Several winters ago, when I lived in Norfolk, Va., I took a day trip up to Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and Assateague Island National Seashore, off the Atlantic coast. The islands are known for their annual pony swim and auction, but I was there bird-watching.
Holding binoculars between my blue and shaking fingers, I stalked birds—gulls, terns, sandpipers, plovers, and sanderlings—that winter there in the estuaries. I stood still as they probed the brackish bogs and mud flats for insects, mussels, and shellfish—a plentiful cache of food for which they had flown many hundreds of miles.
Six months later I made a migration of my own, from what I suppose you could call my wintering grounds back to my home state of Wisconsin. Out East I had found a good job—one that I couldn’t find in the Midwest. But there came a time to return home.
In lean times, it’s second nature to many to seek what they need to survive beyond borders. Those migratory instincts often influence our business lives, where the struggle to survive may or may not equate to the seasons. Birds follow the sun in order to find an optimal environment; businesspeople need to follow the money.
Mike Nelson wrote about what he called "lean times" in his June Main Event column, The Business of Staying in Business. He offered several strategies for adapting to stagflation in the wedding video business—when spending is up and bookings are down, such as in the off-months in a one-season wedding market. But I noticed that one strategy was missing. Where have all the migratory videographers gone?
In most industries, companies naturally grow to include other geographical markets. But in the business of wedding videography, is there an unwritten rule that videographers should stay on their own turf? Are videographers lured by more lucrative markets—whether a neighboring metropolis or a faraway town with a rich reservoir of brides willing to pay top dollar—seen as furtive interlopers? We found four videographers who actively seek out business in other markets in lean times. When their local wedding markets are parched (and sometimes even when business is booming), they find work elsewhere.
For some, lean times means living in a small town or an economically stressed town. In Joshua Smith’s hometown of Monroe, La., the average couple can’t afford the packages offered by 2007 EventDV 25 honoree Smith (Figure 1) and his studio, Cinematic Bride. "Our market is a very small market," Smith explains. "We live in a town of about 90,000 people. Our prices are quite a bit out of the price range of a lot of people around here." Terry Taravella and Julian St. Pierre of New Orleans-based Studio Vieux Carre—another 2007 EventDV 25 all-star studio—were hit with lean times unexpectedly, but fortunately, the downturn was only temporary. Along with the rest of the New Orleans economy, their business was hobbled by Hurricane Katrina. They began seeking out-of-market clients, St. Pierre recalls, working as far afield as Washington, D.C., and Orange County, Calif., and briefly considered setting up shop in the Dallas area as the wedding wing of PixelPops Design.
Lean times of a different sort—starving for inspiration in Valley Center, Kansas—struck Stephanie and Barry Guinn of Fat Cat Productions. Hungering for a more varied palette, they decided to shoot out-of-market weddings because, Stephanie Guinn says, "We love to travel to new places and meet new people. We want to go see different cultures and incorporate that into our videos. We want to be varied and diverse in our shooting, editing, and storytelling techniques."
Hal Slifer, of Newton, Mass.-based Hal Slifer Video Productions, shoots out-of-market weddings not because his Boston-area market is hurting (it’s not), but simply because he just doesn’t see the point of staying local. "The internet has narrowed the playing field, and brides are looking on the web for quality. Being local is not an important issue as it once was."
Just as couples today are more likely to chat with their Facebook friends than their next-door neighbors or to buy music from iTunes than from the local record store, many are probably as likely to use Google as their wedding planner as to hire a hometown organizer. When couples stumble across an encomium-rich website with breathtaking samples, the street address of the videographer is the last thing on their mind. The challenge, then, is to make your studio visible outside your postal district—and to stand out among the other videographers who are trying to do the same.
(Note that shooting "out-of-market" weddings as we’re defining it here is a fundamentally different practice—requiring different marketing strategies—from shooting destination weddings for couples from your market who are getting married in tropical locations and bringing you along for the ride, or for couples from other regions who are getting married in your backyard.)
Don’t Define Yourself by Region
Two years before Joshua Smith began advertising out of market, he had been shooting destination weddings in places like Jamaica, Mexico, and Hawaii. The next logical step was to travel to other cities and states to shoot local weddings for couples there. Luckily, his website (Figure 2) was already set up to attract nonlocal couples wishing to marry in their respective hometowns. "The one thing that you don’t do," he cautions, "is only create a specific target area. For example, on the Contact Us section, we have a 1-800 number as well as a local number. And in the specific packages we don’t say ‘in Monroe.’" It’s not surprising that most—90%, he says—of his out-of-market clients come by way of referrals. For years he has networked with photographers who now routinely send business his way. He explains, "A lot of our marketing is free because we have such large support from a lot of my photography friends. Sometimes I don’t even have a clue who it is who referred me. It’s like a trickling effect."
He says that his relationships with photographers "just kind of happened. I have several photographer friends in my area. We just became really good friends, and it just kind of happened that they’d start referring me for weddings. They would look at our work and start mentioning our names without us even asking."
As for internet advertising, he was at one time investing about $500 per month in Google AdWords. "That’s been a major help in getting some of the larger clients, those who are spending the most with us," he says. "Those people will end up going to Google anywhere in the nation and typing in ‘wedding video’ and we’re at the top of the sponsored list."
But since then he has tweaked his AdWords campaigns to downsize his spending accordingly. His campaigns are now targeted nationally—as opposed to internationally, "which had zapped the budget"—and run only at certain times of the day. "We’ve kind of backed off on that because we’re trying new areas of marketing, internet SEO (search engine optimization), and getting listed on free sites that help [direct traffic] to your website."
While he still will shoot destination weddings, the majority of his work comes from other, higher-end markets—"people who live there and are getting married there," in places like New Jersey, Ohio, Chicago, or New York.
These couples pay his typical fee plus travel expenses. A small operation, Smith doesn’t use outside help when he shoots out-of-market weddings. But he says he does enjoy meeting local videographers when he travels to their home turf. "What we do is we post on our blog (cinematicbride.com/blog), ‘we’re going to [fill in the blank] to shoot a wedding this weekend,’ and typically we get an email from a videographer saying, ‘Oh, you’re coming to our area. Can we eat dinner with you, or just hang out?’ So we’ve had a lot of videographers email us about that, and that’s always cool," he says.
Asked about whether he feels local videographers resent "interlopers," he responds, "It’s just business. Our clients are nationwide. That’s where we get our bookings from. Typically, videographers who we do know don’t have a problem with it." In part, he says, that may be because he targets a higher-end price. "A lot of the time we’re in a completely different market than they are."
A natural disaster was the catalyst for New Orleans-based Studio Vieux Carre’s (SVC) temporary transition to out-of-market weddings. "The first 18 months after Katrina we just were not sure what the market would bear here in New Orleans," says SVC’s Julian St. Pierre, "so we wanted to make sure we had work—regardless of where it came from."
They did this by "contacting our peers in the industry and out-of-state wedding planners to let them know that we were available to shoot weddings during off-season months"—meaning Feb-ruary—"which is affiliated with Mardi Gras," and, thus, a time when it is "very difficult for brides to secure rooms and/or venues," and August and September, the peak months of hurricane season. "Brides traditionally steer clear of these months," St. Pierre says.
In some ways, he says, Katrina strengthened the studio St. Pierre runs with his wife, Terry Taravella, and stepson, Joe Taravella (Figure 3). A few months after the hurricane, they rededicated themselves to the New Orleans market, and they renamed their company from Custom Video By Terry to Studio Vieux Carre ("Vieux Carre" is the traditional Creole name for New Orleans’ French Quarter).
But without their interim out-of-market work, it would have been nearly impossible for their business to survive under any name. "We have established and maintained great relationships with many studios around the world," St. Pierre says. "It was these relationships that literally allowed us to come out of our ‘Katrina experience’ stronger than we were before the event." Their connections help them not just by referring them but also by lending a hand on local shoots. "Our network of forum and association friends provides us with a stable of great help just about anywhere we go."
Thanks to their network of peers, as well as to referrals from out-of-state planners who they have sent packets to and from other brides with out-of-state contacts, SVC has worked in New Jersey, South Carolina, Florida, Kansas, Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, California, Washington, Maryland, Georgia, and Rhode Island.
Their website takes a different tack from Cinematic Bride. "Our website is designed to appeal to brides getting married in New Orleans" Pierre says, "But, the work we showcase on our site has universal appeal." They feel that their online samples of nonlocal wedding shoots actually work to their advantage. "I think what it does is gives the perception that we are one of the best, as brides come to realize that if we’re requested to shoot events around the country then we must produce a pretty good product."
Like Smith, St. Pierre doesn’t feel it is wrong to advertise and work in outside markets. His advice to any disgruntled locals: "Get off your butt and market yourself. We have always believed that you can create the greatest product in the world but what is it worth if no one can find you."
When the Cat’s Away
Stephanie and Barry Guinn (Figure 4) of Fat Cat Productions in Valley Center, Kansas (just north of Wichita), decided to specialize in out-of-market weddings because of their love for travel and their desire to capture a variety of settings, which has allowed them to be more creative. "Visually, we have more opportunity to capture moments with completely different backdrops and scenery than what we are used to. So many times we get caught doing just ‘the usual shots,’" Stephanie Guinn says. "Traveling really makes us look at an event very differently and fresh. You find yourself saying, ‘wouldn’t it be cool if …’ and ‘I wonder if they would let us do this.’ Doing these weddings sparks our interest again, even locally, when we return home to try to continue to think outside the box and outside our comfort zones."
The Guinns’ contacts in other parts of the state have helped them expand beyond the Wichita market. "A large part of our professional referrals come from photographers in the Kansas City area and locally, as well as event planners we meet, or DJ services, etc." Kansas locations they have shot in include Hays, Coffeyville, Hutchinson, Manhattan, and the Kansas City metro-area. And, Stephanie says, "We’ll be shooting in Ellenwood at the beautiful Cathedral of the Plains this summer." She explains, "We travel a lot to smaller towns around us mainly because there is a limited choice of videographers in those areas, or because we were referred to by a previous bride. If we happen to be in the largest market near a smaller town, it usually makes sense for that bride to look to the larger town to find what she wants. It’s also another avenue to create revenue for us."
But then, Guinn says, "we started advertising in other markets because we enjoyed going new places. It changed things up and kept our interest." They shot a winter wedding in Breckenridge, Colo. "As the referrals increased, so did the distance we were traveling." This fall they will be returning to Colorado for a wedding and an "eXtreme session" with a partner photography studio in the Denver area.
In addition to referrals, they have recently advertised in magazines outside their local market. "We only recently began changing how we market and will be more aggressively seeking out-of-market weddings in the coming year. The internet has such an expansive reach, we would like to use that to our advantage as best we can. We are linked on many free sites and a few paying sites for advertising as well," Guinn says. They have also amped up their discussion of travel on their website and blog (fatcatrocks. blogspot.com). "We blog every chance we get, trying to use keywords that are recognized by search engines and what we think brides might be searching for."
Like Joshua Smith, the Guinns’ fees for out-of-market coverage reflect their fees for local coverage. All they ask (beyond the price of the wedding package) is that travel costs be covered. "Currently there has only been a minimal difference to the customer in how we charge for out-of-market weddings. That difference being the client pays a travel fee to get us to the location and stay there, whether that be a charge for fuel and/or a night or two in a hotel, they pick up that tab on top of our regularly priced services. In the future, depending on how far we are able to travel, this may change a lot with the need for a rental car, etc. To get to Colorado last winter, the client paid for fuel and put us up in an adjoining hotel from where the wedding would be held."
Guinn says she can understand that local videographers might be miffed by out-of-towners, but she says that it isn’t personal, especially when business comes from referrals. "I can see both sides of the fence though; if someone is coming into my market, I might perceive that I am doing something wrong in my business but would hope it was because of a style preference or other factors. They could have also been referred by a previous client and the wedding just happens to be in my market. There is also a side of me that sees the business side of it and someone wanting to grow their business and expand their creativity. Bottom line is there is plenty of work to go around."
When the Shoe’s on the Other Foot
Hal Slifer (Figure 5), who operates in the Boston area, which is a relatively lucrative market, feels the same. "When an out-of-state videographer calls me and tells me he will be in the Boston area to do a wedding, I welcome him to my ‘turf’ and help him with any info that he will need. In return I may need his info if I come to his territory."
There are few barriers stopping videographers from serving nonlocal brides, according to Slifer. "A bride will call me to videotape in New York City or Miami. I will give her my fee and that one price includes my expenses. I will then outsource a local AV company to help me with my needs. I can show the bride parts of her finished video via the [internet] so she does no have to come in to my Newton office to discuss her finished product." A key to his success in pulling this off is hiring local help, when needed, to produce his legacy biography videos, which may often include several interviews prior to the wedding or the event itself. If he can’t be there physically to get the shots he needs, he says, "I will hire a local videographer to videotape my interviews and he will send them to us to be edited."
In at least one New England locale—Newport, R.I.—it’s very common to see out-of-market videographers working weddings, he says, due in part to the fact that a lot of these weddings are destination weddings. But they are a testament to the feasibility of doing business long-distance. "The videographers in that area hardly ever meet their brides before the wedding date," Slifer says. "Brides book their wedding specialists via the web. A videographer may book five jobs, all on one day, and then hire videographers to represent him or her on that day."
Bottom line, Slifer says, "If an out-of-state videographer does good work and can get a job in Boston, it will make the Boston crew work harder and fine- tune their product so we will all be in competition with one another. If someone from Boston or from around the world shoots good footage, that helps the bridal community know that video is good value for their wedding."
Laura Moses of Vantage Point Productions in San Dimas, Calif.,—in the heart of the O.C., one of the hottest wedding video markets in North America—offers a similar perspective on the ethics of videographers entering other markets. "We certainly don’t think it’s unethical," Moses says, "although we will admit to wondering why a client would go to the expense of importing a videographer when there are so many talented video artists locally. Often, though, it’s simply that the client has had a previous relationship with the videographer and there’s an established level of comfort and trust.
"It can be annoying, but overall it’s positive for the industry—assuming, of course, that the out-of-market company is reputable. Competition always raises the bar; that’s why there are so many successful video companies in our area," Moses continues. "If you don’t compete you get left behind. Reputation is of the utmost priority at this point in our evolution. Good videographers, local or not, are essential to the industry at large. Everyone benefits—as they say, ‘A rising tide lifts all ships.’"
Elizabeth Welsh (www.lizwelsh.com) is a freelance writer and editor based in Madison, Wis.