When you walk in the entryway of The Hoxton hotel in Paris, you’re greeted by a bright and airy courtyard flanked by a 300-year-old staircase. Offering visitors both scale and perspective against a naturally-lit backdrop, the elegantly spiraling stairs are undeniably photographable—as evidenced by the hotel’s geotag on Instagram.
That a staircase can be described as photogenic is a sign of our times. Yet as social media—not to mention ever-improving smartphone cameras—have made our culture more visually literate, travelers increasingly journey to sights, hotels, and attractions not to take in the spectacle, but to digitally consume them. As that has happened, the designers, hoteliers, and curators who build these spaces have had to adapt, too.
Instead of physical souvenirs or wild anecdotes to tell friends, we now crave status-granting geotagged selfies or dynamic, art-directed shots on Instagram. And in turn, more and more places crop up that seem to be designed to offer just that: There’s the Dubai Frame, the made-for-Boomerang swings in Superflex’s residency at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, the technicolor escalators at Ian Schrager’s PUBLIC Hotel New York, and the incongruous golden wooly mammoth statue at Faena Hotel Miami Beach. Thanks to elements like scale, texture, size, symmetry, light, color palette, or sheer ostentation, these spectacles seem destined to become digital landmarks—even more than physical ones.
Greg Stobbs has witnessed this evolution first hand as the global design lead for W Hotels. Shortly after starting with the brand four years ago, he discovered—rather “serendipitously,” as he describes it—how guests’ Instagram snaps impact the brand’s image at their Leicester Square location in London.
“We built this almost 2 meter high ‘W’ as a monument sign and we realized that this sign was becoming something that people were putting in on Instagram.”
That a global hotel chain can get guests and passerby to willingly post their logo—without even asking—was somewhat of a marketing revelation. Thus, Stobbs and his team went on to recreate this effect at other properties across the globe. Now newer, independent hotels are factoring in this “Instagram effect” when designing their entire experience, from wall finishings to coffee mugs.
Lindsey Tramuta is a Paris-based author and journalist who frequently reviews restaurants and hotels for outlets like the New York Times and Condé Nast Traveler—and shares her recommendations with her 80 thousand-plus Instagram following. She says that though Paris may have been a bit late to this trend compared to London and New York, there are now hotels and restaurants there that were undeniably “conceived to appeal to an Instagram audience.” They’re using elements like natural light, mirrors, tiles, rustic tables to spur selfies and posts. And it’s not just the newest properties jumping on this trend; classic, historic hotels are feeling the pressure, too.
“If you think of newer hotels, they all now tend to have at least some space that’s bright and naturally lit,” Tramuta says. “But historic properties now find themselves at a crossroads where, short of redesigning their whole space, it’s harder for them to go into that kind of influencer marketing route because the feedback they’re going to get is: ‘It’s too dark for a good picture that will get high engagement.’”
And of course, that influencer marketing route is a helpful—if not essential—one for boutique hotels and restaurants. Travelers more and more are planning their trips based on what they see on Instagram—more specifically the images they’d like to post in their own feed. Thus, industry best practice now advises hoteliers to think about Instagrammers when laying out their spaces and crafting their guest policies. As one hospitality management company suggested: “Create a selfie photo booth in your public spaces with a large, gilded frame near a beautiful couch.”
To a certain extent, travel has always been as much about documenting the experience as actually doing it, but the age of Instagram has taken the quality of proof to hyper-competitive heights. Tramuta says she sees the literal evidence of this in the account analytics and questions she gets from her followers.
“I can see that people are planning their Paris trips based on what photos of mine are getting archived by my followers,” Tramuta says. “When people message me about my posts, the level of questioning has started to go beyond simply ‘I want to discover this space’ to ‘What table were you at?’ and ‘Where exactly was this photo taken?’”
We tend to think of things that “go viral” as memes and gifs that exist only in the digital realm. But when it comes to travel and Instagram, physical spaces now go viral as well. A perfect example of this phenomenon is The Gallery at Sketch, a tearoom and restaurant which opened in London’s Mayfair neighborhood in 2014 and has since become the most Instagrammed establishment in London, according to the social network.
In a recent profile of its designer, India Mahdavi, in the New Yorker [paywall], Lauren Collins explains how the location’s signature monochromatic hue—best described as “millennial pink”—helped make the spot into a visual landmark online, even more so than a physical one: “In addition to inspiring imitators—in Seoul, in Doha, in Paris—it has become a stop on the style Internet’s equivalent of the Camino de Santiago— ‘a basic betch holy site,’ in the words of one blogger…An image of the Gallery is an urban nature photo, as perennially like-getting as a tropical beach or a fluorescent-streaked sky.”
Whether it’s overly strategic or not, this “conscious recognition of designing something that could be consumed on a phone screen,” as Stobbs put it, comes with a potential downside: a shorter shelf life. Sure, a trend like millennial pink can become a worldwide interior, branding, and digital phenomenon thanks, at least in part, to an upscale tea room in London. But will Sketch still be as ‘grammable when millennial pink goes the way of exposed brick?
Claus Sendlinger is the founder and CEO of Design Hotels, a hand-picked collection of more than 300 hotels in over 60 countries. In the 25 years since he founded Design Hotels—which is now a partner of the hospitality giant, Starwood Preferred Guest— Sendlinger says he has undoubtedly seen design move to a more prominent place in people’s awareness, led in part by the wave of design hotels he helped popularize. But he says this appetite for trends—rather than timeless design principles—is risky if an establishment’s goal is to age well.
“Ten years ago it took interior trends like two, three, four years to mature and now it takes nine months,” Sendlinger said. “The disadvantage is that people get tired of it quicker. It’s also much harder for a consumer to differentiate between a hotel that has a strong design concept versus one that is just beautiful.” And without holistic design principles at the core of a property’s identity, Sendlinger says, there’s no guarantee the photos and hashtags will keep coming when the trends change.
Meanwhile, Tramuta worries about the effect this trend whiplash might have on the experience of travel itself.
“We’re so saturated with imagery and we’ve become accustomed to seeing the same scenes, the overhead shots, the beach shots—so people want to find things to post to stand out,” Tramuta says. “It leaves you to wonder are you actually enjoying it for what it is? Or are you happy because now you’ve got the photo that everyone else has?”