On recent travel to Sri Lanka, I was sitting on a near deserted 2-mile-long beach basking in the 30 degree heat, enjoying the view of tumbling waves roll into the jungle-like bay. It was absolute bliss.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a couple who looked to be in their mid to late twenties appeared, edging towards the water. They both carried small black bags over their shoulders, which couldn’t possibly fit a towel or a snorkel. This intriguingly grabbed my attention, and I decided to continue watching the somewhat comical and bizarre scene that was going to occur right before my eyes. Before getting to the water, they both unzipped their individual bags to each reveal two different shiny gadgets; one had a drone, the other a GoPro on a stick. They started up their devices with an aura of seriousness as if they were ‘getting to work’ – no words were spoken. The drone took off, flying above the entire beach, above the heads of a few suspicious fishermen; meanwhile, one of the ‘beachgoers’ did pirouettes with her GoPro, filming her face but ensuring a 360-degree background was captured. As soon as the drone landed again, the two tourists went into a double pirouette selfie mode in order to then pack up their gadgets and leave again. This whole process took no longer than 10 minutes, and in my opinion the travellers haven’t taken in any of the scenery without the use of a screen.

Travel and Instagram go hand and hand for youth generations. According to both the Independent and Forbes, Instagramability is now the no.1 reason why millennial and Gen Z consumers choose a particular destination. And who can blame them when the multi-billion dollar influencer industry bombards millennial and Gen Z feeds with the perfect snaps to the point where they’ve seen the same spot so many times, it becomes a ‘must do’ to recreate the same photo.

If you’re not booking your next trip based on how good it’s gonna look on your Instagram grid then, quite frankly, you’re doing 2018 all wrong”. (Cosmopolitan, 2018)

When scrolling through Instagram, you will almost be entirely sure to find an attractive 25-year-old standing nonchalantly in front of a breath-taking waterfall or sunset, seemingly ‘unaware’ that someone is currently taking a picture of them. Who wouldn’t want to be able to share a picture like that? It all looks incredibly natural and you can’t help but feel a slight sting of envy.  But how natural are these pictures really? The truth is: not very, particularly if the given picture has a large number of likes. Yet, people don’t seem to care if the picture has been edited to an extent that it practically unrecognisable – quite the contrary. This constant artificiality, however, has a major impact on the travel industry; tourists no longer expect mosquito bites, rainy days, or for certain sights to be less beautiful in real life. Clearly, as shown in my Sri Lanka example, it seems more important to have the perfect Instagram, than to experience the moment.

In the past, the joy of travel were those moments of pure discovery and spontaneity. From the moment you opened the hotel door to an unexpected gift, to the 2-hour hike through the jungle for the 1st glimpse of Machu Picchu. These moments of anticipation and unexpected delight characterised travel. Now there’s little to really surprise us, as we’ve seen it all before on Instagram with millions of images available to a traveller before they get to a location. While Instagram is not entirely to blame, it has certainly diminished a certain feeling of discovery and wonder. What were formerly known as popular cultural sites, are now known as ‘Instagram Hotspots’.

Of course, it is hard to deny that some destinations are seeing the benefits of using Instagram influencers; according to Airbnb’s 2018 travel trends report, Lisbon has gone from being in the midst of a financial crisis 10 years ago to 10thspot on the most booked cities in the world, just behind the likes of Paris and New York, thanks to influencers taking breath-taking pictures of the city. Similarly, Wanaka, a small town in New Zealand, is actively pursuing social media influencers to boost tourist numbers. They achieved a 14% increase in tourism, thanking Instagram for its role in that accomplishment (Forbes, 2018).

The rise in numbers to destinations that correlate with influencer visits has not gone unnoticed by accommodation providers, which are now rethinking the way they design their interiors, to increase their Instagramability. Interior elements such as lighter rooms and features are now considered by hotel interior designers in order to attract the digital minded audience. For example, the Faena Hotel in Miami now has artistic displays in its grounds, and the technicolour staircase at the Public Hotels, New York has been designed specifically to gain more Instagram attraction. All of this is out in the open, hotels are proud they are creating something physical for the digital world, and millennials seemingly don’t care. Perhaps the most explicit example is the promotion of an ‘Instagram Butler’ at a hotel in the Maldives, who takes you to the spots with the best views and lighting to perfect your gram pics.

Yet, there is a growing contradictory behaviour indicating Instagram may be the hype of today but could take a step back in the future. Digital detoxes and mindfulness are becoming mainstream, particularly when the negative effects on mental health from overstimulation and constant immersion in the digital world are increasingly publicised. Apps like Hold, are also encouraging us to put our phones down, demonstrating this growing desire to spend less time staring at our screens, and more time looking up, appreciating the present. This post-Instagram mindset is now filtering into big brand marketing campaigns. Berghaus, for example, has boosted its latest sales with slogans such as “starting to dream in Instagram filters? Time to get out” (Marketing Week, 2018). Similarly, the city of Vienna has launched an ‘unhashtag Vienna’ movement, with ads stating: “See Vienna. Not #Vienna.” and “Take holidays, not just photos”. This shows a direct shift away from the Sri Lanka beach behaviour described earlier.

At Butterfly we believe in the power of an emotional idea and see behaviour as a result of an individual’s set of values and needs being expressed. We think hotels would benefit more from exploring and finding out what type of emotional space these Instagram behaviours are tapping into and, more importantly, which ones their brand could play a role in. A clearly articulated story based on real emotional insight will set hotel and travel brands up for the long term, as Instagram is the hottest media channel to communicate through now, but what will it be tomorrow?

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