One grand plan: Selling a senior portrait package up front

One grand plan: Selling a senior portrait package up front, high school senior portrait photographer Nate Peterson
© Nate Peterson

"The greatest piece of advice I received early in my photography career was that every image should tell a story,” says Nate Peterson, M.Photog., CPP, owner of NP Design & Photography. When he began planning a restructure of his senior portrait business for better results, he recalled that advice and extended it further: If every image should tell a story, then every client should have their story told through a unique experience and a personalized collection of images. This became the foundation of a new model of senior portrait photography for Peterson, one that has led to a more inspiring client experience, more cohesive image creation, and sustainable sales.

The Grand Experience

About four years ago, Peterson, who’s based in New Richmond, Wisconsin, re-crafted his senior portrait program to provide an all-inclusive experience designed to document this important chapter in each subject’s life. Dubbed the Grand Experience, Peterson’s plan includes a three-hour session, full hair and makeup, and a custom-designed senior album for one price: a grand. Included in the $1,000 fee are events and an incentive program.

Peterson immediately found that the Grand Experience pre-qualifies clients while boosting sales. Instead of photographing on spec and hoping clients would reward his efforts with big purchases, Peterson is selling the full program up front while leaving the door open for additional sales.

One grand plan: Selling a senior portrait package up front, high school senior portrait photographer Nate Peterson
© Nate Peterson

A model for senior models

Central to the Grand Experience is a senior model program for 30 rising seniors. Models pay full price, and their sessions are completed early—in March and April of their junior year. This helps fill Peterson’s calendar during a traditionally slow period and gives him time to include the models in one of his most important marketing pieces, a custom-published magazine called Seniors: NP Design & Photography Portrait Lookbook. Using images from these portrait sessions, Seniors helps highlight Peterson’s early-season adopters and promote his services to other high school students.

And by knocking out those 30 sessions early, Peterson’s ahead by a minimum of $30,000 when senior season begins in May. Later in the summer, he opens up his schedule for add-on mini-sessions that seniors can earn through an incentive program.  

The messaging for Peterson’s senior model program communicates the idea of limited supply and a sense of urgency. Participants are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis through an online application.

One grand plan: Selling a senior portrait package up front, high school senior portrait photographer Nate Peterson
© Nate Peterson

Incentivizing seniors

In addition to the magazine and a gala at the studio, senior models participate in an incentive program. Each model gets 15 $50 gift cards to distribute. New clients who bring in a gift card can apply it toward purchases at the studio. And for each gift card redeemed, the referring model receives $50 toward their order. Additionally, Peterson allocates one point to the model for each card, which can be used toward prizes:

1 point = 1-hour summer portrait session or 48 announcement cards

5 points = $200 gift card to their favorite store

10 points = iPad

15 points = MacBook Pro

These prizes are in addition to the studio credits, so each senior model has the potential to earn up to $750 in studio credit and a new laptop. The prizes are based on an approximate 10 percent return on the value of the items. For example, 15 referral cards would yield the studio $15,000 in booking fees for 15 new Grand Experience clients. So Peterson awards a computer worth $1,500 as the prize.

All booking fees are collected before any incentives are distributed. Peterson finds there’s greater return on investment in compensating clients for their accomplishments than in attempting to incentivize them before bookings are earned. “We pay out our incentives as rewards for producing actual bookings, which encourages more participation and ensures that everything is paid for before we give it away,” says Peterson.

One grand plan: Selling a senior portrait package up front, high school senior portrait photographer Nate Peterson
© Nate Peterson

Selling the process

Clients entering the studio are surrounded by high-quality print samples. Large wall portraits, albums, and other items are available for clients to browse. They get a close-up look at the quality of products they’ll eventually be buying, and even more important, their expectations are being subconsciously calibrated, explains Peterson.

“Our sales process is part of the entire experience,” explains Peterson. “We produce a fast-paced and inspiring Animoto slideshow set to music. The images are 90 percent retouched, and clients help us narrow down the choices to 30 to 40 for their albums. Additional image choices can become wall art, gift prints, or other items.”

Since the Grand Experience is the minimum package for senior portraits, clients purchase it with the expectation of getting the experience and the base album. If they want additional images—and every one of them does—they’re sold as an additional purchase. The Grand Experience comes with an 8-inch hardcover album, which can be upgraded in size and with additional spreads. Clients typically opt for about $500 in upgrades. Ready-to-hang wall art accounts for additional sales of $500 to $1,000, and gift prints make up a few hundred extra. Peterson’s average senior client orders an additional $1,800 in print products above their Grand Experience retainer.

“That initial retainer for the experience is almost out of sight, out of mind, because they paid for it at the time of booking,” says Peterson. “By the time the sales and album design rolls around a few weeks after the portrait session, people are ready to purchase more items to commemorate the full senior experience. I’ve heard it for years by speakers in the industry: Money spent is money forgotten. It is true. You just need to implement it.”

RELATED: A gallery of Nate Peterson seniors

Jeff Kent is the editor-at-large of Professional Photographer.