For a share of eyeballs, ignore photos at your own peril

High-quality, professional photography for print or digital use is expensive, but ignore this investment at your peril. Getty Images

Virtual reality and all digital innovations of the last few decades continue to disrupt the hotel industry, but ultimately, shoppers must still leave their homes, travel to our place of business, and consume our services. While photos, in print or digital, are critical to creating value and perception among potential guests, there will remain a gap between what these pictures present and what the travel experience itself will look like when consumed. Virtual reality, while on the rise, offers a multidimensional simulation of what could be your hotel stay. It remains virtual and not real.

And with all the advances in technology, mobile and web, print still exists in the travel marketing space. My recent research in conjunction with the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association Foundation found that among the association’s travel buyers, the percent of marketing dollars spent in special interest print publications increased revenues generated by the segment. Whether it is print or digital, visual cues through photographs can help hotel marketers achieve their goals.

High-quality, professional photography for print or digital use is expensive. The cost and upkeep startle many hoteliers; however, ignore this investment at your peril. Breffni Noone, associate professor of hospitality management at Penn State University, and her colleague, Stefani Robson, recently published some compelling research on the influence of price and photos (among other nonprice indicators) in Services Sciences (Vol. 8, No. 2, June 2016). The article, “Understanding Consumers’ Inferences from Price and Nonprice Information in the Online Lodging Purchase Decision,” found images play a considerable role during both the browsing and deliberation stages of the choice process. The research is considered innovative in its extensive use of eye-tracking methods of collecting data on consumer search behavior in a digital shopping environment.

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Price is, without question, critical in the process. The emergence of revenue-management systems, practices and leadership demonstrate the need to watch consumer’s reactions to hotel price position among competitors. Reviews proved, again, to matter as well. Yet, while browsing online to select a hotel for a leisure trip, photos showing architecture, surrounding environment and lighting in exterior photos of the property were important influencers. And here is the peril part—the influence could be positive or negative depending on the quality of the images.

During the deliberation stage, participants fixated their eyes most often on images of hotels. The study showed that prospective hotel guests are making inferences about a property’s quality, either good or poor quality, based on the images in photos. That means they are also making value inferences as well. The interplay between price, images, reviews and brand name are complex, and this research discusses such. But across all generations of prospective hotel guests, from boomers to millennials, images played a dramatic role in influencing where their eyeballs landed and what subsequent value perceptions were being created about hotels.

If you are considering your cost of guest acquisition, you must include high-quality photography as an ongoing investment in that expense, particularly digital imagery as consumers continue to migrate to all things virtual in shopping for leisure experiences. 

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