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Artistic Adornment

Adjusting Standard Henna Artist Booking Rates to Reflect Supply and Demand

Posted by Heather Caunt-Nulton on

We all know that supply and demand is important for pricing, right? In the henna world, the way this most frequently gets implemented is that artists who are, overall, in high demand can command higher prices. 

However, the thing that often gets ignored until it is too late is the relative difference in demand for different specific dates, different days of the week, and even different times of day. How many times have you had tons of inquiries for the same exact date that you immediately filled up fully when you first started taking that year's bookings? In that situation, you usually have just one choice - to send the second gig someone else, as you've already booked yourself up for the first one. And how many times have you kicked yourself when you took a booking for just a couple of hours, and then a much higher value inquiry comes in and you have to turn it down? And how many times have you had many requests for the same Saturday night, while that Saturday morning, and even afternoon, as well as Sunday evening all remain quite open?

Well, it was happening to me all the time. For years, it frustrated me. Eventually, I semi-solved the problem by at least booking other artists to take the gigs when I was already busy. But in time, even with multiple artists working for me frequently, it became clear that some days would still be super busy, with almost everyone I knew working, and then on others, very few or even no artists would get booked.

With certain days in such higher demand than others, what is a henna artist to do? Well, in November 2019, at the very end of the henna season here in the United States, I decided I would set my prices differently to account for this. I would book Mon-Wed at my regular hourly rates, but anyone who wanted to book a Thurs-Sun would have to book a whole day or just not book us at all. Throughout all of 2020, that was my policy. Of course, 2020 was a very weird, sad, and isolated year with almost no henna to do, thanks to the pandemic. I didn't get many inquiries that year, but of the ones I did, I booked precisely zero that the full day rate for that peak season Thurs-Sun bookings required under my new policy. And I did book some other events, including some very nice, well-paying ones, too, so it is not that no one was booking henna in 2020. (All of it that was for 2020 rather than 2021 had to be rescheduled, but that's a story for another day.) Plenty of people were happy to book at my hourly rates. And absolutely no one, not even the people who booked the fanciest hotel in fancy Newport, Rhode Island that literally has its own small island entirely to itself (Gourney's) went for this day rate, even though they could clearly afford it. Not even the people with a 10 acre private estate worth millions in the Berkshire mountains, who had expressed that money was no object repeatedly. If even those folks couldn't make the jump from hiring an artist at an hourly rate as they had expected to booking at a day rate, then it was pretty clear that no one was ready for that right now. At least not how I was selling it.

In the past, I have had great luck with booking my day rate for weddings.  It actually saves the client money and reduces the stress of having time pressures on the day. We do the bride first thing in the morning, do the bridal party as they slowly trickle in throughout the day, waiting for anyone who might be running late with no worries about the clock, and then we end the day with the big mehndi party for all the guests. Sometimes we bring in a second and even third and fourth artist for the party. So, when it was such a great thing for both the artist and the client, why wasn't this day rate thing working now?

Eventually, it became clear - in part because one of the "money is no object" clients told me exactly what was up. Even though they were happy to pay whatever the henna might cost, since they only wanted very simple henna for the bride (about 2 hours), and had very few guests coming on the same day when the bride would get her henna done, and really, they strongly wanted to spread the bridal/guest henna out over two days, they couldn't justify booking two days (effectively 16 hours) of henna when they really only needed maybe 6-10 hours total spread out over the two days. And yeah, that totally makes sense. I wouldn't want to pay for time I knew I wasn't using either. 

So on the one hand, yeah, of course the full day booking thing isn't going to work for every wedding in every possible scenario. It works for a lot of them, and eventually I was still pretty sure that once brides were all in on booking their wedding henna again for 2021 and beyond, I would absolutely still book up every peak season Saturday, and most Fridays, at the day rate. It might take a lot longer than usual to book those dates, but I was willing to wait.

Or was I? Having to say no and disappoint so many brides was really just making me sad. Sure, my business would still be okay, and surely overall way more profitable, if I stuck to my guns on the day rate thing. But I am absolutely not okay with a business model that makes me have sad and disappointing conversations that crush people's dreams again and again, day in and day out. I want happy interactions, where people are so glad they came to me with their lifelong hopes for gorgeous bridal mehndi, because they know I'll take good care of them. 

So how the heck could I reconcile this desire to have my business be profitable with my desire to find a way to book every wedding that came my way and make all the brides happy? As has been true so many times throughout the over eighteen years we've known each other, my husband had the perfect answer. Actually, it was his same answer as always, just applied to a new situation. Charge more. But...but...how could I charge more than the day rate, when the majority of inquirers were resoundingly not into it? Well, no, I couldn't charge more than the day rate... but I could charge more per hour. Whatever would make it actually worth it for me to take the gigs. The thing is - I can make 2x even my full day rate at an excellent festival, and my average is the day rate itself (in fact that's how I arrived at the day rate). So I didn't see how I could get this math to work out, really.

After a lot of playing around with the math and thinking hard through all the different kinds of gigs I have other than weddings, I arrived at a new system. I would do what every hotel does, when they charge more for the tourist season than the slow season, and more for busy holiday weekends than any other time. I would do what every restaurant does, when they offer lower prices for essentially the same exact meal at lunch as compared to dinner. Every airline charges an arm and a leg for Thanksgiving weekend, even if just a couple weeks before or after that, you could fly on a Tuesday or Wednesday for less than half the price. Peak days and times just cost more. All providers of services that are heavily time-and-date dependent do it, so why shouldn't I? Why shouldn't we, as henna artists, have different hourly rates that vary based on the date and time of booking?

In an ideal world, I would have crazy algorithms set up to automatically adjust my pricing based on both known historical trends and demand as it comes in, like the airlines and major hotel chains do. But let's be honest - I'm not there yet. So I at least came up with a system that can work in the meantime:

Monday through Wednesday will purposefully be the cheapest. They will be what my rate has always been (bumped up slightly every year to cover inflation, of course), regardless of the season, because those days of the week are very rarely busy. I had effectively made Monday-Tuesday my weekend, and I do worry that I might mess that up. But I can still take those days off if I really want, as long as I can book other artists to take those Monday-Tuesday events. The idea here is that gigs that are very flexible in their timing and tend to be on weekdays (company events, school events) will shift to choosing these dates because they are now the cheapest. If they've got the flexibility to do these dates, they will. Heck, maybe even a girl's night out might get booked for a Mon/Tues/Wed. So that's cool.

Weekends in the peak season (June through September), as well as holiday weekends, will be at the peak season / holiday rate, which is about 25% more than the cheapest available rate. It's not so much more that if it were really important to a client to book a certain date, they wouldn't go for it. But it's enough that over time, it will hopefully encourage enough people to pick a different date that I am able to spread my bookings out more evenly throughout the week, and therefore I increase my overall number of profitable days.

All the rest of the time, we'll book at the new "standard rate". This is the middle of the road price, for those who are happy to do their bridal henna on Tuesday or Wednesday rather than Thursday or Friday to save some money, and for everyone who wants a weekend date in the off season. It's a bit of a better deal than the peak rates, but still enough higher than the cheapest off-peak rate that the off-peak rate stands out as being the clear bargain.

I feel good about this system, and think it's fair to both me and my clients. About half the week is always still available at my same rates as I have been charging forever and ever. (You know, with those adjustments for inflation...you do those too, right? Well, starting right now you do.) I am still doing right by my clients by providing the same opportunity for my services at the prices they have become used to. I'm just doing what the airlines, restaurants, and hotels have done for time in memorium - charging a premium for high-demand days and times. Here's hoping that this solves the problem of having some days where I simply don't know enough professional henna artists to cover the demand for a certain day, while other days I sit at home completely bored with zero gigs when I'd much rather be working. 2021 is a weird year to give this, or frankly anything, a try, as it seems like the first half of this year is likely also shot, with it taking forever for the COVID-19 vaccine to get to everyone that needs it...but I'll see how it goes and will gladly report back. If it goes even sort of okay in 2021, I'll also give it a try through 2022, to give this new system a solid chance at being tested in a hopefully normal world.