Changing Gears as Elopements Take Over the Industry with Dawn Kelly
When your business is struggling, you have two choices. You can whine about how unfair it is or you can get up and fight for what you’ve worked so hard to build. Like most of you, I built my photography studio from nothing. In 2005, I had two things: a used camera and what Mark Cuban of Shark Tank calls “the hustle.” With pure sweat equity, I grew a thriving business, almost lost it in the recession, then spent years rebuilding.
In 2016, when my business started to struggle again, I was not going to let it die. I still had that hustle. I knew it was time to innovate, but I didn’t know why or how, and I needed to come up with something quick. Then a couple hired us to photograph their elopement in Yosemite. As I shot their ceremony at Cathedral Beach, with El Capitan looming over us, I knew how I was going to save my business.
I grew up in and around Yosemite. I’ve loved it for 37 years. Why hadn’t I thought of it before? It was a virtual goldmine waiting for me to dig it up. I know that park inside and out, that living, breathing place. I quickly realized how valuable that knowledge is.
The wedding industry has seen some serious changes since 2016. The biggest change came about when same-sex marriage was legalized on June 26, 2016. There were suddenly thousands of couples who wanted to get legally wed, and they were in a rush to make their relationships official. This created a huge surge in elopements, and a trend was born. Suddenly, all types of couples were getting hitched at elaborate city halls, majestic national parks and on top of mountains in Iceland. Simply put, people caught on to the fact that eloping is easier.
I hear the same thing from every one of our couples: They just want to keep it simple. Some have been married before and have already “done the big wedding.” Some want to save money, happy to skip the expensive reception. I’ve asked each couple why they chose to elope. They all say they don’t want to deal with the stress. As we all know, weddings are extremely stressful. Stress is going out of style.
How to Change Gears: An Actionable Plan
- Do your research.
The first thing you have to figure out is where people are eloping in your area. Do you live near a national park or other popular destination location for elopements? If you live in a big city, you probably have a gorgeous City Hall. If you live in a tiny town in Arkansas, you’re surrounded by beautiful mountains, rivers and maybe a lake. You don’t have to live near a national park to build an incredible elopement business.
Spend at least a month researching these things:
- Popular elopement locations in your area
- Interests of your target clients (i.e., hiking and camping in Yosemite)
- Who else photographs elopements in your area, and what do the photos look like?
- What is required to photograph in these areas? Will there be hiking involved? Are permits required?
- Do the same research on Instagram
- Brainstorm how you can make it completely different
- What is special about you?
What makes you irreplaceably valuable to clients? What will make them think they cannot get married without you? For me, it’s the fact that I grew up right outside of Yosemite, spending much of my childhood there. Not only do people immediately think of me as the Yosemite Girl, but they realize their experience with me will be special because I see the park through my unique local eyes. These eyes saw the park with my family, classmates, friends and husband. I have a lot of love for Yosemite.
So, what is unique about you?
Have you been married more than once? If so, you have unique insight for couples who choose to elope because they already had the “big wedding” and they want to keep it simple this time. Most of our elopement clients had been married before.
Are you plus size? Use that to market to full-figured couples who are looking for someone who understands their feelings and can truly flatter them. This group is often overlooked.
Are you skilled and talented while working with same-sex couples? Not everyone is, so advertise that.
- Get out there and shoot.
Of course, you are going to need photos for your portfolio. Ask your past clients if they’d like to model in styled shoots. Reach out to couples who didn’t have a lot of time for portraits on their wedding day. Offer free portrait sessions to at least five couples. Of those five, three will work out. Get in touch with a florist you love working with, explain your vision and ask if they’d like to provide the flowers for the styled shoots. Do the same with hair and makeup stylists. This is a great way to start building a team.
- Create your special elopement guide.
An Elopement Guide is a dedicated page on your website that has comprehensive information and photos about eloping at one venue or location. This will not only build incredible SEO, but it establishes you as an expert.
Here’s what to include in your elopement guide.
At the very top, explain why they should hire you, including the things I mentioned in step 2.
Use photos that show off the beauty of the venue or location. Include wide shots with a lot of landscapes. In a way, you are advertising the location. Beautiful photos will make someone want to elope in that location, and if they see you as the expert, they will want to work with you.
Don’t share too much valuable insider information and tips. You don’t want to give up all those secrets that make you so valuable. I advertise an exclusive planning booklet that only our clients receive.
Share as much info about the location as possible. Not only will this show off your expertise, but it will considerably boost your SEO.
- Put together your team.
Look back through your year and make a list of the vendors you loved working with. Ideally, your team should include two of each vendor type: two hair and makeup artists, two videographers, two officiants, two florists. Reach out to each vendor and pitch your idea. Then set up a meeting or conference call so everyone can discuss ideas, policies and pricing. Negotiate pricing for weekday all-inclusive packages, and collect everyone’s pricing, contracts and information so you are familiar with how they run their businesses.
- Create your elopement packages.
The average cost of a wedding has been hovering around $26,000 since 2014, but 44 percent of couples spend less than $10,000. An elopement is a great way for a couple to come in under that $10,000 budget without sacrificing the designer dress, gorgeous scenery or high-quality photography. When we surveyed them, 95 percent of our couples said they are happy to pay for one of our luxury packages because they aren’t spending money on a reception.
Our most popular package includes:
- 5 hours of photography coverage
- 20-page handmade Italian photo album with dust jacket
- Professional hair and makeup for the bride (by outside vendors)
- Luxury bridal bouquet and groom boutonniere (by outside vendors)
When you put the packages together, have your lawyer go over your website and pricing copy, contracts and policies. This is extremely important because the wrong wording can make you responsible for other vendors’ business practices.
- Create your custom Instagram account.
Instagram is the new Google. Most millennials use Instagram as a database to find products, watch tutorials and search for vendors. The millennial generation is all about elopements. While it’s true that hashtags are incredibly powerful, account handles are even more powerful while searching. I chose @yosemiteweddingphotos as my handle because any time someone types “yosemitewedding” into IG’s search panel, my account pops up above any of the hashtags.
Link your bio to your free elopement guide. Once you set up your account, it’s time to research hashtags and set up your Instagram workflow.
- Create your newsletter sign-up page.
This is a landing page where you can send people to sign up for your newsletter. Include great sales copy explaining why they should sign up, how often you’ll be sending emails and what they’ll be receiving for free. You should also include a newsletter sign-up form on your elopement guide and at the bottom of your blog posts.
- Blog regularly.
You had them sign up to receive your newsletter for a reason. They don’t just want to see your latest work. They want value. When they are planning their wedding, brides want help. Give it to them. The more help they receive from you, the more they will trust you and want to work with you. The theory of reciprocity is strong in regard to blogging.
Some things to blog about:
- Insider tips, such as where to stay, what to eat and where the cleanest public bathrooms are
- Free checklists of what to bring
- Permit and license information
- Tips on how to choose the right dress to wear for that area
- The most popular flowers and how to make them unique
- Photos of secret spots that only you know about (do not reveal where the spots are)
- Weather and seasonal changes
- Lists of activities in the area
- Personal experiences you’ve had in the area
- Define and document policies and workflow.
When inquiries start rolling in, everything should be set up, including a sales funnel and a plan to produce the best customer service possible.
Here’s my workflow.
- Inquiry is received and automatically logged into Táve.
- Return email with request for a phone consultation with the bride.
- Have phone consultation during which I answer questions and explain my expertise.
- Check availability of team members.
- Book the job.
- Send email that includes: contract, liability waiver, retainer invoice, helpful planning links, digital Yosemite Elopement Planning Guide and anything else we spoke about in our phone consultation.
- Confirm with vendors. Send emails that include: event date, location, bride’s contact information and job details.
- Contract, liability waiver and retainer fee received.
- Hold a video chat planning session with the bride and groom. Answer questions and decide on the ceremony location, ceremony time and spots we will visit for portraits.
- Put together a timeline. Email your client the timeline along with other resources they requested.
- Follow up with vendors.
Don’t miss out on this incredible opportunity to reshape your business as the wedding industry continues to change. If you follow the steps above, you can create a whole new section of your business you didn’t even know was possible. Feel free to hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions and info about upcoming workshops.