The global health pandemic has thrown the European photographic sector a curveball of unparalleled proportions. With weddings & events all but on hold, amusement parks and labs largely closed, it's been a tough year, to say the least. The big question is, when will it end and when can we expect to get the wheels turning once more?
For this piece, we caught up with Craig Cheber, Managing Director of the UK-based premium photo booth company, Booth Nineteen, for an account of his experience through 2020. With many European countries having been adversely affected by the health crisis, the UK photo sector has been badly affected and endures its third national lockdown as it rolls into 2021.
Here, Craig gives us his view on whether he thinks there is any sign of the green shoots of recovery for the photographic sector and we ask him what he's been doing to ensure that his company is prepped and ready for a post-pandemic business boom.
Words: Craig Cheber
Reflecting on the past almost 12 months of this terrible health pandemic now is something I'm not entirely comfortable with. I mean, it's not over and even now, nobody knows when we may be able to open up our operation once more. Bizarrely, I could (almost) be grateful for the turn of events during the early part of the pandemic. The original owner of Booth Nineteen had largely moved on to work on other projects, leaving me as the General Manager. We'd spoken about the possibility of me buying the business on several occasions, but it's something that never gained any traction until the pandemic arrived. We both, (the then owner and I) quickly realised that the work was going to dry up for the majority of the year and that we probably weren't going to have a reliable income. That made the decision for him to offer me the business much simpler in many ways.
I'd been the Operations Manager for almost three years, so the handover was quite straightforward. My next challenge was how to maintain the business, keep my network of operators happy and primed for action, whilst navigating a truly extraordinary ongoing situation.
The beginning of 2020 was already quiet for Booth Nineteen. As is quite traditional in the photo booth game, January February and March is usually a quieter period. Quiet, in that, there aren't many events taking place, but it's a period that can still be quite busy with new bookings coming in. I think that was probably the most difficult part to grasp at that stage, as the whole industry had spent the three months before lockdown 1.0 getting their businesses ready for the coming spring and summer months.
"Then, the phone starting to ring for all of the wrong reasons; cancellation, cancellation, another cancellation... It went on. One after the next; essentially undoing all of the hard work that had been put in over the past three months."
What this meant for us on the ground, was still a great deal of work with every postponement or cancellation. All of the small updates, such as communicating with the client, updating the booking within the CRM and calendars, but then you also have to go back to the template designer and make sure all the photo templates are updated. Essentially, it created just as much work for us but without any new money coming through the door.
From April, we went into a state of hibernation. We'd reduced all of our regular outgoings to an absolute minimum and we were hoping that, by the end of the summer, or even by the time the summer arrived, we would be back to 'normal'. I mean, our (UK) Prime Minister was telling us that this would likely be the case and even put a great deal of effort into encouraging people into pubs and restaurants with the 'Eat Out to Help Out' scheme. A move that seems crazy in retrospect.
For the first few months of the pandemic, there were only a handful of bookings that immediately rescheduled for 2021 and 2022. Everybody else was of the impression that the problem would have passed by late summer 2020. The reality only served to compound our problems. The issues we'd experienced at the beginning of the year were happening all over again but for twice as many customers this time. We had all of the original April/May bookings that had rescheduled, with all of the June/July/August bookings wanting to reschedule their bookings.
All of this saw us chasing our tails.
I've had customers who are determined not to give up on their plans. It's not like they aren't getting married anymore, but they have cancelled their plans and they've taken everything off the table for the time being. We've had huge numbers of disappointed customers suggesting that they might revisit their plans in two years and some have suggested that it could be as much as a five-year gap. The fact is that they just don't want to rearrange everything for the third time as all of the fun and enjoyment has been taken away from their experience.
Adding to this is the fact that some suppliers have been quite harsh in holding onto 'non-refundable' deposits. I know that there are venues out there, holding customers to ransom and asking them to pay a balance by a certain date or risk a substantial penalty, along with the loss of their deposit. Others have been charging brand new deposit for each time the customer changes their date.
"These kinds of actions simply won't add any positive image to a brand. I'm surprised and a little disappointed that some are prepared to introduce these kinds of levies in an attempt to create a revenue stream, and/or to put pressure on their clients."
Personally speaking, I'd rather be the company that doesn't charge any extra and have that as to why a customer remembers and recommends us. You could argue that, across a large part of the weddings and events industry, there's not a great deal of repeat custom and that's perhaps why many are taking these harsher stances. Whilst that's true and customers might not book you again themselves, I'd argue that view is rather short-sighted. The fact is that, right across any service industry, recommendations are fundamentally important. Whether you're a venue, a photo booth, florist, whatever; if you've treated your customer with courtesy, compassion and professionalism, the chances are they will jump to recommend you to their friends and relatives.
As we stand here now, (January 2021) we're at the point where all of our customers are looking into next year. There's a change of mentality from last year in that our spring 21' customers who are postponing are not thinking, 'I'll try for later this year'. 90% of all the new postponements are automatically re-booking for 2022 or even 2023. After the past 12 months, they just want to set the date in stone with the hope that it will be a safer bet, rather than the aggravation of rescheduling time and again.
"In amongst all of the doom and gloom, we still recognise the importance of maintaining the Booth Nineteen presence. We're constantly looking at ways to refine our offering with new solutions and technologies."
One of the main things we've been able to do is to get all of the booths together in one place. It may sound odd, but during 'normal' times, this is a real challenge. We carried out essential upgrades and fitted new lighting. We PAT tested all of the booths at once, which is quite unheard of. With all of our booths and operators being spread across the UK, it's been great for camaraderie to get everyone together. That, along with the chance to ensure that, from a base point, our product is as good as it has ever been.
Whilst we reduced our online advertising campaigns at the beginning of the pandemic, we've always made sure to maintain our digital presence. I believe that it's crucial to keep a continuation of all marketing activities. When both old and new customers see us keeping active, they know we're still alive and kicking. I genuinely believe that it's important to remain proactive and to maintain the brand voice for these reasons.
Running a business of any kind requires a level of adaptiveness and, whilst the past year may have stretched that point, it's certainly made it clear.
My main focus has been to push for 2022 bookings. That said, we've seen more new bookings this January than we have in the last three months of 2020. I've also been looking at various contactless solutions. If everything continues to stagger along and our clients aren't allowed to have any more than 30 people at their wedding for the rest of 2021, we'd like to offer a hands-free solution where we can still provide a photo print. There are some ideas in the pipeline to create a virtual experience that can be used between friends to connect and by corporate businesses to engage customers. What is important is that we maintain the Booth Nineteen product and brand strength, even within a virtual space. The reality is that Booth Nineteen is less about the photo booth and more about the actual entertainment experience. This is where the real challenge sits as the main appeal of a (traditional) photo booth is that it is serviced entertainment. This is Booth 19's real USP. Our customer service is our calling card. Not just with regards to the booking and punctual service, but also how our team of attendants will always encourage people to get involved. It's a work in progress.
The positive viewpoint for all of this madness is to look at the diary of future bookings. Yes, we've had to reconsider our activities and that includes every member of the team. This has ranged from attendants working at COVID testing sites. One of our franchisees studies architecture; so he's training to be an architect whilst running the photo booth. Another has been working on a building site whilst others have been waitressing and going through training to get started with their booths.
What we're all anticipating is the wave of future bookings that we currently have. I've never seen so many events in the calendar for 12 months and beyond. In that sense, there's more of a security blanket now we've ever had with bookings reaching into the next 18 months, at least.
What's more, there are a lot more midweek bookings. My concern was that we would lose all of our peak days to postponements, but actually what I'm finding is that the postponements for next year are coming back into dates when we would otherwise not have events. The potential for the market to explode is there.
I cannot wait!