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High-end African weddings. Will they be back after Covid?

Of all the foreigners travelling to South Africa for a glamourous destination wedding, a significant number are from the African continent. While there are no statistics addressing wedding tourism specifically, those travelling from countries within the African continent have long constituted most of South Africa’s foreign visitors.

Between January and March 2019, African travellers made up more than half of the international arrivals to South Africa, according to the South African Department of Tourism’s Quarterly Performance Report. Of the 2,704,067 tourist arrivals over that period, 1,984,554 reportedly travelled from countries in Africa.

If these numbers are replicated in a post-Covid world, then the injection of high-end African wedding dollars into the local travel and tourism market could prove a massive boost for a sector which the Tourism Business Council of South Africa projects has lost an estimated R68 billion in revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic, the associated lockdown and travel restrictions.

From Africa, with love

South Africa’s wedding sector as a whole is estimated to contribute around R20 billion to the country’s coffers each year, according to the South African Wedding Industry Report 2020. However, wedding planner Khali Collins, who runs the SA School of Weddings and The Wedding Specialist, admits that SA Tourism “doesn’t promote our country enough for weddings, there’s no doubt about it”.  

Christina Holt, founder and MD of Wedding Concepts, a full-service wedding planning business that handcrafts luxury weddings, adds: “It’s a vast industry, but with respect to the government, nobody has woken up to this yet. I’ve been knocking on doors for 15 years to try to share what real impact the wedding industry has on our economy.”

The wedding sector is estimated to contribute around R20 billion to South Africa’s coffers each year. 

But now, with countries around the world looking to kick-start their stalled tourism sectors in the wake of Covid-19, a new and strategic approach to tourism should include the wedding sector. Projections are that smaller, more boutique weddings may become the order of the day, that outdoor settings will find favour and that the use of technology may be harnessed to allow for digital participation. In some countries, elopements are already on the rise. Safety and hygiene standards will become all important, as will the critical issue of price – both in terms of airline costs and the wedding packages on offer.

For destination wedding venues, be it South Africa, New Zealand, Thailand or Bali, the days of the mega-wedding may give way to smaller, more innovative and personalised experiences. Boutique wedding celebrations, booked-out venues and unforgettable destination weddings will, in the future, require a deft touch and a focus on value for money.

Get the package right and South Africa could succeed in attracting more wedding parties from the rest of the continent. But this requires turning to those in the know for their insights and observations.

An extravagant affair

Seasoned wedding planner, Guy Granger, recently teamed up with Ghanaian business owner Tamara Jonah to operate Lionheart Events. A full-service event design, planning and rental company, Lionheart Events caters to mainly Western African clients who are planning weddings or events in both South Africa and around the world.

“The people who have got money, have so much money it’s obscene, while most of the population live below the breadline,” says Granger of the market. “The ‘haves’ all operate in US dollars and it’s all cash.” These wealthy Africans are Lionheart Event’s primary clientele. “Most of these families, the upper echelons of African affluence, have homes in Johannesburg as well as in their home countries,” says Granger.

The statistics reflect this. According to the FNB Estate Agents Barometer, African continent foreigners are largely behind the uptick in foreign demand for South African properties. They accounted for approximately a quarter of all foreigner demand in the second quarter of 2019, says FNB economist, Siphamandla Mkhwanazi.

Indeed, many African nationals have connections to South Africa, which is seen as the ‘jewel of Africa’. Prior to Covid-19 travel restrictions, many flew in or drove regularly to Johannesburg for expensive shopping trips at Sandton City or even just to see the doctor. Granger explains that this African elite have their traditional weddings in their local country and then they come to South Africa to have what they call their ‘white weddings’. “Most of them have their weddings on their own properties, so they don’t book venues,” he notes.

While these weddings are not an everyday occurrence, says Granger, when they do take place, about 90% of the guestlist flies in, bringing significant money into the country. “Sometimes couples plan events around the wedding but most of the time it’s just pre-wedding restaurant bookings. Their wedding budgets are generally around R1.5 million.”

Their wedding budgets are generally around R1.5 million.

Granger notes that hosting a big-budget wedding event in South Africa is generally cheaper for wealthy individuals from the rest of Africa, who can cash in on the attractive rand-US dollar exchange rate.

Cape calling

That’s not to say that every wealthy African couple has a house at the tip of the continent. Destination weddings, particularly at venues in the Western Cape, are also extremely popular with couples from the broader African continent. “There’s definitely a growing sector in weddings servicing this market,” says Holt.

Precious Celebrations CEO, Precious Thamaga, aka Precious the Planner, says she’s also observed the popularity of the Western Cape among couples from the African continent. “Many West Africans want to get married on a wine farm. Cape Town is just one of those places that regularly appears on many wedding destinations wishlists. Couples from the continent are quite a different market; they want to work with someone who knows the area and preferably works at or owns the venue – they don’t want to outsource their weddings.”

Holt also explains that African weddings tend to be larger in terms of group size. While couples coming from the US or Europe tend to have on average about 100 to 120 guests, African weddings, because of cultural norms and traditions, are larger and attract between 200 and 400 guests.

their guestlists usually include people from around the world making these global affairs…

Because of the sheer volume of guests, the budgets for such weddings often run into the millions. “Some of those weddings are massive,” says Amanda Cunningham, MD at The Wedding Expo. “For example, for many affluent couples from Nigeria, the cost of the wedding is R2 million to R3 million at the least.” And that’s not accounting for the amounts spent by their guests.

Considering the multinational business dealings of the prominent Africans who get married in South Africa, their guestlists usually include people from around the world making these global affairs. “For example, if you’re Nigerian and get married in South Africa, while many friends and family would come from Nigeria itself, they’re also spread across the world – they literally come from everywhere.”

Will this continue to be the case once South Africa re-opens its borders? What will be required of the local wedding sector to ensure both the safely of guests and employees alike? What will a luxury wedding in a bespoke South African setting cost in 2021 and beyond? And how can South Africa position itself today to the rest of the continent in order to take advantage of itchy feet and deferred wedding dreams? 

Can we get the champagne flowing again?

Authors: Cara Bouwer and Gillian Klawansky

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