By Sandra Miller
For the Transcript
In an economy that’s seeing a lot of boarded-up storefronts, local wedding photographer Nikki Cole and her wedding-singer husband, Chris, decided to open a studio at 518 Shirley Street. After all, people don’t stop getting married, even in an economic downturn.
Nikki Cole is a lifelong resident here, who worked a lot of weddings for her father’s, Richard DiMento’s, catering business. “I started in the kitchen as a prep cook, then as a server, and became his host and manager,” she said.
Wedding cake and champagne toasts were in her blood, yet after graduating from Winthrop High, she studied political science at the University of New Hampshire, thinking she’d go into law. But after some soul-searching, she decided becoming a lawyer wasn’t a good fit, and she ended up doing wedding planning.
She had built up a successful business, and headed the wedding planning department at Seaport Hotels. Looking to be more well-rounded, she picked up a camera belonging to one of her photographer vendors, Dan Doke. She had never had any interest in photography before, and yet the photos came out pretty good, she recalled. He was impressed, and trained her as an assistant for a few years while she continued doing weddings at the Seaport Hotel. She started shooting on her own.
Despite no formal photo background, she found that her experience in the wedding industry gave her what her clients wanted: an understanding of what they wanted captured on their special day.
“It’s more important to know about weddings than photography these days,” she said. “People are more inclined to like the candids and capturing the special moment. It’s not about posed photography … it’s about telling a story about the day, and including the clients’ cultures.”
Soon, friends and business associates were hiring her, and her moonlighting job on the weekends began to get so busy, she didn’t have time to plan weddings anymore. “It kind of snowballed,” she said.
Nikki went full-time last year, and has since shot hundreds of weddings. Business is busy on the weekends, and clients come into her studio during the week, too, to go over packages and plans. She takes corporate headshots, senior portraits, and family portraits, including a growing industry with pregnant-belly shots. But wedding photos are her bread and butter, even in this economy.
Inspired by reality TV shows, weddings have grown into an extravagant industry, earning $73 billion in 2006, nearly double what it pulled in 15 years before, according to Conde Nast Bridal Media. However, people are cutting back with off-the-rack wedding gowns, smaller wedding parties, and other cutbacks. The National Association of Catering Executives reported 48 percent seeing a decline in wedding food spending. And the Wedding Report research company reports a slight dip in the average price of weddings, nationally at $28,704. Still, the state is also seeing a boost in same-sex wedding spending; and in bad times, there’s nothing like having a party.
Heck, even Brides Magazine was started during the Great Depression, founded following a Fortune Magazine article that noted that even at times of economic depression, people would reliably spend money on weddings.
However, it’s hard to get away without professional photos or a decent wedding band, said the Coles.
“People are still getting married,” Nikki said. “I found it was fortuitous to get in when I did. My prices are pretty reasonable, and so I’m finding clients are more appreciative now. They are really looking for a great value.”
The Coles speak from experience. Not only are they wedding industry vendors, but they were clients once. And of course, they met at a wedding. “It’s the only way people in America get to meet each other,” she said, not entirely kidding. As a wedding planner, her weekends were doing weddings, so it didn’t give her an opportunity to meet anyone elsewhere.
She was planning a high-end wedding for an advertising executive at, of all places, the wedding publication Knot. “My client kept raving about her band,” recalled Nikki. “I had never heard of them, and if I had never heard of them …. “ She was dubious.
She had a brief phone conversation with Chris Cole, and when she finally met him to plan the wedding music, she recalled thinking how handsome he was. “The band was spectacular,” she said of Chris’ group, Kahootz, an eight-piece band that does everything from Sinatra to Beyonce.
Chris is a Seattle native who came to Boston to attend Berklee School of Music. After a few years doing weddings for a few agencies, the crooner and sax player formed his own band in 1998. “We have four singers,” said Chris. “I’m the Tony Bennett/Sinatra guy. I was never a rocker; I’m more of a jazz guy.” They were getting so much business, he now also manages a second band, called K2.
He recalls the first time he saw Nikki. “I thought she was so cute, and at the end of the job, I was kind of in a funny position. As a vendor, I didn’t want to come off as someone just hitting on somebody, so I waited ‘til the end of the night to get her number … and she was gone.”
He kept looking for her at future Seaport gigs, but was meeting the other coordinator. “As it turned out, this worked out really well because she was seriously seeing someone else at the time.”
Two years later, he got a phone call from a Seaport wedding planner. “I had this sassy girl giving me a hard time about details, about how I didn’t call her back earlier in the week. It was her. Before the end of the night, I tried to make it apparent I was interested. One band member was playing cupid. The base player said, ‘I know you’re going to marry her.’ I got her number at the end of the night.”
He invited her out for a glass of wine. “When I got her there, I managed to talk her into a bottle,” he recalled.
Five years, they got married – that was last year this January. They hired a band from out of town, a group called Skintight that was similar to the music his band played, so all of his local musician friends could attend his wedding. There were 150 guests at the Seaport Hotel, and they both said everything went perfectly. “There were no stories to tell,” she said. He added, “I think part of it, there’s a thing that you think it should be perfect – you set yourself up for disappointment. We chose the vendors that we knew would be able to roll with the punches, and we knew could make lemonade out of lemons, which is how you want to choose people. She was still director of weddings when we got married, but she didn’t direct her own wedding. She handed things off and enjoyed being a bride. We had more fun than two people deserved to have.”
Chris’ business is also doing well in today’s economy.
“Our job is to see to our clients’ formalities, play great music for their first dance and formal dances, and get the audience to dance their butts off,” he said. While he understands why certain wedding parties would hire a DJ, there’s nothing like a live band at a wedding, or the corporate parties and fundraisers he also does, to get a party started.
“The client who wants the DJ should get that,” said Chris. “There’s a difference in style in having a band and having a DJ. I was in a wedding as a guest over the weekend, and there were two DJs working together, who were considered the best in the area. They created a really nice party. A great band creates a great event, creates an energy and interaction that you cannot replace with an iPod or CDs.”
Added Nikki, “Working with those guys it’s really a joy. They make my job easier because they get people dancing, and that makes my job easier to shoot.”
Ironically, Nikki and Chris don’t work much together. “I don’t know if I’d want to work with him that much,” she said, laughing. He added, “We work together a few times a year. She works more with the second band. We refer each other a lot to clients. My band’s a great band, but I don’t think a great band’s right for every client, just like Nikki’s style is not right for everyone. They could want a non-traditional photographer with a non-traditional band.”
“I think people think it’s a riot when they hire both of us,” said Nikki.
As a married couple, their dates are spent working, at weddings and music shows, and checking out new hotels. “We both really work hard,” said Nikki. “We find time for each other, steal a few hours on Sunday nights.”
They’re very busy working with potential clients this month, as the wedding season arrives full force in June. The two are so busy, they decided to rent a spot on Shirley Street. Her studio is booked during the week, and he uses the downstairs area for rehearsals.
They are noticing that in this economy, even with a once-in-a-lifetime event as the big wedding, people are trying to maximize their dollars.
Said Chris, “If your singers are terrific and you know how to create a party for your client, we offer great value. We’re noticing more clients are looking for an off night, like Fridays and Sundays.”
“People are always looking for doing the best thing they can with their budget,” added Nikki. “People want a great value, and great value equals quality. We’re always flexible with our packages, so they don’t have to pay for what they don’t need.”
And she recommends never skipping the wedding planner to save money. “It will cost you more in the long run,” she said.