How to Correctly Price Destination Weddings

How to Correctly Price Destination Weddings with Michael Anthony

I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that you’re probably interested in shooting destination weddings. There are a lot of reasons why photographers want to photograph destination weddings. For one, you get to experience capturing the wedding in an entirely different scenario than what you’re currently used to. Destination weddings often have carefree clients who are interested in amazing photography and will typically choose places that feature beautiful scenery.

As an artist, this can be inspiring because we tend to work our best when we go into a wedding without any expectations. Destination weddings are tough to book and even tougher to price correctly. If you’ve ever been in a Facebook group, you know exactly what I mean. A bride will post that she’s getting married in Hawaii, and she’s looking for photographers that “don’t cost an arm and a leg” and she is not able to pay for travel. In every other industry, if somebody is asking you to travel to another state and donate 10 to 12 hours of your time to work for them, you are definitely going to ask to be paid for that work. However, it’s pretty shocking that this type of Facebook post will typically generate anywhere between 50 to 100 comments from eager photographers looking to photograph the wedding.

It’s understandable because in our industry, it has almost become a status symbol to be a destination photographer. Photographers inherently have a desire to share their work with the world, and if a couple is willing to fly you across the country or world to photograph their wedding? That notion alone can be used to prove a photographer’s worth to potential clients.

Now I don’t want to get too much into the merits of that notion in this article, but coming from somebody who photographs 8 to 10 destination weddings a year, I can tell you that clients don’t care where your last wedding was. In fact, if you show a local client a wedding that took place at a beautiful destination, the question that always follows is: “But I’m not getting married in a place like this. Can you still take beautiful pictures for me?”

At the end of the day destination weddings are inspiring to shoot. They can reinvigorate your creativity and allow you the opportunity to see places that you may never have gotten to see otherwise. When I left my job working for the Los Angeles Police Department to become a full-time photographer, I never in a million years would have guessed that in just a few short years I would’ve seen as many countries and places in the world that I have. The experiences that Jen and I have gotten to share through photography and specifically through destination weddings is worth more than any of the dollars that a client could have paid me. But let me be clear, we run a successful business that can operate without us being present in Los Angeles at any given time. That’s not the scenario that most photographers are in today. This means that if you plan to leave the state to photograph a job, you’re potentially missing out on the opportunity cost of local jobs. This is why many photographers lose money when they photograph destination weddings and they don’t even realize it.

So understanding that, today I’m going to teach you how to properly price a destination wedding. I’m also going to teach you how to go about booking the logistics, and what you can do to give yourself a better chance of landing the job than those Facebook photographers willing to do it for free.

But before we start, it’s important to really understand what your cost of doing business is. Now, we can use a rudimentary formula to figure this out, but in reality it’s going to require you to do some work to understand your numbers in full.

The basic formula for your cost of doing business is revenue generated minus cost of goods sold minus business expenses divided by the number of jobs that you shoot. So let’s break this down.

If we do 100 weddings a year at $7,000 a piece, that equals $700,000 in revenue. If the cost to produce all of those weddings was $200,000, that would leave me with a revenue of $500,000. Now I have to factor in all of my business expenses.

Let’s keep this simple and say that I have $20,000 in advertising, $100,000 in salaries or contractor payments, $30,000 a year in rent, and $50,000 in miscellaneous costs. Now my gross profit is $300,000 prior to taxes.

Now divide that by 100 weddings and you get a cost of $4,000 to produce a wedding.

Does that number scare you? It should if you’ve never looked at it before. The reality is the average wedding photographer charges about $2,500 per wedding and will shoot far fewer than 100 weddings per year. When we first did this number, it forced me to update pricing because we were losing money on the front end of all of our contracts.

So once you figure that number out, you’ll have a better understanding of how to price your work for local weddings. With destination weddings things get a little more complicated.

Often times we assume that our only costs related to a destination wedding would be the flight and the hotel. In reality that could not be further from the truth. Let’s look at some of the other costs to travel to a wedding in another state:

  • Childcare.
  • Animal boarding.
  • Transportation to and from the airports.
  • Meals, which are generally going to be much more expensive at resorts, sometimes up to $100 per person per day.
  • Gotta get work done on the airplane? Wi-Fi charge.
  • Want snacks for the long flight? More charges.
  • Baggage fees.
  • Tips for bell staff at hotel.
  • Incidentals at hotel.
  • Car rental if you plan to shoot at remote locations.
  • Oh, and then you have airfare and hotel.

But the biggest cost that most photographers forget to charge for is opportunity cost. If your destination wedding is on Saturday, you typically have to fly out Thursday or Friday and if you plan to do a day-after session with your couple, then you will most likely have to come home on Monday. That puts you out of the office for a minimum of four days. However, if you’re an active wedding photographer, then that Friday and Sunday could possibly be booked by another client.

I want you to understand that I’m not trying to talk you out of your desire for doing destination weddings. I’m trying to show you how to do them and be profitable. Part of that is understanding all of the costs that go into shooting a destination wedding.

Even though we shoot 8 to 10 destination weddings outside of California every year, I get well over 50 inquiries a year for weddings that will take place at destinations. I understand these costs and every destination wedding that I shoot now is profitable as a result. And just so you understand, the only reason why I took a serious look at these numbers was because I kept losing money in the beginning when I started shooting destination weddings.

Before I get into showing you a pricing model, I want to go over some rules you have to promise not to break in order to be profitable shooting destination weddings.

Rule number 1

Be disciplined when considering whether or not to turn your destination wedding into a vacation. Any rules I’m going to teach you about profitability have to do with shooting the wedding only. If you opt to take a vacation at the same time that you’re shooting the wedding, you’re going to have a much harder time remaining profitable.

Rule number 2

Book your own travel. Allow your client to own the hotel, but require in your contract that you stay at the same hotel that they are. Every single time we have made an exception to this rule, I’ve ended up on a flight that was unnecessarily long and uncomfortable. On the other side of the equation, when we attempted to book our own hotels we would often times overpay while at the same time the client feels like they are paying us more. By taking that fee out of our contract, the client looks at that money as going to the hotel rather than going to us. This will make booking the job much easier.

Rule number 3

Always try to get there two days early just to be safe. Flights are unpredictable. Even in my own business I don’t have the ability to always follow this rule, but you should always attempt to get there two days prior to allow for any delays or flight cancellations. There was one time where we did follow this rule and our flight was canceled on Thursday, however we were able to make it there the next day with one day to spare before the wedding.

Rule number 4

Do things legally! It may seem easy to just check the no box when they ask you if you’re there for work, however the last thing that you need is to be turned away at the border prior to shooting a destination wedding. Canada and Mexico are notoriously difficult to shoot in, but getting permits for both of them is actually much easier than people think. Contact your local consulate and asked them what the requirements are. For Canada, not every destination wedding will require a visa, but make sure you give them all of the specific information prior to your flight date.

Rule number 5

If you plan on doing this a lot, get an airline card that allows you to use points to book your travel. This will save you on baggage fees and help you convert some of those points back to dollars if you wish.

Okay, so let’s talk about how to price destination weddings. Destination weddings should not be priced based on your current price sheet. Different markets require different rates. If I’m shooting a wedding in San Francisco where the average price of wedding photography is much higher than my hometown of Los Angeles, I have to charge more for that wedding. If you’re working in the luxury market and you try to charge your own rates in a much more expensive market, that could even be a turnoff for the clients looking to hire you.

All destination weddings for our studio are done by custom proposal. This means that a potential client has to meet with us to discuss their wedding in detail.

In addition, you have to take into consideration your business model. For local weddings, I will typically do an engagement session with our clients which can result in sales from $1000-$1500. If my clients don’t live in Los Angeles, then I have to take the money that I would typically make from the engagement session and bundle that into my package cost.

So let’s just say that I have a client in New York City, where my packages start at $10,000. If the client lives in Los Angeles, then I would include an engagement session like I do with all of my clients. If the client doesn’t live in LA, and is not going to be doing an engagement session, I would be starting my rates at $11,500 before any other considerations.

You can’t? just add more cost to your package without giving clients more value. Typically what I try to do with destination clients is to offer rehearsal dinner coverage the night prior to the wedding and a free day-after session the day after the wedding. You may consider giving them a larger book, more hours of coverage, or something else to justify an increase in cost considering that you’re not able to give everything that you typically give in your package.

So how do you calculate your base rate? First you will take your CODB, and figure out your desired profit per day.

Let’s just say your CODB is $2,000 a wedding and you want to make $2,000 in profit. So now you have a base rate of $4,000. Then add your market adjustment, if any. You can figure out cost differences between markets by looking at TheKnot.com, however, if you are in the luxury market you may want to double or triple that number.

Assuming no market premium, now let’s figure out opportunity cost. If I’m working on a weekend away, I will add 1 wedding of average profit to my cost. So if my average profit from a wedding is $2,000, now you are looking at $6,000 ($4,000 base cost + $2,000 opportunity cost). I then will add $500 per day that I’m out of the office for travel because now I can’t book any other shoots on those travel days, less the wedding opportunity cost that I had prior and the wedding day cost for the client’s wedding. So for a Thursday to Monday trip, I am adding $500 for Thursday and Friday. My studio is closed on Mondays so I don’t look at that day as opportunity cost.

Now you’re at $7,000 ($4,000 base cost + $3,000 opportunity cost).

Now we’ll look at the client’s situation and see if we’ll make money on the engagement session. If not, this is where I would add to this collection. Let’s just say you average $1,000 on an average client’s e-session.

Now you’re at $8,000.

Now we’ll look at our travel costs. Remember, the client is owning the hotel, so you can remove that from your fees. You have to take into consideration everything I mentioned earlier. If you look up airfare and you’re finding rates for $500-$700, add an additional $200 to cover any price changes that could happen between the time you quote the client and the time you purchase the tickets.

Depending on where you’re going, you may have to charge for meals. I only charge clients a higher rate if we’re staying at a resort or in a place like Las Vegas where meals are overpriced. At normal locations like New York I don’t factor this in the cost because there are plenty of places to eat at that are affordable. I don’t factor costs for food for all-inclusive resorts.

Now you will add on all of your ancillary costs. For us that typically consists of dog boarding (we don’t have real kids, just the furry ones) and transportation. We have an airline card that allows us to have free checked bags. These fees are typically around $1,000 for us.

So now you can see that a package that you would sell locally for $4,000 needs to sell between $8-9,000 for you to be truly profitable and not miss on opportunity costs.

When you’re presenting pricing to your clients, you do not want to itemize all of these costs. Clients don’t understand what opportunity cost is, and they definitely are not going to want to pay for it. Instead create a custom quote for them with your rates starting at $8-9,000 including all of your travel. This will make the collection seem much more inclusive for your clients without you having to justify why you’re charging for certain items. Furthermore if you attempt to itemize costs, clients will find ways to cut them down. If you’re going to be traveling for a living you want to be comfortable and you don’t want to have to worry about catching some red-eye flight that has nine stops before getting to your destination which is only three states over.

I hope this helps if you’re having trouble pricing destination weddings. I know for a fact that many of you are going to have questions about marketing for destination weddings, so if that’s the case, make sure that you check out my video that goes along with this article this month for three tips on how to book more destination clients.

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