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I'm Ali Rae and I love building brands.
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At the beginning of this year, we lived in northern Virginia…Caleb was still in the Marine Corps…and we thought our dream of opening a wedding venue would likely not happen for a few years.
Now, we live in Kentucky…Caleb is a civilian…and we are opening a wedding venue literally as I type. I cannot believe the transformation our lives have seen.
It has been a whirlwind to say the least. When I sat down to try and write an outline for this blog post, I literally couldn’t find a good way to organize my thoughts because so many parts of my business life have crossed over to affect my personal life, and vice versa. The act of balancing a growing family with growing business[es] is incredibly difficult and lines are easily blurred. So as much as I loved a good, logically (or chronologically…) planned blog post…this one is just going to be stream of consciousness style; William Faulkner would be proud. 🙂
I started the year off by crossing off that bucket list! When we moved to Quantico, I knew we would be there for roughly three years. So when we got there, I did some research and made a “Photography Bucket List” with locations that I wanted to shoot, whether as a paid gig or just simply because it brought me joy to explore a new place. At the beginning of this year, it was certain that Caleb was getting out of the Marine Corps in June, rather than September/October like I originally thought. So right off the bat, at the beginning of the year, I asked some of our friends to model for me at two of the bucket list locations I hadn’t been able to go to yet–the National Cathedral and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. The National Cathedral was breathtaking…and Hannah, my beautiful model, allowed me to pick out her outfits and I seriously couldn’t be happier with the result. Despite construction, we made the gardens and the Cathedral look breathtaking. As for the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, that was also under construction literally the whole time we were stationed at Quantico. So we went anyway and made the best of it! Side note: We also tried to shoot at the Supreme Court building, but this was directly after the January 6th events and pretty much everything was locked down.
This adventure was exciting for two reasons:
It was incredible shooting weddings in multiple different states. This year, I shot weddings in Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C. At one point, I thought I wanted to be a destination photographer, so this was huge for me! While goals and priorities have changed, I am still so thankful for all the opportunities to travel to photograph the love stories of my clients.
I photographed the same family in the same place three years in a row. This is significant for a few reasons. First, to see a family grow and document those changes, the memories, and those fleeting childhood years is so significant to me! The second reason is that the loyalty this family has shown my business makes me truly so grateful. They are a military family and we photographed their family at the Marine Corps Museum three years in a row. One of their sessions was when their youngest was just a few weeks old (born around the same time as Jackson!). And then to come back the next year and see that same little guy walking towards my camera…those…those are the moments that make my job special.
The transition out of the Marine Corps was harder than I expected. Caleb has been in the Marine Corps the entire time we have been married. It’s been seven years of training exercises, moves, deployments, and overall typical military life. I always thought I was strong for how well I handled the unpredictable lifestyle. But holy moly…despite the unpredictability, there is also stability in the military. There is always a job. Always a paycheck. Always a place to live. Always healthcare (even if it sometimes feels like the care isn’t the best…it’s still there). When we transitioned out, it was hard for us because there was unpredictability and instability. Alas, we landed on our feet, but not without a few arguments and worries in the meantime.
We sold our house in North Carolina and closed down the Airbnb business. Phew, that was a roller coaster. So many emotions were wrapped up into that house…because it was our first home. If you all have been following along, you know that we lived there for three years while Caleb was stationed at Lejeune, then we had long-term renters in that house starting in the fall of 2018. After just a year of living in it, they had completely trashed it. We had to replace carpet, appliances (some were broken, some were stolen); it reeked of cat urine; just so much stuff was wrong. That is when we decided to give it new life as an Airbnb. There weren’t many in the area and we were near the beach and the base, so we figured it would be perfect for families coming to visit their service members or those looking for an affordable vacation. After a year and a half (almost two years!) of that, our priorities had changed since the wedding venue project had become a reality. In an effort to put all our energy towards our project in Kentucky, we decided to sell. We had THE best realtor; the process was mostly easy; but we left a piece of our hearts in NC with that house.
We had the honor of shooting at the Home of the Commandants. The son of the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Jeff, and his fiancée (now wife!), Stephanie, got married at the Home of the Commandants in Washington, D.C. It was an incredible honor to be surrounded by their family and friends. As a spouse of a Marine, I was just in awe of how beautiful their home was and how sweet and welcome their family was. I will never forget Mrs. Berger offering me cider and coffee when I first walked in! The chef that prepared the meal for the guests had cooked for both President Obama and President Trump…I honestly just felt like I was amidst royalty. Caleb was my second shooter for Stephanie and Jeff’s wedding and I know he was greatly honored to shoot with me as well. Overall, it was a highlight of my career.
Juggling multiple businesses with two young children amidst major life changes is not for the faint of heart. Have you ever heard Thomas Rhett’s songs, “Life Changes”? That was basically the soundtrack of our life this year. Like I mentioned earlier, there is constant crossover between business and personal life these days. Of course we structure it so that we minimize this, but sometimes it is inevitable. I cannot remember who I heard this analogy from, but they described life as juggling balls. Some of the balls are rubber and will bounce if you drop them. Other balls are glass and will break if you drop them. So you have to determine which balls in your life are rubber and which are glass and plan accordingly. My kids, those babies are glass. My husband, he is a little fragile too. My business, as much as I often prioritize it like it’s a glass ball, it’s rubber. See the next bullet for more on the balance…
I have limits…can you believe it? Me either. Do you guys remember The Photography Framework project? That one that just basically disappeared mid-year? Yea, I poured a lot into that. The videos, the resources, all the background work is done. It is ready to be marketed and rolled out to help new and aspiring photographers/business owners. But I just didn’t have the capacity to put my whole heart into that while navigating the single biggest transition Caleb and I had ever faced as a couple. And you know what? I chose to give myself grace. Does that mean that project died and will never come back? Certainly not. It will make its reappearance in 2022. But at that moment back in May when I was supposed to launch everything…I just couldn’t. And that’s okay.
We moved to Kentucky. Yep, everyone always asks–Why Kentucky? And my answer is that it was always Caleb’s dream to live in Kentucky (bourbon and horses…what more could a man need?). For the past few years since entering the wedding world, it has been my dream to open a wedding venue. So we took both of our dreams and made them reality (not without the help of family though!). But let me tell you, that was yet another hard transition. When you’re in the military world, everyone immediately wants to make friends. Even the civilians that live near bases know that time in one place is fleeting, so no one really hesitates to get to know the person next to them. That wasn’t the case when we moved to a civilian area. Lots of people already have their friends, their relationships, their routines. It has been really difficult and incredibly isolating living in a new place where we know next to no one! All while running a photography business in another state, raising two kids, being a wife, starting a new business and navigating the legalities of that (more on that in a second), and you know, just overall trying to stay a happy lady. Don’t hear me wrong–I’m not complaining. Simply just citing challenges that we didn’t anticipate because we were so used to a lifestyle where…if you put yourself out there, someone would reciprocate. Like I said, it has been a transition.
Y’all, we are starting a wedding venue! I know this is the one that you clicked on the post to read. So here it is in a nutshell. We had the opportunity to pursue this dream. It started to become a reality back in April. We came down to Lexington to look at some properties, seven total. We had been looking over a year, but left the area back in July 2020 a little discouraged because we couldn’t find anything we liked. Finally, the property I was not a fan of based off the Realtor listing, but Caleb insisted we go see it. Well, long story short, that ended up being the one. In May, the offer was put in and accepted. Closing was at the end of July and we moved down August 1st. We named the venue The Commonwealth. The property has three structures on it–a main house (bridal suite and guest rooms are here), the guest house (the honeymoon suite and groom suite are here), and a large metal shop, which we are renovating to become the reception hall. We will be able to host up to 200 guests for weddings and 15 of those guests can stay overnight. The start-up process of the venue is proving to be far more challenging than that of my photography business. It is far different crossing over from a service-based business to an actual structure where people come (there comes a lot more liability with that).
We also had to go through the Conditional Use Permit process through our county. Essentially what this means is that our land is zoned a certain way, but we want to use it another way. So for our case in particular, we are zoned Agriculture and wanted to use the property for a business, thus Commercial uses. The Conditional Use Permit process was far more intense than either of us anticipated. We put in a lot of research hours, talked to many county officials, and ended up having to hire a real estate attorney. Now that all is said and done, we have the Conditional Use Permit and are officially allowed to host weddings and overnight guests. It was a relief to get that permit and we are now in the planning phase of the structures. If you have been following along on Instagram, you know we are furnishing the main house and guest house room-by-room. We will soon be starting on the reception hall as well, and we.can’t.wait!
Our goal is to begin hosting weddings in September of 2022. As of right now, we have been advised by contractors that this is a feasible goal. We are currently living in the main estate and will be building our home on the same property as the venue.
It truly is all a dream come true, and sometimes I wake up in this house and it still doesn’t feel real. We are so thankful for everyone who has been and continues to support us along this journey.
This year has left me feeling fulfilled, but tired. I feel like it will take a whole extra year to just process all the changes we have faced in the last 12 months. But life keeps progressing forward, balls keep getting juggled, and it seems like we are simultaneously processing the past and planning the future.
There are a lot of people to thank for this past year being a success, despite so many moving parts:
To my parents and Caleb’s parents, thank you for only being a call or text away to watch the kids while we shoot weddings/sessions.
To my parents, thank you for letting us live with ya for a month while we were in between homes (oh, I didn’t mention that? Yea, that happened too.).
To my kids who can’t read but still deserve a shout out, thank you for being the best travel companions and for teaching me the importance of glass balls.
To my husband…where do I even start? When I was drowning, you jumped down and saved me. When I was doubting, you proved me wrong. Thank you isn’t enough, but will have to suffice.
To my ARHP clients, y’all are rockstars and so understanding. I have done my best to keep your experiences top notch, and I appreciate you all taking my calls on car rides with my kids in the background and giving me grace when I took an extra day or two to respond to your emails. This business and our life wouldn’t be possible without you all.
There have been many more behind-the-scenes people who I have collaborated with this year, but one special one deserves a shout out–Kassie, thank you so much for always being the person I am able to hand tasks to when I don’t know where to start, the person who is willing to voice text endlessly as I work through a business idea. You are an incredibly helpful force that I feel lucky to know!
Cheers to the conclusion of 2021 and its transformational nature. Here’s to 2022 where dreams continue to come true! Signing off until the New Year!
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