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As anyone who has ever tried online dating knows, there is a big difference between what people look like on the screen and when they're sitting across from you in a restaurant. The same is true of hotel Web sites. Those sunsets, beaches, rooms, and fitness centers may not look quite so appealing without the benefit of heavy photo retouching. So the next time you book a hotel you've never visited before, don't be surprised if what you saw isn't always what you get.
As digital photo editing software becomes more affordable and widespread, it is easier to transform a drab image into a more alluring one—and travelers are feeling ripped off. A visit to the comments pages on such travel Web sites as TripAdvisor and Yahoo! Travel reveals numerous complaints about misleading photos and information on hotel Web sites.
For example, in 2007, a contributor wrote on Yahoo! Travel of a hotel in Narragansett, R.I.: "The Web site photos of the hotel are misleading, the hotel is separated from the beach by a large parking lot and a busy street. Ocean views if you don't mind leaning out your window, craning your neck, and squinting through one eye."
And in 2008, user Kevin Hin wrote of a hotel in France on hotel reservation site Venere.com: "Beware the very misleading 'hotel front view' photo," pointing out that "the hotel is the small, almost invisible building by the sea that looks like a shack with a barely distinguishable 'hotel' sign, the more attractive 2-story building behind it is actually across the main road that runs behind and [has] nothing to do with it—a very clever camera angle."
Oyster Hotel Reviews, a startup travel Web site based in New York City, says it has noticed an increase in inaccurate representations on hotel Web sites—and is calling the hotels on them. In a series of blog posts called "Photo Fakeouts", Oyster has identified more than 20 hotels that use marketing photos portraying an experience that is different from what reviewers find when they arrive. The discrepancies are subtle and often lie in the details—for example, a wide angle lens may make a room look larger, and unsightly signs or obtrusive buildings next door may be cropped out or even digitally removed.
According to Oyster Hotel Reviews Editor Jennifer Garfinkel, the photo fakeouts project started last year as a humorous rant on the blog and quickly became one of the site's most popular features—as well as a platform for consumer advocacy. Oyster.com expects to get 150,000 unique visitors this month.
Are these misrepresentations serious? "Some of these things will not make or break your trip, while others definitely will," says Garfinkel. "We want people to be aware of this; we want them to be smart consumers."
But while the practice might be somewhat misleading, it's not outright deception.
"The pressure is on to create ultra real or surreal images," says Rick Lohre, an outdoor lifestyle photographer in Newport, Ky., who formerly worked at Procter & Gamble in new business development. His personal rule: "We shouldn't add more than what is really there or subtract more than what would reasonable not be there."
Andrew Ptak, a Toronto hospitalities photographer of 30 years, says portraying an improved version of reality is a photographer's job. Ptak can charge more than $30,000 for an assignment, depending on the level of complexity, and he makes no apologies for rearranging chairs and adding flowers, as long as it does not change consumers' expectations, he says.
Hospitality photography is advertising, "and advertising is an embellishment," says Ptak. "We're making a two-dimensional representation of something that you experience with all of your senses. You can't hear the ocean waves breaking or smell flowers around the pool. I try to represent what it's like to be standing there."
Hotel marketers say that while they want to their properties to look their best, they do not try to set unrealistic expectations. "We keep our photographs authentic, with just a few touches or props," says Michele M. Vasquez, corporate director of marketing at Ayres Hotel in Los Angeles.
Says Katie Rackoff, public relations manager for Hyatt Hotels & Resorts (H): "Our hotels around the world hire photographers who work to cast our properties in the best light—capturing in a visual snapshot what a traveler can see when he or she ventures to that location."
As long as there is no intent to mislead, deceive, or slander, the industry standards on how much an image can be manipulated are blurry. Photo manipulation is part of the trade: Sunsets and clouds are borrowed from other places, and buildings and people are removed. Lohre says it is also common for photographers to use materials that enhance the featured product. For example, in a cereal advertisement, paint or glue may substitute for milk.
"Modifying images in advertising is common practice," says Peter Dyson, a writer for the American Society of Media Photographers. Many photographers now spend a majority of their time in front of the computer editing and retouching—up to 80% of the time for Lohre and 90% for Ptak. This is not a new phenomenon, but jobs previously done by film retouchers can now be handled by a single person. "Now we have more say in the final image," Lohre says.
According to Ptak, this process makes images more compelling. "I use enhancements to recreate the experience because people don't have the other [senses] at work when they are relying on sight," he says.
In accurate photos, great places will look great and bad places will look bad, says Elie Seidman, Oyster's co-founder. "You should be able to see what you will get before you go."
Click here to see examples of hotel photo fakeouts.