When I visit a hotel I don't expect to see any of the models the properties use in their glamorous come-hither promotional material. But I sure don't expect to see a construction crane, smaller-than-advertised pool, or any of the other doses of reality that were cropped out of the ugly realty when I check in.
Such is the value of Oyster.com, a hotel review Web site that has what it calls "photo fakeouts" of what hotels don't want customers to see. At least not before they book their rooms.
One of my favorite fakeouts is of the JW Marriott Ihilani Resort on Oahu, which took the offending photo off its website Friday after a call from WalletPop. The photo that was on the hotel's website showed a couple walking on the beach with the hotel in the background. But the reality, according to a photo by an Oyster reviewer, is that two construction cranes next to the hotel mar the view. From another angle, the cranes can clearly be seen from the beach, leaving you to wonder why Marriott leaves such shots out of its photo gallery.
A Disney Vacation Club Resort is being built next door, a fact you might want to be aware of if checking in next door at the Marriott before the Disney resort opens in 2011. Again, I don't expect to see any of the smiling models, rainbows or even stunning sunsets that hotels publish online, but not knowing about the construction is a little iffy, as is having guests in bathing suits watch your wedding.
The Marriott beach photo was taken down from the company's website after a call from WalletPop alerted it to the photo without the cranes, said Bernie Caalim, a public relations executive for Marriott in Oahu.
"There's no intention to mislead," said Caalim, adding that the photo was taken in 2004.
I definitely don't expect any hotel pool to be as beautiful as it is in the glossed-up photos put out by hotels. After all, tourists such as myself, aren't in the best of shape to be photographed swimming. A pool full of pale, overweight people probably won't attract travelers.
"In hotel photos, the pools are always empty," said Elie Seidman, founder and CEO of Oyster, in an interview with WalletPop.
Oyster is full of pool fakeout photos. There's one with a sexy woman with her back to the camera looking over a near-empty pool in the hotel shot, vs. the reality of hotel guests filling up the pool.
A popular hotel photo of pools is to make them look bigger by cropping them tight. In one, a guy gets out of a pool with a surfboard, when it's closer in size to a hot tub. The end of a giant mall is cropped out of another hotel pool shot, while in another a small pool is made to look bigger by only showing part of it. A wide-angle lens can make a pool, or a room, look much bigger than it is.
"With perfectly set-up lighting, professional staging, a wide-angle lens and photoshop, a photographer can make even the most mundane hotel look great," wrote Timothy Scott, editor of Luxury Latin America, in an e-mail to WalletPop. "Also, there's the problem of out-of-date photos, which is especially an issue with beaches suffering from erosion. Many times I've seen beach photos that are at least five years old."
"A lot of these resorts look good regardless," Scott said in a telephone interview. "I'm not saying they're making a horrible place look great."
But with many sites available for upset customers to complain, it pays for resorts to be truthful in their photos. Travelers should do their homework online before booking a room. Oyster's Seidman, who calls the fakeout photos "deceit by omission," recommends complaining to management upon arrival if something isn't what it was advertised and seeing if you can get moved to a better room or get a refund and leave.
That's the difficulty of renting a hotel room. It's a product that can't be returned once bought. The shelf life is as long as your reservation.
Erin Hawkinson, a public relations executive, wasn't refunded when she checked into a hotel room in Spain with bloody handprints on the walls, but he left anyway.
"They were smeared around all over the walls of the room, some high, some low," Hawkinson wrote in an e-mail to WalletPop of the handprints. "In addition, the door to the bathroom had been kicked in and was now broken. Clearly something extremely terrible had happened in the room."
The warm photos online of the hotel didn't show the damage, obviously, and her credit card refused payment for the room.
Unfortunately, there isn't much guests can do if they were misled by photos, said Carl Schneider, founder of GuestRights. Suing for false advertising can be expensive and time consuming. The best prevention is to do your homework before you book, but if you haven't and run into problems, Schneider suggests asking the hotel manager to move you to another nearby property.
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