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Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel Asia

Snap-happy hounds beware

They came, they clicked, they conquered. Or did they? Why hotels don't like your slick pocket camera and what they will do to stop you.


Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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THERE'S SOMETHING about luxury that has people reaching for their cameras, a certain je ne sais quois that provokes a torrent of clicking and gratuitous French phrases. DON'T. Photographing a luxury hotel is only for the recklessly intrepid or stupid. Pulling out a camera – however svelte and smart – at a luxury hotel, is more likely to result in a Bear Grylls Worst Case Scenario than that cuddly pose you had in mind for mum.

It is a curious fact that hotels spend fortunes to create marble-and-gold fantasies where rooms are charged at US$500 a night, but panic if someone attempts to capture the marvel in 20 megapixels. Just back from Shenzhen, a town almost no one knows that has grown up in the shadow of Hong Kong like a sneaky step sister on steroids, I was repeatedly reminded of the no-photo rule by security guards at gleaming new hotels. Every attempt to unholster my SONY compact resulted in men in black racing across the Italian marble – and not in slow motion – to halt my journalistic impetuosity.

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How then does any travel writer get or tell a story? A hotel public relations lady moaned that business in Shenzhen was not so good and few travellers were encouraged to spend a night there. Her hotel, while an international brand, remained little known, like many sporting a plush but strangely empty lobby on a high floor of a reflective glass tower. Shenzhen has become the ultimate in show-off architecture, each building striving to be taller, brasher, bolder, brighter than the last. Despite all the bluster and bravado and occasional design misstep, some of the results are not bad at all. That's why I was in Shenzhen. To tell its story. It is green, clean, lined with broad boulevards where taxis charge by the meter, the border crossings are increasingly well managed, and safety is less of a worry these days.

"It would help if journalists took pictures to publicise your hotel," I ventured. "It is our policy," the PR lady smiled back, firmly, "No photographs". This is a common refrain all over Asia. The argument is that to protect the brand, all visual collateral must be managed by the hotel and fed to the media in approved formats and angles with all the usual fake lighting and harbour views and long haired women in spas gazing at sunsets that mysteriously disappear when guests check-in.

What this results in is a surfeit of coldly opulent lookalike images that are exceedingly dull, boring and overplayed. These images do more to kill the brand than lift it. They lack a hotel guest's enthusiasm and humour, the warmth and tomfoolery that makes a picture say a thousand words.

This results in coldly opulent lookalike images that are dull, boring and overplayed. These images do more to kill the brand than lift it. They lack enthusiasm, humour and warmth...

I tried again. "We are professional photographers..." "No pictures." I wondered if the hotel could stop guests taking pictures after they'd forked out US$500 for a night on 400-thread-count linen with remarkable green views of the Hong Kong border buffer areas, the marshes that attract migrant birds in winter? Probably not.
I was barred as well from photography at a posh resort in Bali that I driven for two hours to reach. The argument again was that the resort allowed use only of its own "approved" images. This helps build a desirable brand apparently, no matter the journalist is ready to set his hair on fire and trash the place in the next cover story.

Shopping malls are notorious for this sort of boorish behaviour. Walk into any glitzy place and the outstretched palm of a security guard will loom before your lens like an unwelcome solar eclipse, and nary a Marilyn Monroe in sight, just some deshabille mannequin missing a head. Stopping passersby from snapping fashion pictures supposedly protects the designer label's integrity. After all, if you take a picture of a new summer dress, you could just as easily take it to China to get an identical set stitched for a fraction of the price. Yet the same dresses on display at high-end stores around Asia can be viewed from every angle and often worn in 3D online and they scream out from catalogues and brochures everywhere. So what's the secret?

In January 2012 the Dolce & Gabbana store in Tsim Sha Tsui provoked a huge protest rally outside its doors after stopping local Hongkongers from photographing the store – from the street.

It is ironic that the "hospitality" industry – a people business – and PR has grown ever more removed from its customers, throwing up obstacles to information and access. PR managers seem determined to "protect" their brand by imparting no information of value and preventing anyone from seeking ideas and inspiration afresh. Online it is impossible to find the hotel manager's name or e-mail or telephone number. Managers hide in supreme anonymity behind the Web. Sofitel is a welcome exception with an upfront list on every website letting people know exactly who is in charge. This is how it should be. It is time to bring hospitality and hospitability back into the hotel business. Show your faces people. Talk with customers. And, dagnabbit, stop glaring at cameras.

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