You may wonder how getting an estimate on a new roof triggered this blog posting about the use of photos and other imagery in travel marketing.
Writers make weird mental connections all the time (at least this one does). The trick is to figure out if there’s a lesson to be learned or a worthwhile story to tell. But I guess we should start with the roof.
My wife and I decided we finally needed to replace the roof of our Providence home last summer. It was getting a little worn and stained, and no longer complemented the color that we had painted the house the year earlier. Plus, why else do we earn money? We got three estimates and awarded the job to Wayne Smith, who was referred to us by our excellent landscape contractor, Dave Meloni.
Wayne stopped by on a Saturday morning in June to measure the roof and discuss what we were looking for. The conversation rambled a bit, with me talking about my career in travel and, more recently, Antarctic tourism. He said that his grandfather had been to Antarctica. I’d heard that before, so when I asked which tour operator he traveled with, Wayne replied, “He went with Admiral Byrd.”
That caught my attention.
Wayne outlined the story, and I later Googled Robert Charles Haun for the details. A Boston-born artist (1927-1975) who moved to Providence as a young man, Haun made a living painting murals in hotels, theaters and other buildings, including the U.S. Naval Stations in Newport and Quonset Point, RI (the birthplace of the famous Quonset hut).
What captivated me on the websites of both Haun and Backus were the sketches and paintings. They were magical, capturing in a way that photography often can’t the unworldly landscape, the harsh and inaccessible sense of Antarctica at the time. Maybe it’s the back-story, the fact that these drawings of men, snow cats and ships were created under harsh conditions and frigid temperatures. I found it encouraging that the Navy felt these impressions were important, even though photographers on the same trip were easily able to make both a more exact and copious record of Operation Deepfreeze.
I was also happy to see that some governments still think it is worthwhile to transport visual artists to record their scientific activities in Antarctica. Artist John Kelly recently joined the Australian Antarctic Division on their 2013-14 sojourn to the White Continent. We look forward to seeing the canvases he brings back home.
It got me thinking that it wasn’t so many decades ago that commercial illustrators – perhaps more often than photographers – filled newspapers, product brochures and popular magazine and book covers with original art. We all know that Andy Warhol got his start this way in the 1950s, drawing shoes for newspaper ads that persuaded shoppers to spend their money. Vintage travel and cruise posters created by illustrators and graphic designers did the same thing for tourism, and they draw top dollar today as collectibles in the auction and gallery worlds. And the first Banana Republic catalogs had no photos at all; distinctive sketches and goofy stories about the garments’ origins were all it took to skyrocket this small company into the retail stratosphere.
Today, photography has completely eclipsed illustration as a means to connect with travel buyers. There are, of course, practical and economic reasons for this – particularly in this digital age when non-professionals with point-and-shoot cameras can deliver remarkable images and videos of tours, cruises, treks and expeditions. Compared with yesterday’s Kodachrome or 8mm home movie cameras, digital memory is cheap, fast and weighs virtually nothing, so the odds are much better that someone – hey, nearly anyone – can capture rare wildlife, a stunning sunset or a descriptive travel activity at the right moment with great results.
And it’s happening more and more often, as customers of cruise and tour companies become de facto marketers. Just yesterday, I re-tweeted a line that should be increasingly obvious to travel companies: @SteveWellmeier “Travel brands try to tell/control their story, but customers are telling it for them in real time on social media.”
Cruise and tour operators – some faster than others – are recognizing this, as well as the fact that customer service in real-time becomes an essential component of this new inbound marketing world. Many travel companies, both large and small, are rising to the occasion, embracing YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter as exceptional channels in which to engage their prospects and past travelers for marketing and customer service … even customers enjoying their trips that very day.
We hear over and over, ”Content is King,” and statistics abound on better open, “Like,” “Follow” or re-tweet rates of email, Facebook and Twitter postings that contain photos. But companies can no longer afford to “feed the beast” by themselves, and are increasingly providing social networking platforms for their customers to partner with them to visually tell the story about a trip first-hand. And, as mentioned above, responsive customer service goes hand-in-hand with this, and is likely to improve across the board (good news for the customer). The alternative for those companies not inclined to get on the bus isn't very attractive, and points to a reduction in referrals and recommendations, brand awareness and, ultimately, sales.
Fortunately for us, our roofer Wayne inherited his grandfather’s artistic tendencies, giving us a beautiful new roof and, more recently, some dandy new woodwork and molding in the kitchen and my new home office.
Maybe there’s a connection between the spontaneity and evocative feeling created by those travel illustrators of yesteryear and today’s rambunctious photographic postings by socially engaged travelers all over the world. What do you think?
But I still miss those beautiful illustrations!