Wedding Bells — And Cash Registers — Ring in China

Deutsch: Wedding in Lanzhou, China

Deutsch: Wedding in Lanzhou, China (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

June is nearly upon us, and wedding bells will soon start to ring all over the United States. I had no idea how big the wedding business is until Sara, my oldest daughter, went to work for Modern Bride magazine after graduating from Yale. Her tales of the lengths to which brides and their mothers would go to plan a wedding were enlightening—and very scary for a father with two daughters, to say the least.

A few years later, when Sara’s own wedding was held at our farm in New Jersey, I got a first-hand, real world taste of just how many industries prosper when young people tie the knot. It seems that my wife Carleen and Sara soon became best friends with every gown designer, caterer, florist, baker, tent person, rock band, photographer, wedding planner, hotel , restaurant , transportation company, liquor store, priest, electrician and plumber in the region!

No wonder the wedding industry is estimated to be a $40 billion business in the United States. Even that estimate appears to be low, though. According to a poll of 18,000 American brides who were married in 2011, the average cost of their big day was $27,021. If that’s the case, then the approximately 2.1 million weddings that occurred last year would have created an industry worth almost $60 billion. Any way you cut the cake, weddings are a big business in the United States.

With increasing affluence, a large, young population that wants to be part of the modern, global world, parents that will do anything for their one and only child, and that great enhancer — the internet, it should come as no surprise that weddings, Western style, are becoming a big business in China as well. To say the Chinese wedding industry is booming is an understatement.

Although the average cost of a wedding is lower, China’s wedding industry is already as large as the United States. With a much larger population, over 10 million weddings occur each year in the country, five times more than in the United States. While estimates as to the size of China’s wedding industry vary, many experts like Ad Age China say that weddings are already a $57 billion business.

As couples move away from the traditional Chinese weddings, towards those more commonly found in the West, complete with white wedding gowns, photographers, expensive jewelry and the like, China’s wedding industry is bound to grow even larger. That’s why American companies like Weddings Beautiful Worldwide, a Virginia firm that specializes in training wedding planners, are targeting the China market.

In 2011, the company set up a joint venture in China to bring its expertise in training wedding planners to the country, where many young couples want help figuring out how to best spend the thousands of dollars they have been given to celebrate their nuptials. “ With the fast economic development in China, consumers are choosing more unique and personalized weddings, giving a boost to the wedding industry in China,” Raul Vasquez, president of the joint venture, known as Weddings Beautiful China, said in Beijing recently.

Weddings by Ling, the “Chinese partner” in the joint venture, is itself an American-owned boutique founded by “celebrity wedding planner Lin Ying” that “caters to today’s modern, elegant and chic brides living in China,” according to the company’s website. Weddings by Ling is a neighbor of ours and is located in Sanlitun SOHO, just across the street from our offices in Beijing. The joint venture partners in Weddings Beautiful China apparently believe that weddings in China will continue to grow ever more expensive, and that the industry is poised for dramatic growth. Their plan is to groom a new generation of wedding planners through an 18-part training course that enables the trainee to become a “certified wedding specialist.”

When people ask if it is too late to come to China, I always answer that, on the contrary, it is still early. While China is already the second-largest economy in the world, it is still in an embryonic stage of development. Everywhere one looks, there are product, technology and service gaps to be filled, each of which represents a new business opportunity for someone with the ability to recognize that the gap exists and the vision to develop and implement a strategy for filling it. Some of these gaps may be filled by Chinese companies or entrepreneurs, but others may be filled by Western companies or entrepreneurs. One way or another, though, they will all ultimately be filled, creating many big and interesting businesses in the process.

There are three aspects of China’s wedding story that I find particularly encouraging.

First, the wedding industry is different than many others in that it tends to be local and made up of many small parts. There are not a handful of giant companies that dominate the scene and provide all of the services. Rather, a successful wedding requires the efforts of many different companies, all with different expertise. The wedding industry is a big business that has room for many entrepreneurs and small businesses and where the “little guy” has more than a fighting chance.

Second, the degree to which China’s wedding industry has changed is astonishing and demonstrates the speed with which new ideas are adopted in the country. If someone had told me as recently as five years ago, let alone in 1992 when I first came here, that the Chinese would be spending so much on western style weddings, I simply would not have believed it.

Third, the story demonstrates how China’s growth and development is not just an opportunity for Chinese entrepreneurs and companies—it’s an opportunity for everyone. Both Weddings Beautiful Worldwide and Weddings by Ling are American companies that have found interesting niches and have brought their expertise to the country. Others can do the same.

Opportunity is where you find it, and in China, there are lots of places to look. The service sector generally, and luxury goods in particular, are good places to start.

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