I noticed the neon yellow sign at the new location of Pho Bar in Chinatown right away. The sweeping cursive yellow letters spell out "Crazy Rich Broth"; the same phrase printed on the back of servers' shirts. It's the kind of minimalist but colorful design feature that is especially popular on Instagram at the moment — shots of patrons in front of a glowing sign.
The sign is a focal point at the front of the Downtown New York restaurant, a beacon that seems to say, "You are now entering a photo-friendly space."
Banana leaf wallpaper, a version of which was made famous at the Beverly Hills Hotel, lines the walls behind the tables. After we sat down, my boyfriend picked up his phone. "Do you want me to take a picture of you?" I said yes without skipping a beat. It just seemed like what you're supposed to do with that backdrop. Even the label of my beer (Gao, imported from China) was pretty, printed with white lotus flowers against a dark turquoise background — I quickly snapped a photo of that too and added it to my Instagram story.
Little cards placed at each table provided guests with the restaurant's official hashtag (#phobarnyc, the name and location of the restaurant, naturally). In the bathroom, covered in green translucent wallpaper printed with cherry blossoms, I took two videos of myself dancing in front of the mirror. Given the restaurant's aesthetic, I anticipated a meal equally well planned and pleasurable.
At Pho Bar, the soup is served deconstructed, in hot pot style. Bowls of boiling broth balanced on a burner arrived at our table along with our chosen ingredients (short ribs, bean sprouts, and bok choy among them) which we then cooked ourselves. But the table was too small to accommodate this extravagant setup comfortably. The food was good, of course — during an icy New York City winter, pho is a balm — but it didn't seem as well thought out as the design.
All around us, our fellow diners stood up from their seats to snap photos and record videos of the bubbling bowls of broth.
Every element of the restaurant, from the quirky bathroom to banana leaf wallpaper, interactive self-serve dinner style, and bright lighting, forms a space that doesn't just allow but actively encourages Instagram photography — a drastic change from the social media's early days, which saw diners who photographed their food openly mocked and shamed. With a photograph from the right angle, no one would know that the cramped tables made it difficult to enjoy the food comfortably — they'd only know there was a lot of it and it looked delicious!
Designers are re-envisioning the entire vacation-industrial complex with Instagrammers in mind. Everything from what you eat while traveling to what you do on vacation and even where you sleep is getting the Instagram overhaul. In many cases, restaurants and hotels want to impart guests with a multifaceted experience that includes food, service, and increasingly, a photo-friendly design. But do the realities live up to the social-shareable #expectations?
Even if our dinner service was perhaps poorly executed, Pho Bar is charming and memorable. Long gone are the days when it was considered rude to snap pictures at the dinner table. Now, it's an easy way to thank the restaurant for a satisfying meal, not just in terms of the food, but the entire experience of being in the restaurant.
Chef and co-owner Mike Khuu says this setup is all by design. "Our intention was for every area of the space to look photogenic, so pictures look great from every angle," he tells me. He "cherishes" watching guests take photos in his restaurants, and that the lighting is intentionally bright to match the restaurant's more "quick, upbeat" atmosphere. He "wanted that energy reflected throughout the restaurant."
And he's noticed that trend popping up throughout the industry. "A lot of restaurants are brighter these days, more casual and fun," he says. "Neon signs like our Crazy Rich Broth sign are also very popular and align with that fast-paced energy."
Still, he says that reviews on platforms like Yelp reign supreme in the restaurant industry because customers can directly address the quality of the food and service (Pho Bar currently has a rating of four out of five stars on Yelp).
"Instagram only shows positive reviews. People aren't going to post an image of a restaurant that doesn't look good on Instagram, and the majority of the time there's no real feedback. Instagram is definitely important though because it encourages people to come in," he adds.
Creative Director of New York City's Infamous Bistro, Elena Ristovski, agrees with Khuu's assessment of the current state of the restaurant industry. The newly opened restaurant recently installed a lush green wall of potted plants as a backdrop for the dinner tables.
"I do think Instagram is overpowering Yelp and TripAdvisor when it comes to people researching places to visit and eat," she explains. "Beautiful photos of the food and space on Instagram overshadow any criticism Yelp users may share, especially since I feel fewer people read and trust Yelp these days."
As Instagram's influence snowballs, hotels are also feeling the pressure to adapt to its demands, perhaps even more so than restaurants. Increasingly, hotels are partnering with Instagram travel bloggers and influencers. At the Beau-Rivage Palace in Lausanne, Switzerland, Instagram and TripAdvisor have the same priority level when it comes to attracting new guests, according to Annina Jung, the hotel's marketing manager. In an email, Jung told us that collaborating with influencers has become essential to her business strategy. Hosting an influencer brings more eyes to the hotel in demographics it wouldn't be able to reach with a traditional campaign, as well as more followers to its Instagram account, all of whom are treated as potential guests.
Even the legendary Grand Wailea, a Waldorf Astoria resort in Maui, feels compelled to cater to Instagram. Chelsea Livit, the hotel's director of public relations, explains that "Instagram has become a larger priority," because it helps her team interact with guests who are currently staying there or are planning to, whereas TripAdvisor only gets them feedback from guests who have already left.
Long-established hotels, like Grand Wailea, which were not designed with Instagram in mind, have nevertheless begun to attract hordes of wannabe influencers. Take the 31-room Hotel Casa San Agustin in Cartagena, Columbia. The L-shaped pool, over which a rustic stone wall creates a square archway, and lush greenery that hangs from the ceiling and surrounding walls is a sudden social media hotspot.
"It organically became its own Instagram moment," Christina McGoldrick, who manages the hotel's PR team, explains. She states, "90% of the guests who share their stay on social media post photos from this pool. Most influencers who want to stay at the property, want to capture and post a photo from the pool."
Shea Powell, a travel influencer with more than 60,000 followers on Instagram, frequently works with hotels. In Powell's extensive travels — from Germany to Alaska — she's watched as hotel design has evolved to include more eye-catching elements like these. Powell has populated her profile with photos of white sand beaches, clear aquamarine water, splashes of bright pink and emerald green, and the occasional minimalist hotel room.
Powell is a frequent guest at the Skylark Negril in Jamaica — a simple, clean white-walled hotel which lets the stunning blue of the nearby ocean shine. She calls it "chic and modern." The hotel's location tag is filled with photos of the turquoise hotel room doors and the banana leaf wallpaper in the lobby. Eye-catching design elements like these, which fit nicely in an Instagram tile, are becoming more and more common at hotels.
"Properties are more social-media friendly now, more attractive for Instagram," Powell explains. "In a way, this is brilliant. It's free advertisement because a paying guest will always take a photo of the hotel for social media."
But that doesn't mean that the service is always as impressive as the hotel looks. Powell admits that sometimes the enviable travel experiences she posts on her feed can be deceiving.
"There are cases where hotel looks so good, but the service or the experience is bland. It isn't always as good as it seems," she says. "I have definitely posted a few photos before where I didn't think the experience was superb, but they had a stunning view for example."
Powell recalls one occasion in particular, during a five-month tour of Central America. She showed up to what she calls a "jungle-styled hotel" and immediately loved the way it looked. But when she tried to check in, the hotel didn't have her reservation. The hotel stuck her in a room that the staff hadn't prepared for guests. Even when she got settled, the staff — who she describes as "unfriendly" — didn't explain what amenities the hotel offered and didn't go out of their way to make her feel comfortable after the confusion. She was so disappointed with the experience she ultimately chose to not write about the hotel on her travel blog.
Instagram works to create a vacation culture in which the experience of your hotel stay is inconsequential — all that matters is how it looks. Most people do prefer the fantasy to reality, which might explain the rise of pop-up Instagram experiences like the Museum of Ice Cream. While these mobile photo booths are generally free-standing, one has recently opened in a hotel. The expansive Hilton Hawaiian Village Resort in Honolulu, which houses 2,860 rooms and 140,000 square feet of shopping space, now hosts Epic Aloha, a 12-room interactive photo experience.
Matt Baysinger, Epic Aloha's CEO and co-founder, explains that a "hotel provided foot traffic for our brand-new concept to reach families and solo travelers." In other words, it specifically targets the tourism market. At the same time, "operating Epic Aloha on Hilton's property meets the challenge of entertaining an entire family when they need a break from the outdoors, whether it's too much sun or rain," he adds.
Adding interactive, Instagrammable features is just one way a hotel is trying to make its mark in the Instagram era. To survive, restaurants and hotels must all adapt to the demands of social media. People now pick where to eat and stay based on a new set of criteria: Is it photogenic? Does it fit well in an Instagram tile? Restaurants and hotels look to designers to help them prioritize their space's aesthetic alongside a quality menu and service.
"Hospitality clients are increasingly demanding designs that encourage sharing on Instagram," the founder and CEO of Rebel Design, Douglas DeBoer, explains. "Creating 'Instagrammable' moments is now part of most architectural briefs, and clients are asking us to consider the platform when designing projects."
Rebel works with a team of Instagram influencers who contribute input and "conceptual direction" for final designs. Typically, Rebel uses simple, clean fonts, and it likes to "layer design elements within the frame of an image for posting on social media." Social media appeal isn't usually the defining factor in a restaurant or hotel's design strategy, but DeBoer emphasizes that in recent years, its importance "has been significantly elevated," as Instagram's popularity grows.
The use of Instagram as a tool to create interest and excitement in a hotel signals how the hospitality industry is changing. Jack Bedwani, founder of the brand consultancy firm The Projects, which has worked with the W Hotels, among others, says hotels are now moving away from the "experience economy," (a phrase coined by business management consultant Joseph Pine) and toward the "image economy."
"Through the experience economy, we saw the rise of the boutique hotel, like Chateau Marmont. The minute you walked in the door you had a very specific experience. Now, the memory of your experience isn't enough; it's got to have the image to back it up."
The mindset of the typical tourist or travel blogger is, "If you didn't put the photo on Instagram did you really have the experience?" Hotels lean into this concept and try to make every element of the hotel Instagram-worthy. It's what Bedwani calls a "holistic" approach to design, perhaps best exemplified by the upcoming Equinox hotel, which will open in New York this summer; It already boasts that it's not for everybody, because it pushes the New York City "work hard play hard" mentality.
"It will be a true representation of the Equinox high-performance living values," Bedwani explains. "You can work out anytime, but there will also be a very high-end bar where you can get a great dirty martini."
In the past, all a hotel needed was one central design element that would make it inescapable on social media. The escalator at the Public Hotel in New York City (created by legendary hotelier Ian Schrager), for instance, helped pioneer this phenomenon. The location tag for the hotel on Instagram is populated mostly by shots of the escalator — I stopped counting at 15 — lit up by stripes of neon red and yellow light.
However, Bedwani thinks this way of approaching hotel design is fast going out of style (and pop-up Instagram experiences like the Rose Mansion along with it).
"No longer is it a feature wall. It's not one element within the space. It has to be more three dimensional," Bedwani explains. "There is no one photo moment, but many different opportunities within the entire space. And that's the challenge."
Both bonafide influencers and those simply aspiring to the title want to feel at least like they have a distinctive perspective on the space, not that they're just another anonymous person who stopped by to photograph the same wall (or escalator).
"Hotels need to create opportunities for clients to customize their own experience," Bedwani explains. "Let the guest be their own curator."
Ristovski has noticed that restaurants are also working harder to create a memorable experience that goes beyond the menu, both in food presentation and restaurant design. At Infamous Bistro (previously known as Infamous Chicken), the live plant wall and handmade plates by the pottery studio Mugi let guests easily indulge in Instagram moments throughout their meal.
"We believe that everyone who is planning to open a restaurant or a bar is asking themselves the question 'What is our Instagram moment?'" she explains. "Even chefs are changing their menus to produce dishes that photograph well."
A photo never tells the whole story, though. Maybe it's a cramped table that doesn't quite fit your soup bowls. Or an unfriendly hotel staff that misplaces your reservation. As hotels and restaurants begin to prioritize Instagram clout, the practical aspects of the business seem to fall by the wayside. But does it matter? If a restaurant or a hotel promises a striking Instagram photo that will boost your social media profile, perhaps you might be more inclined to look past subpar service.
For now, the image economy reigns supreme, and while it does, the question of whether or not customer experiences are improving will remain a complicated one. Even places where the hospitality is below average, but the design is on point, are a win for guests looking for that picture-perfect vacation; Instagram lets them rewrite their experiences, to project an aura of perfection on their profile page — even if the reality doesn't match up. The illusion is enough to please people — and businesses — who care about how they look on social media (and that's almost everyone nowadays). Appearances can make or break a restaurant or hotel's reputation. The hospitality industry may change, but perhaps that will always be the one constant.
This article was produced during Gadget Hacks' special coverage on traveling with your smartphone. Check out the whole Travel series.