It’s a little-known fact that early in the summer of 2010, Serendipity Studios was developing a show for EventDV-TV called Travis and Candice Cossel: The Decision, in which the 2009 EventDV 25 All-Stars were going to announce to the world at large their plans to uproot their studio from the city in which they had started it and move all operations to a larger, more lucrative market in Miami. After the backlash that followed LeBron James’ July 8 announcement on ESPN of his intention to sign with the Miami Heat, however, the Cossels decided to rethink their announcement strategy and reveal the news to the industry more subtly, posting the news of their late-October move to various online forums. But the plan remained the same: take leave of the locale where they had built their film-and-photo brand and had risen to the top of the market and essentially start fresh in a new city some 2,800 miles away. And while the Cossels’ decision wasn’t national news, and probably didn’t leave the city of Boise, Idaho, in the emotional uproar that afflicted Cleveland after James’ departure, it certainly came with a lot of attendant risk for their business. For the vast majority of wedding and event filmmakers, a customer/client base is a local thing. Granted, most high-end wedding filmmakers such as the Cossels don’t book clients through a Yellow Pages ad, but they still tend to book brides who live and/or wed in their own geographic region. With more and more prospects making their decisions based on clips they’ve seen on the web, it’s certainly possible in theory to have a bride zero in on you and your studio purely because of what she sees online, and independent of physical location. But unless the price of covering your crew’s travel costs is a nonissue, you’re still likely to make those web-driven sales within your local market. So whatever that market’s shortcomings, you’ll still be leaving a lot behind if you decide to pull up stakes and move elsewhere, especially if you’ve enjoyed the kind of success that Serendipity Studios has.
At this writing, the Cossels have been in Miami only a few weeks, but they’ve already done much to establish themselves in their new market. What was behind the Cossels’ decision to light out for points southeast? What sort of planning went into it? What efforts have they made to rebuild their brand for the Miami market and get some visibility there? What changes, if any, are in store for their business as they adapt to a location and market that are an entire country away from their old one, and dramatically different as a culture? And how do they see their prospects for their first year in their new home?
First, a Little Background
Serendipity Studios is the product of two former businesses, Travis Cossel’s video studio and Candice Cossel’s photo studio. Both Cossels were living in Idaho and working in other businesses when they met—he in web design at an ad agency, she in a call center. Travis left his job to start his own agency that he “eventually focused down into a video production business.” Candice kept her job but helped out Travis in her spare time before finding her calling in photography and leaving the call center behind.
“We operated the businesses separately for several years, to make sure we stayed married,” Travis quips. Eventually, they decided to merge the photo and video operations under the Serendipity Studios umbrella and focus their efforts on weddings. “It was before and during this transition that we really started to ponder relocating,” Travis recalls. “Initially, our inclination to relocate was mostly centered on making more money, and initially, all we did was talk about it without any intent to follow through. It was a bit of ‘the grass is greener’ syndrome you could say.”
Over time, the impulse to move began to encompass more aspects of how they wanted their business to evolve. They wanted a longer wedding season. They also wanted a nonhome studio without a commute. And oddly enough, they wanted a home base that would serve as a better springboard into the destination wedding market. “It’s just not as sexy to say you’re flying in your cinematographer from Boise, Idaho. I didn’t realize how much that mattered until our inquiries for destination weddings increased, and I would be on the phone with brides, and they would ask where we were located. Oftentimes, as soon as I said ‘Idaho,’ the mood on the phone would change, and a once-awesome phone consult would go dry quickly.”
While they found Boise limiting for both photography and video, the frustrations were worse on the video side. “Compared to what my colleagues were making around the country,” Travis says, “my rates were mediocre, yet I was double my nearest competitor in the Boise market.”
Another issue was the types of weddings they were shooting. “There is somewhat of a prevailing sense in the West that it’s better to do things yourself and save as much money as possible,” Travis says. “There isn’t much of a history of hiring qualified vendors and putting on a great ‘show.’ So our job becomes much more difficult when we show up and we’re expected to make an event look amazing, but everything was done by the family or done through cheap and inexperienced vendors. Obviously, not all of our weddings were done this way, but enough of them were, and it was always frustrating for us.”
Travis freely admits that Serendipity Studios had many good reasons not to move. “We had a very well-established brand and image in Boise. Our rates were at the top. We had a stellar reputation in the area.” Given all the Cossels had going for them there, he concedes, “I don’t think most people would even give the idea of relocating across the country a second thought.” But ultimately, it came down to a choice of moving forward and pursuing a “bigger vision” or staying and stagnating. “For us,” Travis says, “the real risk was in choosing to do nothing.”
Of course, leaving home, family, and friends is never just about business, and rarely is it something done without a measure of ambivalence. “I’d be lying if I said we never had any moments of doubt,” Travis says, recalling two times in particular when commercial spaces they were trying to secure fell through, and they had to deal with those headaches in the midst of wedding season. “It’s not as if we’re oblivious to the risks. What we’re doing is a crazy-huge, almost-insane risk with a ton of work and effort required, but we’re just at a place where we feel that it’s right for us, and it’s what we have to do to move forward.”
The Cossels first began discussing relocation in 2008. They didn’t settle on Miami right away and researched a number of possibilities; their prerequisites were “a larger and more lucrative market and also a place where we’d enjoy living.” After narrowing down the list to Miami and San Diego over the next year or so, the Cossels chose Miami because it “had a lower cost of living [than San Diego], and also offered good access to the destination wedding market [and] the larger East Coast market. It also didn’t hurt that I was chatting with Ray Roman one night, and he couldn’t stop talking about how many weddings there are in Miami,” Travis recalls. “I believe his comment was ‘like fish in a barrel.’”
The Cossels spent the next 4–6 months developing their relocation plan. “The timing of so many things was critical,” Travis says. “For example, we had weddings booked already for the summer of 2010, and we needed the 2010 season to build up extensive funds for the relocation. We also wanted to time our relocation to hit just before the start of the wedding season in Miami. And we had to start figuring out a living situation and where we would put our studio,” he continues.
A crucial part of the plan was to find a place where they could live and work in the same building, but with some separation between their condo home and a street-level studio. “Candice did a lot of research, which also involved us flying down to look at locations. She learned more about Miami than I think most people who live here know. She was also instrumental in getting us hooked up with all the right professionals to help us with the transition, including our awesome interior designer, Jessie Supp.”
Marketing and Networking
Travis says Serendipity Studios began marketing to the Miami market less than 6 months prior to the move, and while the Cossels did some traditional advertising, most of their efforts involved networking with other wedding vendors in the area. But when they arrived in late October, they were essentially starting fresh. “Prior to the actual move, we didn’t have any bookings for weddings in Miami.
This would probably be a terrifying prospect for most, but we have a lot of confidence in our ability to book with brides in person, so we’re not concerned—yet. We also made sure we saved up at least 6 months of salary and overhead just in case things started off slowly.”
Within a few days after their arrival, the Cossels booked their first Florida wedding for 2011, with a California bride, and they booked their second shortly thereafter. In addition to those two Florida weddings, at this writing, Serendipity Studios’ 2011 bookings included one in Idaho, one in California, and one in Jamaica. “I think a lot of people would be concerned with only having five weddings booked for 2011, but we just aren’t. We know the weddings will come, and we limit our studio to only 20 bookings per service each year anyway,” Travis says. “I understand that some businesses are set up to succeed by volume based on a lesser product delivered. But too many studios have the talent and great work to charge much higher prices and shoot fewer weddings a year and they don’t. This hurts our industry, and they don’t realize it. There seems to be this badge of honor associated with shooting back-to-back weddings on a weekend, when in reality they should have been charging more money to shoot the first wedding then referred the second wedding to another studio.”
Another reason for the Cossels’ confidence is their perception of the opportunities their new market offers. “From what we can tell from all of our research, there are plenty of weddings in Miami to go around. The tricky part is going to be breaking into the high-end market, which really seems to revolve around referrals and who you know, which wasn’t a surprise at all. It’s going to take time to break into those circles and get ourselves known. This is something we’ve been working on doing for at least 6 months now, and now that we’re here, it’s going to be an even greater priority.”
Of fellow Miami-based EventDV 25 All-Star Ray Roman, Travis says, “We’ve already been passing referrals back and forth over the past year. I think Ray’s referrals will be very beneficial for us over the next 6–12 months especially. Again, we only take 20 bookings a year, so we’re going to end up with plenty of weddings to refer around. In Boise we accepted only 15 bookings a year, but the market was much different, so we couldn’t refer like we wanted. There was a lack of vendors who were charging similar rates and offering similar quality. So we didn’t feel comfortable sending brides to vendors who were charging half as much and offering a lot less in terms of quality. That’s one thing we’re really looking forward to about south Florida, as crazy as it might seem.”
Travis also sees the chance to do more second-shooting for high-caliber filmmakers and to engage in more collaborative products as key advantages of moving to Miami. Within days of his arrival in Miami, Travis had two second-shooter gigs set up for his first 2 months in town. “This is where limiting your weddings can really benefit the industry,” Travis says. “If I’m shooting only 20 weddings a year and I’m referring the rest out, then I actually have less backlog and make a higher profit off of higher rates. Plus, I now have some free time to second-shoot for the guys I’m referring to. If I can also bring quality shooters in to shoot with me, then my product is going to increase in quality, as will theirs when I shoot for them.”
Rebranding: A Miami Makeover?
While the look of the Serendipity Studios website has changed dramatically in the past year, Travis says that has more to do with the merging of the photo and video sides of the business under a single brand and the Cossels’ efforts to cultivate a modern look and feel more suited to their style than any sort of “Miami makeover” inspired by their plans to move. “Obviously, our decision to relocate to Miami influenced the rebranding to some extent,” he says. “But not by a lot.”
The Cossels hired a professional designer to redesign the site, although Travis—who has a background in design—says they outsourced the design primarily because they were too busy with the move to do it in-house. He credits Candice with doing the research to find “the perfect designer” for their studio’s rebranding. “I’m usually a firm believer in hiring out things rather than doing them yourself because you usually get a better end product when you use someone who is specialized in what you want,” he says. “This was the case with our rebranding. Our designer really helped us get on the track we wanted to be on, and it led to us bringing in an interior designer for our studio.”
Although merging photo and video under one roof served the Cossels well in Idaho, the “dual-service” approach tends to play differently in different markets. In his unofficial role as Miami market insider and consultant, Roman contends that offering both services is a strategy more common on the low end of the market in Miami than the high end the Cossels intend to pursue. Travis takes the observation seriously, but he says Serendipity Studios has no plans to alter its strategy as yet. “Ray has his opinion, and I would actually agree with it for the most part,” Travis says. “I think the twist comes with the fact that so many studios that offer both services do only one of them well, if that. Most of the time, the second service gets added simply to increase profits or increase exposure. In our case, Candice is a photographer and does what she does because it’s her passion in life. I am a cinematographer because it’s my passion. Neither of us tries to do what the other does. We truly are a studio that is photo and cinema. How this will play in Miami and if we’ll be able to sell what we do as a specialty in both areas remains to be seen. When we combined our businesses in Idaho last year, our mutual bookings actually increased by a lot, so from our experience, it should work well for us here too.” That said, Travis acknowledges that aspects of their business will continue to evolve in Miami, just as it has evolved over the years in Boise. One development he anticipates is an increase in destination weddings, something that’s happened slowly over the past few years but will accelerate (he expects) following the move to Miami.
Jennifer + André | Wedding Highlights | Serendipity Studios from Travis Cossel on Vimeo.
After all the planning and upheaval and transition, the ramp-up of the Cossels’ business in Miami has happened almost immediately. “We’ve been basically operating a mobile studio for the past 2 months. The build-out and interior design on our studio should be done [soon], and we’ll be able to start meeting with brides there. I would say we’ll be 100% operational by December,” Travis predicted when we spoke in November. “Not the easiest thing to do, but we’ve done it.”
Stephen Nathans-Kelly (stephen.nathans at infotoday.com) is editor-in-chief of EventDV and EventDVLive and program director of EventDV.tv.