TORONTO—We’ve all been there: listening, rapt with attention, as a story unfolds before our eyes. Whether it is sitting around a campfire or over a family dinner, stories have the ability to move people, create bonds and foster connections.
The team at FRHI Hotels & Resorts astutely understands that people connect with people, not brands. Through the brand’s Luxury Insight Report and ethnography research, results showed that when guests enter one of its historic properties, there is an emotional impact that is enduring. They experience a place identity that merges with the building itself, with the staff being a significant part of that DNA.
Seeking to explore this notion further, FRHI embarked on a first-of-its-kind visual storytelling journey that led them to document the hotel staff at nine Fairmont properties around the globe through the lens of seven seasoned photojournalists supplied by NAMARA Represents (NAMARA), a creative visual storytelling agency, based here.
Among the photojournalists on the project were Dominic Nahr, Aaron Vincent Elkaim, Kitra Cahana, Brett Gundlock, Ed Ou, Ian Willms and Kiana Hayeri. Collectively, these professionals contribute to publications such as TIME, The New Yorker, The Telegraph, The Wall St Journal and National Geographic Magazine, according to the brand.
“At Fairmont, we manage 109 hotels and part of our learning development is to have the staff as historians and ambassadors. Their job is to deliver luxury service, tell the wonderful stories that go on in the hotel and make sure the guests have the deep immersion they crave,” said Alexandra Blum, VP, public relations and partnerships, FRHI Hotels & Resorts. “Part of the research revealed the very unfiltered approach we take is important to our guests. Because we haven’t been in the public domain, we wanted to pull back the curtain, so to speak, in terms of what goes into delivering luxury service. The people behind it also have their own stories, with some being really profound. It’s a point of differentiation for our brand.”
It was five years ago while in Kenya for a photo shoot of the tea plantations, which provide the majority of the brand’s tea globally, that Blum struck up a friendship with award-winning photojournalist Dominic Nahr. He later joined forces with Natalie MacNamara to launch NAMARA.
“NAMARA Represents is a creative agency and we operate differently from your typical firm as we represent photojournalists and documentary photographers. When working with clients, commercial or otherwise, we still uphold the tenets of photojournalism,” explained Natalie MacNamara, founder and owner, NAMARA Represents. “There was a great feeling we had going in; they are a great partner who shares our values. Having completed the project, the photographers came back citing the subjects were over the moon about working there and shared stories of how Fairmont saved their lives. It’s just a great company to work for.”
“This approach to creating content not only gives companies a unique viewpoint from which to tell their stories, but it also helps to fund the artistry that each of us does on a personal level,” added Nahr.
According to Blum, there was a certain amount of trust shared on the company’s part as they allowed the photojournalists to go behind-the-scenes of their properties to uncover stories of staff members around the globe.
“In order to really tell the story, we had to agree that the photojournalists would have full creative license with it and that is at the heart of what NAMARA represents,” Blum said. “It was pretty amazing what our global human resources department was able to do. Not only on the waivers, but the union negotiations were significant. We felt very comfortable that our guests would truly appreciate this unfiltered perspective.”
For NAMARA, it was a prime opportunity to showcase how and what they can achieve for potential clients through photographing people who are genuinely evocative of a brand’s culture and philosophy.
“They gave really great access. The hotels have different owners and operators with layers of logistics and everyone was working to make it happen,” MacNamara said. “Also, it was great to engage with Fairmont in a long-term relationship that will continue to be beneficial. They are one of the longest standing brands and a name known worldwide. For them to work with us is a sort of endorsement in return that we will produce what we say we will.”
The photojournalists were able to capture remarkable stories throughout the world that illustrate the many ways the brand is committed to its workforce, as well as share the deeply personal, day-to-day lives of its employees.
“In San Francisco, a bellman sought to get custody of his daughter and the support the brand offered helped him to establish his home to get full, shared custody. In San Diego, a family of four emigrated from Iraq and had been here almost eight months when they began to run out of money and feared they might have to return, which could’ve been very dangerous. Fairmont came in and hired all of the family members—the mother, father and their twin daughters,” MacNamara said. “In Dubai, the focus was on a group of Kenyans who worked at Fairmont and would have an African picnic every Sunday, go to church, tell stories, braid hair and do the things that are culturally significant to them.”
“The photographers have a great skill of making people feel comfortable. There was no pressure to participate but, of course, there was an overwhelming raising of hands once employees understood the project,” Blum said.
With FRHI freshly acquired by AccorHotels (LINK), the opportunity to tell the brand’s story couldn’t have come at a better time. The result is an authentic, visual narrative that can be shared with employees and stakeholders during a time of transition and one that can be utilized to market to prospective guests.
“This is a wonderful time in our company, albeit challenging. There’s a positive message in the value of FRHI and the new entity. We have nothing if people aren’t delivering on the luxury for our guests. The images are being used internally significantly,” Blum said. “The other profound impact is our owners have found the project reassuring in many respects because they don’t often get reminded of the incredible people that work within the four walls they own. It gives them a glimpse.”
According to Blum, working with a firm such as NAMARA is highly selective as they seek to align themselves with like-minded companies.
“You can’t just hire agencies like NAMARA, they have to select you. NAMARA would never agree to do business with Fairmont if they weren’t completely honest and transparent. In order to tell authentic stories, they are going to be vetted by companies at the heart of their DNA,” Blum said.
Each hotel will display the images for a period of time, with some featured in the hotel lobby, walkways or back-of-house. The storytelling will continue via social media, where the brand can connect directly with people via a personal perspective in the digital realm.
“A huge focus is Instagram and the secret to Instagram is authentic images. To be able to use these images in social media campaigns, which will begin in a few months, is a wonderful way for our guests to get an inside look at the people who provide a luxury service,” Blum said. “The pervasive impact of social media means that guests are telling our stories on our behalf now more than ever and that is good for the hotel industry because it keeps us honest, more than we had to be. If you don’t have an authentic organization, it is no longer acceptable to make claims about a company without backing it up. It can be contraindicated and that’s a major shift.”