5 years ago

Visual storytelling – a core part of digital marketing for hotels

NB: This is a guest article by John McAuliffe, president of VFM Leonardo.

One question I am often asked by hotel emarketers: “Do we really need so much visual content to sell our hotel rooms?”

I tell them:

“It’s not about the content, it’s about the story the content tells about the hotel.”

Simply having visual content available to travelers online is not going to help you differentiate your hotel and compel hotel shoppers to book.

They’re not looking for content – per se; they’re looking for meaningful stories that help them better understand if your hotel will contribute to the success of their trip.

Storytelling is captivating and the most effective form of communication, because “good story telling makes people sit up and listen”, as stated by Correy Torrence from iMedia Connection.

Good stories are “worth remembering and worth retelling”. Storytelling helps create a value proposition and highlight your hotel’s unique features which draw the traveler’s attention away from commoditized attributes like price.

As I shared at an HSMAI Roundtable in early December, the key to successful digital marketing today is visual storytelling.

The digital landscape is changing fast, and the driving catalyst has been visuals. Consider the following:

  • Pinterest has more than 10 million users and to date is the fastest growing social network of all time
  • According to Pew Research, 41% of us find photos and videos online and re-post them on sites designed for sharing with others
  • In early 2012, Facebook members were uploading more than 300 million photos every single day
  • Flickr houses more than six billion images
  • Roughly one third of pixel real estate on the web is image content

Visual content has to focus on telling each hotel’s unique story, albeit under the umbrella of the brand’s story. To effectively do this, hoteliers should consider the following:

  • Compelling stories are not centralized in corporate offices but rather decentralized: known, told and experienced at the hotel property level.
  • Stories are not one-way communication; they are told through a many to many approach – hotel to consumer, consumer to hotel and consumer to consumer. This will require building and amplifying stories that include contributions of user-generated content.
  • Hotel marketers with tools and processes that help amplify their stories and successfully engage travelers will have the greatest impact in the market.

Knowing this, we can now look at how to integrate visual storytelling into your marketing strategy by following these four success factors.

Be distinguished, direct, interesting and ready to interact with your target audience and you’re on your way to communicating your story in the most appealing manner.

Visual storytelling – success factors:

1. Be unique

All too often the visual stories we are telling for our hotels are practically indistinguishable from each other. There are a couple reasons for this. The first is that all too often hotels produce content without spending time articulating their storyline.

This results in content that looks like everyone else’s. It’s not unique or inspiring. The second reason is that hotels invest in rich media production that is standard and templated.

Stories that break this mould and have well thought out and articulated storylines are the ones that are more interesting and have the potential to really set a hotel apart.

2. Be direct

We recently had Sandy Taylor from Best Western on a webinar who shared that visitors on corporate channels prefer guestroom shots over exterior.

They want to see the rooms and are more engaged with interior imagery. Interestingly, this is the area that we have seen hotels are most deficient in when it comes to visual content – both in still images and rich media.

It is very difficult for consumers to discern what their room will look like on most travel listings, yet this is what they overwhelmingly want to see.

Be direct, give consumers what they want to see; don’t make them dig for it.

3. Be interesting

Consumers today don’t divide the world of visual content into “professional” and “amateur” as they did years ago but rather into “interesting” and “not interesting”.

Often times being interesting no longer requires the talents of a professional. I’m not recommending that you replace all your professional content with more interesting amateur content, but rather, consider taking advantage of user-generated content to help tell your hotel’s stories.

If it’s interesting, consumers will help you tell and amplify your story.

4. Be ready

Where consumers interact with your hotel’s visual story is changing and the number of devices and sites they use is growing exponentially.

You need to ensure that your hotel’s visually compelling story is accessible on the devices and channels consumers use to shop for travel, especially on mobile, but mobile is more than just a last minute booking channel.


We are seeing that the average amount of visual content consumers are interacting with is higher in mobile, than standard web browsers per visit. We track over 1 million consumer visits through our media network, and the results show the following:

  • Consumers are interacting with 55% more visual content on smartphones and 50% more visual content on tablets than on standard web browsers
  • Mobile accounts for over 24% of all visits to our media viewer – of that smartphone and tablets share equal volume of visits
  • Smartphones account for 12% of visits and 21% of total media views – indexing much higher than standard web browsers and tablets
  • 40% of all virtual tour views across our network are coming from mobile (24% of visits / 40% of views)
  • Of the virtual tours viewed on Smartphones, 38% are guest rooms/suites, 13% are lobby and 11% are of the pool

If you follow these guidelines, when consumers start dividing content into “interesting” and “not interesting”, you will stand out from your competition and come out on top as a curator of fresh content.

The ways consumers interact with your hotel’s stories will continuously evolve, so be there and be ready to engage them through visual merchandising and storytelling.

NB: This is a guest article by John McAuliffe, president of VFM Leonardo.

NB2: Hotel room image via Shutterstock.

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A founding principle of tnooz was a diversity of viewpoints from across the spectrum. Viewpoints are articles by guest contributors from around the travel and hospitality industries. The views expressed are the views and opinions of the author and do not reflect or represent the views of his employer, tnooz, its writers, or partners.



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  1. Baraka

    I agree that storytelling has great impact on the conversions. You may spend lot of money on SEO, PPC or design but with poor and disengaging content will kill your efforts.

  2. Raj


    Just wanted to say that this a fantastic article that highlights alot of the topics we discuss with our clients and potential ones. We tell hoteliers that ‘their business website is its window to the world; It’s how you find customers and how they find you. If you try to pinch pennies on the creation, maintenance, and upkeep of that window, you could be losing a lot of revenue.’

    Almost 1/3 of small business owners maintain their websites themselves, neglecting key site functions that consumers want, like mobile optimization, social network integration and user-friendly design.

    The biggest question that hoteliers should be asking: Can your guests book their accommodations from a mobile device? Have you linked directly to social media channels on your website? Do you have a fully customized, bookable website, and mobile website that is clean and user friendly?

    Having and maintaining a mobile optimized site is crucial to acquiring new customers, building credibility and nurturing client relationships.

  3. Hotel Managers Group

    It is only natural that people want to see what they are buying before they take out their credit card and pay for a hotel room. Part of a hotelier’s job is to paint a picture in both words and images that will make someone want to stay at their hotel. It is not enough to show a picture of guest room or the hotel lobby and the swimming pool. Travelers want to see something that is unique about a hotel. Maybe you have a special view of the ocean or maybe you are right next door to a fine Italian restaurant. You should include images of the area around your hotel and also make use of pictures submitted by guests.

  4. marketing strategy

    Timely suggestions in the content of this article.

    As I read it I can definitely point out the “marathon” approach.
    If an athlete starts running as rapidly as he is able to run, they quickly can’t maintain the speed. However, when you figure out a strategy and maintain an easy speed, you can keep on running. One way that bloggers can get into a “rhythm” for writing high level content is to simply set aside time to be influenced by other writers. Using this strategy makes it much easier to write instead of forcing new topics to come to mind. What do you think about this method? Thanks so much for the coffee break! :->

  5. Robert Gilmour

    There is far far more to digital marketing for hotels than visual storytelling – far too generalistic a concept, and often doesn’t recognise the difference between the perception and the reality. How does a downtown budget hotel storytell. Are business travellers that interested in storytelling? Not all hotels are created equal, far from it, I want to know about the excellence in service and why the/which hotel will serve my particular needs best, visual has a greater or lesser role dependent on the type of the customer and the purpose of the visit. This distinction is never properly made.

    if it was all just about visuals, then the most visually appealing hotels on screens would be the biggest winners, that just doesn’t make sense (and doesn’t happen in practice)., A company which sells reputation management tells me that reviews are the most important things in digital marketing for hotels. Others say its CRM and concierge – it often depends what you sell, of course you’re going to try to promote your product to the strategic agenda and i don’t blame you!!

    One thing I do agree with is guests sharing visuals on line insofar as its the interaction that’s as important as the visual itself. only problem with this might be that many guests think they are far better photographers &c than they are, and the hotel really needs to be in control of its content and product as far as possible.

    • John McAuliffe

      Robert – thanks for contributing to the discussion… you certainly make us all work for our comments when we contribute our thoughts to the industry. As a company that focuses on providing solutions that help hotels better visually merchandise online we have tremendous insights into trends and what works… and we want to share that with the industry… not just promote our products!

      I do think however that you are missing the point of the article. Every hotel has a story and consumers are increasingly turning to the story being told in visuals… so if your visuals do not tell the story of your hotel you want told… you need to focus on changing that. For example, to say that a downtown budget hotel doesn’t have a story is simply wrong (not to mention far too “generalistic” a concept). A story is the conveying of events in words, images and sounds and if the budget hotel doesn’t have anything to say or show why is it in existence? What we are saying is that consumers are increasingly looking for visuals to help them better understand a hotel and the services it provides so they can assess if their stay at that hotel will be successful, for whatever definition of success they may have. For the business person oriented budget hotel the story they want to learn about may be “the frugal road warrior that wants a clean and comfortable stay in a convenient location to public transit and a gym to work out in after their day visiting customers.” There are many ways a marketer can take this plotline and package it into a visually driven and compelling story.

      I also do not agree with you that hotels need to be in control of their content for the reason you cited… they do need to manage and facilitate it but the days of one to many communication are over. Hotels need to help facilitate the stories they want to tell to the different groups/segments of consumers they want to attract to their hotels – be that in how they convey their story to consumers, how consumers convey their story to hotels (like Trip Advisor “traveller photos”) and how consumers convey the story of the hotel to other consumers (like Pinterest and Instagram). Like I said in the article it is not about how professional the photography is but rather how interesting it is.

    • Robert Gilmour

      John –
      I merely want to widen these discussions/put them into the wider context to the extent that there is no one ‘thing’ a hotel can/will do to guarantee marketing/commercial success – it is the optimum mix of several fact, actions and solutions relevant to that particular property and its best path to the success it strives for – and these will be different, sometimes very different, dependent on the type of property, and whether it is brand or independent. I have many franchisees as clients, who continually bemoan the fact that they must’ toe the brand line’ in a lot of their marketing communications, where particularly eg a local focus might help sell the hotel,and give it a sense of place (V important for visual merchandising!)yet some brands are disdainful of that approach, notably IHG. And it is because there is no level playing field that different hotels/hotel groups have to emphasis different factors, its horses for courses.

      Of course every hotel could tell a story, but how powerful that message will be will be a product of eg its location, as i acknowledged., so again, that property will bring more factors such as concierge, business services &c to the forefront more because the visual story is not compelling (I can cite many very successful hotels which do not have a huge visual perspective – seeing is not always believing and there is a temptation for these hotels to try to oversell themselves in practice, often by hype/exaggeration – eg showcasing only the best room in the hotel &c &c – admittedly some of these properties can come to some sticky ends

      The reason I cite that a hotel should gain more control over its product and its marketing is the corollary of all the control the average hotel has lost over the years, notably to the consumer and Trip Advisor. Of course any commercial business with standards wants to control its product, its audience and marketing as much as possible, it is folly to imagine otherwise. Look at it this way, 100% ‘control’ of your client base thro’ expert and excellence in CRM, can virtually negate the need to do anything else in marketing terms, you have 100% retention, you don’t need to worry about the Trip Advisors and booking.com’s of this world.! here at Innfinite, we work from a model of this type of perfection, analyse where the hotel is falling short (usually in a lot of different ways), and administer the necessary medicine in accordance with that analysis. Far too much of our consultancy and marketing has a raising from the dead approach, starting from the wrong end of the spectrum. We have had outstanding success using this simple methodology.

      And sure we are big fans of the visual experience as part of that medicine as appropriate. Unfortunately we are in a world of hype that is becoming very faceless. My point about the ‘service promotion’ I make really to illustrate/demonstrate the fact that there are far too few consultants and service providers out there for hotels taking a holistic approach – and eg not necessarily promoting one particular supplier they happen to be ‘;in bed’ with – but having an open mind about the supply chain and the relative efficiency of different solutions for different problems. Where for example, do i find an expert in Property Management Systems for medium sized hotels, their different strengths and weaknesses – I’ve tried everywhere, can’t find one, if you know one let me know.

      The best thing i ever did throughout my (too long!) career was be a top quality hotelier for many years (unfortunately now the fun is right out of the business which is a real tragedy, and i wouldn’t go back to the frontline of the trade now in a million years

      By the way Innfinite does project the excellence of VFM products here in the UK, but right now, independent hotels are being ruled by their bankers, and most of our branded clients are IHG where you already i know have a strong and successful foothold.

      Success in 2013!

  6. John Dandeneau

    I couldn’t agree more with your comments, John. And I’d expand the discussion to include the importance of visual storytelling in the context of the traveler’s or consumer’s experience. We (Zerve) are focused on activities – tours, cruises, classes, shows, etc. – and the use of visual imagery to convey the guest experience is so key to helping convert potential buyers into actual attendees.

    And I especially loved your point that professional vs. amateur has given way to interesting vs. not interesting. Not too long ago, we opened up our system so that past guests can actually submit their own photos to the activity provider, who can then choose to share them with future guests. You definitely gain a different perspective when you see what your guests think are important enough to photograph and share.

    Thanks for a great thought provoking article to start off the new year.

    • John McAuliffe

      Your welcome and thanks for sharing your insights.

      Yes, I completely agree with you that you can gain a much different perspective when you see what your guests think are important enough to photograph and share. This is often a great place for a hotel (or attraction provider) to better understand the story of their hotel. Cheers.


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