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Soundings: Happy holidays

by Michael Spencer on Tuesday 1st of September 2009

Happy Holidays – Andrew Peggie is tempted (or not) by UK holiday resort videos.
Sound Strategies News – Sound Strategies’ work written up in the Tourism and Hospitality Research academic journal.

Happy holidays

Holiday and leisure companies rarely skimp when it comes to selling their vacation packages with glossy images. Now that online brochures are the norm, they have, naturally, morphed into videos. The imagery is equally seductive, enhanced by moving, talking characters, breath-taking pan shots, mouth watering close-ups – and usually a music backing track of excruciating banality.

So Sound Strategies decided to conduct a small experiment. We chose a promotional video typically found on the websites of four well-known UK holiday promoters and estimated the attractiveness of their proposition based solely on listening to the video soundtrack (music + speech + ambient sound effects), without reference to either images or text.

Here are the results:

Butlins – Discover Butlins video guides

The ‘Lots to do’ video is narrated by what are clearly meant to be authentic Butlins redcoats. However, their vernacular speech (faux-shouted over a background of what is presumed to sound like frenetic activity but is actually rather sparse) is marred by diction quality verging on the level of speech defect. The short clip begins with a pleasant enough light keyboard or guitar (hard to tell which) riff, promising a sense of carefree relaxation. However, after a few seconds there is a brutal cut into a perpetually looping orchestral-disco chorus – no lyrics, just ‘oohs’. The music is automatically limited against the intermittent voice-overs, a technique often used in brash FMCG commercials where the entry of the voice-over brutally cuts the level of a pounding music track, which returns to its previous volume immediately the voice stops. There is no obvious attempt at music synchronisation or nuanced balance of the audio elements. Sound (and presumably video) stop abruptly, mid phrase.

The effect is like something from a low budget, over-jolly children’s television programme. The narration is short and to the point, and it is not difficult to recall some of the activity suggestions: golf, fencing, archery – and cheer-leading! (Cheering leading what, one must ask.)

A rough and ready, rather shouty commercial, with the appearance of being thrown together at the last minute. Perhaps not inappropriate for the clientele and the kind of spontaneous, anyone-can-join-in atmosphere Butlins is aiming to create. It was difficult to forget the noisy, messy, excitable overall impression of what could be an amateur holiday video shot on a mobile. A boisterous young family would probably deliver a thumbs up verdict.

Center Parcs – Whinfell Forest video

A standard 2’30” video (which seems longer) with a professional narration delivered by a clear female voice, never over-modulated or over-stated. The backing track is continuous, the opening bars suggesting a folk-rock festival in the USA ca.1979. Thereafter it lapses into continuous lite-rock instrumental riffs with bongos and electric piano. There is a third Foley soundtrack containing occasional sound effects presumably related to the on-screen action helpfully being described by the narrator. The video ends with an abrupt fast fade.

Relatively high production values here. Although the soundtrack is clearly off-the-shelf, some thought appears to have gone into choosing it. However, without a visual context, the music suggests not a pleasant English forest scenario, but rural mid-West USA, and it appears to bear no relation to the on-screen action or the nature of the activities being described. The narrator voice is distinctly ‘received pronunciation’, but clarity does not necessarily mean memorability and it was hard to recall the several well-described activities (paint-balling, archery?), possibly because one could not imagine the character portrayed by the voice ever actually engaging in these pursuits. The hackneyed phrase ‘fun for all the family’ made an incongruous appearance.

The narration content remained always on the same level, as did the music, thus making full recall of the content or atmosphere rather difficult. Overall impression: safe, civilised, conservative, middle-class, rather dated.

Pontin’s – Leisure video

Two (presumably) on-screen narrators, male and female, with strong regional accents; several other voices introducing different activities – again clearly on-screen and rather stilted in delivery, presumably meant to signify ‘real life’ staff rather than actors. Overall however, narration is kept to a minimum and memorable impressions must depend largely on vision shots. Technically, sound quality is excellent and there is clearly some sensitivity around the soundtrack/narration cross-fades and mixes, which suggests they did not use an auto-limiter. An attempt at some kind of emotional/narrative arc starts well, but quickly peters out. The video begins with Foley sound effects (jungle birds) then narration. The music track kicks in after a few seconds, introducing a new list of activities. It remains constant thereafter: a typical techno drum-bass track with instrumental riffs dipping in and out around the narration.

The stylistic ubiquity of the music backing track unfortunately gives it a strong ‘switch-off’ character, in spite of the attention given to balance and mixing. The constant 120 beats per minute pulse does not fit easily with a range of different visual scenarios or the different rates of narrative delivery. So all in all, a rather self-defeating musical contribution.

There is evidence of some kind of strategic editorial vision with this video. Someone has made a list of all the important activities to mention, including the need to puff the out-sourced leisure activities company. The audio and verbal content, however, comes across as worthy but downmarket, the subtext of which could be: ‘you will enjoy yourselves… but we’re friendly people and we’re here to help you with that’.

Haven holidays – promotional video

A professional, scripted voice-over (male) transports us rapidly into the television commercial genre, although the video is the standard web length of 2’30”. Continuous narration, but cleverly scripted so that key messages come across clearly and are easily remembered: something for everyone, plan your own day, shopping, eating, drinking, entertainment… In fact the script could be describing not a holiday camp but a particularly lively provincial town.

Memorability is also enhanced by the clear three-part structure, each with a different focus and a different music track. The first section contains a synthesised rock track, ostensibly suggesting energy and excitement, but its synthetic nature also gives undertones of a tacky amusement park. No question of editing to music, the second part plunges us abruptly into the sort of 120 beats per minute dance track heard in most high street pubs. The third section offers more of the same with the music perhaps a little more intimate or ‘late night’ in character. The voice/music balance stays constant throughout.

The audio elements manage to deliver more factual information and a clearer impression than other videos, much of which is down to simple structural elements such as changes in subject and mood. However, the musical content and style of language put one in mind of Saturday shopping followed by evening binge-drinking in provincial high streets up and down the country. Why leave home for this offer?

Andrew Peggie

Michael Spencer is away


Sound Strategies News

An account of a key Sound Strategies’ project in the hotel and leisure industry now appears as an article in the latest issue of Tourism and Hospitality Research (vol. 9, pp271-276). Written by Peter Jones, ITCA Chair of Production and Operations Management in the School of Management at the University of Surrey, “A ‘sound strategy’ for Intercontinental Hotels” outlines the process, analysis and outcomes of a two-year consultation by Sound Strategies with the international hotel chain.

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