Planning weddings in the United Arab Emirates
Wild Geese: Irish woman Jennifer McGarrigle is co-founder Exquisite Events, Dubai
Jennifer McGarrigle’s company was set up five years ago with her Dubai-born co-founder Noura Al Suwaidi
An Irish wedding with 300 guests would be really pushing the boat out. In the United Arab Emirates where Irish-born wedding planner Jennifer McGarrigle operates, 300 guests is normal and some weddings have up to 3,000.
An average wedding in Dubai costs €300,000. A really big splash will run into millions.
“I was actually working for another events company and we organised Noura’s sister’s wedding,” McGarrigle says. “Some time later, Noura suggested we start our own business and it went from there. The initial investment was low, as we didn’t need to incur the cost of an office and other overheads as meetings are typically held at suppliers’ premises.
“Having an Emeriti partner was essential. The business couldn’t have come as far so quickly without Noura and I’ve integrated into Dubai society far more because of her,” McGarrigle says.
Exquisite Events employs two people full-time and the team is augmented with part-timers as needed. The company’s initial focus was Dubai but it now organises weddings in Azerbaijan, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait.
Despite Al Suwaidi’s local knowledge, getting the business up and running was not easy.
“It was quite challenging initially as there is a lot red tape,” McGarrigle says. “Being female was not an issue. In fact, the attitude towards women in business is very progressive in the UAE. Women are treated as equals and given the same freedom as men to start up whatever enterprise they choose.”
McGarrigle moved to Dubai in 2003 as cabin crew with Emirates Airlines.
“I was 24 when I left Ireland and the job with Emirates presented me with an opportunity to travel and see the world,” she says. “I left Emirates Airlines after getting married in 2008 to my Donegal-born husband, Paul, and when our daughter was born I spent three years as a full-time mum.
“Once Holly went to school, I was eager to put my next goal into action and started the company with Noura. I have never run a business in Ireland, so I can’t comment on the differences. However, the priorities are going to be exactly the same. It’s all about developing trust with brides and building a reputation for delivering on commitments.
“I think I have been able to develop my business faster in the UAE than I could have in Ireland, not least because Noura’s contacts in the UAE seem to be never-ending and this is a huge element of our success. She also has incredible creative talent and an exceptional eye for detail which is so important in our line of work.”
Apart from the scale, the other differentiating feature of weddings in Dubai is that the day is all about the ladies. Men don’t attend traditional Islamic wedding events and the groom only makes a brief appearance late in the evening.
“The formal wedding ceremony will have taken place maybe a month earlier and the groom has a quiet dinner with friends while his bride and her guests enjoy a lavish celebration,” McGarrigle says. “Everything about the event is female including the DJ and the photographer as this means the women do not have to cover up.
“The logistics of organising the really big weddings can be challenging and also physically demanding, as the venues are often huge and we are running non-stop between different locations. Depending on the scale we would have a team of between three and 10 people all connected by radio. We pretty much do everything required apart from the dress shopping. We generally don’t get involved in that but we still have to know the length and width of the dress/train for example as the bride makes her entrance along a catwalk and you don’t want the dress tumbling over the sides and ruining her look.”
In the past many Irish people went to the UAE to work in construction and healthcare, but McGarrigle says there are opportunities across many sectors including tourism, teaching and sales.
“My husband has been selling products made in Galway throughout the Middle East and Africa for 14 years and I think Irish people succeed here as we’re prepared to work hard and have that famous ‘gift of the gab’ which helps.”
McGarrigle says her company faces a lot of competition in the UAE and there is always pressure to produce a flawless event. “If you make a mistake, the whole community knows about it,” she says. “We do about two to three weddings month. Our worst nightmare was when we had four in one weekend.”
Apart from the month of August when the dead heat drives many Westerners to Europe for cooler weather, McGarrigle loves the UAE and has no plans to leave any time soon.
However, as ex-pats are not allowed to stay past retirement age, an exit strategy will be necessary. “It’s in the background but not really something we have to start thinking about for another 10 years,” she says.