|By Mike Gruss, The Virginian-Pilot,
Norfolk, Va.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
July 26, 2010 - --The Holiday Inn Sun Spree Resort on the Ocean, a hotel near the North End of the city's Boardwalk, appears perfect for a picturesque vacation in Virginia Beach.
The hotel's buildings are isolated, not too close to other hotels or shops. On the property's eastern boundary, beautiful blue water washes along sand with few tourists. On the western side, the resort is protected by a lush forest of greenery.
Or so the brochure claims.
Locals might not recognize the image of Virginia Beach in the pamphlet. A 13-story building has been erased from the background. The trees pictured in the brochure's rendering are taller and denser than they appear in real life. In the brochure version, hotels aren't separated by alleyways; each resort is walled off by thick forestry and can barely be seen from the neighboring property.
When fashion magazines and senior photos are touched up, readers scoff, "No one looks like that."
But as tourist season fills the Oceanfront, hundreds of thousands of dollars in hotel reservations are booked at places like the Holiday Inn Sun Spree based on online photos that can receive the same treatment.
Al Wiles, senior vice president of Crestline Hotels and Resorts, which manages nine hotels on the Oceanfront including the Holiday Inn Sun Spree, said the building is undergoing a renovation and management used old images. When construction finishes this fall, the hotel will have a new name, and a new photo shoot to go with it.
But Wiles did not know why the images currently in use had been doctored.
Verne Burlage, president of the Virginia Beach Hotel-Motel Association, reviews the complaints the city receives about Oceanfront hotels and said he has never read one claiming a hotel misrepresented itself in photos. But he guesses many operators may brush out or paint over nearby buildings (like public restrooms) from their promotional images so as not to appear part of the property.
"I don't think they're trying to hide anything," he said.
Besides, Wiles said, consumers are too sophisticated to be fooled. Oceanfront hotels depend on repeat business and a negative or misleading experience isn't worth the cost of an unhappy customer.
But hotels across the country have made vacationers skeptical. In online slide shows, the views are too grand, the ocean is too blue, the prices are too right. In the middle of their research, soon-to-be travelers sit at their computers and scoff, "no place looks like that."
Writers from Oyster.com have stayed in more than 1,000 hotels in the country's largest cities to determine whether the hotels represent themselves accurately.
Oyster's teams have discovered the laptops, flowers, champagne and grapes that are prevalent in hotel marketing images are rarely found in the rooms. Pools are made larger. Traffic signals are removed. One king bed is actually two twin beds pushed together. Sexy models almost never drip-dry from pools. The gym looks like your parents' basement. The wine bar carries a scent of desperation.
"It's not just sprucing up," said Kelsey Blodget, an editor at oyster.com. "They're misrepresenting it. It's fraudulent."
Oyster's investigators have found it's not just some hotels stretching the truth; it's nearly all of them. If the site expands in a few years, as expected, and covers Virginia Beach, Blodget said she wouldn't be surprised to see more of the same.
Already, the site has documented images of beachfront hotels in Miami, Hawaii, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, prettied up to appeal to sand-starved tourists.
Wiles said customers demand what-you-see-is-what-you-get.
But to win over a landlocked Midwesterner craving a vacation, hotel operators here -- or anywhere -- don't need to paint a digitized picture of sand and waves and dolphins with a mouse.
A well-lit photo with a simple point-and-click camera should do.
Mike Gruss, (757) 446-2277, email@example.com
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