Ready for a Close-up: Profitable Photo Booths Capture the Fun

At one time, photo booths required operators to add chemicals and perform other time-consuming tasks to get the booth ready for customers.  With so much needed preparation, photo booths fell out of favor with amusement operators. However, that downward trend turned when digital technology transformed photo booths from lackluster moneymakers into sought-after attractions.
As President of Arcade Games of Houston Inc. in Houston, Texas, Andre Melikian has witnessed firsthand the resurgence of photo booths.  Melikian owns six photo machines, which he rents out for proms, birthday parties, bar and bat mitzvahs and weddings.
“It is so convenient now,” Melikian noted. “Everything is on a timer.  I charge from $500 to $900 depending on the event and the time that the machine will be in operation. I drop off the photo booth, set the timer for the number of hours reserved by a client, and then after the event, I pick it up.”
Melikian, who does most of his photo booth rentals in May because of proms, said the ease of operation for customers is what makes the booths so popular.
“People get a memento of their special event, and it is not intimidating to participate. My machines all have touch screens, which add everything from themes to props digitally. Customers get a picture right there and they can email it to their phone or Facebook. We also have an online gallery available as well.”
Although each photo booth costs between $5,000 to $6,000 to purchase, Melikian said the investment is worth it.
“The technology will change, and I think it will enhance customers’ experience. I do see photo booths as a fad, but I think it’s a fad that will be around for awhile.”
For Steven Toranto, president of Birmingham Vending Company in Birmingham, Ala., digital photo booths have provided a fun spark to his business over the last few years.  Toranto rents out booths for special events plus he wholesales photo booths to distributors who place them in locations such as family entertainment centers, bowling alleys and movie theaters.
“The digital technology has made it so the booths are totally self-serve and we don’t have to monitor them,” Toranto explained.  “The ease of the commercial, touch screen design allows us to set up the machine for a two-to-three-hour period. The booths take approximately 200 photos, and the customers get two sets of prints onsite.”
While Toranto keeps a close watch on the photo booth industry, he isn’t too worried about the immediate future.
“I think the booths are increasing in popularity as technology gives customers more options for fun. Technology will only advance and that will allow more operators into the pool, which then makes it more affordable for customers to have the booths at their events.  I think the booths still have a good future ahead of them.”
The digital technology of photo booths has allowed other businesses besides vending companies the opportunity to supply photo booths for special events. For wedding photographers and DJs, the photo booths were a natural extension of their businesses.
A+ Entertainment of Harleysville, Pa., supplies everything from sound and lighting systems to food machines and karaoke for special events throughout the southeastern Pennsylvania region. When digital technology transformed the once cumbersome chemically run photo booths, owner Dan Butler saw an opportunity and formed a new subdivision for his company, A Plus Photo Booths. A Plus Photo Booths is available for corporate events, birthdays, sweet 16 parties, proms and, of course, weddings.  The company, which now books 200-250 events per year, has seven digital photo booth machines, which Butler rents out for $695 for a three-hour period.
“We have someone there at the event because we do find that our clients feel better about having a live person there at all times,” Butler explained. “Plus, as an entertainment company, we know that a live person only adds to the interactive fun of the occasion.”
Although the photo booths can cost a minimum of $5,000, Butler has been happy with his return on investment.
“The trend right now is that these booths are so popular and so in demand,” he said. “Is it a trend that might fade? I don’t know. I think as the technology advances, so might the demand, but if it is a fad, I think we have a few good years ahead of us. The booths provide a new dimension of fun and enjoyment, and people look for that when they are planning something special in their lives.”
Book the Booth, a division of My Wedding Photographer of Ottawa, Canada, is another company that made photo booths a part of their party packages.  Owned by Kevin and Renee Pellerine, Book the Booth has been in existence for three years and now is a full-time enterprise booking over 100 events annually including trade shows, corporate events, sporting events and weddings.
“We noticed that photo booths became popular in the southern states first,” said Kevin Pellerine. “We investigated the trend and got into the photo booths but we took our time getting the word out. We wanted a great product, nothing mediocre with our photo booths. We know that for this not to be just a fad, we have to offer a great product.”
As a photographer, Pellerine is accustomed to being on hand for all events, and he believes that his clients prefer it that way.
“Usually, when they book a photo booth, it is a special event.  They feel better knowing someone is there to look after their guests and give them a great experience.”
Pellerine does not distribute photos on site. He has found that customers tend to lose the photos handed to them or they get ruined on tables or in jacket pockets or purses. Instead, all those who participate in the photo booths can sign on to his site and download the pictures for free from there.
“Usually, the photos from an event is up within 48 hours and we will get between 5,000 and 10,000 hits for that event on our site.  People can view the photos when they take them, but they love that they can download them and it gives them something to look forward to after the event is over.”
Pellerine has five machines, all of which he has built himself. Although each costs about $5,000 to build, Pellerine is happy with the design and construction.
“They fit on a rolling golf case and the machines take only about 15 minutes to set up,” he noted. “They are also small enough that I can keep an extra one in the car at all times. The photos that the booths take are very high quality and the clients truly appreciate that.”
Pellerine follows a BYOP (bring your own props) policy so customers can bring in props that fit the theme of their event. His booths, which can fit up to 19 people, can produce both black and white and color pictures.
“The beauty of a self-designed booth is that I can offer not only high-quality photos but I can accommodate the large group shots, which most other booths cannot.”
Nolan and Kimberly Gottschalk started the Royal Oak, Mich.-based ShutterBooth almost by accident.  Kimberly saw a celebrity wedding that featured a photo booth. Seeing the potential for the booths, she developed software that would work with her laptop and camera, while Nolan built a booth. Now, the couple has 44 distributors throughout the United States who rent out the portable photo booths to more than 15,000 events per year, from corporate meetings and retreats to weddings.
“Obviously, our technology has improved and that improvement brings a wonderful way to remember a special event,” Nolan Gottschalk noted. “We are not a drop-off photo booth service. Although the booths are easy to operate for anyone, we have hosts who work the specific events.  We find that with weddings, the brides especially like someone to be there for them.”
With ShutterBooth, event guests receive two print outs of their pictures immediately. At weddings, one print is put into a scrap book for the couple. Plus, the clients have access to an online gallery and they receive a DVD of all the photos taken as well.
“While the photo booths can generate digital backdrops and props, we bring in physical props because it adds to the interactive fun of the booth. We allow people to goof around a bit and get used to the photo booth and then they have a blast.”
Gottschalk believes that the advances in photo booth technology will only add to the popularity of the booths down the road.
“Now, the pictures can be immediately sent to phones and social media, which is a big part of today’s world, and images can be put on T-shirts as well. With each technological advance, more people want the booths to be at their events. It’s fun and gives guests a remarkable memory.”
At one time, Gary Gulley, owner of  Texas Photobooth Company of  Flower Mound, Texas, worked for a photo booth company that placed photo booths in malls, theaters and at other sites. In the mid-1990s, a national magazine was doing a bridal issue and asked if the company would run an ad for their photo booths in the magazine.  Gulley recalls that hundreds of people inquired about having a photo booth, even though it was the non-digital photo booths that were around then.  In 2005, Gulley started his own photo booth and event company, and his booths were state-of-the-art digital.
“At that time, the technology was new and we could charge a lot more because we were the only kid in town,” he observed. “But a few years into it, we saw a lot of photo booth companies pop up. While we cannot charge as much anymore, a lot more people can add the booths to their events and really make it special. It is a fun thing to watch.”
Gulley’s busy season for the photo booths is from April to June, which in the Dallas area is prime wedding season.
“We do 120 to 130 events per year and I would say 75 percent are weddings. I have six or eight part time people who help me out during the busy times and I have four photo booths.  I don’t stay with the booths at the event. It takes a lot of time to deliver them and go back and pick them up.”
Clients can bring their own props or use some of the ones that Gulley provides. The booths can take up to six photos at a time. The prints come with a custom median strip so people can keep it as a souvenir of the event. He also uploads the photos to an online gallery so clients can access them at their convenience.
“Photo booths have become big business, and there are so many varieties out there, so people can choose which is best for them,” Gulley explained.  “As the technology changes, so might the demand, and it might change the dynamic of who is in this industry and who is not. Right now, I market a lot through social media and trade and bridal shows. I have seen the competition grow, so I am always ready to show off what my company can do.” –

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