How to Book and Handle Destination Weddings with Michael Anthony
Want more information on this article? Get access to video content and additional supporting images. Launch the December issue of the magazine by logging in or signing up for a free account by clicking here. Shutter Magazine is the industry’s leading professional photography magazine.
Destination weddings can be confusing and mysterious for photographers. When I started photographing weddings, I thought it would be amazing to travel the world to document our clients’ incredible wedding day. The truth is, while photographing destination weddings can be an incredible opportunity for your portfolio, if you don’t know how to do it correctly, you may end up losing money and clients.
In 2016, our studio photographed over 100 weddings. Our studio is split into two brands, Michael Anthony Photography and Studio 23 Photography. Of the 50 weddings that Michael Anthony Photography photographed, 10 of them required us to travel far. We added portfolio shoots along the way during our travels, which gives our portfolio diversity and a uniqueness not found among our competitors.
The most important thing to understand about destination weddings is that profitability is not the same as for local weddings. When taking on a destination wedding, the intrinsic value of the job for your portfolio must outweigh the money you will lose by not being in the studio for a number of days, along with any other miscellaneous expenses you incur. If you love travel, this may seem like a worthwhile endeavor, but constant travel may wear on you over time.
Booking Destination Weddings
To book a destination wedding, a couple of things have to happen. You need to show destination work in your portfolio, and you need to make it easy for your clients to book you for destination work.
We booked our first destination wedding by accident. That accident turned out to be one of the best experiences ever. Our clients had come to us for a consultation about shooting their wedding reception in our hometown of Valencia, California. When I asked where the clients were getting married, they said Lake Como, Italy. Now, I had wanted to go to Italy for many years, so I immediately asked if they had found their wedding photographer yet. The answer was no, and I said I would be interested in shooting it.
Their efforts in finding a wedding photographer in a foreign country proved to be problematic. First, there was the language barrier. It’s also hard for clients to coordinate their wishes with a photographer who lives on the other side of the globe. Booking with us was an easy decision because we offered to solve their problems, and we made it easy for them to book us financially (more on that later).
Shooting this wedding allowed us to showcase these images in our portfolio, and immediately our destination inquiries skyrocketed. So what do you do if you don’t have destination images to show? My mentor, Mr. Sal Cincotta, sums it up in a simple hashtag: #buildyourdamnportfolio.
We actually did our first destination shoot while vacationing in Hawaii. I live in California, where the beaches are plenty and our clients are used to gorgeous sunsets. So for our first destination shoot, I wanted to do something completely different than what our clients had seen before. We headed to Byodo-In Temple on Oahu. From that shoot, we began to diversify our portfolio and create epic images that could not be achieved locally. We bought a wedding dress, hired a local florist and got the required permits to shoot at the location we wanted.
Your first step if you are serious about shooting destination weddings is not so hard. Take a vacation, and wherever you go, plan photoshoots to build your portfolio.
The power of a destination portfolio is incredible. Just this past weekend, our studio participated in a bridal show with 12 photographers. On our booth display, we featured wedding images taken in France, Portugal, London, Italy, Hawaii and around the United States. While it was a gamble to not bring along local wedding images, it paid off tremendously: We booked three weddings at the show, and collected over 100 leads, including two for brides getting married in Greece and Thailand next year. Our booth was packed the entire time because our portfolio stood out from the rest.
Once you have a destination portfolio built, you have to market yourself to clients getting married abroad. Destination weddings are becoming more popular because they are kept small, and actually cost the same or less than a traditional wedding. I recommend tools such as Two Bright Lights to submit your destination weddings to publications to reach more potential clients.
Another idea is to contact local planners at popular destinations around the world, and ask for referrals for couples coming from the area you live in.
Charging for Destination Weddings
This area can be convoluted for many photographers. You have to make it easy for your clients to book you. However, destination weddings do have many expenses that are not easily seen when putting together a quote. This is why I recommend putting your travel costs into the quote up front, rather than booking the wedding and invoicing them later.
You may incur costs for a babysitter, rental car, parking, Uber rides, meals, valet fees, checked-bag fees, etc. In addition, you have to account for your time out of the studio and away from your business.
Those expenses start to add up quickly. If put a list in front of your client, it will become a barrier to them booking you. If you allow your client to book your travel for you, you will end up on a flight with three connections and a seven-hour layover. This is why when booking destination weddings, it is important to give the client a single fee that covers all your expenses. As your portfolio gets better, your travel fee can increase.
We have developed all-inclusive fees for Europe, Hawaii and the continental U.S. We include a cost for three nights at the client’s hotel (or an Airbnb close by) to allow us to use day one as a travel day, and the day after the wedding as a bridal session day. If we stay longer, we do not bill the client for the extra days.
Having set fees dissuades clients from haggling with you. You’ll avoid the following arguments we used to hear all the time: “We want to help you enjoy your vacation.” “If we book your travel, can we just get your regular wedding rates?” And my favorite: “Our wedding will be great for your portfolio! So can we get a discount?”
Trust me: When I tell you not to make any exceptions to this policy, we have done so in the past and been burned, so learn from our mistakes so you don’t repeat them.
Let’s start with booking your travel. In the past, it was incredibly hard to predict what prices would be for a chosen destination. Now, thanks to modern technology, we are able to more accurately predict flight prices using Google Flights or an app called Hopper. Both services tell you the optimal time to book flights. Whenever we book a destination wedding, we add the flights to Hopper and get instant notifications when it is time to book. For the hotel, find out if your client has reserved a room block, and if so, ask if you can reserve a room at the client’s rate. Airnnb is always our go-to when looking for places to stay if the client does not have a hotel block.
If you’re traveling internationally, bring all the necessary adapters. It would be terrible to get all the way to Europe to find you don’t have any outlets to charge your camera batteries.
Planning Destination Shoots
Destination shoots pose many challenges logistically. You can’t scout locations as you normally would. It’s tough to determine if a chosen location requires special permits. How will the light look when you are there? This is why organization and planning are so important. And the planning needs to happen months before the wedding day.
I build a Pinterest Board with exciting and accessible locations we can get to. Do a bridal session with your clients the day before or after the wedding so you can create amazing images for them in beautiful places.
There is an app called The Photographer’s Ephemeris that allows you to plan lighting in your locations. Put together a document with all the information for the shoots you will be doing so you are prepared when you get there. It’s also extremely important to check the tide charts if you are shooting at a beach. I can’t tell you how many times we have planned a shoot at an unfamiliar beach only to get there and not be able to access the beach due to high tide.
When planning shoots at popular landmarks, be prepared to arrive with your clients or models at sunrise to avoid the crowds.
Lastly but most importantly, be prepared to pivot. As a wedding photographer, you are used to having to improvise. Shooting destination weddings adds a new level of uncertainty. We have to pivot on more than half of our shoots. Our truck has been stuck in the snow, we have gotten clearance to shoot at places only to be kicked out later, we have had locations closed for renovations, parades came through our shooting location and much more. You will have to be ready with a plan B in all situations, but even more so when you are working with clients who paid to have you travel with them.
Shooting destination weddings can be an incredible opportunity to constantly build your portfolio, and allow you to open up new opportunities. I love that my career has allowed me to travel the world, but it can add stress, uncertainty and unanticipated expenses.
If you plan ahead, you can create incredible memories for your clients and an experience that you and they will never forget.