Hotel Websites Are Shifting to a Visual-First Experience

Special guest blog by Greg Oates, hotel media strategist

One of the most significant trends in web design this year has been a shift toward more visually-oriented layouts. Until recently overall design strategy combined thumbnail photos and long editorial, with a large photo or photo slideshow up top. But take a look at major recent redesigns at USA TODAY, The New York Times and Glamour, they’re now driven by visuals, with shorter and less prominent headlines.

Not surprisingly, the edgier boutique hotel groups have jumped in front of this trend, such as Ace Hotels, The Standard and Morgan’s, etc. Those three specifically have adopted a visual-first mindset across all of their consumer-facing media, including standalone lifestyle blogs with individual URLs and a fashion magazine’s zest for compelling imagery.

the standard

Last month I participated in a media panel with a mid-size hotel group that operates hotels throughout the Americas. During the panel, the head of hotel development bristled a little bit at the discussion about the above boutique brands. He asked why are these, and newcomers like NYLO Hotels and 21c Hotels, garnering so much buzz when they only have a small handful of hotels each?

First, I said these hotels are establishing the next generation of hotel trends with their product design and programming. Equally important, they’re proving it through visual storytelling on their websites and social media platforms. I’ve sat in on hotel marketing strategy sessions where hotels execs try to define their hotels’ unique selling points (USPs) with catchy phrases to describe their brand pillars. The hotel groups above show—experientially—those USPs with constantly updated photos and videos across their digital channels.

Many hotel marketers, of course, are not comfortable with splitting their customer audience across two websites. Although, if done well, they can complement each other. In effect, a dedicated URL blog is just another social media space.

The best example of a single hotel website embracing a visual-first web experience is Four Seasons Hotels’ new $18 million portal, rebuilt from the ground up last year. The immediacy and impact of the hotel/destination photography site-wide sells you on the brand starting from hello.

four seasons

Sometimes the easiest way to improve something is by copying from the best. While the boutique brands I mentioned and Four Seasons cater exclusively to design-conscious and luxury customers, any hotel marketer with any hotel can take something away for their property by studying the most forward-thinking companies in hospitality.

I was at a meeting planner conference last year, and the VP of Americas for a major global hotel chain said, “You know, when it comes to trends in tourism, we in the large hotel industry are always the last to catch up.” Today, if you look at many branded hotel sites, they don’t look much different in overall architecture and navigation than they did five years ago. That’s dinosaur years in the digital realm.

Many others, however, are morphing slowly into a more modern visual experience, with varying degrees of success.

So what does your hotel site look like? Without undergoing major investment, the very least any web designer can do is pump up the visual size and volume on the home, amenity and room pages. There should be a big bold image or link somewhere shouting “PHOTOS” and “VIDEOS.” As an editor in the travel trade industry, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to search around to find photos. And that’s overwhelmingly where consumers want to go first. So help them get there.

But that’s only half the battle. When was the last time your hotel photos were updated? Within the last month? Or week? Because that’s how often the most robust hotel sites are updating their visuals. Not with expensive professional photography. There are a variety of ways to use social media and partner photos to create a dynamic web experience that compels potential customers to return again and again to your website.

In my next few posts, I’ll highlight some of those methods.

Four Seasons video unveiling new site

About Greg Oates
Greg Oates - SmallGreg Oates is a travel editor and publisher of, profiling innovative small hotels and their role in local tourism development. Greg also works closely with hotel professionals to help them reach guests through content marketing strategies, visual storytelling and media relations.

Connect with Greg  –  Twitter  |  LinkedIn


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