Building a dynasty with seniors

Romaguera Photography is both family business and mini empire.

By Jeff Kent
Images By Romaguera Photography
First published in February 2005

Romaguera is a household name in the senior portrait market of New Orleans, primarily a parochial school environment. With four metro area locations, 25 staffers and four Romagueras aboard, its not hard to see why.

Romaguera is a household name in the senior portrait market of New Orleans, primarily a parochial school environment. With four metro area locations, 25 staffers and four Romagueras aboard, it’s not hard to see why.

Ralph Romaguera, M.Photog.Cr., entered photography when he joined the U.S. Navy in 1968, where he wound up in the naval photo school. After the service, he worked for The Times-Picayune newspaper before opening his own studio. In the early days, Romaguera concentrated on weddings, steadily building the business to cover 270 nuptials a year. The volume started to wear on him, so he began to gradually move into the senior portrait market.

New Orleans’ senior portrait season lasts a fruitful 11 months, from mid-June until the kids graduate the following May. Romaguera began by working his legacy status at his alma mater, and landed the contract for the high school’s on-campus senior portraits.

He went on to build relationships at other schools, talking with principals, athletic directors and influential officials, until he had 15 major school contracts in his pocket. These account for about 60 to 70 percent of Romaguera Photography’s seniors business, with the remainder coming from individuals unhappy with their designated school photographer or looking for something special in a senior portrait.

As business grew, Romaguera expanded into new locations throughout metro New Orleans. Then his children started coming aboard to help run things.

The first was Ralph Romaguera Jr., Cr.Photog., the oldest son. He’d actually started working at the studio at age 13. “I thought it would be really cool to hang out with the 17- and 18-year-old girls who were coming in for their senior portraits,” he remembers. “But day by day, it was rewarding to learn about photography and work as an assistant.”

Today, Ralph Jr. handles much of the studio’s technology and digital asset management. In the absence of Ralph Sr., he steps in to schedule school shoots and mind the studio’s business relationships. He’s also the manager of the family’s LaPlace studio.

Ryan, Cr.Photog., the younger son, came next. He manages the Gretna studio, trains new photographers in the Romaguera style, and heads the senior high school sports division. “I got involved about six-and-a-half years ago,” says Ryan. “When the Gretna office came about, there was an opportunity for me both as a photographer and a manager of my own business.”

Last to join was their younger sister Carol, who started after a brief stint teaching in the New Orleans Parish school system. Carol concentrates on marketing and new business, and handles the retouching. THE business of being a big fish With its four locations and large staff, Romaguera Photography is a big fish in the New Orleans market. But that doesn’t interfere with the studio’s ability to connect on a local level. With his longtime ties to the community, Romaguera is an attractive alternative to impersonal national chain studios.

“We get local jobs because if there are problems we can handle them, as opposed to a national chain that sends in itinerant photographers,” he says.

Innovative marketing is another reason for Romaguera’s continued success. “The marketing changes all the time,” says Romaguera. “What’s really important is to specialize to a school, whether or not we have a contract. Often we’ll call in a couple of well-known students—the head cheerleader or star quarterback—for complimentary sessions. Then we produce materials for that school featuring those students. You can’t make a buck until you get people in front of the camera, so I don’t mind giving away sessions to get more people in.”

The studio’s current big promotion is Senior Survivor, an idea of Carol’s. It centers around an online contest, which runs from August to May, the busiest shooting period. Seniors can sign-up to have a picture from their session posted on the studio’s Web site (www.romaguera.com). Then friends can go online and vote for that month’s Senior Survivor, who lands a $100 prize. In April, the six monthly winners compete to be the Senior Survivor, who receives a $1,000 scholarship to the university of his or her choice. The Romagueras also post the top three monthly vote getters to play up the enthusiasm. The kicker is that in order to vote, you have to sign in with a valid e-mail address.

“One month we got 1,600 hits on the Web site,” says Carol. “So far this year, we’ve collected over 800 e-mail addresses that we’ll use to send out promotional e-mails.”

The Romagueras predict that the site will get an excess of 7,000 hits during the seven months of the contest, yielding a couple thousand e-mail addresses—all that publicity and contact information for the price of $1,700 in prize money.

“We hope this program goes on for several years, going down from the seniors to juniors to sophomores and freshmen,” says Ralph Jr. “When those freshmen grow up to be seniors, they’ll already know where they want to go for their senior portraits.”

Another of Carol’s popular programs is the Studio Hopper, designed to maximize the advantages of having four separate locations. The Studio Hopper allows seniors to go to all four studios to work with different photographers and backgrounds.

“Because every location is different, our customers sometimes look at other people’s pictures and say, ‘Oh, where was that taken?’” says Carol. “We used to have a studio transfer fee for sessions at a different studio, but decided we shouldn’t be competing against one another. With the Studio Hopper, you can be photographed at multiple studios in up to eight outfits, with no transfer fees.”

A one-stop shop

Another element in the success of Romaguera Photography is an ambition to provide every peripheral product in senior and high school sports photography. The list includes yearbook CDs, ID cards, class group photos, spring packages, mugs, mouse pads, koozies, and the trademark multi-image wallet prints, Romatages, a play on the word “montages.”

In the sports division, Romaguera Photography markets custom posters, team flags, and sports tags for the parents of athletes. Similar to convention badges, these 4x7-inch tags are imprinted with the student’s picture, the school logo, schedule of the games, and of course, the Romaguera Photography emblem. Parents wear the tags around their necks to show their pride in their children, meanwhile providing free advertising for the studio.

Even stylistically, Romaguera Photography offers customers “everything from classy simplistic to rock-and-roll sassy.” But while the studio offers an array of products and services, it is focused on cornering

the seniors market.

“It’s important to know who your competition is,” says Romaguera. “If our customers are going to buy sports flags for their car, I’d rather they buy them from me than Kinko’s.”

Makes sense. Consumers love an all-inclusive option, getting everything they want in one spot. Applied to the photography market, the model can certainly work, as long as it incorporates some flexibility. Take the do-it-all approach, add some customization and personalization, and suddenly you’ve discovered that magic recipe for success.

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