Qirat Hamid Khan attended dozens of traditional weddings growing up in her native Pakistan. Celebrations spanned several days filled with food, dancing and hundreds of guests. Grooms would arrive in large processions and greet brides with intricate henna patterns etched on their hands and arms.
“That’s the type of wedding I always wanted,” said Hamid Khan, a 24-year-old University of Maryland graduate who moved to the U.S. as a teenager. “You won’t see anyone sitting. They will all be dancing.”
On a Friday in April, it was her turn as she wed Saad Khan at the Baltimore Airport Marriott in Linthicum. The bride, from Laurel, had met the 27-year-old San Diego resident after his aunt and her aunt played matchmaker and an initial phone conversation developed into a long-distance relationship. At the couple’s “Mehndi” party — typically a pre-wedding event — and the wedding at the Marriott, the families hosted 200 people from across the U.S. and from Canada, Australia, Pakistan and the Middle East. Guests milled about the lobby until a “dhol waala,” or drummer, clad in a yellow tunic appeared, signaling the arrival of the groom. Then the festivities began, as Saad Khan walked beneath a canopy amid cheers and drumbeats, following women in colorful shawls bearing plates of candles and liquid henna. An imam married the couple in a Muslim ceremony in a hotel ballroom, followed by dinner and dancing.
Large South Asian weddings have become big business for Baltimore-area hotels, filling guest rooms, ballrooms and restaurants with hundreds of guests over long weekends. Hotels and wedding planners say the Baltimore-Washington region has become a popular choice for Indian and other South Asian weddings in the U.S.
At the Marriott where Khan and Hamid were wed, those cultures make up more than half of all weddings and represent the fastest-growing wedding segment at that property and others in the Mid-Atlantic. Hilton Hotels, too, is aggressively courting the Indian market. South Asian nuptials have grown to 70 percent of the wedding business at Hilton Baltimore Inner Harbor, the Pratt Street convention hotel that overlooks Camden Yards.
“Baltimore is a really good spot for the South Asian wedding, and we’ve found it’s been fun to embrace them,” said Melanie Davis, catering director for Hilton Baltimore Inner Harbor. “It definitely is a significant portion of our weekend business. Baltimore is a hub for the East Coast.”
The weddings Davis plans typically accommodate 400 to 800 guests. One couple worked with a decorator and lighting specialist to transform a ballroom into a vineyard. Another brought multiple outfits for each event not only for the bride and groom and their wedding party but for the family’s dog. Receptions often feature musical numbers straight out of Bollywood movies, starring family and friends who jockey for performing time.
South Asian weddings, most with Hindu or Sikh religious ceremonies, have helped boost business on some weekends, including holidays, that otherwise would be slow, Davis said.
Wedding planners say Baltimore has benefited from its central East Coast location, access to airports and I-95 and proximity to relatives and friends in New York and New Jersey, two of the top five states with the largest South Asian populations, census estimates show. The nation’s South Asian American community, those tracing roots to places such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and elsewhere, grew about 40% to 5.4 million people between 2010 and 2017, according to the census and the 2017 American Community Survey.
As of the 2010 Census, Asian Indians made up the biggest share of Maryland ’s Asian population, more than a quarter, with the overall Asian population largely concentrated in Howard and Montgomery counties.
Some of the largest Indian weddings that Sumeet Bagai has planned have been in Baltimore, where hotels can support large events. Often, there’s a Friday night pre-function, a morning or afternoon wedding and an evening cocktail and formal wedding reception. But some couples plan as many as seven or more events. Bagai, owner of Dream Shaadi wedding planning in Tysons Corner, Va., has helped arrange “baraat” processions where grooms arrive by horseback, elephant, helicopter, boat or Lamborghini. One couple had a 30-foot chandelier built above the dance floor.
Business has grown since since 2011, when he took over what had been a vendor listing service started by his aunts. His competition has increased, too. These days, spending on a typical wedding he’s involved with, including hotel, food, clothing, jewelry, gifts, decorating and lighting assistance, can average $200,000 or more, he said.
“There’s clearly a lot of business to go around,” said Bagai, whose company specializes in Indian weddings and also runs bridal expos. Baltimore is popular because “clients are looking for space to support the scale and size of events, and often are looking for space in multiple ballrooms. They want to have somewhere where they can dress up any room.”
Bagai sees current demand as a result of the growing Asian Indian population in the Baltimore-Washington region, where many families, including his own and those of many friends, settled in the mid-1970s to early 1980s.
Five years ago, Bethesda-based Marriott began offering cultural training to event planners, caterers, salespeople and other employees who work with guests. The number of sessions grew from just two several years ago to 30 last year, and they’re given at Marriott hotels all over the world. Marriott teaches sessions on 13 cultures, among them Chinese, Korean and Russian.
“We call it cultural competence, just this idea of understanding what makes people tick,” said Apoorva N. Gandhi, vice president of multicultural affairs for Marriott International Inc. “These are the folks who work with the guests and go through all these details for maybe the most important family event of their lives. ... We know we’re in a competitive business, and we want to do everything we can to earn that business.”
He also noted that many Indian Americans who settled in the Baltimore-Washington region have kids at an age where they’re marrying.
Earlier this year, several dozen Marriott employees spent a morning at the hospitality giant’s Bethesda headquarters learning about Indian culture. Trainers touched on the diversity of a nation with numerous religions, languages, styles of cuisine and traditions that vary by region — as well as on general attitudes regarding punctuality (not important) and negotiation (important). Gandhi and Seema Jain, director of multicultural affairs for Marriott, demonstrated a Garba dance, a community circle dance that originated in the Indian state of Gujarat. They passed around ornate invitations and sets of bangle bracelets, traditional ornaments often worn by brides. They talked about what to expect at a Sangeet, typically a party that brings family together the night before the wedding, and showed videos of receptions’ musical performances.
“It’s really important that we have audio and visual set up, because you’re basically emulating a Bollywood movie in your weddings,” Ghandi told the group. “There’s a section where it’s almost like a little entertainment. Usually each side will do a dance.”
Jain noted that the Sangeet may be the first formal event of the wedding, where large extended families and friends from each side may meet for the first time, though closer family members likely will have already met and become involved in wedding planning.
“At these events, people are checking each other out,” Jain said. “It’s an opportunity for more matchmaking. The grandmother is going to check out every young eligible bachelor for her granddaughter. They feel that if the families have already matched, then they must be approved.”
Jain said families are willing to spend big on weddings, hiring decorators and entertainers, sending invitations the size of small books, buying gifts for almost everyone in large extended families, because of the cultural importance of family and relatively low divorce rates in the Indian community.
In her culture, said Jain, “We have a one-time wedding.”
Columbia residents Vivek and Kinita Patel chose the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront hotel as the site of their three-day engagement celebration last August. They picked the city for its central East Coast location and easy access through BWI Marshall Airport. And they chose the hotel for its large meeting space and water views. More than 1,000 guests came from around the country. The Columbia couple then had a traditional wedding in December in India, where Kinita Patel grew up and where most of her family still lives.
“In American weddings, the bride and groom get to decide who will come. But for us, it’s obviously those who are close to us, but also those who are close to our parents and close to our grandparents,” said Kinita Patel, 26, a physical therapist. “We have to go to theirs, and they have to go to ours.”
The couple and their families hosted a Friday evening welcome party with a band, traditional Garba dancing and buffet stations with Indian, Mexican and Mediterranean food. An engagement ceremony followed Saturday morning after breakfast. Then came a lunch and a more formal reception on Saturday evening. The couple chose color themes for each event and coordinated ballroom decor and outfits purchased in India to match. Each night, friends and family members presented dance numbers and gave speeches.
The Baltimore and India celebrations were the “big fat Indian wedding” Kinita Patel always wanted.
“We both come from very traditional Gujarati families [an ethnic group that speak Gujarati], so for us to keep the tradition, it just made sense to keep it that way, to keep the values instilled in us by our parents and grandparents, to keep that tradition going,” said Vivek Patel, 27, who works for a hotel management and development company and whose father emigrated from India in the 1970s as a teen.
Qirat Khan, whose family comes from Pakistan but who grew up living wherever her father was stationed in the merchant navy, said she appreciated Marriott planners’ familiarity with her culture when it came to coordinating her April wedding. She and her husband, who now live in San Jose, wanted a traditional affair with some modern touches.
“It was first of all important for me to do things in my traditional way because, being an immigrant, you’re part of the culture around you, but you also carry your own culture,” said the recent bride, who came to the U.S. in 2014.
That meant holding fast to some traditions and breaking from others.