New Delhi: Call it Gaurav Vora’s search for his inner child. That, and a market potential in excess of Rs100 crore.

How else to explain a Pune engineering graduate and packaging company executive shunning the logical, sensible options to open a firm specializing in birthday parties?

Growing pains: A Bikanervala birthday party venue in Gurgaon. The Bikanervala chain charges around Rs180 per child for food buffets and a bit extra for a magician or a tattoo painter as entertainment. (Photo: Ashwani Nagpal/Mint)

One was from a minister in Goa, who threatened to shut the shop of a retailer when Bob the Builder products were out of stock, and Vora’s company, Giftmantra Pvt. Ltd had to airlift the choice pieces. The same happened for Bollywood actor Karisma Kapoor, in crisis when she couldn’t find Dora the Explorer items for daughter Samaira.

Whether children’s parties are hosted at restaurants where food and decorations are provided, or hosted as custom-arranged events by a professional planner, the market for kid-specific birthday parties is burgeoning. Based on data culled from cake shops, the unorganized sector, wholesalers, and return gift manufacturers, Vora estimates industry revenues could one day top Rs100-150 crore.

Gone are the days when moms made food at home and the well-wishers were neighbours and family who just dropped by. Also, parents are no more in control. Especially in places such as Gurgaon, one of India’s first suburbs with two-car families and indoor shopping malls, the trappings of steadily giving in to the child’s desires—and peer pressure—are beginning to show.

“Kids are getting more demanding than before," says Jyotika Singh, creative head at 32nd Milestone, an entertainment complex in Gurgaon that hosts 10 to 15 birthday parties for children every month, and offers a kid-specific menu complete with french fries, mini pizzas, and coloured “mocktails".

In Gurgaon, the Bikanervala chain charges around Rs180 per child for food buffets and a bit extra for a magician or a tattoo painter as entertainment. Its restaurant hosts almost a party a day during week days and two each on Saturdays and Sundays.

Renu Yadav, a Gurgaon resident who has thrown parties for her daughter at both 32nd Milestone and Bikanervala, says all her friends now plan parties outside the house. “At home, it’s such a mess." And she’s particularly grateful for the kid-specific options.

“Managing kids is a big deal," she says, “the biggest problem is to keep them busy."

New companies have been sprouting to cater to that need. A store called Birthday Wrap, opened in Gurgaon last year, sells children’s birthday products and offers a line of party-planning services for mid-size, 50-100 person, parties.

The store’s gimmick is to plan out entire parties based on a theme. For example, the “ranch" special might decorate a space with bales of hay, screen short Western-style movies, and play pin-the-tail on the cowboy. Birthday Wrap charges between Rs300 and Rs500 per head depending on the venue or food package the customer selects.

Places such as 32nd Milestone, too, have seen an increase in requests for themed birthday parties. 32nd Milestone even creates “invisible ink" invitations with lemon juice to inform people about a Harry Potter, magic-themed party, and offers birthday parties specifically for dogs.

The trend in other cities isn’t quite as conspicuous. In Bangalore, where the number of two-income households is on the rise, themed parties aren’t as sought after.

Lalith Jain, who runs a shop in Bangalore called Silver Spoon that sells children’s party items, said customers there tend to buy one or two items from a themed line of products, rather then a full set. “Barbie is quite popular and Mickey, the demand is increasing now," Jain says, “but they come asking only for plates or caps."

D.V. Rupa, who owns Wonder Yearz, another store for children in Bangalore that also organizes parties, described similar customer habits. “Quite a few people don’t want to pick one theme and go with it," she says. “You see both boys and girls coming to the party, so they split it and pick up different things."

But for parents who prefer themes, party planning is a serious venture. “I had a lot of ideas in my mind, I had gone through all the websites, and spoke to lot of people," says P.R. Libin, father of a two-year-old girl in Bangalore.

Libin finally settled on a Barbie theme for his daughter’s first birthday—“because all the girls like this concept"—and Mickey Mouse for her second, because by then she could at least recognize this character. For both parties, Libin ensured that everything from the caps and the masks to the backdrops, and even the cakes, matched.

When New Delhi’s Aarti Malhotra had a pool party for her daughter’s sixth birthday, she had cards printed with mermaid pictures, and swimming goggles as return gifts.

Kiran Manral, who is behind the Mumbai-based parenting blog karmickids, wasn’t yet inducted into the birthday party scene when she celebrated her son’s first birthday with a cake and some cold drinks. By the time he was two and a half, she had a birthday shock: a five-star hotel had been transformed into a mini-Disneyland replica for a friend’s two-year-old daughter. The way blogger Manral now sees it, parties usually alternate between two styles. A family will have a grand party one year, and host a birthday at a Papa John’s or a Pizza Hut the next. She’s done enough field research to know —Manral attended around 15 parties last month.

“Three to four parties a week, and you are compelled to return the favour," she says. “You might as well have a big thing and get it over it."

The learning curve has been steep for India’s birthday party entrepreneurs. They’ve quickly adapted everything from the size of packages to the themes they offer, specifically to Indian tastes. Sales for one of Giftmantra’s most popular product lines, Bob the Builder, fell by 30% within a few weeks, and no one could figure out why. It turned out that the daily television programme had moved from its usual morning time-slot, when kids watch television as they get ready for school.

When Birthday Wrap first started providing party-decorating services, none of the store staff actually knew anything about decorating. Instead, they learned to do it through trial and error. “We would send five people out just to do balloons," says Prashasta Seth, who invested around Rs15 lakh to start the company, “and we were very tense."

His exacting nature might come from his background in a very different field: Seth is an Indian Institute of Technology graduate who worked at JPMorgan Chase and Co. and an equity research firm he co-founded before getting into the birthday party business.

“In eight years I was making 40 times my starting salary," he says, on his decision to enter an unusual field. “I had options that vested and I wanted to do something on my own."

As Seth realized that customers were not willing to travel beyond a 10-mile radius for party goods in Gurgaon, he is planning to open three or four more locations within the city over the next year.

Imported products usually come in packs of eight, which are too small for India’s celebratory sensibilities. “Even a small get-together is 10 to 15 kids," says Giftmantra’s Vora. “We realized eight to 10 wouldn’t work, so we did 20."

While there is a market abroad for premium party goods, Vora doesn’t see as much potential for the same in India. Instead, he’s planning an economical Snoopy line for Reliance Retail Ltd, which will cost around Rs400 for the entire party set.

Giftmantra makes its products in India, and they are sold through Reliance stores, among others. Imported products from China work out cheaper by 10-15%, but the quality is bad, says Vora, so he’s sticking with India. Giftmantra products cost Rs20 for straws, friendship bands and small items to Rs110 for themed table covers and others goods.

Another surprise for Vora was the poor sales of Indian-themed sets. They floated a trial Hanuman package, which never took off. The reason?

“Party goods are mostly disposable," Vora realized, while Indian characters are based on religious myths—no one wanted to throw them out.