Capturing Luxury: Story Telling in Hotel Photography and Luxury Marketing

Written By Ulrich Franke

Nov 21, 2023

Step into the fascinating world of luxury hotel photography in this exclusive interview with Pia Grimbühler, a seasoned professional with 15 years of experience.

In this exclusive interview conducted by  Ulrich FrankeManaging Director of Acronym Europe, we delve into the world of visual storytelling in the luxury hotel and goods industries. Discover how photography evokes emotions, elevates brand identities, and transforms experiences in these elegant domains. We specifically discuss the impact of visual storytelling in the realm of online marketing, exploring how it shapes narratives and engages audiences in the digital landscape.

Ulrich: Welcome, Pia! We’re excited to have you here to discuss photography for the luxury hotel industry and luxury goods. I understand that you’ve been doing this for 15 years, which is impressive! From your perspective, why is storytelling in photography so important and interesting for these industries?

Pia: Storytelling in photography is essential for luxury goods and the luxury hotel industry. It allows brands to communicate with people and evoke emotions through images and visual worlds. To stand out from the overwhelming flood of images we encounter every day, it is crucial to showcase these visual worlds in the best possible quality. By investing time and resources into creating high-quality visuals, luxury brands can differentiate themselves and thoughtfully convey their stories. Developing a strong brand concept and understanding the brand’s strengths are key to effectively communicating the desired message. It is essential for hoteliers and luxury brands to evaluate their unique offerings and create an image concept that aligns with their marketing strategy. Integrating moving images can further enhance the storytelling experience.

Storytelling in photography for luxury goods and the luxury hotel industry helps brands engage their audience, differentiate themselves, and convey their unique narratives in a visually compelling manner.

Ulrich: If a hotelier decides to collaborate with you and produces content that perfectly aligns with your quality standards and vision, resulting in a flawless implementation, what potential impact can this have on their website and customer acquisition efforts?

Pia: That’s a valid question, and it’s one that many customers ask. They want to understand the tangible benefits and measurable outcomes of such collaborations. Although it’s hard to give a simple answer because the results differ, I’ve noticed that many clients  gain a better understanding of their brand and what they offer when they work with us. This often leads them to a re-evaluation of their branding concepts.

For example, some clients get inspired to make big changes. They might buy new tableware or team up with local artisans to improve their food offerings. Sustainability becomes a big focus during these changes, and they may even revamp their whole brand concept. In some cases, we explore adding vegan dishes, which can lead chefs to update their menus.

In essence, clients tell us that our work together prompts them to take a fresh look at their brand. Sometimes, this leads to changes in their core offerings and sustainability efforts. While it’s hard to put this impact into numbers like clicks or bookings, it goes beyond just statistics and adds real value.

Pia Grimbühler and Assistant at Work on Client Site

Ulrich: That’s a great point, and it fits perfectly with our conversation about holistic hotel marketing. So, if I’m getting it right, your work acts like a reflection for your clients, encouraging them to reassess and redefine what they offer. This often results in more clarity and enhancements to their overall marketing concepts and branding. I agree that measuring these effects can be tricky. In our service areas like paid media or search engine optimization, we have specific metrics. However, for user experience (UX) and user interface (UI), the quality of these elements strongly affects how visible a website is.

We’ve seen this ourselves with our shared client, Eden Reserve Hotel and Villas. After they launched their new website, we noticed a big boost in online visibility. This improvement came from both the technology used and the improved user experience. Visitors now stay longer on the website, enjoying captivating photos and finding inspiration. This longer time spent on the website leads to better visibility and, most importantly, more direct bookings, which is our main aim.

Pia: It’s interesting that most of the time, the internet journey takes visitors from you to me. I’m primarily involved in the initial stage, providing captivating images, and then the torch is passed to the agency responsible for the rest of the website development. As you rightly mentioned, much of the feedback and data analysis happens behind the scenes.

Ulrich: I was actually looking at your photos again today, and some of them truly capture the essence of flavor. Take, for instance, those crêpes with lime and powdered sugar – just by looking at those images, I could almost taste them. This kind of visual storytelling is incredibly impactful, especially for hotels with extensive culinary offerings. In today’s world, where visuals flood our senses, it’s vital to stand out. Such photos not only entice guests to dine in but also play a significant role in cross-selling and up-selling.

Pia: Like I mentioned, in today’s image-saturated world, you really need to make an impact. It’s essential to explore new image concepts because there are plenty of beautiful images out there. However, you need to find a way to stand out, to make it memorable, perhaps add a twist or something special that’s unique. That’s the challenge, precisely.

Orange Dessert: Impressively Staged by Pia Grimbühler

Ulrich: That’s interesting. During the conceptual phase, do you consider the hotel’s target audience, assuming they have one? I’ve been in situations where there’s no clear target group description at all.

Pia: You’re absolutely right. Sometimes, there’s a lack of a concept, and they may not even know their target audience or unique selling point (USP). This often becomes our starting point. A while back, at hotel at St. Moritz, they had various restaurants, each catering to a distinct target group. We intentionally integrated this into the image concept and explored how to visually differentiate these restaurants. It’s incredibly important.

Another crucial aspect is ensuring that the hotel harmonizes with its location because food, ambiance, and the surroundings are all interconnected. It can be quite challenging when working with chefs who have strong egos and specific visions. Transforming a dish meant for a customer into one designed for a photograph often demands a creative twist to satisfy everyone. Additionally, I’ve noticed that, particularly in the luxury segment, many are behind in terms of sustainability, both in recipes and settings. But I’m unsure if we should delve too deeply into this topic. Nevertheless, I believe it’s vital to encourage new thinking and look at what other regions, especially the Nordic countries, are doing, as they provide significant inspiration in handling these issues.

Ulrich: I agree. Sustainability is vital for the luxury industry. Without proactive solutions and communication, the luxury sector will face increasing challenges. I also appreciate the Nordic and Scandinavian countries. But I want to highlight an example in Spain, specifically at the Mallorca Hotel Cap Rocat. They’ve taken sustainability to the next level by sourcing all their food within a 1.5 km radius and producing everything, even soap and glassware, on the island. It’s a remarkable model for sustainability, especially in a luxury hotel.

Pia: Paying attention to these aspects is crucial. Creating an inspiring image that encourages people to identify with it and make mindful choices is essential. These new topics generate enthusiasm and allow customers to feel good about their choices, which is vital. Customer identification is key, letting them confidently say, “I’m making a positive environmental impact.”

Ulrich: Yes, it’s a comprehensive effort that involves various aspects, including recycling, upcycling, product choices, and staff training in hotels. You mentioned working with chefs and sometimes needing photography for teams. What’s your advice for hoteliers and brands regarding this photography? How should they showcase their staff, if at all, and why does it matter? Some prefer images of empty rooms and vacant restaurants, but I find them a bit dull.

Pia: You’ve highlighted two important points. On one hand, there are vibrant scenes like busy rooms, and on the other, there’s the team to consider in photos. I personally like capturing busy moments because food is meant to be enjoyed by people, and seeing them in action brings life to the setting. Even imperfections, like a slightly messy sheet or used cloth, can add value and a sense of sustainability to the image. It gives it an authentic, lived-in feel, which is crucial. Budget constraints can be a challenge when featuring real people in photos. Ideally, you might work with models, but sometimes you involve friends, acquaintances, or even the crew, having them pose as customers. It requires extra effort, but I believe it’s worth it. Of course, you can also opt for shots that don’t fully reveal people, focusing on accessories to bring life to the surroundings. But when you do showcase the staff, it can be very rewarding for customers. Personally, I prefer boutique and family-run hotels, where you know there’s a dedicated family behind the scenes, committed to making your stay special. Seeing the faces behind the operation adds a personal touch. Even in larger hotel chains, they often have local teams dedicated to customer care, and I think highlighting such a team enhances the experience.

Ulrich: It’s particularly important in the context of the kitchen team, which isn’t usually visible to the customer. But when you introduce someone from the kitchen, someone interesting whom you can see in action and engaged in the creative process, it can be very beneficial. It goes beyond standard headshots; you create different situations. Especially with guests in rooms, sometimes they may not identify with the testimonials shown in photographs. It could be more relatable to see themselves in that room. It’s a matter of divided opinion.

Pia: Exactly, you can bring the rooms to life even without people. Like you mentioned, in the case of a cookbook for a client in Switzerland, we’re considering showcasing not just the kitchen crew but also the “In the making” aspect. What’s fascinating is highlighting all the suppliers, the backbone of the culinary journey. I’ve photographed a fisherwoman, a beekeeper, a butcher, a baker, and so on, to establish these connections. It can be a beautiful narrative. Additionally, if the hotel has a garden where they grow herbs or any backstage services, those should definitely be showcased. Many hotels already have fantastic concepts, perhaps already sourcing locally, but often no one knows about it. The key is to promote and communicate these aspects. So, it all comes back to awareness—what do I offer, what do I have, and how do I effectively communicate it?

Ulrich: Great, let’s explore some different aspects. Social media is where guests frequently share their vacation photos, intentionally or not. Do you have any insights on how hotels can make the most of this?

Pia: Certainly, it appears we’re delving into marketing, although my expertise is in photography. To clarify, you’re asking about ways hotel brands can use guest photos, whether intentional or not, to their advantage?

Ulrich: Yes, that’s right. Let’s focus on food photography and restaurants. You mentioned that sometimes what customers see in photos doesn’t quite match what they get from the chef, like the choice of plates affecting how the food looks. Personally, I’m not a fan of blue or purple plates; they don’t make the food look appetizing to me.

Pia: Do restaurants still use those kinds of plates?

Ulrich: Yes, they’re still around, even in upscale segment.

Pia: Well, you know, I often do a little reality check when booking a place. I like to look at customer photos on Google to see what’s genuine and what’s not. I don’t mean to sound dishonest as a professional photographer. My photos are real, but with my expertise, I can make images look their best. If a restaurant already has a great setting, the photos will turn out better. But even as an amateur, you can still get poor shots. I’ve noticed that many restaurant owners are proud of their dishes, even if they’re a bit outdated. Some are content and don’t consider updating. Others see the need for a change. So when customers take photos, you have to understand it from a guest’s perspective. Some shots are good, and some aren’t.

There’s always some risk for hoteliers in general, even with written reviews. Some customers may complain, while others are satisfied. What’s crucial is being responsive and quick in your replies, providing explanations. You can’t really do that with photos. You can’t say, “It looks better on our website.” But with text, you can respond effectively. If everything is well-maintained and guests are treated well, they’re less likely to take negative photos. So that’s important too. I don’t need to purposely photograph a flaw in the bathroom, for example.

Ulrich: What you’re talking about is the service aspect and how guests feel. It’s my main philosophy in luxury gastronomy and the hotel business that service sets you apart. Since products are similar, especially for higher-income customers, price isn’t the deciding factor. For example, if I go to the 10th designer hotel with fancy brands, it doesn’t matter. How I’m treated matters more. Let me tell you about Badrutt´s Palace hotel. Three days there feel like a ten-day spa vacation because of the warm welcome and great service. That’s what matters.

Pia: I agree, but recently, I’ve had discussions about the service idea. There are new laws that limit data collection, so you can’t gather as much about your customers. In the past, some places had a fantastic database; they knew everything about their customers, which made you feel special when they remembered your favorite dishes. I´m not certain about the current practices, but it would require permission to collect real customer data. It’s incredible when you’re greeted by name; it leaves a lasting impression. I remember in Thailand, some 5-star hotels took the picture at the welcome cocktail, which felt a bit invasive. They said it was for quality management, but it didn’t lead to knowing guests’ names. It seemed like a well-thought-out idea that didn’t quite work in practice.

Ulrich: Could you provide three key tips that hoteliers should keep in mind when preparing for a photo shoot, particularly in the context of hotel and food photography?

Pia: I believe awareness is key. Understand how you can stand out, what’s your unique selling point (USP), what’s important to you, what you want to convey. Keep it simple and focused. Know your target audience and what you want to promote. Highlight what makes you different and communicate that in your images. If you’re on a tight budget, do less but do it exceptionally well. Investing in quality photography is a long-term benefit, even if it’s challenging to measure directly. As a professional, I’d always say it’s worth hiring a professional photographer. These days, there are bloggers who might take a few pictures in exchange for a free night, but that’s more about self-promotion. Hoteliers should focus on their unique offerings and deliver top quality. This applies to every aspect, whether it’s food, spa, or rooms. Remember that a professional production is worth it, and the better you prepare, the more you’ll get out of it.

Ulrich: Thank you, Pia, that was a wealth of valuable and insightful information. I’m sure our readers will find your tips incredibly beneficial in their pursuits.

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