How hotels can use photography to excite, inspire and inform

By Geoff Agnew
September 17, 2014
DesignHospitalityStrategy

The primary goal for a hotel website shouldn’t be conversions.

The true goal – the oft-neglected contributor to conversions – is effective visual communication. After all, communication is a key ingredient in transforming browsers to buyers. You express yourself in a thoughtful, engaging way and conversions come naturally.

You may be asking yourself, “What is this man on about? Visual Communication?! We’re communicating with guests. We have professionally crafted copy, dozens of photos and even some video on our website”.

To be clear, I’m not referring to simply displaying photography on your website. What I’m talking about is the ability to persuade people. The ability to take a traveler from a place of ignorance and guide them to a place of understanding, insight and interest. Photography alone isn’t the answer; it’s how you wield photography that will ultimately decide how visitors perceive and engage with your hotel.

The strategic use of photography is an exceedingly effective way to communicate with potential visitors. What do I mean by that? Allow me to outline a fictional case study to illustrate my point.

Chateau Fondue. A remarkable place but you’d never know it.

Chateau Fondue is a mid-size boutique hotel nestled in the Coastal Mountains of British Columbia. Considerable time and capital has been spent developing the physical spaces and amenities at the hotel. Their service is renowned amongst past guests and is a big contributor to repeat visits. The biggest draw, especially for new visitors, is their location. The hotel is situated on a crisp glacier fed lake with an abundance of outdoor activities nearby. In combination with the stunning location, these activities are recognized as the biggest motivator for guests. As such, successfully showcasing them on the website is of paramount concern.

Listed below are the most prominent activities available at Chateau Fondue

  • Guided fishing trips on the lake
  • Equestrian adventures
  • Canoe and kayak rentals
  • Romantic picnic on a small island a half kilometer from shore
  • Self guided hiking day-trips

Certainly lots of options for the outdoorsy traveler. This is how Chateau Fondue currently presents activities on their website:

Click image to enlarge

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Not bad but not great either. Basic information is being presented which is good. People are now aware these activities exist. But does this page successfully transport you to the physical place? Does it let you taste the experience of trout fishing on Lake Fondue or trail running in the alpine? Most importantly, if you were looking for a memorable travel experience, would this page convince you to open your wallet?

So Chateau Fondue has a problem. Their real life product is exceptional but their portrayal online undermines that value. Simply put, it’s disappointing.

Let’s examine where Chateau Fondue failed to capitalize on opportunities to better communicate the experience with customers.

  • Small photos, some of dubious quality. Some photos are too general and say nothing unique about the experience (eg., picnic basket)
  • The small quantity of photography leaves the visitor feeling underwhelmed about the experience. They may even start questioning the value of visiting Chateau Fondue. Does this place really have great fishing? It barely registers on the page
  • Little thought has been put into the arrangement of the photos
  • No clear options for obtaining additional information
  • Failure to facilitate bookings at key junctures of the experience

Now that we’ve identified these deficiencies, Chateau Fondue can take action to remedy the problem.

Step 1 – Building a robust photographic library

Chateau Fondue needs to work towards building a library of photography that transports people into the experience and physical place (of course video works very well too but that’s another topic altogether). This photography assists potential guests in composing a mental picture that acts as a proxy to real life. We believe this is best achieved through a mixture of photographic styles:

The Long shot

The long shot (environmental shot if you will) is a type of photograph that gives people a sense of context, scale and place. These are the most common types of photographs and odds are they make up the bulk of your current photography collection. They are generally the most important and normally not the problem when it comes to composing a varied collection of images. These are the kinds of images most hospitality marketing directors are familiar with.

Hotel Saint Cecilia. Photography by Nick Simonite
Singita

The Detail Shot

Detail shots illuminate the nuances and subtleties of a place or experience. This kind of shot introduces intimacy to the story you’re telling – they are the ying to the yang of the long shot. This is normally where hoteliers stumble when assembling a photographic collection. Traditionally all of the focus has been on the long shot, which makes sense. The long shot is the most important because it establishes place. Of course, once you’ve transported the visitor to that place it’s time to help them feel it. The detail shots help give significance to certain objects and in doing so, help viewers better appreciate what it is they’re potentially buying.

This step is not easy since good photography can be expensive and obtaining it often requires some organizational resources. Despite those obstacles, developing a library of appropriate, relevant photography should be a primary goal for almost every hotelier.

Step 2 – Presentation of photography within a website

This is where we exercise the strategic use of photography mentioned earlier. This is as much about shooting the right images as it is about strategy and visual design. Admittedly, this step is largely the domain of the content strategist and designer. That said, I cannot overstate how important client involvement is to this kind of planning. Consultants will do everything in their power to know your customers and business goals but they’re no replacement for an informed, engaged team member from the hotel.

Chateau Fondue needs to prioritize each activity so they can organize the content on the page for maximal impact. Chateau Fondue knows that anglers, couples looking for romantic activities and equestrians generate the most interest. As such they’ve decided to create individual pages to better express the value each activity offers. Each of these pages might include a number of long-shot photographs in addition to a handful of detail shots arranged in a thoughtful way that helps guide people through the experience. We’re not spelling it out for people; we’re projecting a general feel of what the experience is like. Almost like a primed canvas waiting for their own brush strokes. The quality, variety and arrangement of imagery help eliminate the feeling of disappointment outlined above. Chateau Fondue has woven a little world for visitors to transport themselves to. Below is the improved page design for Guided Fishing at Chateau Fondue:

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Photo Credits: Guide head shots (Langara Fishing Adventures)

Let’s take a closer look at the new page design:

  • To begin with, we’ve created a separate page for each activity rather than listing all activities on one page. This gives Chateau Fondue the opportunity to really flesh out the details of the experience
  • The page now opens with a big, striking image that speaks directly to angler’s interest. Overtop we’ve presented a testimonial (and somewhat provocative one at that) from a past guest and a link to additional guest testimonials (they appear lower on the page)
  • The ‘About Lake Fondue’ provides general details relating to the lake and fishing conditions. This section opens with a long shot that establishes place. The section is concluded with a series of images (mix of long shot and detail shots) that speak to the quality of the fishery and stunning scenery
  • Next we introduce guests to the senior guide team. The success of guided trips is largely dependent on the guides themselves. We feel it important to give guests an idea of who they’ll be interacting with and their experience. This establishes trust and adds a layer of transparency to the operation. We bookend this section with a call to action in the event guests want to obtain more information on guided trips. This link could take users to a simple form, live chat widget or email
  • Next we present testimonials from past guests in carousel format. The background is a mosaic comprised of images from successful fishing trips. This helps reinforce the perception that fish in the area are of high quality and success rates are great too
  • Lastly we present guests with relevant package offers. The top third of the page is all about setting things up – educating and exciting guests. If we’ve successfully communicated the value for anglers at Chateau Fondue, now is our opportunity to convert

This new page design is only possible with a robust collection of photography. The striking shots of salmon underwater, anglers casting with mountain peaks in the background, closeups of beautifully speckled brown trout, guide head shots and shots of guests displaying their prized catch. Without them, our page is a mere shell. Certainly you could do this with text alone but achieving the same impact would be very difficult if not impossible.

Some of the points discussed in this article are obvious to readers. Much of it sounds quite simple in theory. Experience however, tells me it’s the opposite in application. Successful visual communication can be time consuming to do well. It takes planning, imagination and determination. But it’s worth it. People want to be engaged and inspired. If you’ve developed a stunning experience you owe it to both yourself and your guests to communicate that in the best way possible.

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