What is a retainer and why does it matter?

Maybe it’s taboo to talk about money, particularly in the wedding industry. However in the time of Covid19, it’s become necessary to openly discuss money and the business side of weddings, specifically the concept of a retainer.

Ah, the retainer. Not a deposit. A retainer. This post pertains to both clients and photographers alike, so we can all get on the same page about what a retainer is, why it’s paid, the differences between what a retainer means for different vendors, and why you should be hard pressed to find a vendor who will refund it, even during a pandemic.

I am the son of a lawyer and let me tell you, arguing in my family growing up was NO JOKE. I had to be ready to plead my case heartily, have supporting evidence readily available, relevant documented examples, and come to the table with iron clad fool proof research under my belt to plead my case. Lemme tell ya, it was rough. But now that I’ve had to create my own contract and business terms and practices, it’s one of those life lessons you never knew would come in handy. And it’s taken me hours to comb through and perfect the contracts I’ve made for my business, so honestly it sort of hurts my feelings when clients and planners don’t thoroughly read it – let alone adhere to it. 

One of the first things I say to clients up front is READ MY CONTRACT. Did you read it? But did you read it all? But really, did you? Not only do I consider it a fine piece of art, but it’s truly designed to cover both myself as a business owner and you as my client. It’s mutually beneficial. It addresses many unforeseen and worst case scenarios (including pandemics and their aftermath) that help us both move onward and upward. The first term you’ll find in my contract payment terms is the retainer is non refundable - under all circumstances.

Yes, no matter what happens (apocalypse and pandemic included) the retainer is non refundable. Here’s why....

Why a Retainer is Non-refundable

At the core of it, owning a small business is essentially freelancing. Covid19 has dropped the curtain on the ugly side of this truth. When the work stops, the business stops. Sure we can all carry on with upkeep by posting to Instagram, working on your website, following up with inquiries, and marketing your heart out. But if weddings are your major source of income, then you might be feeling the financial squeeze right now. On top of that, couples who have either totally cancelled (eek!) their wedding or have decided on a postponement date well in the future (some when their vendor isn’t available) may misunderstand the contract and believe they can call for their retainer to be returned. 

A big reason the retainer is non refundable is that the money has been spent with time. Yes, time. Emails, proposal creation, tracking expenses, phone calls, texts with you, all before, during, and immediately after we book together - all these tasks take time to craft and perfect. Just like you’re paying a photographer for their time on your wedding day, you’re also paying them for their time regarding administrative and behind the scenes work, not to mention providing you as the client our attention and services as promised.

Another big one is equipment cleaning and upkeep – something few people think about including photographers themselves. All equipment is included and outlined in well drawn photographic contracts. Cameras break. Lenses crack. Strobe flash bulbs crap out, memory cards may start to fritz (NOT GOOD) and so on and so forth. My gear needs to be tip top throughout the wedding season. I need to know that my lead gear and backup gear alike are functioning properly BEFORE I set foot on your venue, during the wedding, and after as I start to cull through and edit images using multiple hard drives. The retainer pays for lots of upkeep and equipment repairs not covered by insurance. 

But ultimately the retainer is exactly what it says it is. It is meant as the word implies, to “retain” my services for your wedding date as I am able to attend with health and capability. Monies are paid up front to ensure through contract that I’m all yours for your wedding and no one will be able to steal me away from you. If a pandemic changes your date, it gets a bit more complicated in that we need to start moving dates around, but the short of it remains the same: if the contract states the retainer is non refundable then it is non refundable. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. 

Please allow me to explain in further detail this final point as it pertains to small business survival during the Covid19 pandemic...

Small Businesses and the Retainer

If a small business had to give back retainers to all of the clients they are no longer available for during pandemic postponements, they would be in quite a financial bind. I get it – money is tight for everyone, clients and vendors alike – but at the end of the day this truly is a business revolving around what should be universal professional practices. Weddings are a business. We’re not Amazon, Apple or Google, who are huge corporations that have the capability of less stringent purchase/return policies. However, we are beholden to all the same rules and regulations and contract agreements on a smaller scale. If we all started giving retainers because of pressure to please clients or somesuch,, we’d be backing out on contract terms that should be upheld and sustained, thus weakening the wedding industry’s solidarity not to mention setting poor examples for our colleagues to be able to take the same stance..

The flipside of this is some of the inquiries I’ve received: “We are looking for a photographer, ours wasn’t available for our postponement date and wouldn’t give the retainer back, so we only have X dollars for our wedding, are you available?” or “Would you be able to give a discount for our date since our other photographer wasn’t available and kept the retainer?” In the face of not giving any sort of postponement discount, I also was told “Well OTHER photographers offered a discount, why won’t you?” which in itself is exactly the wrong thing for colleagues to do. I get it, money is tight, and the knee jerk reaction is to grab as much as you can, when you can. This is a slippery slope, as they say, and brings the entire economy of the wedding industry to it’s knees. The short answer to all of these inquiries is ‘no’. The emotionality of weddings cannot cloud the judgement of your vendors when taking into account their business practices and livelihoods – it’s doing clients a direct disservice by starting the relationship this way. My rates are my rates no matter what. It’s nothing personal, it really is just business.

Another point to clear up is that a pandemic is not force majeure. Force majeure is when something happens that affects ME from not being about to shoot your wedding. A sudden tropical storm or flood washes my house away the night before and all my gear is ruined. If I get food poisoning and literally cannot stand let alone shoot your wedding. If a traffic jam comes out of nowhere and I’m freakishly unable to get to your venue on time. These are considered force majeure. The pandemic has forced people to RESCHEDULE  their weddings, with plenty of thoughtful lead time as to make the best choices in moving forward. There are options for postponement dates, and if somehow not one of them lands on a date I’m available, yet theoretically I’m still ready, willing, and able to have photographed your wedding, the unfortunate truth is the retainer is thus upheld by the terms of the contract. And again - the retainer has been spent with time, now adding in emails and conversations about how best to move forward.

This sounds ugly right? Unjust? Unfair? Well, honestly, that’s business and retainers are meant to keep me in business. They’re meant to keep us all afloat as single entities and small business survivors. Pandemics are not an excuse to break contract agreements and demand refunds – literally for any reason. 

Now, good business practices for softening the blow of a non refundable retainer could be a credit of the payment amount for some other kind of shoot – maybe save it for a holiday party, birthday party, smaller engagement shoot, family / maternity down the road, or maybe a professional portrait session. If your photographer is willing to set aside this time for the retainer amount paid to put towards a shoot in an off season time that’s less busy with weddings, that’s an awesome solution! There are ALWAYS creative solutions to problems, but I want to be clear – these are also done out of the kindness of our hearts, as a way of doing good business. These concessions are not in any way necessary or required. 

I know this sounds harsh. I know you may be interpreting my tone insensitive within an industry that’s built on happiness, dreams, and the emotion of the best day of your life. However, as I continue to speak candidly with impartial resolve - it’s called the wedding industry for a reason, and the industry is made up of mostly small businesses who require retainers to stay afloat, especially during unforeseen strenuous circumstances - but mainly just during regular times with business as usual. Retainers are used for the reasons I mentioned, but they can also be used as personal income salaries, business bill payment, personal bill payment, all the things the PERSON behind the BUSINESS May need to survive alongside using the fees to service their clients needs. 

There’s a healthy way to integrate discussing the financials alongside all the joy and fun in talking about the venue lighting, florals, and photographs. And of course, there are circumstances in contracts that DO depict situations where a return of retainer is warranted. But this process of being open about why retainers are not refundable starts with vendors maintaining their contract terms and speaking openly about them, as well as speaking with lawyers (not Google, actual lawyers) about the language they include and it’s structure. The second part starts with clients actually reading contracts and asking questions about any provisions they may not fully understand outright.