Professional styling: the forgotten competitive advantage

Guest Blog by Paola Gheis

Dear Paola, we came across your beautiful property while searching in Google for an exclusive villa in Tuscany. We would love to spend our holidays at your villa, Dimora Bellosguardo in Florence. Could you please confirm the villa is actually available the first two weeks of September?

How would you like to receive a message like this? I would! Luckily I receive many emails just like this one. And they land in my own inbox, not on a OTA encrypted email platform. I am a property owner and VR consultant specialising in the luxury sector. Brand manager for The Villa Italy, a curated collection of luxury villas in Italy. 

When I manage my properties and The Villa Italy brand, the performance metrics I monitor include the percentage of direct bookings. I religiously keep track of the origin of my reservations making sure the metrics increase year after year.

In an ecosystem with a few very big players who boast an outrageously high marketing spending capacity, growth of direct bookings is an ambitious goal but  it’s not an impossible one.

Within the Book Direct movement, started by Damian Sheridan, there are many valuable perspectives shared by experts and VR practitioners supporting the movement.

The quality of a website is a topic that is often discussed and rightfully so, there are so many elements that come together to create a successful website: automation, advanced technology, great photography, emotional copy, quality blog articles etc. But what are the marketing activities that make a property stand out from the competition, precisely because they are overlooked by most owners and mangers? 

Artistic Styling

One technique that I use to my advantage (and I still find hard to believe it is not understood or used by most) is professional and artistic styling during a photo shoot. If you think you already know about styling, home staging, give me the chance to explain the type of styling I refer to.

In vacation rentals, allowing prospects to view our properties before they book is a luxury we don’t have.

We have to take this aspect into account when developing our marketing strategy: photos speak more than 1000 words, hence we must step up from the average high definition photos and build a highly emotional scene during each photo shoot.

To do that, besides working with the best photographers in town (which are not more expensive than the average photographer in town) I set the artistic scene before each shoot.

First of all, let’s remember that vacation rentals are sold on a few inches of screen, nowadays via a mobile phone or tablet. If we are lucky they might be viewing on a desktop. Real estate sales is a similar online business with one (huge) difference: clients will eventually view the property before they make their purchase, hence they can feel the “vibes” during the visit.

This is why most real estate agencies in Southern Europe often display poor quality photos: the emotional moment is pushed off to the viewing, no need to invest too much effort on the visual marketing. 

Unique Selling Proposition: How to make it unique & exquisite

Don’t miss Paola Gheis presenting at the Book Direct Show

Talk to the brain (of your guests) using the language he speaks

Neuroscience discoveries and the neuromarketing discipline prove to be particularly helpful to exploit the styling technique in the smartest possible way. These disciplines teach us that decision making is made by one part of the brain that is known as the Old Brain, that is the most antique part of our “thinking” organ.

The ‘Old Brain’ has a number of interesting characteristics; one is that it is a lazy brain: it responds better to images over reading text for example. The ‘Old Brain’ is also the side of the brain in charge of basic functions, such as fear, survival, food and sex needed for reproduction. It is the Old Brain that makes the decision to rent a vacation rental. This is why a well-thought out use of culinary images in VR photography works really well; a well styled bedroom also works well. The Old Brain loves them!

Food is often displayed in vacation rentals photography. But how can we do this effectively to entice guests bookings? We commonly see styling showing glasses and wine (where most time the bottle is sealed) or a plate with few slices of cheese and some grapes on top. Frankly, all quite boring and certainly not helpful to make a property stand amongst a crowded marketplace.

That is not the competitive advantage you are looking for.

Talk to the Old Brain and talk to him by speaking the language he understands and processes rapidly. My translator to speak the old brain language is the professional stylist.

Stylists are basically scenographers, usually women, the best ones are true artists, people with great creativity. They go beyond the job of muting colours in charged environments or giving chromatic dynamism in neutral environments. The impact of their work is much more significant: stylists know how to build an interesting scene. A stylist knows the world of cinema and photography and manages to work in symbiosis with photographers and video-makers for the construction of the image.

A good stylist recognises the genius loci and enhances it, integrating it harmoniously in the construction of the scene. She dares and knows how to play with contrasts, she can sometimes be daring with combinations when the brand personality allows it and the scene outcome is never conventional.

Styling Your Vacation Rental Property

What are the areas of a vacation rental that must be particularly cared for by the stylist? All those where any particular experience can be lived. Do the storytelling with the styling and give special attention to stories related to meeting primary needs such as food, family and rest.

Living rooms, large kitchens, dining rooms are areas where love for one’s family is expressed around a good table of food or while relaxing in front of a fireplace. I personally take meticulous care while styling these areas. In many cases, the most beautiful photo from an entire shoot will be the one with a beautiful table set with exquisite taste, emphasising the style of the villa and the territory in which the villa is located. 

I am never afraid to push the accelerator on the stylistic setting of these areas. If the villa is rustic-chic, the table can present local food, displayed in an apparently random way recalling the preparatory scene of a picnic in the countryside.

If the villa is by the sea, the table will have an extremely well-kept floral arrangement with flowers from the garden of the villa. Avoid the use of roses or orchids if your villa is in a dry area or in a location where these flowers do not grow spontaneously: better the garlic flowers, oleander or bougainvillea.

I am often asked, if taking pictures with artistic styling is making a false promise to the guest? The answer is NO. Styling implies the use of removable objects or tools. Those objects are nothing more than accessories that do not alter the main features of your villa and your value proposition.

Food and a well-laid table are accessories and have the advantage of suggesting that a similar arrangement can be recreated particularly when extra services can be offered such as hiring a personal chef. Styling is a great way to communicate to your prospects that services can be sold together with the rental.

We must give some credit to Airbnb, for the diffusion of high definition photos, when years back the company started offering free professional photo shooting to hosts. Airbnb did not reserve this courtesy for the love of us owners.

It was very aware that the investment would be repaid from the first rental of the property and from an exponential increase in bookings. 

As the industry has become more mature, the use of professional photos by hosts has grown extensively.

However the use of professional styling has not grown at the same pace, and that makes it a  fantastic competitive advantage. You can literally transform your vacation rental positioning, make a bold statement of your brand value proposition and close bookings at a higher speed. So, why wait more?

Photos and Styling Credit: I. Niccolai S. Garancini for Paola Gheis Vacation Rental Consulting.

Paola Gheis is the owner of Paola Gheis Vacation Rental Consulting helping owners of luxury villas and/or boutique hotels to maximize the profitability of their property by enhancing their positioning in the luxury segment and reducing dependence on listing sites.