A wedding is not just the start of a lifelong family partnership, it is also an investment that may take a sizeable chunk of the couple and their family's income. SOLIANA ALEMAYEHU, FORTUNE STAFF WRITER, checks out the business of the wedding protocol, the range of services provided and the cost of a well-organised wedding ceremony.
As Christmas decorations are slowly being brought down, weekends in Addis are taking on their traditional seasonal look. Persistent car horns are heard on the streets and anyone who cares to look for the source of the commotion will see that a procession of cars or limousines passing by, led by a couple on their wedding day.
Wedding season is has arrived.
The tasks of wedding protocol, or coordination of wedding day activity, which used to be given to someone in the bridal party is slowly becoming a business of its own. Brides and grooms are now hiring other people to take care of the nitty-gritty details of the wedding day, in addition to coordination of the whole.
Addis has two wedding seasons, largely dictated by fasting patterns of the Orthodox Church. The first starts on January 7, when Christmas fasting ends; until mid to late February when the Ethiopian Lent starts.
The second starts after the Ethiopian Easter, which will be observed on May 1 this year, and slowly winds down after mid-May, as superstition maintained that to be a bride at this time brings bad luck.
Those in the business say that these dates, historic by nature, are slowly changing. The second season especially, is extending further into May.
The nature of weddings, on the other hand, is evolving much faster and one component that demonstrates this is décor.
“When I first got in the wedding business 10 years ago,” Woinshet, of Wedding Protocol said, “decorations consisted of balloons, ribbons, and decorated chairs for the bride and groom.”
These used to cost as little as 5,000 Br.
This is not the case now.
It is not just the cost that has changed, elaborated Tofik Mohammedyasin. The materials used, the techniques and designs applied have also transformed. Noting an opportunity, Tofik has been lured into using his licence as a general importer for exclusively importing wedding decoration materials to distribute to decorators.
“Nowadays, various textiles, lights, and an elaborate backdrops behind the newlyweds’ stage are just the basics,” he explained. “Depending on the level of work, these cost anywhere from 70,000 Br to 200,000 Br.”
And that is not counting floral arrangements.
Rita’s Planning & Events specializes in those. The current wedding season represents the biggest challenge, as it coincides with the time when the majority of flowers are exported to Europe to make it to the Valentine’s Day market.
“The supply is so scarce that we have to look for and buy whatever flowers we can find at two to three times the regular cost.”
The photo shoot before the wedding requires five floral arrangements on its own: a crown, an floral bracelet, a regular bouquet, a Calla Lily (turumba abeba) bouquet and a basket arrangement.
While the business of wedding decoration is growing, other businesses are emerging. All three, Woinshet, Tofik, and Rita, have observed opportunities in the weddings and have jumped in to turn a profit.
They have started to give a service called Wedding Day Coordination. Commonly known as ‘Protocols’ in Addis, they help with the on site coordination of the ‘Big Day’.
These are the people that check if all has been set for the wedding. They train the bridal party on what they are supposed to do, and coordinate the different components, such as the DJ and/or band, hairdressers, photographers, bakers, car rental businesses – so they work cohesively.
Woinshet has been providing wedding protocol services for a decade. Her love of weddings, she said, had dictated her career choices from the start.
She was first employed in a bridal store, and used to give more than just the routine advice on the bridal gowns she rented out. She used to ask about, and discuss the various choices the brides were making, and eventually, started advising them on what they could or should be doing.
During that time, one of her closest relatives got married.
“I helped her organise the wedding,” Woinshet said, “and she was so happy, she encouraged me to make a living out of my passion and skills.”
Luckily, one of the bride’s friends was getting married soon after. Having seen Woinshet in action, the bride to be, hired her for the upcoming wedding, and paid her 700 Br.
Tofik has also joined the field, despite never having had particular interest in weddings.
“I used to be an accountant,” he said, “and on the weekends I used to tag along with my friend, who is a wedding DJ, and help him work.”
That was how he noticed an opportunity where he could benefit. So he acquired a general import licence and started importing decorative elements for wedding decorators.
After being pushed by his friend, and acting on his own observations, he started the coordinating business, as well.
Three years of business, later Tofik now asks from eight thousand Birr to 15,000 Br per event for coordination. The figure depends on how much is required of him, and the size of the wedding. If the couple want the complete services of a wedding planner, the total goes up to 30,000 Br.
Rita’s story is different. After being in the business for a while, she was about to get married. Organising her own wedding taught her so much, she said, that she wanted to start doing it for other couples as well.
Coordination represents a fraction of the cost the bridal party would spend on decorations, and an even smaller fraction of the cost of the whole wedding.
Wedding Day coordination, contrary to what the name implies, starts before the wedding. The first course of action, is discussing the basics with the bride and groom. This entails knowing who they have hired for what – the pastry chefs, decorators, photographers, caterers. At this juncture, anything missing in planning the whole wedding, is identified and dealt with. One little detail that is often forgotten is who gets the champagne, and this meeting helps sort it out.
The coordinator then takes the contact details of everyone who has been contracted for the event, as there must be effective communication between them right up to and during the ceremony to ensure the timely delivery of every service.
“I then get to know the bride and groom and try to understand exactly what they want,” Woinshet said, in order to tailor the event to their tastes.
Before the wedding day, she gets the whole bridal crew together, bridesmaids and groomsmen, and rehearses the proceedings of the ceremony.
Depending on how easily the bridal crew takes on the steps and tasks required of them, rehearsals can take two to five sessions. Tofik even hires a professional dancer to train the whole crew.
Atsede Getnet got hitched on September 20, 2014. She had hired Tofik to coordinate their big day and claims that his services had made all the difference.
“Some of my bridesmaids had no clue,” she said, “and we all met with Tofik three times before the wedding to rehearse every step of the ceremony.”
Not only that, but when they arrived at Ghion Hotel for the photograph session on their wedding day, the newlyweds had forgotten to bring the receipt. The hotel stopped them at the gate, in the rain.
“He ran into the building in the rain, paid for the entire session from his pocket, and had enabled us to enter and proceed with our programme,” she continued.
Protocols do much more than coordinate rehearsals with the groomsmen and bridesmaids. They work with the family so little details such as the ‘photo moment’ when the parents of the newlyweds invite their children to eat, are given due attention by the photographers, and the DJ is well informed of the time the pastry chefs will bring out the cake so they can start decreasing the volume of the music ahead of time. They also work with the extended family so picture taking, for example, does not take up a whole hour after dinner. They know how to use the Ammukilign, the singers that along with one instrument player, are hired for the morning parts of the wedding, to both hype up the crowd and steer them towards the direction or activity they want.
Woinishet moves with a fanny pack around her waist, ready for damage control. Needle and thread for ripped clothing, food and water for those who forgot to eat or drink, and make up for emergency touch ups, among other things.
There is a big difference between a coordinated and uncoordinated wedding, Atsede insists. She once saw a wedding that did not have coordinated protocol, where the guests started having their pictures taken with the newlyweds. They kept going up to stage one by one and that took over the whole reception. That couple did not get a chance to mingle or dance as much as they would have liked, and instead, remained seated on their throne-like chairs, imprisoned by good manners.
While all three coordinators confirm that the wedding planning business, has yet to take root, they can attest that wedding day coordination has taken off.
Woinshet has been booked for six weddings this season.
“I can’t be in more than one place at once,” she said so she has to refuse requests that come in for dates on which she had been pre-booked.
She does not have other employees and all her business emanates from word of mouth recommendations. She operates from her home, and does not advertise, but manages to keep busy nonetheless.
Tofik says he has 16 weddings and mels – the second party at the family of the bride – booked this season. He has no qualms about all the work involved.
“When I am double booked, I prepare the bridal party well ahead of time,” he said, “and I hire other coordinators who have not been booked to help the bridal party through the day.”
Rita has 20 events booked for this season, nine of those involve full planning while the rest are wedding day coordination.
A wedding’s biggest success is gained when planning starts well ahead of time. Rita explained that booking a venue in the off season enables couples to avoid peak season rates.
A wedding ceremony’s biggest hindrance is time management. “If it starts out wrong,” Woinshet warns, “the whole day will be ruined.”
Protocol work starts early in the morning. Those involving females start at the hairdressers at 6:00am and those involving males start around the same time with the delivery of floral arrangements to the bride’s place before heading to the groom’s.
Coordination requires a lot of patience, they all agree, because it requires handling various people with diverse personalities. They also agree that carrying the burden of what most claim is one if the important milestones in life, succeeding in their work and satisfying their clients is quite rewarding.
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