A stag night used to be a dignified affair. Well nearly. Even 15 years ago it followed a simple template: settle in at the local with your friends and your dad, sink far too many pints, and perhaps engage the modest services of the local stripper before heading to the chippy and finally staggering home. Back then, the only bullets you'd dodge would be those of your future spouse if you turned up late to the church the next day. These days it's different: you may find yourself ducking fire from a Kalashnikov rifle as your fellow stags let off a few drunken rounds in some Latvian no man's land.
Welcome to the modern stag do (the word 'night' is no longer valid, given they can last a week). If post-Soviet military fantasies don't grab you, there's a host of other activities to choose from: how about being picked up from the airport in a booze-filled coach complete with lap dancing? Or a relatively sedate tour of Irish bars in eastern Europe's ancient city centres?
The Foreign Office estimates that one million Brits will head overseas this year for stag or hen parties, while a recent survey by Teletext Holidays concluded that the total expenditure at home and abroad will come to around £300m. The Stag Company, the UK's largest stag and hen organiser, has built a business aggregating third-party offerings such as flights, activities and hotels in choice locations such as Barcelona, Cracow and current stag fave Riga. Managing director Rob Hill reckons it will make a cool £7.5m this year, with the average punter splashing £150 on his or her 'experience' and big spenders topping £1,000 per head.
All of which raises the question: just when did the simple stag party become such a money-spinner? First up, there's the rise of disposable income. People are marrying and having kids later in life, which means there's more to splash on such celebrations. And then there's oneupmanship. 'Each experience has to be better and more extreme than the last,' says Hill. 'Take the group who hired a dwarf, painted him blue and handcuffed him to the stag for a weekend. Cost: around £850. You'll talk about that for the rest of your life. And that pressure to outdo drives the industry.'
Finally, there's the modern ubiquity of budget air travel. When the likes of easyJet, Ryanair and Budapest-based stag favourite Wizz Air began opening budget routes to eastern European playgrounds in the early 2000s, stag and hen parties flocked there - further enticed by the cut-price booze on offer.
EasyJet maintains that it doesn't monitor how much of its business comes from stag parties. But anyone who's been to the Wetherspoon pub at Gatwick airport at 7am will have seen first hand the scale of the stag phenomenon - it's like a watering hole on the edge of the marital plain, where disparate packs are thrown together to mark a friend's last taste of freedom. Of course, no one's ever truly free: as soon as the plane's seatbelt light pings off, their fellow passengers are left tutting into their in-flight magazines as the bawdy mob is corralled into a queue for the toilet, a line of T-shirts bearing names like 'Maverick, Bratislava 2011'. The stag will be the one in the pink T-shirt with the penis design on it.
Such sartorial delights come from shops such as Mushy T-shirts, an online printer based in Rochdale. While ostensibly a general printer, 80% of Mushy's summer business comes from stags and hens. It offers 100 different tees, ranging from camouflage shirts to ones spoofing Kill Bill, Star Wars (Stag Wars) or Superman, and may roll out 400 orders a week in busy times. 'The key is to concentrate on a fast turnaround and personal service,' says owner Paul Nicholls, 'and to work hard on the Google rankings. So we provide not only T-shirts but stag tips and links, and print a lot of designs related to things that are trending, like The Hangover Part II.'
There's clearly something in all this. Stick 'stag party' into Google these days and you'll be hit with a dizzying range of providers targeting a similar audience. Take budapestpissup.com, which offers 'Beers, Babes and Bullets'. How to attract the business of someone marking his transition to happily married life? With images of eastern European babes licking an AK-47. The Nuts magazine-style marketing seems to work. Hill, who founded the Stag Company in 2003 after experiencing a poorly organised weekend away, says he now employs 40 full-time staff and is sending a staggering 50,000 punters abroad this year.
One of his key rivals is Last Night of Freedom, which offers 2,500 such experiences in 50 locations, from Bristol and Brighton to Bangkok and Las Vegas. Not bad for a dotcom start-up launched in 2000 by a couple of students who'd never even been on a stag do. The site also boasts the UK's 'largest range of stag and hen products', stocking 800 separate accessories: from the classic mock ball and chain to hen dare cards ('Fantastic!! Used these alongside the wind-up willy and had everyone giggling,' raves one happy punter).
One supplier that sells through Last Night of Freedom is Morphsuits, maker of an eponymous Lycra bodysuit which transforms the wearer into a facsimile of the 1970s Plasticine kids' TV character. It's become a huge stag hit since launching in 2009. MorphCostumes the company now turns over £4.5m a year. Boss Fraser Smeaton doesn't know the exact proportion coming from stag parties, but he reports a sharp annual uplift in sales in April, which he puts down to stag groups heading into the summer wedding season. He says that the tradition hasn't as much changed as evolved. 'My father came from a farming community on the Scottish borders, where they'd paint your balls black with sheep paint and engine oil,' he says. 'It's tamer now, but that same humiliation is expressed through fancy dress.' Indeed, top of Last Night of Freedom's top 10 stag novelties list is a pink vagina costume, for £39.99.
It's perhaps unsurprising that British stags have wound up with less than stellar reputations overseas. The Foreign Office estimates that 70% of British stag and hen parties are now held abroad and that a quarter of these run into some sort of trouble. Its latest report into Brits' behaviour included one stag party member waking up naked upside down in a bin, and one being chained to a police car, while another fell off a hotel balcony and spent weeks in hospital. In 2004, the Czech tourist board said that 20% of all weekend crime in Prague was caused by British men on stag weekends.
The dilemma for most eastern European destinations is that tourist loot provides a vital boost to jobs and investment at a time when these already fragile economies have taken a huge battering from the recession. Yet, while stags are a free-spending cash cow, they may also act as a deterrent to a more sedate type of tourist, who would perhaps flock to these cherished historical centres if they weren't being marketed more for their 'medieval lesbian' shows.
Many of the cities have opted to fight back. Dublin moved to ban large stag parties in 1997, after two members of a 60-strong stag party attacked policemen in the Temple Bar area. And when a stag attendee was arrested in Riga in 2008 for urinating on the town's revered war memorial, Latvia's then interior minister, Mareks Seglins, hit out at 'English pigs' for being a 'dirty, hoggish people'.
'If we also had other tourists, then British visitors who piss about all the time would not be as noticeable,' said Riga's mayor, Nils Usakovs, a year later. 'Unfortunately, this is their speciality.' Cracow recently responded to the stag problem by directly targeting gay tourism to counter the laddishness.
Hill prefers to highlight the amount of business organised suppliers send to these cities, especially in quiet winter months, adding that poor behaviour only increases the value of organised providers, which rein in the excesses by providing local reps and organised activities. 'We have good relations with hotels, which we guarantee business to year-round,' he says. 'It's those doing it themselves who go to Riga, find the Irish bar, get drunk and start trouble.'
Yet, despite the overseas surge, not all stag business is heading abroad. Bristol and Brighton, Newcastle and Newquay are still awash with marauding hordes of L-platers of a weekend, and domestic providers battle to come up with ever more original ideas to ensnare them. For every stag group heading off to fire rifles behind what was once the Iron Curtain, you'll find another careering round a UK stock car course or attacking the stag in a custom paintballing mission, or a bunch of hens downing bubbly in a pimped-up fire engine.
Both Nicholls and Hill cite a drop in demand for foreign trips over the past couple of years. Yet stag and hen parties seem to have bounced back: the Stag Company's 50,000 customers this year is up from 36,000 in 2010, and Mushy's T-shirt orders for May were up 60% on last year. Austerity may even work in their favour: people are likely to prioritise events that will be talked about for years after. 'People will save for a stag do, as they don't want to miss an event that will otherwise be going on without them,' says Hill, who is already reporting a healthy stream of orders for 2012, with Riga, Barcelona and Marbella all looking strong.
So despite the tougher times it seems the stag tradition remains in rum health. Travellers can look forward to sharing their city breaks with boozers, Morphs and giant vaginas for plenty of time to come.
THE HENS ARE COMING ...
While the boisterous pre-nuptial celebration has traditionally been the preserve of the lads, anyone who's ventured to the centre of towns like Brighton or Newquay on a Saturday night will have noticed another modern trend: that the hens party just as hard these days.
'There's been a cultural shift,' says Rob Hill, who runs Hen Heaven alongside the Stag Company and says business is split an even 50-50. 'Hens are now asking: "Hang on, why are they having more fun?" and there's often a competition between the bridesmaid and best man as to who can create the most memorable time. We're actually telling the guys to pull their socks up.' Hill adds that hens are now spending a little more per head than their male counterparts.
Visitors to the hen party websites may notice a subtle difference. While the men's sites are pitched somewhere near lads magazines like Nuts, the hen experience is clearly something more sedate: the watchword is 'indulgence', and key categories include spa treatments, burlesque workshops and, this year's new favourite, life drawing classes. All of which sound a world away from lads sticking banknotes into unsavoury places.
But it's not all so serene. The hen has a more conspicuous incarnation. In a recent Daily Mail report, it was revealed with typical bluster that 700 hens may descend upon Brighton's two male strip clubs of a Saturday night. The 'hen hotspot' apparently requires '30 policemen every weekend to keep order'. Here comes the bride, as they say. Watch out.