Even when the impetus isn't flight from a natural disaster or other circumstances in which one's very survival is at stake, relocating to a new area can be one of the most challenging times of an individual's life. For many, the hardest part of this transition is personal, leaving behind relationships with friends and family for new environs in which these ties must be started anew. Few people seek out a change in scenery unless greater job security waits on the other end or they're financially stable enough to make the move based purely on the merits of their chosen destination.
Videographers, on the other hand, face the more daunting challenge of trying to migrate their professional lives without the certainty that a well-paying job awaits them in the next place they hang out their shingle. The vast majority of event videographers are self-employed, and only a handful have established the national reputations necessary to guarantee them work wherever they live. Event videography is largely a local business with videographers serving whatever markets their businesses are closest to; relocating to a new market inevitably means losing much of a videographer's established business, as well as one's hard-earned reputation.
But moving into a new market where your name and quality of work is not yet known doesn't mean that you lose the abilities that established your original reputation. In fact, some might argue that changing markets, being exposed to new ways of looking at event videography, is one of the most effective ways of expanding and improving a videographer's skill set.
This article looks at a few videographers who either chose to or were forced to relocate their businesses, how they worked in a new market to recover their lost studios, and what other videographers may gain—or at least expect—when they relocate.
Reasons for Moving
Environmental catastrophes aside, there are three primary factors that drive videographers to pick up and move into new markets. The most common of these is the recognition that a videographer's current market isn't lucrative. Kerry Lehman, founder of Bouncing Rock Media, grew up and originally started his business in a small town in Utah, 20 minutes from the Idaho border. "There are a lot of weddings there but very little money is spent on each wedding. We were charging $450 per wedding, and we were more than double the next most expensive company in the market," says Lehman. "I'd gotten tired of reading about and seeing videographers all over the country making these huge fees for weddings. I couldn't figure out what was going on; I knew our work was good. All of a sudden I had this revelation that it had nothing to do with the quality of our work. It occurred to me that the area I lived in was the problem, something I had never thought of before, having grown up there." So Lehman began his search for a more lucrative market, eventually ending up in West Palm Beach, Florida in 1997.
Tim Baker, founder of Chameleon Video, moved with the identical purpose of finding a bigger market, but as a result of different circumstances. At the time he began plotting his move, Baker was in the business of shooting corporate meetings in the Ft. Myers/Naples, Florida market. "When I first started I stayed pretty busy on a local basis, but then the market for large meetings all but disappeared after 9/11. I realized I was fishing in the desert down there," says Baker. In the year prior to 9/11, Baker had driven up to the Orlando area for more than a dozen jobs, and those out-of-town jobs were quickly becoming his only surviving revenue source. He wanted to keep doing the work that he loved without being forced into a hours-long commute to Orlando and back for each large-meeting booking. "What I started doing was looking for someplace central where I could work in Orlando and Tampa Bay," he says. Baker eventually moved to a small community centrally located between the two larger markets.
Not all videographers move for the sake of expanding the size of the market they cater to, though. Richard DePaso, founder of Aardvark Video & Media Production, chose to leave the lucrative New York City market and search for an area with a less frantic pace of life. "I'd been in the New York City area for 35 years, and I knew there was a much better life out there for me. So I started looking at various parts of the country," says DePaso. Ultimately, his decision to settle down in Las Vegas "had a lot to do with the housing values, the warm climate, and because it's the area of the country where our son lived," he continues. So instead of moving to grow his business, DePaso chose quality of life over the size of the market (although no one can refer to Vegas as a less than lucrative market, especially with DePaso's focus on targeting the area's active conference/convention market).
Finally, many videographers relocate due to circumstances over which they have no control. Such was the case with Ken Ehrhart, founder of Summit Productions and EventDV Inside Story columnist. He's had to move several times during his career because of his wife's profession. "I didn't relocate to get better business, I relocated because we had to," says Ehrhart.
He started his business in 1990 in Colorado and then had to move to California in '93 because of his wife's job in the military. A year or so later, when his wife retired from the service, he was faced with a situation similar to DePaso's, weighing his personal life against his professional life. Ehrhart and his wife settled on Albuquerque, New Mexico because it struck them as the ideal place for her to retire, even if it didn't offer the most lucrative videography market. "You simply have to decide what's more important, quality of life or doing 500 weddings a year," says Ehrhart. "For me it was about quality of life and being able to practice my craft in a way that pleases me. I'm not looking to be the busiest wedding and event videographer in the country. I was looking to do enough business to live off it and be happy."
A Daunting Challenge
While nearly every profession at times requires relocation, event videography is one in which changing locales is much more the exception than the rule. There is a fair amount of churn among those who specialize in either shooting or editing, but full-service videographers tend to eschew the transient lifestyle, as their work relies so heavily on establishing a reputation for a standard of work among a network of potential customers.
"We just received survey information from the Wedding Channel that indicated more than 60% of brides make their decisions based on word-of-mouth recommendations," says Steve Wernick, cofounder of the 4EVER Group. "That shows the challenge a videographer would face coming cold into a new market."
This reality cuts both ways. Not only does it take a concerted effort to establish these relationships in a new market, leaving a familiar market means losing most, if not all, of the already established relationships on which you've built your business, from a client base to essential contacts in related industries. "The difficulty with relocating a videography company is that you do lose whatever established roots you had in your old market," says Ehrhart. And it can take some time before a videographer's word-of-mouth network can be reestablished in a new market. During Ehrhart's move from Colorado into the mega-market of the Los Angeles area, he says, "I did get some initial quick success, but I didn't get a lot of referral success until the beginning of the second year."
Videographers also face the challenge of moving a business that is often a one-person operation. On one hand this means added mobility, but it also means that whatever opportunities a new market might offer, the uprooted videographer is left to face them alone. "Most people who relocate during their working years do so, I would think, based upon having a job offer," says Wernick. "The difficulties involved in moving to an area where you know no one are therefore eased by having a network of new acquaintances at the job. That rarely exists in this profession."
A Plan of Attack
Because of these challenges, formulating a comprehensive plan of attack for establishing oneself in a new market is essential, although that plan isn't necessarily specific to relocating videographers. "What I did each time I moved was the same thing I did to originally start my business: put out feelers, get people to understand who I am and what I'm doing, and work towards establishing relationships," says Ehrhart. "Plan your move carefully. This is not an overnight-turnaround type of business. It's not like a McDonald's franchise where people will just walk in the door once you open for business. You have to have a six- to twelve-month plan of attack where you can survive with making next to nothing for that long if you have to, simply because you're not going to get all your money right up front."
Kerry Lehman came up with a plan to jump-start his relocated business that, while not wholly successful, did allow him to start making money from day one. He began by running in ad in WEV magazine in search of a business partner in the West Palm Beach market to which he was moving. "I figured there must be a lot of guys who have businesses who are doing very well in good areas but who aren't sure how to take that next step, and who need someone who's skilled to take them to the next level," says Lehman. "I knew that the odds of just going and starting from scratch were risky. What I was hoping to find was not someone to work for as an employee but a partner with whom to form a corporation, someone who had an established business in the area. I was more or less willing to work into equity in the company."
Lehman found just such a partner in short order, although after two years of working for him rather than with him, he struck out on his own after a somewhat messy dispute over the future of his relationship with that company. But he doesn't regret his initial strategy. "As crazy as it may sound, I probably wouldn't want to do it differently," he says. Otherwise, he continues, "I don't know if I would've made the move with a wife and three kids. When you have that many mouths to feed, knowing that we'd be able to come down here and have an income immediately becomes a more significant issue," says Lehman. "Doing it the way I did was a great shock absorber that eased us in both financially and professionally. I think it's a great way to get established, although I think a lot of videographers would be wary of having someone come in and work for them." Thus he acknowledges that this model might not be the most practical for the majority of videographers.
Establishing a name among potential customers and understanding where a videographer stands relative to his or her potential competitors is essential to a successful transition into a new market. "I'd do a thorough analysis of the businesses in the area. I'd begin contacting them long before moving to get a sense of what their needs for video are," DePaso says. "If I were on the wedding end of it, I'd try to establish relationships with catering managers at the level of facilities that I'd see myself working at. This can be very difficult and might require trips."
DePaso says that when he was planning on relocating, he also went ahead and ran an ad in the Yellow Pages before actually making the move to Las Vegas. But the research he did was at least as important. "In studying the area I learned who the major players were," he says. "I made numerous phone calls to the video companies who were out there to get a sense of where the business was, pricing, etc." DePaso goes on to recommend that all relocating videographers get in touch with the local videographers association in their new markets to help acclimate and integrate themselves into the marketplace more quickly.
Even though videographers inevitably lose touch with clients in their former markets, that doesn't mean they should completely abandon those relationships and forget the individuals with whom they have worked previously. "When you're marketing yourself, you're meeting banquet managers, catering people at a variety of facilities, and so on. The fact of the matter is that the people who hold those jobs are every bit as mobile as people in any other job out there," says Wernick. "You could go across the country and meet somebody that you knew from your home market." This is one reason why Tim Baker saves every business card he receives and also writes notes on the backs of these cards about the work that he did with these people to keep for future reference.
Recognizing Your Market
While many of the challenges videographers face in re-establishing their businesses post-relocation resemble those inherent to starting a business anew, a videographer on the move is not truly starting from scratch. They're still in the same business, and they already have established ways of going about their job. But having a set way of doing things and rigidly adhering to it can be counterproductive in a new market, as every locality has its own distinct combination of customers, competitors, and culture.
A big differentiator between markets is the level of understanding of what event videography encompasses and how much a customer should expect to pay for video services. "I made some good observations and some bad ones when I moved out here," says DePaso. "My biggest misinterpretation was equating the business community here in Vegas to what I knew in New York. I assumed that with all the businesses coming out here, the media sophistication would be similar," he continues. "What I found was that they didn't have that sophistication. They thought in terms of expense, and not return on investment. What's necessary out here to succeed is more relationship-marketing, making sure people get to know you as their friend. As time goes on, they start thinking about what you're offering as something other than something you're trying to sell them, and that takes two to three years."
All other things being equal, shooting a wedding in one part of the country will mirror that of any other part of the country. "When you're dealing with one type of wedding—whether it be a Jewish wedding, a Catholic wedding, or a Hindu wedding—they will be more or less the same all across the country," says Wernick.
At the same time, if a videographer is moving from one part of the country that's dominated by one particular religion to another area that has a more diverse population or favors other demographics, the differences between the various ceremonies can be quite the culture shock. "The types of wedding that take place down here in Florida are completely different from what I grew up with," says Kerry Lehman. "In Utah, most of the wedding receptions are big receiving lines. Also, when they're married in temples out there, you can't record in the temple. Out of all the weddings we did in Utah, only two or three weren't Mormon. I came down here where everyone tapes their weddings, tapes the dances—it's an entirely different culture. I felt like a fish out of water."
Additionally, different markets demand different pricing metrics. Surveying a new market can help establish what other videographers are charging, but that sometimes isn't enough to clarify exactly how a videographer should alter their pricing for their new clientele, especially when you're in a position like Tim Baker, who has moved from a relatively small market in Ft. Myers to an even smaller community from which he now hopes to serve the major metropolitan areas of Orlando and Tampa Bay.
"Once I'm in the market and understand where the pricing is, I'll probably raise my prices so I'm not bringing the market down," he says. "But at the same time, I also live in Lake County, which is a lot less affluent than Orlando or Tampa Bay. So I may have to look at that reality as well, because being based in Lake County, I'm hoping to get most of my business from here. I'll probably have to find a happy medium in the pricing structure."
"It Builds Character"
Despite the many challenges, relocating an event videography studio can prove quite rewarding, whether by allowing a videographer to service a larger market or to enjoy a higher quality of life. Beyond that, though, experiencing new markets with new customers and new colleagues can also help advance an individual event shooter's craft and sense of the possibilities inherent to any video production.
"The moves allowed me to grow and expand as an artist simply because I saw other people's work," says Ehrhart. "In your home market, most videographers know only 10-15 other videographers; even in large markets you might know only 20-30. And as a result, you see only that much work.
"There are videographers who have been in their markets for 20 years. They started right at the beginning of wedding and event videography, and, because they stayed in their original markets, some of them put out average work and yet command top echelon prices simply because they have a reputation," Ehrhart continues. "If you never get out of that cocoon, you're never going to grow.
"Each time you relocate, even if it's just across town if it's a big town, you're going to see things differently there because you'll meet a different group of people," he continues. "Everybody has a different way of looking at video production. There are so many choices in any video production that one can make that the more input you can get, the better the production you can put out in the end.
"I'm not trying to tell everybody that you have to move to become a great videographer," Ehrhart says. "But looking at it in a bigger context, I think more videographers should look at moving as an opportunity to grow their businesses and to grow artistically. I understand why most don't, but I think that should factor into things. I wouldn't be where I am right now if I hadn't made those moves earlier in my career."
SIDEBAR: SELLING YOUR BUSINESS
Much of this article dwells on the fact that a relocating videographer inevitably loses much of the work and reputation established in a previous market, but that needn't necessarily be the case. Some entrepreneurial videographers have found ways to maintain their business in their original markets even after they've left the area, eventually realizing significant profits from the decision to do so, even if it took some work to get to that point.
Of his former business in New York, Richard DePaso says, "We tried to sell it for around six months. We thought we had people who were reasonably interested, but nobody came through with the money," he explains. "So we were faced with the decision of just closing. We had many hundreds of dollars of revenue coming in each year, so it didn't make sense to just close the doors. The people who were working for me were editors that had some shooting skills. I asked them if they felt adequate to run it. Of course, they welcomed the opportunity. So I split my studio in half relative to equipment and let the people there run it. I just required that they pay me a predetermined amount of money per month.
"After two years it became unmanageable, so it became time to sell the business to them," DePaso continues. "I expended quite a bit of energy and a good deal of stress, but it was the right financial decision because for two years I was able to have an ongoing revenue stream, and at the end of that two years, I was able to get the capital out of my equipment by selling the business."
Following this model, though, isn't necessarily feasible for many videographers due to the solo nature of most event videography businesses. "The idea of selling a [videography] business is very difficult because there are very few videographers who have built the kind of business that is salable," says Steve Wernick. "Most videography studios are closely identified with the person who owns it. Without buying that person, the notion of buying into an existing studio becomes very difficult. When videography studios are built in a segmented manner where you have different departments, where it's built in the classic business model, those studios are infinitely more salable."
While DePaso's model may not work for everyone, it does highlight the value that building a videography studio as a business rather than as an individual undertaking holds. Studios that are built with this in mind can pay dividends by enabling videographers to be fully prepared in the event that, for whatever reason life demands, they pick up and move to a new market, allowing them to realize one last profitable gain off their well-earned reputations, rather than having to discard them and start anew.
SIDEBAR: PRICING UPWARDS
How much a videographer should charge for his or her services is a hot-button topic in this industry. Leading videographers from across the country have lamented the rampant price-cutting trend in the pages of EventDV, and many blame this short-sighted practice for reducing the earning potential of videographers in markets large and small. Yet, most of this hullabaloo surrounds the race to the bottom in pricing, whereas some videographers recognize that their prices are set by themselves, not by their customers or competition. Given the choice, videographers should strive towards bringing the market up rather than pushing it down.
"Most of my initial success was found in how I priced myself," says Ken Ehrhart. "I was well aware what other people were charging and what some of their work looked like, so I knew where I stood right away. My ego has always been firmly in check and established, so I immediately priced myself right up with the highest-priced people in both the California and especially the New Mexico markets," he continues. "I had an idea of pricing myself into a market and then offering discounts to get myself established so that customers would come to recognize me and the quality of my work."