For the more than 800 banquet halls and over 200 marquees in the city, it is peak business season. The wedding party has arrived.

By some estimates, Pakistan’s multi-trillion rupee wedding industry is providing jobs to around 10 million people. Within Lahore city, the industry has been met with a great deal of restrictions from construction by-laws to food bans and strict timings. However, big business owners report, the restrictions have proved to be blessings in disguise, especially for the wedding hall industry. Smaller business owners and catering companies on the other hand, are being squeezed out.

One dish wonder

In Lahore, the official ban on serving more than one dish in wedding functions has been fruitful for the wedding hall industry which continues to be fast growing with 3-4 new halls cropping up every month in the provincial capital.

Mian Ilyas, President of the Marriage Hall Association of Lahore, and owner of Mughal-e-Azam Shadi Hall, observed that at the time of the ban announcement, the food serving industry was depressed for a time. However, with the passage of time, the law proved beneficial for customers as well as service providers because of the inclusion of the middle and lower middle economic classes into the fold.

“Before the one-dish restriction, most business was limited to the upper middle class as customers had to order dozens of dishes just to maintain their status,” Mian Ilyas explained. “The marriage hall owners had to maintain quality for a great deal of dishes and there was a lot of wastage,” he said.

“The industry has now become worth around Rs 4 trillion nationwide,” he added, though there is no official data or documentation in this regard. According to him, the marquee and wedding hall industry is the biggest in the country after the construction sector, because it involves dozens of other allied industries like catering, decor, lighting, furniture, cutlery, tents, food et al.

The number of wedding halls have experienced serious growth of more than 200 percent between 2008 to 2016.

“Two years ago, the average rate of arranging a wedding function was around the Rs 1,000 per head figure, but this has decreased to Rs 800,” according to Majid Sheikh, a wedding hall owner in Gulberg.

Due to increased competition, different halls offer varying rates on the basis of locality, status and the variety they offer. Presently, hall rates range between Rs 300 per head to Rs 1,500 per head.

According to Sheikh, the highest rates in Lahore are charged by wedding halls in Defence, and depending on the area and delivery standard it offers, on average, a wedding hall is earning between Rs 300, 000 to Rs 18,00,000 per month.

“Our business is worst in Ramazan and Muharram while Rabiul Awwal and Rabius Sani is peak season for wedding halls to make money,” said Sheikh. “In these months, the rates are mostly the highest, almost double the rates charged in normal days.”

Caterers suffering

At the same time, the mushrooming of wedding halls is eating up the traditional outdoor catering industry, and more than 80 percent of low-scale catering businesses have closed in recent years.

With the onset of the wedding season in December, city based hotels and banquet halls start witnessing a boom. Almost all hotels and halls register brisk business in this month, and this includes mid category hotels. However, caterers say that strict rules and restrictions have had a negative effect on catering businesses as the number of catering companies has squeezed to 800 from 2,000 during the last couple of years, creating unemployment for hundreds of thousands of people.

“Dozens of groups were involved for a single event. The Barbecue wala, the halwa puri wala, the salad wala, the Chinese food cooks, the fish guys – they were all experts in their respective areas and they are now unemployed,” said Shahid Ismael Sheikh, President of Caterers and Restaurants Association, Lahore.

Mian Nadeem, President of the Pakistan Caterers and Restaurant Association, said that one of the main reasons outdoor wedding catering has been affected, is due to frequent traffic jams because caterers cannot reach the site of the function in time. Moreover, the labour and carriage cost has surpassed the cost of food. He claimed that 98 percent of the catering companies have closed their businesses and laid off workers.

“Catering companies have a chance of providing services only for 15 days between December 20th to January 5th, when all marriage halls and marquees are booked. Almost 98 percent of the business of caterers has been shifted to wedding halls.”

Saeed Hassan, yet another caterer, had a different spin on the situation. According to him, the marriage hall industry has become an organised sector where different service providers work separately. The marquees are arranged by different persons; some people arrange lighting, some the decoration, some provide catering and others take responsibility for serving. The catering companies have not closed down, he said. “Rather, they have transformed into separate, organised, advanced forms.”

10:00 PM curtains down

The restriction on the closure of wedding functions by 10 pm has also benefitted the owners. Earlier, halls were booked usually for 8 pm to 11 pm, but the function usually started late, sometimes well after midnight and concluded in the morning. It was an added responsibility of security provision, lighting, generators and other services for the whole night, despite payment for just a few hours.

“We are happy with this limitation of timings, it is beneficial for both customers and service providers,” said Mian Ilyas. “It is only problematic in the summer when the sun sets at 7:30 pm and we have to wrap up in just two and a half hours, which is just not possible.”

At this time, it appears the only real threat to wedding halls, is the emergence of wedding marquees around the city. According to Afzaal Ahmad of Liberty Castle, the marquee provides more facilities for a higher end customer. Marriage halls, he said, do not have enough capacity to accommodate more than 500 people whereas marquees can accommodate up to 1,000 guests.

This winter, as the citizens of Lahore dance and eat to partake in the wedding festivities of those they love, unbeknown to them, they will be contributing towards a massive industry that shows no signs of slowing down. At least not until the summer sets in. For now however, here comes the bride and the unbridled profits.