Harder than you think.
I was hired to create a site for Paris By Design, a small business in Vermont that specializes in custom tours to Paris and Montreal. The existing site had tons of great information but it was all crammed into a few very long pages. That had to change. It also had great photos, but they were so tiny you couldn’t see any detail. The site was also looking dated ( click here to see a screenshot of the previous site). I couldn’t wait to get started.
How do you sell custom tours to Paris?
So… how do you sell custom tours to Paris and Montreal? Start with lots of big beautiful photos. (Duh.) But not just any photos. Very, very specific ones.
The Mega-Criteria List
I didn’t set out to scale Everest, but if the site was to be successful, it needed a distinctive look and just the right feel. It needed a curated bank of images with a common thread to give it a branded, consistent look. Otherwise it would end up looking like a patchwork quilt, or a generic Air France holiday package site. And the last thing you want is to look like all your competitors. (Why? Because when you offer the customer the same thing, you invite commodification i.e. a price-war.)
- professional photos with great lighting and an interesting angle
- images wide enough to be cropped into a wide-and-short banner without losing their appeal
- warm colors/tones for a friendly, approachable feel
- scenes that are quintessentially Paris or Montreal (not Rome or Madrid or New York)
- beautiful but still believable (i.e. no Instagram or Pinterest-perfect shots with models)
- daytime images as most tours happen during the day and clients tend to be 35 yrs +
- ideally include other humans, so clients can picture themselves as part of the scene
- cheap (did I mention we were on a budget?)
So, checklist in hand, I put on my Art Director hat and went a-prospecting. First stop, professional photographers (via Flickr.com). I figured I could negotiate a win-win deal: a reduced price in exchange for buying a dozen or more shots. Well, I found some gorgeous portfolios of travel photographers—some way out of budget, some within—based in the US, Canada and Europe. However, in their quest for aesthetic perfection and to avoid pesky tourists marring the images, most shots were taken either at dawn or late at night. Some had hand-painted areas. They were beautiful—perfect for hanging on a wall, or for a museum site or art gallery. But I needed more commercial images with life in them, not frozen fine art fantasy scenes.
Stock Image Hell
Next stop, stock image sites. Okay, you can guess where this is going. Bad lighting and cliché images. The worst part? Perfect models with perfect non-French teeth and big non-French smiling attitudes, in dumb poses. No shortage of shots showing fancy cups of cappuccino (where were the bowls of café au lait??), plates of croissants, the eiffel tower, and red stiletto heels (no respectable French woman would be caught dead in red stilettos during the day. Yeesh. I wanted authentic shop and café scenes with local residents, preferably smoking, drinking wine at lunch, and looking vaguely dissatisfied with life in general…. you know, French. But no.
Where oh where was I going to find my photos? They had to be out there somewhere.
Then I started thinking strategically. Who has an active interest in helping tour companies succeed? Who supports these companies within their industry? Who offers resources that are often overlooked, because they’re assumed to be sub-par, based on their track record?
Government-sponsored tourism boards. Maybe, just maybe, they might have something usable.
I found the Paris Tourism Office website. And guess what? They had a database of photos of Paris! Taken by local professional photographers! And they were free to use (for bona fide tour operators selling Paris, and with credit given to the photographers)! Same with the Montreal Tourism Office. I was dancing for days.
Now – admittedly, I still had to search through the thousands of images on each database, because they were not all winners. In the end, only about 20% made the grade. Also, the software to download them was clunky and time-consuming, and they all needed to be re-sized in Photoshop and re-formatted and uploaded to the site and integrated, but hey… I had found exactly the kind of images I needed! And did I mention they were free?
What about Competitors?
What’s to stop a competitor doing the same thing? Technically, nothing. Except that it’s unlikely that they would want to use exactly the same photos as another site, and even more unlikely that they’d use them in the same wide-and-short cropped format. These free photos also come with strings attached: the work involved in sorting through them, processing them into different sizes and formats for web-use, and accrediting them properly.
For Future Reference
Finding the right photos for a website is a tricky business. You need a list of specific criteria tailored to your target market, a good eye to spot photos with potential, photo editing skills, and either a lot of time or a large budget. Since most clients have more time than money, this is where an art director can save (and make) you a ton of money.
The client now has a bank of curated images that fit the established criteria. This ensures that the site’s look will remain consistent over time. She can use them on her website, future blog posts, tour descriptions, social media, and printed materials. She’s pretty happy.
I love a great art director challenge. Send me yours!