'Beach weddings are a rising trend for couples looking to tie the knot': Sandeep Lodha
Sandeep Lodha is the CEO India’s Largest Wedding Company, Weddingz.in, a company that was acquired by OYO Hotels & Homes in 2018. An IIT graduate, Sandeep has over 13 years of experience in the consumer products and retail space and has been associated with leading names like Bain and Co, Intel and Walt Disney among others. He pursued his MBA from The Wharton School in 2006 and B Tech from Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. In 2014, while attending a cousin’s wedding, Sandeep sensed the market gap of organising a wedding with gazillion requirements and realised that the struggle remained similar even after 15 years of his own marriage. That’s when he took the entrepreneurial plunge and founded Weddingz.in.
The company raised $1 million in angel funding from a group of investors, including Google India’s MD Rajan Anandan, Zoya Akhtar, Reema Katgi, Ambit Private Wealth CEO Hrishikesh Parandekar and others. In August 2018, OYO Hotels & Homes acquired Weddingz.in and entered India’s $40 Bn wedding industry, making it India’s largest banquet management company with a presence in over 30 cities with over 750 venues. Sandeep is a voracious reader, spends time in the gym and is a movie buff. Outside of work, he likes to spend time with his two daughters. We got to chat with Sandeep, to get a bird's eye view of the wedding industry in India today. Excerpts from the interview:
Take us back to the origins of Weddingz.in - where did you first find inspiration for the idea, how did things fall into place, and how did you see your vision taking shape today, going into the future?
In India, weddings are an elaborate affair with couples and their families leaving no stone unturned while planning their special day. On realising that the industry hasn’t changed much since I married fifteen years ago and it was still extremely fragmented and unorganised, I decided to take an entrepreneurial plunge and conceptualise Weddingz.in in 2015.
I started Weddingz.in to ease the process of wedding planning, making it a happy, hassle-free and convenient experience for all. The sole purpose of Weddingz.in is to streamline the tedious and lengthy process that goes into organising a wedding. With our offerings, consumers can discover a wide range of services and information related to weddings including availability, budgeting and transaction facility, all on one single platform.
I believe that launching Weddingz.in was a step in the right direction as it has not only provided end to end solutions for couples but also given them access to various services at the click of a button, enabling them to browse through a series of options, compare and shortlist services, all on a single platform.
With that, I strongly believe that we’ve done well so far by disrupting the industry and establishing our presence across 30+ cities and 800+ venues making our services accessible to various socio-economic segments and not just the business class.
Give us a sense of the challenges you faced in the course of building the company. How much of these challenges were completely unexpected, especially given changing seasonal scenarios in Indian wedding trends?
When we started the business, we were a curated marketplace. It means that we would find the right venue, the best photographers and makeup artists to best fit the requirements of our consumers. Later, the customer would go and see the venue, meet the photographer and the makeup artist.
However, this wasn’t yielding desired customer feedback for us. Customer experience was not fully in our control. This was the turning point for the business. In December 2016, we decided to go full-stack and transform ourselves into a wedding venue operator brand that would pose as an online marketplace for all wedding related services.
In terms of challenges, despite extensive planning and multiple run-throughs, there can be certain situations that are beyond our control. It could be bad weather during an open roof wedding or unavailability of resources for décor or catering. However, the key is to foresee the potential challenges and keep an alternative or Plan B for such scenarios. But on a larger front, our biggest challenge is bringing cohesiveness in the wedding industry.
Tell us about the biggest trends and opportunities lined up for you in the upcoming wedding season, and in the following year. How much of this is driven by celebrity affairs, and their own custom requirements?
Weddings are not just about celebrating one evening with close family. In India, weddings are an elaborate affair where two families are involved and it’s about creating memories for a lifetime.
There are multiple functions spread across days with hundreds of guests and wedding vendors like photographers, caterers, makeup artists etc involved. While we are seeing a rise in the trend for smaller guest lists, we’ve also observed that the number of functions per wedding has shot up, with higher spend per guest reflecting growing opportunities for the wedding industry.
We have observed that while destination weddings have become popular, new-age consumers are looking for unconventional ways to celebrate their special day. Some of the upcoming trends are theme weddings, beach weddings, fort weddings and cruise weddings.
Furthermore, by 2020, India is estimated to become the youngest country in the world, with a median age of 29, accelerating the growth of the wedding industry. Weddings in India are thus, a booming business today, and with good reason. Besides this, an interesting phenomenon to note is that nowadays to-be-weds are taking their own decisions regarding their big day, in contrast to the traditional involvement of families in major decision-making.
If you were to tell us about the most extravagant, most outlandish, most unimaginably expensive dream wedding package that you have come across so far, what would it be? Can you tell us who the celebs were?
While we cannot disclose the family, we planned and executed an elaborate Udaipur wedding. For one of the functions that we organised, the host family paid an exorbitant INR 10,000 per plate. Adding on to this, the hosts and their entourage were allotted their personal Maharajas’ and Chefs to prepare meals and cater to their food preferences and tastes.
How have you grown as an entrepreneur in this particular line of business? Who do you count as competitors in this new industry segment, and how do you see other businesses in this segment growing? In other words, how do you see smaller wedding planners benefitting from the lavish packages that only you guys can put together?
As an entrepreneur, I have become a lot more resilient and come to realise that innovation is the key to sustenance. Hiring the right talent and allowing them the flexibility to lead or run the team with fairly low levels of oversight is the key to success of any BU or vertical.
Also, while we do not have immediate competitors, there are companies that list wedding services. With many new entrants in the market, the industry is at an all-time high and are trying to capitalise every facet of it. While some continue to coexist in harmony, healthy competition is driving the rest.
As you know, we have 800+ venues that we manage and have some 200+ artists on rolls. Wedding planners can use our platform for venue services and our artists for their own customers. Our venues and artists are fully committed to providing a great event come what may.
How has the acquisition by OYO Hotels & Homes group helped your business in terms of visibility, access, reach and on-ground growth? How much of that $40 Bn wedding industry pie do you hope to make your own?
Within a short span of 12 months of joining forces with OYO Hotels & Homes, we have quickly scaled and expanded our presence. We have witnessed dramatic growth in supply, which is one of our key drivers. Today, we are getting over 3500+ venue bookings per month which is a testament to our fast-paced growth.
Additionally, backed by OYO’s operational capabilities, a unique offering of providing hassle-free wedding experience and 2000+ talented employees, Weddingz.in has become a household name for a great wedding experience. The wedding market in India, which is primarily unorganised is about USD 40-50 billion (about INR 2.8-3.5 lakh crore) in size.
Of this, the venue segment alone is about half, that is about USD 20-25 billion and growing at about 20 per cent annually. We have been growing at a very strong pace and are confident of continuing this growth momentum over the next few years. We are looking at ramping up our headcount from 2000 employees to over 3,000 by the end of December 2019.
Of the 30 cities across India that you have a presence in at the moment, how would you rate the best crowds, the highest levels of enthusiasm, the grandeur of celebrations and overall, the willingness to spend?
It is no surprise that the industry has been touted as a ‘recession-proof’ business and predicted to be one to never see a dull moment. One of the major contributing factors to this is the cost of the venue alone. Venue spend contributes 50-60% of the overall spend. While, North India invests heavily on grand wedding celebrations, the south consists of smart spenders who’d rather have an intimate ceremony.
Being a cultural celebration, weddings witness the highest levels of enthusiasm irrespective of the city. Also, with the emergence of social media, families are opting for bold choices in terms of decor and theme to make it a brag-worthy affair.
In most metros, a standard venue inclusive of catering is priced at INR 1500 upwards, per person. At premium properties, it can vary between INR 2000-3000 per person, and at iconic five-star hotels, it usually upwards of INR 3500 per person.
To what levels of custom planning and expertise do you go to, to execute elements such as extravagant mandaps, site-specific floral installations and so on? Do you often work with indigenous artisans and designers?
In today’s day and age, the wedding industry is all about customisation. Weddingz.in guarantees a great event with a plethora of options ranging from beautiful and spacious venues, managed themed décor along with end-to-end catering, in-house photographers, choreographers, makeup artists guided by a dedicated wedding planner and much more; all at guaranteed best prices.
Our team of experts don’t shy away from going the extra mile to bring your wedding fantasies to life. At Weddingz.in, we work very closely with local artisans and craftsmen, designers, local talent and artists to ensure a picture-perfect celebration.
Additionally, in order to cater to the demand and meet the needs of evolving consumers, we have recently launched our bi-annual magazine, The Wedding Trunk, designed to provide readers with the latest trends and updates in the wedding industry.
Offering an ocean of ideas, the magazine is a go-to guide for anyone planning a wedding, featuring insights from industry experts such as Ojas Rajani, Papa Don’t Preach by Shubika, Kalki Fashions, Amrapali Jewels, Azva, Jhoomer Jewels, Floral Art By Srishti, Atisuto Events, The Photo Diary By Monisha and Knots By AMP amongst others.
At a personal level, you are a voracious reader, you like working out in the gym and you're a movie buff too. Tell us about the quality time you spend with your daughters, and what kind of dream wedding have you envisioned for them?
We make it a point to go on at least two or three family vacations a year. On weekends, we try to eat all meals together whether at home or outside. If I am at home, I cook while they chip in to help.
Sometimes, we pick the most recent issues that the world is talking about and debate for hours on it. While I don't think they aspire to be engineers, they do make it a point to spend a few hours on brushing up their math skills over the weekend.
Give us your picks of the top 10 destinations around the world - unheard-of locales, private islands, exotic uber-exclusive affairs... what would your top choices on and off the grid look like?
At present, Weddingz.in has a great presence across 30 beautiful Indian cities. Of late, among international destinations, beach weddings have emerged as a rising trend for couples looking to tie the knot.
According to me, some of the top destinations that couples should consider for their big day are Koh Samui, Hua Hin and Krabi across Thailand, Habarana and Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Palace weddings in Udaipur at Chunda Palace and Labh Garh, Chomu Palace and ITC Rajputana in Jaipur, and lastly beach weddings at Planet Hollywood and Riva Beach Resort in Goa.