As an industry standard, wedding & event photographers generally take a 50% retainer on the total value of the booking as non-refundable reservation retainer. However, when Covid-19 hit across the industry we started seeing a client pushback and legal battles over keeping that 50% reservation retainer. Clients argued that 50% fee wasn’t areasonable amount for a non-refundable retainer because NONE of the services had actually been rendered (the fee was mainly just to block out a day on the calendar), that the day-of photography services never occurred, no photographs had ever been delivered, etc etc. All of this amounted to HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of dollars in refunds of retainers (whether that’s a full refund or often partial refund). Which severely impacted the photography industry. So, as a way to move forward and hopefully prevent that from happening again, I want to talk about FLAT FEE RETAINERS as a new industry standard.
A. What happened during Covid and is STILL happening
Pre Covid-19, the wedding & event photography world had a pretty STANDARD percentage of anywhere from 50 - 30% of the total service price which served as a non-refundable reservation retainer required to book photography services. Ultimately, photographers were taking say $2500 for a $5000 wedding package from one client to book a Saturday event date on their calendar, but then taking a $1500 retainer for the same exact Saturday on your calendar for someone who books only a $3000 package. After Covid-19 hit, and photography clients started wanting refunds for weddings that were NOT going to happen, they got MAD that their entire retainer wasn’t refundable (or at least partially refundable) because no services had been performed in their minds. Photographers and wedding industry professionals were sent scrambling trying to show that this percentage retainer was reasonable and that they had performed x,y,z services. Ultimately, really persistent clients won the (sometimes albeit legal) battles and got some type of refund (usually a partial refund) or we were put in a position where we had to transfer ALL of the retainer amount to a date in 2021 or 2022 when we had already performed a lot of services up to that point. This retainer industry standard led to essentially one big hot mess of fighting over retainers and their reasonableness. And… there are still tons of lawsuits going on right now in regards to retainers and fees paid on the wedding and event industry because now those cases are starting to litigate.
B. Flat fee retainers and how they SOLVE this problem!
First and foremost, you DON'T want to put in the hands of your clients the argument of “reasonableness”, and here’s what I mean by that. If you are charging different clients different amounts to book and retain your services so that no one else can book you on that date, that is unreasonable. Basically you are giving your clients the ability to argue this and WIN. So, it’s to your advantage to make your retainers the SAME across the board. This will be different per photographer or per wedding event pro, but take a look at your package prices and see what makes the most sense for an upfront reservation retainer to book their event on your calendar.
This is going to be different depending on what type of event you are photographing. If you’re an adventure elopement photographer there is A LOT more planning and communication that happens before the day moves forward. For traditional wedding photographers that’s not so much the case, you are doing the bulk of your services RIGHT BEFORE the wedding date. So having 50% retainer up front does NOT make sense (and there’s no real way to prove that amount is reasonable if you haven’t really performed any services).
I know that sounds complicated but here are some examples to help you think through this new system:
For all my Adventure Elopement Photographers here’s an EXAMPLE:
If, for example, say you have 3 different packages, one being $3000, one being $5000 and one being $7000, I would average about 30-40% of the lowest price package you have as a retainer. So since $3000 is the lowest, 50% of that would be $1200 retainer. You always want to ensure that whatever number you decide on for your retainer, it ends up being less than 50% of ALL your packages. So to continue with that example, for this photographer she would end up with something like a $1250 retainer to book a Saturday date on her calendar. THEN, if someone does book a higher package, generally there is something more involved in that bigger package--maybe it's additional planning, maybe it's more upfront work (for say adventure photographers who are location scouting and planning out the adventure elopement). You’re going to have to take a HARD LOOK at what services you actually perform for your clients from the time of booking, to the time you show up and serve them, to even the massive amount of time you spend in the post-production stage editing and sending the photos to your clients. For any services you perform in between the booking retainer and the final payment amount, you will want to CHARGE for your services and ensure those payments will NOT BE REFUNDABLE!!!! This is key to ensure that in events like Covid-19, only the non-refundable retainer will be transferable to a new date due to a Force Majeure event, but all the other services you’ve performed up to the date of rescheduling/cancellation will not be refundable or transferable since you’ve already spent time performing those services.
Here’s an example for WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHERS:
Say Teresa shoots weddings and wants to move to a flat-fee retainer. She decides that $1500 is the best Saturday flat-fee retainer amount based upon her packages, but that she will only charge $1000 for any date Sunday thru Friday. For each of her packages, she next figures out what type of payment structure makes sense or let her clients choose how many payments they would prefer for the remainder amount. So if she chooses to allow clients to make only two payments, and a package is $5,000 total, then she would have a $1,500 non-refundable retainer FOR BOOKING and $3,500 due for photography services before the wedding date. If she allows her clients to make five payments, and a package is $5,000 total, then it would still be a $1,500 non-refundable retainer FOR BOOKING and then four payments of $875 EACH for photography services before the wedding date.
For adventure elopement photographers:
In sum, Teresa would likely break up her $5000 package into the following:
Here's the breakdown of those amounts more in-depth:
- $1500 booking retainer + $500 due upfront for the first say 90 days of services. (This ensures the $500 would never be refundable because after 90 days her clients have then paid for the services she rendered during that time.
- Note: $1500 + $500 is $2000. So she can split the rest in a payment plan type structure. Try to have a bigger amount due at the end as a photographer because photographing + editing (day-of services and post-production services) are really the BULK of what you are providing to clients. Thus, for a $5000 wedding, try to make that final payment somewhere between $2000 - $2500 which would be around 40-50% of the total payment.
- $2000 is due 30 days prior to the client’s event date. (This is solely for photographing the wedding day and editing afterward).
- Note: That’s only $3500 of the $5000. Which begs the question… what should Teresa do with the additional $1500 that is due?! She’d break that into 3-4 payments that are due OVERTIME from the date of booking to the day that is 30 days prior to the event date! Remember she already charged $500 upfront for services rendered in the first 90 days after booking.
- $500 additional service fee due 3-4 months after booking
- $500 additional service fee due 7-8 months after booking
**Of course, no one will have a perfect 12 month timeline like explained above, but your CRM system should be able to automate the payments split in 2s or 3s or 4s and will be able to pick the installment payment dates for you.
C. Why this structure is a huge bonuses for your business
Having a flat fee retainer payment structure is going to be HUGE for wedding & event industry professionals moving forward.
First, you will have WAY less legal issues with your clients. By being able to explain what exactly each payment is for and why they’re paying x,y, and z up front you and your clients will be on the same page with where the money is going AND you’ll have documentation of that fact.
Second, you won’t have to go backward to try to explain what the clients’ payments were actually for.
Third, this structure allows you to be more in control of payments and allows you to actually see your numbers.
Finally, YOU CAN UPSELL later on! This is really nice to be able to say “no need to choose a package now. Instead, let's just get you booked with $1500 to reserve that date on my calendar, and later we can decide whether you want to add anything on like an engagement session, or a second shooter, or 10 hours of coverage instead of 6.” (P.S. I promise you, clients are wayyy more likely to forget about a $1500 retainer and want to buy MORE of your services closer to their wedding date once they’ve spent all this time planning out every little detail of their day and now they want to ensure it's photographed. They will not forget about a $2500-$3000 retainer and are less likely to purchase more from you.)
I promise you this type of NEW, FLAT FEE RETAINER payment structure is worth it both legally and financially!
If you have any further questions about this, please come join The Legal Paige Community on Facebook where we will be chatting about this in-depth for the next few weeks.
ALSO… all TLP contract templates for wedding photography or elopement photography have been updated to include this new fee & retainer clauses! But, if you don’t have those contracts and you’d like to update your existing contract to include this new payment structure, you can get the individual clause HERE.
THIS BLOG POST IS NOT A SUBSTITUTE FOR LEGAL ADVICE. EVERY SITUATION IS DIFFERENT & IS FACT-SPECIFIC. A proper legal analysis is necessary based on your location and contract. Consult an attorney in your home state for advice regarding your contract or specific legal situation.