On a moody August morning in British Columbia, two humpback whales swam beside the floating Great Bear Lodge, exciting guests who watched them feeding and lunging out of the water for fish. Posted to Instagram, the video of the exuberant wildlife encounter went viral and the lodge’s following grew from 600 to nearly 50,000. Booking inquiries jumped 1,350 percent that week.
Such is the power of Instagram, the popular photo-driven social media platform, now with over one billion users. Harnessing it has become a quest in the travel industry, where pretty pictures are staple sales tools. It may be impossible to assemble whales on demand, but travel businesses are otherwise reconfiguring their look and the experiences they offer with visual posts in mind.
“Instagram is figuratively and literally reshaping travel,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and the president of Atmosphere Research Group. “Now you see airports, airlines, cruise ships, hotels and points of interest designing or redesigning their interiors to be Instagram-friendly.”
On the timeline from picking a destination to booking it, “Instagram is still strongest at the top of that funnel, thinking about where you might want to go,” said Maggie Rauch, a research analyst at Phocuswright.
Believe it, maybe
In the world of Instagram travel, the skies are always sunny, the seas calm (unless it’s a wicked, big-wave surfing shot) and the vistas epic, leading skeptics to charge the platform with publishing fiction.
“Instagram is a modern magazine edited by the people of the world,” Ian Schrager, the hotelier, said.
Countering perfection, some handles rely on user-generated rather than commissioned photos or those from influencers who are getting free travel in return. On its Instagram site, Switzerland Tourism only uses images posted by travelers.On its Instagram site, Switzerland Tourism only uses images posted by travelers.
“People should not have the feeling it is something they would never see in real life,” said Paolo Lunardi, a spokesman for Swiss tourism.
Where travelers go may seem brighter and better designed today. Murals and other graphic art often act as shutter bait. With Instagram in mind, the remodeled 1926-vintage Hotel Figueroa in Los Angeles features a tropical mural covering the 13-story back wall. In Miami, the high-end shopping mall Brickell City Center installs living walls and neon signs in front of empty storefronts to encourage posts.
Places long beloved for their design are finding new audiences through Instagram. In Marrakesh, the stylish riad El Fenn, whose light-filtered rooms frequently appear in guests’ posts as well as in its own feed in magazine-ready shots, says its guests have changed in the past five years from majority British to more global, and younger by 10 to 15 years.
“My only worry is that new visitors to El Fenn will already have discovered too much on social media,” wrote Willem Smit, the managing director, in an email. “We like to surprise our guests, which is why El Fenn is in a constant state of flux with art works, flagship pieces and other treasures moving from space to space to ensure there is always something new to discover.”
Even as he worries that travelers are more harried by social media demands, Bill Walshe, the chief executive of Viceroy Hotel Group, said striking design, such as its nest-inspired Nido restaurant at the Viceroy Los Cabos in Mexico, is important to engage both Instagrammers and those who choose to switch off.
“We want the experience to last for a lifetime, not just a ‘like’ time,” he said.
More crowds, better service, occasional deals
Digital attention is driving real life traffic. The Arlo NoMad in New York said it regularly sells out its most expensive room category, window-walled Sky View rooms, based on the popularity of photos featuring guests seemingly embedded in the skyline. Travelers headed to Louisville next May for the Kentucky Derby may have to book earlier than before at the Brown Hotel, which sold out in December last year, the earliest in 16 years. Management credits the rush to its Instagram campaign.
Instagrammers may also receive special attention from the places they post. Marriott International, for example, monitors public posts from its hotels globally. Using geolocation technology, the system knows when guests post a photo from a property that, say, announces their engagement. It then directs that information to the hotel staff, which may send a bottle of Champagne.
“This is just one more touchpoint in an omni-channel approach,” to engaging guests, said Scott Weisenthal, a vice president of creative and content marketing at Marriott.
Some travel operators incentivize posts. In New England, Lark Hotels, including the Gilded in Newport, R. I., challenge guests to post selfies at area attractions and tag the hotel to get $30 off their stay.
The Kimpton Everly Hotel in Los Angeles is running a program until Nov. 30 that encourages guests of the specially designed room 301 to creatively capture their stay by stocking the room with a camera, iPad, guest book and markers. Guests, who agree to engage with the interactive features, get 15 percent off the room rate.
The great outdoors, connected
Photo-driven social media is also changing the outdoor experience.
In addition to posting stunning nature photos, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Park Service use Instagram to educate followers on wildlife safety and responsible travel and to highlight lesser known parks and monuments. National parks, including Glacier, Grand Canyon and Grand Teton, also use Instagram to share traffic, crowd and weather warnings.
Social media photographers sometimes risk unsafe selfies in seeking the perfect image. In Western Australia last spring, a tourist died falling from a cliff while trying to shoot it. Yellowstone National Park launched the hashtag #YellowstonePledge to encourage safe travel after several visitors walked off the park boardwalks into prohibited areas.
Overtourism, annoyances and whimsy
Social media has also driven overtourism. So much traffic to a crooked willow tree in New Zealand known by its hashtag #ThatWanakaTree has threatened its health, causing tourism officials to post a placard warning against climbing it.
Photo snappers have been faulted for rearranging restaurant tables or, in the case of Instagrammer @harimaolee recently, annoying other passengers by elaborately staging a portrait in an airline seat with strings of lights.
“You can’t blame Instagram, but it is a contributor to the narcissism we are seeing,” Mr. Harteveldt said.
But if there seems to be a bit more whimsy in the world — like pink flamingo pool floaties or, at the JW Marriott Desert Springs in Nevada, a 10-pound doughnut available on room-service — you can safely bet Instagram helped motivate it.