Studio Time: Craig and Gail Hollenback's Abracadabra Productions and KeysTV.com
Like the tropical storms that occasionally pummel the lush archipelago along Florida’s southern peninsula, Craig and Gail Hollenback are a force to be reckoned with. Their hunger for new challenges and creative excellence are constant motivators, and it shows in the diverse, yet interrelated, ventures with which they’re associated. There’s Abracadabra Productions, Keys Wedding Videos, and The Conch Republic Group, with its ever-expanding lineup of affiliate sites (headlined by the flagship, KeysTV.com). No doubt there will be more by the time you read this.
And that’s part of the fun, they say. "We’re both creative by training and by nature, so we’re always trying to do something new," Craig explains. "It all makes for great cocktail party talk, because we’re always learning." Adds Gail, matter-of-factly: "You have to keep up, or you’re out of the game. We’re not ready to be dinosaurs." Truth is, multitasking seems to be inherent to who they are as spouses and as business partners. "We’re together all the time, so there’s a lot of dialogue that goes on between us about a lot of stuff," Craig says. "There’s a lot of shared excitement there." Gail couldn’t agree more: "We need to be challenged," she says. "It keeps us current, and involved. If we’re excited about something, that comes through in our work."
BEHIND THE MAGIC
That excitement is most evident in conversations with this affable couple. They finish each other’s sentences. They reassuringly nudge each other along when thoughts trail off. They share a history so layered that it’s impossible to ignore the scope of it all.
Gail and Craig met in September 1971, on their first day of orientation at New York City’s Parsons School of Design. Both natives of the area—she was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., he in Hasbrouck Heights, N.J.—they were casual acquaintances until their first date, on Feb. 14, 1972. In May 1974, they graduated with Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees in communication design and industrial design, respectively, and settled immediately into jobs: she as a graphics assistant in the public relations department of the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and he as a lighting designer at Burlington House Contemporary. They got engaged that July and married in May 1975.
By August 1983, the Hollenbacks were itching for a new challenge. So they left their positions at Family Circle magazine (where Gail was assistant promotion art director) and CBS Toys (where Craig was design manager for the Child Guidance, Gym-Dandy, and Wonder brands) to form their own business, Hollenback Design Associates. Initially, the Greenwich, Conn.-based venture focused on product design and graphics, primarily for the toy and software industries. "We had a prototype shop in which we built product and special effects models for photographers and filmmakers," Craig explains. "These models were used for commercial shoots and as sales samples at toy fairs. We did a lot of licensed toys that were popular at the time, including Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots. We also made special effects models for such films as *batteries not included."
When they weren’t working, the couple indulged their passions—most notably, Craig’s videotaping hobby, which they used to their advantage in 1986. "We made a video that combined slide images of our products and live video of how they were made, and we set it all to music," he recalls. "Nobody was really doing that then, so it got us a lot of work." At the time, Gail adds, "it was for marketing purposes only. We didn’t aspire to be videographers."
When they purchased their first computer (a Commodore Amiga) in 1989, they expanded the business to include animation, adding in 1990 a division they called Abracadabra Animations. "While Craig was doing animations, I was doing print graphics for corporate clients," Gail explains. "That’s where most of the revenue was coming from." Eventually, Commodore hired the pair to market the Amiga, "so we started doing their commercials and other promotional materials," Craig continues. "Then came Video Toaster, and that opened up a whole new realm for us. Our animations suddenly got a whole lot better." Gail, meanwhile, was learning new software to master "all the elements that go into corporate video."
A producing partner soon encouraged the couple to get into editing, and their business model morphed yet again. "About 50 percent of our work was animation that we sold to producers," Craig says. "Another 25 percent was editing for these producers, and the remaining 25 percent was videos for corporations. We were straddling both sides of the fence." Adds Gail: "Our philosophy has always been that you have to be diversified."
The work continued to pour in from there: product launches for James River Corp.’s Dixie brands; animations for Avi Arad, former CEO of Toy Biz (later known as Marvel Toys) and the producer of Spider-Man, Iron Man, and other blockbuster films; and promotional work for the Imix Video Cube. "At that point, we were doing a lot of corporate work, rendering with five Amigas," Craig recalls. "The deadlines were unmerciful."
By late 1996, the Hollenbacks needed another change. "We were ready to move someplace warm," Gail says. "Our dream was to build a house in St. Martin, but after the hurricanes in the mid-1990s, we decided it wasn’t for us. So we took a week off and went to the Florida Keys. When we drove into Key West, we felt it was where we belonged. It was eclectic. It was everything we remembered about our time at Parsons."
And so, the following January, Gail and Craig sold their Connecticut home, loaded all of their production equipment into a trailer (which they still own), and relocated to Key West, Fla. "We’d always lived in the tri-state area, so this was a big change," Gail recounts. "It was the second most dramatic thing we’d ever done, after quitting our jobs to start our own business." They spent the next 9 months settling into their new environment, hosting dozens of houseguests, and doing only occasional "maintenance work" for their clients. By early 1998, they had joined two local professional organizations and were doing pro bono video work for the local chapters of the American Cancer Society and Habitat for Humanity. They were also providing graphic design, toy design and development, and print and video production services to their clients under two business names—Hollenback Design Associates, which they continue to use today, and Abracadabra Productions, which they adopted, Gail says, to better reflect "the full video productions we were doing by that point."
As diversified as they had become by then, Craig says their "first real video job in Key West" didn’t come until October 1998. Not surprisingly, it was an opportunity they created for themselves. "There’s an event down here called Fantasy Fest," he explains. "Every year, thousands of people converge on Key West for an adult party akin to Burning Man or Mardi Gras. It’s highly creatively charged." Anxious to get involved, Craig and Gail pitched their services to festival organizers. "We told them who we were and what we’d done and said we wanted to do an official video about that year’s 20th anniversary of Fantasy Fest," he recalls. "We paid the licensing fees to become a sponsor and put together a 60-minute video. The challenge was convincing 70,000 attendees to buy something that wasn’t even produced yet and then delivering it within six weeks."
The experience was transformative. "We met event coordinators and facilities managers, locals and out-of-towners who come year after year," Gail says. All those connections proved powerful: three more Fantasy Fest videos would follow (the last in 2001), along with other print graphics assignments and corporate and event video projects for clients both near and far.
And then, in 2000, a random inquiry set the pair off in yet another new direction. "One of the local resorts asked if we’d consider doing a wedding video for this couple from Chicago," Gail says. "We didn’t solicit it—it just came our way." The Hollenbacks began marketing themselves as wedding videographers soon thereafter (adding photography to the mix in 2005), and they have since produced hundreds of wedding videos, primarily for out-of-towners seeking a destination wedding experience.
Today, they shoot about 40 weddings a year, offering videography and photo/video packages ranging from $1,095 to $2,995 and $1,495 to $3,195, respectively. Their studio also serves as the exclusive videographer of the Little Palm Island Resort & Spa, and, in 2007, it was named by TheKnot.com visitors as one of South Florida’s top five wedding videographers.
Central to the Hollenbacks’ appeal to brides and grooms is their tradition of posting full-length QuickTime wedding videos online for anytime, anywhere viewing by family, friends—and potential future clients. "Many videographers post clips of their work, but we do the whole hour of video as part of our packages," Gail says. "It’s been a big selling point for us."
And for couples who, in Craig’s words, "don’t want gimmicks, side deals, confusing packages, or long delivery times," there’s an affiliated enterprise. Inspired by the no-bells-and-whistles style of a fellow VideoUniversity.com member, Craig recently introduced Keys Wedding Videos as an alternative to the more extensive services Abracadabra provides. "Here in the Keys, there’s not as broad a need for formally produced wedding video," he explains. "For those who are interested in just capturing the ceremony and key moments and want nothing more than a well-documented, well-shot, clean-audio piece without a lot of editing, we have this turnkey package for $899. That’s the niche Keys Wedding Videos fills."
CONCH TO THE HEAD
The Hollenbacks’ relentless pursuit of new challenges has always served them well. The web, in particular, has been a source of both inspiration and innovation. "A lot of our work comes from clients doing Google searches," Gail says. "We’re working very hard on search engine optimization," Craig explains. "If your site is based on Flash and pictures, the search engines think there’s nothing there, and you’re invisible. But our Pittsburgh-based programmer has made our site a dynamic one. It’s all done in a non-Flash manner with Java scripts."
Also raising the couple’s online profile is their newest venture: The Conch Republic Group, a network of broadband television websites committed to promoting tourism and quality businesses in the Florida Keys and Key West. "We realized from talking to brides that they were watching and using our wedding videos to decide where they should have their own weddings," Craig says. What’s more, Gail adds, "we’d found that there weren’t videos readily available online to help people plan their vacations or events in the area. There are special events happening here throughout the year that are pretty important to families and tourists, and also to local businesses." These discoveries spelled opportunity for the Hollenbacks and prompted them to form KeysTV.com under the banner of The Conch Republic Group.
Named for Key West’s tongue-in-cheek "secession" from the U.S. on April 23, 1982 (in protest of a U.S. Border Patrol roadblock and checkpoint that had inconvenienced residents and visitors alike), The Conch Republic Group aims to, in their words, "provide Internet video marketing opportunities through a series of well-designed and user-friendly websites that we create and host; help our clients’ businesses grow by delivering highly targeted content and advertising through personalized online video communications that we produce; and drive more traffic to our clients’ websites through links between our multiple websites and theirs." They’ve been developing the Conch Republic network since last September and launched KeysTV.com on June 1. (Work on topic-specific affiliate sites dedicated to accommodations, dining, kids, realtors, weddings, and 10 other niche industries and audiences is ongoing.)
Within days of its launch, KeysTV.com already had 2,760 individual pages of video-driven programming about businesses, attractions, and events in Key West, Big Pine, Marathon, Islamorada, and Key Largo. (The area’s chambers of commerce are also represented.) Craig, Gail, and their lone full-time employee, Matthew Ozanich, produce all video content, which is paid for by the advertisers who wish to be featured on the network. The design originated with the Hollenbacks, who then worked with programmers to translate it into SQL code.
"The programming we’ve done for KeysTV.com will be the foundation for the other sites in the network," Craig says. "The interface will stay consistent throughout. Our ultimate goal is to take our software further and either franchise it or license it so that people who don’t know how to do web development but do know video production can use our software to give their sites the same look. We could do what we’re doing in the Keys for places like Atlanta, Savannah, or St. Augustine. This same type of tourism information would work in all kinds of markets. We also think it would work if we did touchscreen kiosks in hotel lobbies," among other applications.
And so, after 25 years, another shifting of the tides may soon be underway. Craig says their 5-year plan may surprise some people: "Whatever we’ll be doing five years from now, internet video will be part of it. The web is profoundly exciting, so we’ll certainly be producing content for the websites. Event video will be part of the mix, too, but we won’t be doing weddings. Wedding video is by far the most stressful shooting I’ve done. What you’re trying to achieve in an extremely unforgiving environment—with 100 percent humidity, a blazing sun, the winds, and the sand—make it a tough business."
Gail, too, acknowledges that wedding shoots in their market "take a lot of discipline." And yet, she says, any future transition they make will be just as natural as those that have preceded it. "For us, one [interest] trails off and something else kicks up a little more," she explains. "We’ll still be working nights and weekends, regardless of what we’re doing. I think the local events and the marketing-driven pieces we’re producing that get people interested in this area and what it offers are where our passions lie. We’ll see where it takes us."
Marla Misek Clark (mjmno1 at aol.com) is an editor and freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va.