The Art of the Destination Shoot

by Sal Cincotta

Sal Cincotta

April 01, 2011 — Let’s be honest, most of us don’t have access to couples in exotic locations. I often find myself envious of photographers who get to shoot in all these amazing locations and destinations: beaches, cliffs, castles, sweeping landscapes and more. What do I have? I am stuck in the Midwest in a blue-collar city with no ocean or cliffs in sight. So what’s a photographer to do?

Two years ago we started offering destination engagement and senior shoots to shake things up. It all happened by accident really. One day we had a senior client over the house and we were talking about wardrobe choices and they had asked about changing their shoot date. I replied, “Unfortunately, we will be in New York on some other business. Their response? ‘Can we come?’ ”

We quickly realized we were on to something. The Midwest can be conservative at times, but the clients we are attracting want something different, something a bit more. The key in finding your niche is understanding your demographic and their habits. Guess what? Most teens and 20-somethings don’t want the same things their friends have. In fact, they want anything but the status quo. So, for us, selling this new concept was an easy one.

Take this Show On the Road
It all starts during the initial consult with the client. For now, I am talking about a new wedding client. If you have been listening to anything we have been telling you over the last few months, you know the consultation is a time to get to know your perspective client. Do not jump right into business. Talk to them; get to know them, their interests, where and how they met, etc. I can’t stress enough how powerful this gesture is. Clients appreciate this more than you know.

In most of our meetings, it will usually come up that they met in college or love wine country, or they have an upcoming trip to wherever. And that’s when we hit them with it. I ask point blank, “What do you guys think about shooting there?”

Let’s take it a step further with a real world scenario. Recently, I was at a bridal show that, in all honestly, was not good at all. We were getting ready to pack up and this adorable couple came up to us and started talking. And during the course of our conversation it came up that they met in Boston and that was a city that was meaningful to them. Mind you, at this point, they had not booked us; we were just having some small talk. I said, “Wow, that’s awesome, that would be cool if we did your engagement pictures up there.”

The man paused for a second, looked at me and asked, “You would do that for us?”

“Absolutely,” I said. “If I can get you into one of my middle packages, which has an engagement session in it, I would be willing to fly up there and rock it out for you guys.”

Saying they were blown away is an understatement. They could not wrap their heads around the fact that we were not going to be charging them more money to go up there. Not only did they book us, they added video coverage to their event. Generating almost $10,000 with our studio before post-wedding sales. They are great clients and I know for a fact that our willingness to go to Boston enabled us to lock these great people in.

Making the Numbers Work
So, I am sure right now you are all scratching your heads asking yourself, “How in the world can we make this work?” The truth is, the numbers work better than you think.

First let’s establish a few things. The destination shoot is much more than just an engagement or senior session. It’s an event—an experience if you will—not only for you but also for the client. They are buying tickets, picking out the perfect accessories, shopping for new outfits and enjoying a little weekend getaway to a city that is meaningful and exciting to them.

Understanding how big this is for the couple and how much they have personally invested into their own shoot, it should quickly become apparent that there really is very little risk that they will not make purchases from this session or that the purchase won’t be significant. I think your worst-case scenario is break even. And even if that were to happen, you now have a free trip out of it and more importantly, you have expanded your portfolio to show more than just the standard photos from your city. And this has immediately given your brand a boost as a more experienced and sought after talent.

However, we are not doing this for a free trip or to break even. We are doing this to make money. And trust me you will. Worst case scenario is that you break even, but if you do this right, you will easily turn a huge profit.

Anyone who signs up for a destination shoot and invests the time and funds to do it right is not going to come home and buy a bunch of 4 x 6’s. Plus, if you execute this correctly, you should line up three to four other shoots. That’s when the sales really start taking off.

Use Social Media to Promote Your Trip
What we like to do is schedule a trip to certain cities every few months—mostly, because my wife and I love to travel. So we pick NYC (my home town), Chicago and San Francisco (we love wine country). We put these trips on the books and advertise them on our blog, multiple Facebook sites and every consult we have, including high school seniors.

You want to talk about grassroots promotion? Let high school seniors get a hold of this information. For our seniors, they become local celebrities because they get to “travel with Sal.” In fact, this past February at WPPI, we had a workshop in the desert and we invited one of our high school seniors to be a part of it and she ate up the attention and felt like a model for the day, complete with paparazzi, makeup, shopping spree (courtesy of mom) and a trip to Las Vegas. You would not believe the attention this got on our senior Facebook site. The publicity alone was priceless.

So, hopefully by now, I have you pumped up and you are online checking out airfare and hotels and figuring out where you want to go next. Baby steps first.

The first shoot will be the toughest for you to pull off and that’s okay and should be expected. But with the right framework, you will soon be off to some amazing locations and grabbing some great images.

The Plan
1.) Start off with a location that is somewhat inexpensive to get to, but outside the normal range a photographer would travel for a client without charging extra. For example, we are in St Louis, MO, but Kansas City and Chicago are both within four hours of us. So, we have very little financial expenditure besides a hotel and some gas.

2) Make sure you are offering it up to the right client. By “right client,” I mean a client that is open to new ideas, somewhat trendy and wants to do something different for their pictures. That way, no matter what happens on the sales side, you know you have some images to show off your destination work. During one of our destination sessions, the groom-to-be showed up with a t-shirt, jeans and sneakers. That’s it! Needless to say, the sales from that session were less than stellar and we immediately changed our process for preparing clients for the shoot.

3) Have a wardrobe review prior to your trip. To avoid any misunderstanding, encourage the client to come over with their outfits, have them send you pictures from their camera-phones or do whatever you need to do in order to ensure they are properly prepared for their shoot. It will pay huge dividends in the end. We have our seniors bring seven to 10 outfits and our engagement couples bring two outfits; one being what I call an “up-caj” (upscale casual) and the other a more formal one. The key is encouraging them to be the best version of themselves possible.

4) Do not charge extra (basic session fee) to travel with them, unless the client is trying to get you to a specific city you just won’t be able to get to, or travel costs are just exorbitantly high. In most cases, the client will typically understand. The goal here is to make it as appealing as possible for the client to travel with you and do something different.

5) Capture images that not only capture the couple, but also incorporate some of the amazing architecture and landscape of the city you are in. For example, NYC has an amazing and very distinctive skyline. Ensure you don’t miss these details and the client will surely see this as art for their home and truly appreciate the gift you have given them with this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The challenges we face as photographers are never-ending. This is yet one more way for you to create an “x” factor for yourself and differentiate your business from the competition.

Once you get into the rhythm of traveling to different locations, your client base will evolve and start looking for destinations that are of interest to them to create those unique and meaningful images of their lives. It gives new meaning to life-style photography.

We have been doing this for two years and we are continuously blown away with the demand for our destination shoots from local clients. Our client base is well aware we do this every year and are extremely eager to give their families a truly unique experience. And with our sales averages at 30% above normal sessions, we will continue this offering for the foreseeable future.
Give it a try and don’t be afraid to push some limits to differentiate yourself from the competition.


Sal Cincotta is an award-winning photographer, author, speaker and owner of BehindtheShutter.com, a site dedicated to training professional photographers.

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