT: "There is a preference for smaller, more intimate affairs over grand weddings with massive guest lists these days."

With Dr Krauss naming digital platforms as a driver of price transparency, more than one regional startup has set its sights on grabbing a slice of the wedding cake.

Singapore-based booking platform Venuerific bought wedding-focused Wedever for an undisclosed sum in October 2018. As CEO Ricardo Sentosa puts it: "Venuerific started with parties and corporate events, and we realised people having weddings are spending much more."

He is not the only entrepreneur sniffing at the Singapore market: Jakarta-based Bridestory has also dipped its toe into Singapore waters - which pushed Mr Sentosa to set his sights on Malaysia and the Philippines for expansion, out of a reluctance to venture onto Bridestory's Indonesian home turf too early.

Now, Venuerific users spend between S$70 and S$120 for each wedding guest on average, including food and drink, Mr Sentosa says - up to 40 per cent more than other kinds of event bookings, such as product launches and baby showers.

Wedding-related transactions on Venuerific doubled to 12 per cent of each month's 2,600 to 2,800 bookings since the Wedever deal, says Mr Sentosa, who is aiming for 20 per cent. Wedever itself clocks about 400 to 500 bookings a month.

Mr Sentosa describes Venuerific users as "more daring or experimental" hosts who opt for venues such as art galleries, rooftop bars and underground bars. Hotels tend to be picked when a larger capacity is needed for headcounts of more than 300 people.

Watabe's Mr Toyama adds: "A lot of people can join the wedding industry, such as restaurants, smaller-scale hotels, boutique hotels, because the number of the guests is declining, so capacity does not have to be as big."

Still, observers have also noted that conventional venues such as hotels and restaurants are also revamping what they have on offer.

Couples can now book alternative and smaller spaces, like poolside decks, where - as Ms Teo puts it - "last time, they just wanted to sell their large ballrooms".

Marriott Tang Plaza, for instance, has opened The Gallery - an open-concept space overlooking the lobby, originally meant as a function area - to accommodate smaller weddings.

Meanwhile, the Pan Pacific's Mr Wehinger says that the Keyaki Garden Pavilion has been "quickly gaining popularity at the hotel since it was introduced late last year". It can seat up to 40 guests and is linked to a restaurant with space for 140 more.

Ms Teo adds that hotels are still key partners for her: "We started in 2006 and have always been working closely with hotel partners like Mandarin Oriental. We hold events with them and recommend their venues when we think it's a good fit with what clients are looking for… this has helped our brand association."

Andrew Tan, vice-president of sales for Asia at Millennium Hotels and Resorts, explains that "wedding couples are often on the look-out for a one-stop shop to obtain the necessary wedding essentials in the lead-up to their big day", which has driven hotels to offer tie-ups with boutiques, photographers "and even a wedding band".

"From finding the perfect dress and venue to selecting the right caterer and florist, wedding couples are seeking convenient, affordable and all-inclusive packages," he adds.

This echoes a remark from Marriott's Mr Lim that "wedding couples are looking at smaller-scale weddings with comprehensive and affordable wedding packages, with no hidden costs".

Even players such as banks are getting in on the package action. The Pan Pacific has a credit card tie-up with American Express, with Mr Wehinger saying: "A partnership with a financial institution will enable our wedding couples to manage their expenses while getting rewarded with benefits and/or cashback."

Staying nimble

The wedding package may not be as dead as it appears - it's just getting resurrected in new forms, it seems. Boutiques have had to keep up.

La Belle Couture, for instance, has invested not just in a special-effects "virtual mirror" that lets brides try and measure gowns without squeezing into the real deal, but has also doubled down on updated enterprise resource planning and customer relationship management systems.

Ms Teo knows the back-end operations are not so sexy: "These are things that the customer may not see. But we do things not just to increase productivity, but to excite the staff as well."

Ms Fatimah has also embraced digital solutions such as an integrated point-of-sales system for real-time stocktaking, on top of pursuing training to build her make-up repertoire.

When asked about the biggest challenge in the industry, she named manpower.

"Hiring the right talent is a common issue for most businesses," says Ms Fatimah. "There should be additional support or assistance for small and medium-sized enterprises."

Meanwhile, Ms Teo, who trained as an engineer and used to work in finance, shrugs off the casual assumption that she must be a bimbo.

"The biggest misconception about being in the wedding industry is that it's all about pretty things and design. You have to be very sensitive to the numbers, and I can't emphasise that enough," she tells BT.

But, despite the obstacles, she says that she has tapped her stubborn streak to stick it out.

The good news: Weddings are an evergreen industry, because folks will always get married. And - as for willingness to spend - she points out that people tend to have it just once.

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