Summer is a great time to book a holiday. If you’re a fan, you might like to book a trip to relevant places, such as film sets, conventions and festivals. Whether it’s a stroll through Akihabara, a visit to San Diego Comic Con, or a trip to Wizarding World, vacations are an ideal time to engage in fan culture. Literal immersion in place, through what we call media tourism, is meaningful for many fans. Sometimes it’s an act of play as well. Two summers ago I mostly played Pokémon Go, a deeply touristic and playful experience that I detail in The Routledge Companion to Popular Culture and Tourism.
Media tourism is big business today. An entire experience can be sold in the form of cruises, conventions and tours, such as this 14 day Lord of The Rings tour. Selling this journey already starts online. Welcome to the marketing of place. In academia, media tourism is increasingly receiving attention in numerous ways, for instance by questioning the authenticity of Wizarding World or by tracing the customer journey of Twilight travelers.
But what happens when platforms sell fictional places as if they are real? Places that have no real world counterpart?
Marketing Stories on TripAdvisor
Media tourism relies on selling the experience of place, including food and merchandise, but the marketing of stories and characters is equally crucial. Marketing places as real can even happen online and on semi-official websites. Community‘s Greendale had a detailed site which gave the impression you could enroll for the college yourself. Similarly, Westworld showcases its park online in great detail. Characters too can be presented as real, and active on platforms. Cartoon Network launched an Instagram clip of Stevonnie in which the character discloses their non-binary gender identity. Of course there are also fan-driven accounts of fictional characters (here are some examples) but companies are happily jumping on the bandwagon these days and role-playing along.
Such marketing initiatives fascinate me, perhaps because a lot of my work centers around make-belief and fiction, and how intense, deeply emotional and real our experience of stories and characters can be. That was why I was surprised, when googling for my own vacations, to find fake accounts of places on TripAdvisor. They are condoned by the platform and start with a message from TripAdvisor in red: “This is a fictional place. Please do not try to book a visit here”
The Grand Budapest Hotel, Hotel Transylvania, Schrute Farms (The Office), and many other fictional places are marketed as real on these pages and their accounts seem to be run by companies. TripAdvisor seems to moderate these pages though, since many of the fake accounts on this list don’t exist anymore.
The experience was second to none and the concierge tended to my every need, sometimes without even asking! – reviewer of Grand Budapest Hotel
The descriptions of these hotels do not reveal that they are fiction. For instance, the description of Grand Budapest Hotel contains: “Famed for its staffs’ meticulous attention to detail and commitment to the wellbeing of its residents this hotel proves to be the perfect retreat – you’ll never experience anything quite like the Grand Budapest Hotel.”
Schrute Farm’s page clearly reveals the hotel to be fiction though, and hopes its reader lives “happily ever after”.
Comment Sections as a Tool for Play-Pretend
As the hundreds of reviews of Grand Budapest Hotel will tell you, users love posting fake reviews on these pages. About Hotel Transylvania, one reviewer writes:
“The pool is huge and the sauna is relaxing. My sister loved the breakfast buffet and had a bagel with scream cheese. Overall, there were many fun things to do, including a bingo night! I would recommend it to anyone, so long as you aren’t scared of monsters.”
About Grand Budapest Hotel, another comments:
“Excellent place! Love the service here, especially from the wonderful M. Gustave! The flowers in the lobby, however, are not yet acceptable. Seeing that Gustave has taken care of it, I will not elaborate further.”
Through the comment sections, users engage in writing fantasies and something akin to fan fiction. There are detailed references to characters from the films, jokes and situations (e.g. the flowers, bingo). Other users don’t entirely play along, but post more metafictional comments. One reviewer of Grand Budapest Hotel posted a message titled “clever marketing misdirection”, and argues against the TripAdvisor message that it’s “fictional”:
“By telling people this gem is “fictional – and – not to try and book here, TripAdvisor and the hotel have managed to maintain the property’s anonymity and exclusiveness. Of course it’s real and it’s fantastic. From the moment the complimentary car picked us up with a chilled bottle of Dom, to the express check in and the full size in-room swimming pool, one wants for nothing at the GB. Dining is a stately affair and the wait staff curiously silent as they go about their tasks almost invisibly. Super quiet for those romantic moonlight dinners. Curiously, my breakfast order never arrived”.
Another reveals the fiction of the page in a different, but equally meta way, by capturing it as a “façade”:
“The exterior looked fabulous and just as I had seen in the movies. but what a shock when I went inside. Apart from the lobby, the rest of the hotel was just a facade, the staff was merely clothed dummies and cardboard cutouts, though I must admit excellent ones. Thank heavens Mendl pastries were real, So I had a chance to get my head together courtesy of my beguiled tastebuds and so I am giving the hotel 5 stars despite it being a facade.”
Role-playing that you’ve been to a fictional hotel is interesting. (Maybe just as interesting as the millennials who role-play baby boomers). Just like fantasy sports, this is a fascinating online phenomenon. In this kind of transmedia marketing, platforms, fans and the creative industries connect in casual ways, but their efforts also tell us that these stories have real impact. Platforms like Google Maps had also had tie-ins with fiction, such as a reference to Skull Island from the King Kong franchise.
I personally love that this is a thing. If you have more examples of fictional places marketed as real, do share them below or in a tweet.