Downturn quashes holiday party for third straight year

December 5, 2011

I own a photography business in Flagstaff, Ariz. We officially opened our downtown studio to the public by throwing a holiday party in 2008 — it was catered, with a custom cake shaped like a camera, a retrospective wedding art show and a full wine bar.

About 200 people came, including vendors, past clients and potential clients. We thought that was a good sign for us, and we wanted to do a holiday party every year because it was such a success. We had high hopes for 2009 to be a good year, but then the economy crashed.

Even after having a steady wedding business from my home for six years, the economy hurt us to a point where I was unable to pay myself for two months. To put it mildly, 2009 was brutal for us.

The destination wedding market is a luxury market, and in this economy people aren’t doing big extravagant events in Sedona, where we’re based. In previous business years, it was easier to adjust to the ebbs and flows of owning a business; however, both my business partner and I had new babies which also put a strain on our financial situation.

This year we thought we should pay off debt, invest in continuing education, and buy new gear rather than host a holiday party.

We find our business hit on two fronts — one, the economy, and second, the increased market share in photography. The economy itself has encouraged many people to take on a second and third job for extra money. In this digital age everyone is a “photographer” and people have turned to photography without a formal business plan.

These “photographers” have access to loads of sample work from other professionals online and in addition the entry-level cameras are now available at reduced rates compared to years past. Even telling someone you are a photographer seems to have less weight than it used to. There are many young photographers who have joined the market part-time and their pricing undercuts all the full-time studios.

Most of them have no idea what “cost of sale” even means. I fear that these new photographers are giving away so much, like their digital files, and making so little profit that someday no one will be able to make a full-time living as a photographer. All of these factors combined have devalued the industry making it very hard for a professional photographer to sell her product and service for what they’re worth.

The sad part is that consumers lose because they are no longer receiving high quality prints from their photographer. In fact, it’s likely they have never seen a high quality print. Instead they receive a set of digital files that are essentially useless to them. A digital file is very much like an old film negative, it needs a little finesse to bring out its full potential. The lab used to do this for consumers when it processed and printed their images, now the job is left up to the photographer.

Over the last three years, we have tried to expand our business to include not just wedding work but also high school senior pictures, family portraits and a new style called “documentary style” family portraits. This is a break from the traditional portraiture in which we photograph a family doing an activity together in real time. This has gotten some attention in our market and I think if we continue to focus on what we do that is unique and different, we’ll survive.

One part of the business that has increased our sales is face-to-face interactions with our clients. We are really trying to focus on personal customer interaction. We are scheduling in-studio consultations for all our clients prior to shooting their family portrait, and after the photo session we are picking up the phone and talking to our clients, even meeting them in their homes to decide on which prints will go where. Our clients have responded well to this “old school” style of doing business.

In the wedding business, winter will tell you how the next year will be because a lot of people get engaged during the holidays. We’re having solid bookings for 2012 — similar to what we had in 2006 and 2007. It makes me hopeful that people are spending money again, and we can meet our sales goals and become the studio we imagined back in 2008.

A holiday party is something we would consider for next year if we have a strong season all year. But as for this year, we just don’t have the extra cash to throw the type of holiday party we have in mind.

Cameron Clark co-owns Cameron + Kelly Studios in Flagstaff, Ariz.

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