It's interesting when you start thinking about all hospitality marketing from a customers perspective in 2016. As you may well be aware, there is a huge resurgence in recognising the real value of customer experience (CX) marketing happening right now. It's the realisation that the customer experience is perhaps more valuable than anything else in marketing these days.
That's because people love to rave about great customer experiences online on social media such as Facebook and TripAdvisor. It's also no mistake that this site is called Raving because it reflects this new trend which is here to stay.
Never before has the customer wielded so much power to make or break your hospitality business in the palm of their hand.
It is driving rapid change in what is still mainly a very staid and traditional industry - hospitality.
Many people will disagree with my stance when it comes to ideal photography for hotels and restaurants. But here is the important distinction. I am talking about the ideal photography for the customer, not the bean counter in the back office.
This is going to be a long article because it is something I am very passionate about. It is however, incredibly important particularly for hotels that they get their photography right. It is less important for restaurants, but the same principles apply.
When looking at customer experience it's helpful to think about the customer journey. Or in other words, put yourself in the customers' shoes from the very beginning right through to the end of their experience.
How a Typical Customer Books a Hotel
Hotels tend to get evaluated mostly online these days - and within a few seconds. With restaurants, if you have a great location you may attract passing foot traffic. So photography may not make or break you - but for a hotel it's the most important aspect of your branding which is then used for almost all of your digital marketing!
So it does surprise me why some good hotels still have thoughtless photography considering your photographs are possibly the first touch point someone has with your hotel. Photos take on even greater importance for hotels because they are universally understood in all languages and countries. Photographs also offer instant, visceral impressions without need for mental processing.
Although people form an impression from a photo almost instantaneously, different people will also react differently and draw different conclusions, often on a subconscious level.
That's why the safest option is to take a minimalist strategy in terms of people in photos.
The Type of Photographer You Probably Need
The type of photographer you need will vary based on your brand positioning. But in 99% of cases, we would advise against hiring a photographer specialising in 'lifestyle' photos. What I mean by this is the photographer who insists on using models, makeup artists and food stylists to enhance your hotel photos.
This can potentially backfire for many reasons. Firstly, the photos may look 'too good' and guests ultimate expectations will be too high. The overuse of HDR or high dynamic range photography is one such area of contention where things have started to get out hand.
Instead, I recommend hiring a photographer skilled in architecture and interior design. There are many reasons for this but here are some of them:
They are generally more skilled and experienced with getting good results from natural light. Their equipment will be more appropriate. A whole blog post could be written on this, but suffice to say they should have appropriate wide angle rectilinear lenses (not fish eye) and tilt shift lenses.
If need be, in certain situations - they will be able to deploy off the camera flash where required to get the perfect shot. They probably have other equipment suited for architecture such as geared head tripods and familiarity with levelling the tripod to reduce converging straight lines.
Bottom line is - a photographer who either specialises in Hotel Photography, Architecture or Interior Design will be better than a real estate photographer.
That's because a Real Estate photographers workflow is geared towards getting quick shots with less consideration for mood, styling and attention to detail.
Avoid general photographers that specialise in Weddings or Portrait photos. They are probably perfectly capable, but unless they have the right equipment, experience and passion - they won't be able to produce the perfect photos you are looking for.
Advanced Photography Techniques
HDR Photography is now very popular and emerged from the Real Estate industry where you really just want the best looking photo - because the more people that view the property the better.
But with hotel photography what you really want is a natural, clean and vibrant photo that also accentuates the view from the hotel room while correctly exposing the room. Extreme tone mapping of hotel photography and in particular the rooms can produce an unrealistic image that may 'pop' from the page - but it does not reflect the reality guests will experience when they open the door on the hotel room for the first time.
Deep down, they will reconcile the photo they remember online to the picture they are seeing. They will be disappointed, even if it's sub consciously.
However, HDR photography which uses 'bracketed' exposure shots is very useful if done with subtlety and without extreme tone mapping. It enables the photographer to combine photos in post production to show the highlights at the correct exposure (for example - that beautiful blue sky and greenery outside) together with the interior at the correct exposure.
Another option to discuss with your photographer is to take several shots, one exposed for the room and the other for the exterior view and then paint the windows back in Photoshop.
Finally, another trick is to use flash photography to light the room while exposing for the outside. This ensures you can see the view outside, and the room is still bright.
These methods are all used by commercial architectural and interior design photographers - and you should be aware of what's included with your shoot to ensure the best results.
The exception to this is perhaps where your hotel backs onto a car park or building, and you don't really want to show the view.
The choice then becomes to show the view and not disappoint guests - or hide it by closing the blinds and potentially get rated badly on TripAdvisor - tough choice!
The Hero Image
The exception to the suggestion of not over exaggerating your room and facility photography would be your main hero image. That is the first photo used throughout your online presence and is normally the exterior of the hotel. If your hotel has an unremarkable exterior though, it may be your lobby or even a hotel room interior.
If your hero image is the exterior of your hotel, there is really only one way to do it right. It should be taken during the golden hour of photography near sunset. This is known as a dusk shot or twilight shot.
If you are using the exterior as your hero image, a good photographer can use several tricks to ensure the best results. These normally involved taking bracketed or multiple shots, and then compositing these in Photoshop - or using HDR photography which provides for a much larger dynamic range.
In general, you want to turn as many exterior lights on as possible including hotel rooms lights. The last thing you want is an empty looking hotel. Don't over do it though - there is such thing as a balance. For example, if your lower floors are empty consider switching these interior lights on for the main hero image shot.
These types of photos are prevalent in the Real Estate industry and favoured by Real Estate agents. They work very well for hotels as well. The end result is not just a welcoming photo that say 'come and stay here tonight' but the longer exposures on dusk photography tend to blow out the highlights such as street lamps or exterior lighting.
This has the effect of drawing someones eye to your main photo when browsing through Booking.com or other OTAs. In a sea of competition - you absolutely need your hero shot to grab people's attention! This is the perfect place to exercise some artist's license in post production and create an attention grabbing photo.
Another more advanced technique you can discuss with a good professional photographer is the use of flash lighting to paint light in areas of your photo which are then merged/composited in Photoshop.
This technique can take hours to do properly, and can be sued on both internal and external photography.
Lobby shots should generally be taken with no guests present. To include guests is asking for trouble. Both in terms of accidentally capturing somebody that isn't one of your target audience (e.g. an old person in a hotel marketed to millennials) and just the fact that person may not reflect the type of guest your are aiming for.
What's more - people have some expectation of privacy in hotels, even in public areas and it is not the right thing to do.
Sure, you can attempt a stylised shoot with one of your ideal customers' appearing in the photo but that can backfire. Your hotel probably doesn't just target one avatar. Unless it's a female only hotel, or targeting a very specific niche - putting an example of your target audience in the lobby shot will inevitably backfire one way or another.
In any case, people are drawn to other people in images. You want them to be drawn to the beautiful architecture, interior design and ambience of the lobby.
If you must take photography of the lobby with people, discuss blurring those people out during the shot using a longer exposure with your photographer, or doing this in post production in Photoshop as required.
I recommend shooting the lobby shot with 2-3 staff behind the reception desk (two is ideal).
They should be dilligently doing something of course, like on the phone, or using a computer but standing up - not seated. The staff should look happy or at least - not bored out of their minds or slouching around.
If they are smiling they can be smiling at each other, but not at the camera.
Women are always more perceived to be more friendly and approachable, so ideally you have two women or one woman and one man behind the lobby.
Similar principles to the lobby shot apply here in terms of showing some staff. However it depends on the style and format of the restaurant. It may in some circumstances be appropriate to show the restaurant full of guests if it's right in the middle of a busy service and it's a 'bistro style' restaurant.
But most of the time it is better and safer to show the restaurant empty, perhaps with it's logo or branding visible in the photo so people can reconcile that photo later in their minds once they stay.
In terms of actual food photography for hotels, each restaurant will have to be taken considered individually.
Internal Restaurant photography is normally best taken anytime during the day using natural lighting. But that also depends!
If your restaurant is Fine Dining, and it only opens for dinner service, it doesn't make much sense to photograph it during the daytime. That's because a potential diner cannot imagine the experience if they are seeing the restaurant in daytime light. They can't get swept away by the ambience and atmosphere.
With food on the other hand, it should always be taken in natural day light preferably on tables close to natural light sources like windows. If this is not possible, it may still be possible to get good food photography under either the ambient light or with the addition of additional artificial lighting supplied by the photographer.
However, you should definitely avoid the use of direct on the camera flash photography. When adding extra artificial light I mean 'off the camera' flash with light modifiers that shape and soften the light if required.
Bear in mind you may want to take additional shots for use in your general marketing such as posters for lifts advertising the restaurant, or in hotel compendiums, email marketing and other promotions.
If in doubt about whether to shoot the restaurant with diners or not - simply do both to give you the most flexibility later.
Interior Room Shot Techniques
Your room shots are obviously more important than anything else apart from the single hero image which is the first one seen at OTAs on page results. These shots should normally be taken at the best time of the day which is late afternoon and approaching sunset - but that depends which way the room faces - and whether you even want to show the view outside.
Light towards the end of the day is warmer and more inviting. If the view from rooms is not appealing, then just close the sheer curtains and have the beautiful later afternoon light stream through.
This way, the windows will not be overexposed. But if you are shooting 'bracketed multiple exposures', a good photographer should be able to capture interior/exterior and have everything correctly exposed.
Bracketing multiple exposures refers to a photography technique where multiple shots of the same exact photo (with the camera on a tripod) are taken and then used to increase the dynamic range of the photo in post processing, or to merge several photos together.
There are exceptions to this, for example where the bathroom is naturally dark and there is a small external window facing the sun. This is an example though of where photographing this later in the day would make it easier to show the view outside rather than during the intense daytime light (because of the higher contrast).
In most cases I don't recommend using shots of bathrooms for your online presence. It doesn't matter how expertly a toilet is photographed, it is not something people want to look at.
The exception would be if your bathroom has exceptional amenities such as spa baths or is unusually spacious.
Ask your photographer to shoot the bathroom, but consider not using these shots and certainly try not to include the actual toilet in the frame.
Styling or Staging the Room
When I refer to styling or staging the room for a photo shoot, I am referring to items that are added to the scene as props.
Typical cliche styling items include fruit bowls, bananas, apples, wine glasses, wine bottles etc. all of which won't be there when the guest arrives - which means potential disappointment.
You could also say that decluttering was styling the room but to me they are two different things. Subtle decluttering of the room is recommended as it helps the key features of the room stand out.
For example, removing small notepads or pens that are placed next to telephones is an example of decluttering which should be done. You should also remove any promotional brochures and especially plastic brochure holders.
Also consider what I call micro-styling certain areas of the room. For example, you may want to tidy up, straighten or remove parts of the tea and coffee making facilities if the colours clash.
I certainly don't recommend adding lavish fruit bowls, cheese boards or other spreads unless they are part of your normal guest experience.
I have seen some hotels who have styled a room with everything from extra pillows to champagne to chocolate covered strawberries - to what looks like a twist on the Mad Hatter's tea party.
All of this is somewhat false and will have those 'fake' alarm bells going off in the minds of guests.
Placing models or talent in the room for your shots is also a risky endeavour and only recommended for your hero shot.
The Pool Shot
For a 5-Star hotel or resort the pool shot is absolutely critical. This shot is also best taken normally at sunset, but it may also be possible during sunrise. There is also much less chance that the pool area is brimming with guests at 5.30AM in the morning!
This is a problematic area for shooting because in all likelihood the pool area will have guests up until past sunset.
This is something that needs to be worked out with the photographer, but the options include closing the pool area for 30 minutes during the shoot (by advising guests at least three days in advance) or by having the photographer setup for the shot with their tripod 'ready to go' and then politely having management ask guests to move out of the frame for a few seconds.
This is also an example of where a free drink from the manager on duty at that time would be very much welcomed by guests - and have them even more likely to leave a raving review after their stay.
The pool of course should be scrupulously clean, and it will also require tidying and preparing the deck chairs to make sure they are appealing. If you offer cushions for guests in the pool area, then these cushions should be on every single deck chair.
While the color of the pool is important - your photographer will easily be able to adjust the blue hue, saturation and luminescence to make it look more inviting (at least hey should be!).
If you offer pool side service then one waiter could be discreetly standing by the pool side either holding a tray of cocktails or beers (beers look great under sunset light) or otherwise looking like they are providing service to guests.
This is one area of the shoot where it might be worth consider the subtle use of models. If your hotel pool area is largely used by families, then this is a great time to consider a family shot. It will really depend on the budget for the shoot.
If the budget won't stretch to an entire good looking, tanned, trim and coordinated happy family then consider the next best thing, either an attractive couple or two women. The age of the couple will depend on your target audience, but of course they should be attractive, tanned and look like they are enjoying themselves and the service.
In conclusion, if you really want to include a 'lifestyle shot' - restrict it to the pool area and preferably make those models the background not the actual feature. The feature should still remain the beautiful pool area.
Having said that, the pool area is about the only place you can sneak in a background shot of an attractive man or women semi dressed and get away with it!
Many guests are pretty fussy about the fitness facilities because they workout regularly and for these guests, the gym is just as important as the room.
Gym photos are best taken when the gym is empty without models for your general online presence photos.
If you have a specific page on your marketing website for your gym (which you should probably should have) then this is where a hero image of the gym with models/talent can look great. Consider using the same models that you used in your main hero image shots.
You can also use this hero shot of the gym with models in your general marketing, for example in hotel compendiums.
Guests will want to see what type of cardio equipment you have (treadmills, cross trainers, rowers, bikes etc) but also the range and sizes of your free weights and whether you have any benches.
The problem with commissioning a really good photographer, and what I mean by that is someone with many years of experience, who has probably won awards and always travels with an entourage of assistants is that they not only cost the earth (justifiably) but they often don't find shooting a hotel room per se very challenging.
They love the challenge that comes from either involving models, styling/staging a shot or from creating more abstract photos that involve clever use of lighting or exposure.
This type of photography is to be admired and appreciated, but it should be left for magazines or feature shots. There is really no room for these type of images in your hotel digital marketing online presence most of which will appear on online travel agencies, TripAdvisor and your website.
The exception to this are the shots that will be used for general marketing, PR and media release and might appear in magazines, brochures and print advertising.
Many guests won't even get to your hotel website these days. They will book at OTAs which present your hotel effectively as a combination of photos, reviews and a list of facilities. That's why hotel photography is more important than ever, and should be a relentless focus of your marketing team when considering your overall online presence.
Chris Jack is the editor of Locus Focus and a professional hotel photographer based in Brisbane with over 20 years experience in digital marketing. He also hosts the weekly "Sharper Hotel Marketing" podcast.