Making it in Big Sky: Crystal Images
By Sarah Gianelli EBS Associate Editor
Janice and Marshall Tate, co-owners of Crystal Images Professional Photography, started managing the business for its original owners in 1982, just a year after moving to Big Sky to work at the resort. They bought the business outright in 1990. As the official photography company for Big Sky Resort and centrally located in the Mountain Mall, the Tates and their staff of photographers and videographers are pros at capturing outdoor adventure shots, whether slope-side, whitewater rafting, or cruising across the sky on a zipline.
As part of this ongoing series, Janice Tate shared her thoughts with EBS on the reasoning behind their success and longevity as a Big Sky small business.
Explore Big Sky: What has been the key to your success?
Janice Tate: Excellent customer service. We make an extra effort to learn about our customers, their names, where they are from. We ask them about their visit and try to help them with any questions or problems they may be having. We have clients that have been coming to us for so many years that we are now photographing the third generation of skiers in their family.
EBS: What are the biggest obstacles to operating a small business in Big Sky?
J.T.: For many years, the biggest obstacle was finding good people to work with us. There was no permanent population and we often had to bring people in from Bozeman or even further away. Now, Big Sky is an easier and better place to live and it’s easier to find people who want to stay and learn our business and participate in a more year-round way.
EBS: How has the business landscape changed since you started out?
J.T.: When we first started out, all the cameras were film cameras and we processed the film by hand in a dip-n-dunk lab … This was expensive and time consuming to say the least. As digital photography became better and better, we changed over to digital cameras and computers to show our photos. Although the cost of digital equipment still keeps our costs high, we are able to provide quicker turn-around, and more photos for the money.
EBS: What is it about Big Sky that compels you to stick it out through the hard times?
J.T.: We love the wild nature right outside and the fact that we can click into skis or hiking boots and go as far as we care to go, right from our front door.
EBS: What is one of the most memorable moments you have had as a Big Sky resident and/or business owner?
J.T.: One of the most memorable photographic experiences for our company was the Adaptive Snow Sports National Competition that was held at Big Sky several years ago. Several of the racers went on to compete in the Paralympic Games. We were honored to be able to help them by providing photos for their families, websites and sponsors.
EBS: Why do you think some new businesses fold relatively quickly?
J.T.: We believe [it’s because] they fail to anticipate the slow business environment that occurs during the fall and spring off-seasons. It is challenging to keep the doors open and people employed when the tourist traffic slows down.
EBS: What advice would you give to small business owners just starting out in Big Sky?
J.T.: Incorporate housing into your employee inducements package. Not being able to find a place to live, or being forced to live in an unpleasant situation is incredibly de-moralizing for an employee. Our company was fortunate to be able to obtain housing for our employees early in the game.
EBS: What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve received?
J.T.: To invest in quality people and give them the opportunities and encouragement to bring their own style to the business.
EBS: Where do you see your business in 10 years?
J.T.: We are excited to see what the next decade will bring for our business. Digital photography has allowed us to experiment and learn new ways of providing great family portraits and outdoor action photos for our customers. Computer technology has allowed us to deliver the photos in creative and fun ways so that the customer can put the photos to use right away in their social media, albums, and sharing with family and friends. To really do our business right requires attention to detail—really caring about product quality, and our customers and their experiences before, during, and after their trip. We try to be sure that our company contributes greatly to the quality of our guests’ vacations and we hope to continue being an asset to the Resort for decades to come.
Crystal Images – by the numbers
• Staff: winter, 10; summer, 14
• Years in business: 36
• Longest serving employee: John Marshall, 25 years