My big fat Lebanese wedding
Tourism isn’t the only industry that flourishes in the Lebanese summer. From mid-May until early September, it’s wedding season here, as droves of emigrants return to Lebanon to attend nuptials or to have their own.
Local catering company Cat and Mouth has four to five weddings booked per day throughout the season, according to manager Dina Abboud. In Beirut’s posh Verdun neighborhood, Marina FX, a lighting, sound and entertainment company, is just as busy.
“We have 15 weddings per week in high season, low season it’s one per week or sometimes one per month,” Hussein Hassan, the company’s owner, told NOW.
For many Lebanese couples, weddings are implicitly competitive affairs, as they strive to outshine the nuptials of friends and family members by spending huge sums on decorations, cars, caterers and locations.
“If all your friends are getting married at the same time or within a [span of a] few years, you don’t want to be outdone and you don’t want to seem like you’re not being generous enough or that you’re not doing something nice enough” said Lama, a bride-to-be who has set her own wedding date for next summer.
Finding a location is the first step to the planning process, and as with a peak season for any industry, resources can run scarce. Advance bookings are not just advisable, but absolutely necessary, as the country’s most desired venues, such as BIEL’s seafront promenade and the luxury Phoenicia Inter Continental Hotel’s ballrooms, are snapped up well before winter has waned.
“The first thing I did was book the location…it was eight months in advance,” said Nayla, a 29-year-old Beirut resident who booked the site for her August wedding in January.
Caterers also need to be booked well ahead of time, at least three to four months prior for the more exclusive companies, and it usually takes five or six meetings with the caterers for the couple to pick the menu, said Abboud.
Cat and Mouth’s clients, she added, mostly choose Mediterranean cuisine and live cooking stations, at a cost of around $80 per guest. With 300 people attending the average wedding the company caters, the price of food alone is usually around $24,000.
“Usually the cake is $1,500, but when you have a lot of people, you can get it offered by the caterer,” said Nayla, whose catering company at her 500-person wedding threw the cake in for free.
As most hotels do their catering in-house, their rates per head usually include the cost of the venue, providing a less expensive option than renting a location as well as hiring private caterers. At the Rotana Gefinor Hotel in Beirut, the average charge for a wedding is $40 per person, though with more elaborate menus it can go as high as $60.
“This doesn’t include alcohol… Everything else the wedding organizer and the bride and groom have to provide,” noted Pamela Safi, the food and beverage manager for the Rotana Gefinor.
The “everything else” tends to add up. The cost of sound, lighting and décor ranges from $1,000 to $22,000, said Hassan of Marina FX. While at Nayla’s wedding, the sound and light were included by the venue as part of the cost per head, the flower decorations were not.
“I went to so many places; the minimum was $4,000 and the maximum was $36,000. It’s enormous!” she said.
Entertainment also costs a pretty penny. According to Abboud, a live band can set the father of groom—or whoever else has to foot the wedding bill—back as much as $30,000.
But the costs of keeping guests entertained has not deterred some from putting on spectacles worthy of a roman emperor or at very least a Las Vegas show. At one recent wedding, the pageantry included a lion, according to an employee at Faqra Catering.
And then there is the all-important white dress.
Although this garment will be worn only once, brides can pay $4,000 for an off-the-rack model and as much as $400,000 for one that is custom made.
But fear not Lebanese brides to be, bargains can be had, and there are several stores that rent out wedding dresses for the night at a fraction of the cost of buying one.
“You have more and more young people getting married; they don’t have a big budget but they want something nice… It is becoming more and more acceptable and more common” to rent a gown instead of buying it, said Lama.
Then there is the buy-back concept. Some designers will create a custom-made dress for bride and then buy it back after the wedding, presumably to cut it down and re-use the materials, said Nayla. But while these services may well help control the cost of the wedding dress, this barely dents the larger budget.
According to one wedding planner people with medium incomes generally spend upwards of $40,000, while the higher-end budget usually runs between $100,000 and $250,000. But, of course, there’s no spending ceiling; weddings can cost as much as $1 million or more in Lebanon.
For many of the county’s elite no cost is spared on their nuptials, and the price tags that accompany the festivity are easily swallowed.
But with Lebanon’s humble per capita GDP (which was $6,011 in 2007 according to UN Data) most people can’t afford the kind of wedding Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri’s daughter had last summer, at which guests reportedly received iPods as party gifts.
While some do scale back the celebrations or even elope, those who want the most extravagant wedding in the neighborhood, but don’t have the cash at hand to afford it, turn to bank loans.
Most Lebanese banks offer personal loans for wedding expenses. At one of the largest local banks, an employee told NOW on the condition of anonymity that the minimum loan to finance a wedding is $20,000.
“There’s definitely pressure to go all out, whether you can afford it or not,” said Lama.