The Ultimate Product Placement: Thailand in 'The White Lotus'


“Unforgettable experiences are brewing,” he teases a Feb. 13 Instagram post that was liked by more than 80,000 people. The photo offers a vision of an empty white sand beach, blue waters and the roofs of buildings barely visible, immersed in a lush landscape of trees. “We look forward to welcoming new guests to our resort in Thailand.”

Obscuring the view of the resort: a film clapboard adorned with a coral-colored flower logo and the words “White Lotus Resort & Spa.”

The White Lotus resorts, of course, exist only in the fictional world of the hit HBO series about hospitality and bad behavior, “The White Lotus.” The post was HBO's way of letting fans know that filming on the show's third season had begun.

It's been clear for years that entertainment productions can be big business for locations, but “The White Lotus” has taken the trend to another level, spurring tourism with a show about tourism (at least on the surface), by partnering publicly with tourism. After two seasons, the biting and delicious social satire has an influence that far transcends its numerous golden statuettes and endless supply of memes. For the travel industry, it can turn the one-season region into an “it” destination, attracting international visitors to White Lotus substitutes (the Four Seasons Resort Maui in Wailea in season 1; the Palazzo San Domenico, Taormina, a Four Seasons Hotel in season 2), without forgetting the surrounding attractions.

While Mike White, the show's creator, was undoubtedly drawn to Thailand's natural beauty and welcoming people, the Thai government also sweetened the situation significantly. Financial details have not been disclosed (HBO had no comment), but last year the Thai government approved a plan that increased the reimbursement for international productions to 150 million Thai baht (about $4.5 million). Several months earlier, the government announced that for five years it would waive the personal income tax it had been charging foreign talent. In other words, the Season 3 cast, which includes Leslie Bibb, Jason Isaacs, Michelle Monaghan, Parker Posey, and Season 1 favorite Natasha Rothwell, won't have to pay Thailand to work in Thailand.

What is at stake for Thailand is clear: before the pandemic, the country earned 3.5 billion Thai baht a year from international productions. After falling during the height of the pandemic, that figure reached 6.6 billion baht last year, according to the Tourism Authority of Thailand. Considering the potential windfall during filming and long after, it's understandable that the country courts Mr. White and the production of him.

A spokesperson for the Tourism Authority did not provide details, but wrote in an email: “We were informed that 'The White Lotus' team was exploring filming season 3 in Asia and therefore we reached out to them. to help. with possible hotels for filming/staying, possible airline sponsorships and other production supports to reduce some of their budget costs and allow Thailand to be more competitive.”

The strategy has already begun to bear fruit: since the official announcement, searches for Thailand have already increased by 50 percent on Expedia, the online travel agency.

“It's another form of product placement,” said Jon Gieselman, Expedia's president of brands. However, in this case the product is an entire country. “It makes sense for a studio and a destination to come to an agreement and, in return, get some promotion.”

“The White Lotus” was born out of necessity. HBO approached Mr. White during the early months of the 2020 pandemic and asked if he had written something that could be filmed quickly and under strict Covid restrictions. He told them his idea of ​​filming a limited series set in a hotel, and by fall he was already in production on what he hoped would feel like, as he later told Vanity Fair, “a tropical anxiety attack.” .

The series may have deftly traversed some of the ugliest parts of humanity (privilege, racism, sexism), but oh, the view. Online interest in the Four Seasons Resort Maui increased 425 percent after Season 1, according to the property.

Season two offered a new set of flashy locations in Sicily, whether on a yacht in the Mediterranean with some (spoiler alert) “high-end gay” killers or a fresco-filled villa in Palermo. Following the premiere in October 2022, Expedia saw a 300 percent increase in online searches for Sicily.

For Marc Speichert, executive vice president and chief commercial officer of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, partnering with the production has been a lucrative no-brainer.

“Following its role as the backdrop in 'The White Lotus,' Four Seasons hotels in Maui and Taormina experienced increases in website visits, availability checks and increased brand and property awareness; ultimately generating more bookings,” he said in an emailed statement. The Taormina hotel is almost sold out for the 2023 summer season, he added.

The extent to which Thailand's economy depends on tourism became clear in the fall of 2021, when the Ministry of Tourism and Sports released dire numbers affected by the pandemic. The number of passengers on international flights to the country was reduced by 95 percent and hotels were only 9 percent occupied. Visitor numbers have dropped to 510,000 in 2021 from nearly 40 million two years earlier.

Last year, the country welcomed 28 million visitors, well below the 2019 peak. In December, Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin met his tourism ministers to encourage them to attract more foreign tourists year-round, according to media reports. Thai, and told them: “I want foreign tourists to stay longer and spend more.

In the world of zero-sum tourism, Thailand's “White Lotus” gain was another country's loss. Last fall at the Tokyo Film Festival, during a session on how to attract productions to film in Japan, Georgina Pope, a producer working in the country, told the story of how she accompanied a showrunner and production team from “ high profile” on a journey of exploration. in Japan, reported the Hollywood trade publication Deadline.

He said talks about filming in Japan ended when the showrunner, whom Deadline identified as Mr. White, and the crew were informed that “the Thai government had just announced a revamp and upgrade of its film incentive system,” he said, adding that “for his project, that meant $4.4 million alone.”

But which Thai property would replace the titular White Lotus? Detectives quickly noticed that the Four Seasons Resort Koh Samui was sold out during February and March, when the series would be filmed. Anantara Mai Khao Phuket Villas has also been reported to be a location. Needless to say, both properties offer a spectacular array of pools, outdoor showers and postcard-worthy views that would make a cinematographer drool. Neither Four Seasons nor Anantara would say whether their hotels were involved; White did not respond to a request for comment.

New York Post journalist Gretchen Kelly used the term “set-jetting” in 2007, referring to location tours for the films “Pan's Labyrinth” and “Babel.” Since then, there have been enough fans and fortune to go around the world. According to a study by the University of Zadar, “Game of Thrones” contributed $200 million to Croatia's economy between 2013 and 2018. New Zealand saw a 50 percent increase in inbound tourism after the success of “The Lord of Thrones.” the Rings,” although it's difficult to determine how much of that is due to the film. Albuquerque, New Mexico Mayor Tim Keller wrote on his Instagram in 2022 that “Breaking Bad” had “over $385 million in economic impact.” No wonder the city erected statues of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman.

When international borders closed in 2020, the faucet ran dry. Traveling abroad was done from home, with a screen that served as a sad substitute for the passport. The closest a fan could get to the Scottish Highlands would be to binge-watch “Outlander.” The only way to turn it into a national park was through “Yellowstone.”

When Covid restrictions were lifted and the homebound were finally able to fulfill their pandemic travel fantasies, air travel had become one of the main factors when choosing a destination.

A TripIt survey released earlier this month showed that nearly twice as many American travelers plan to take pop culture-related trips this year as in 2023. And according to an American Express study released last year, 70 percent of Generation Z and millennials said they have been inspired to visit a place based on something they saw on screen.

It's a demographic statistic that hasn't gone unnoticed by Four Seasons, a chain not known for catering to people under 40. “Generation Z and millennials are certainly a target for our brand, as they represent the next generation of luxury travelers,” said Speichert. “Over the next five years, we anticipate a significant wealth transfer of approximately $68 trillion from baby boomers to millennials, accompanied by a 50 percent increase in high net worth individuals.”

Not that the Tourism Authority of Thailand expects all travelers to be able to afford a stay at the Four Seasons. After all, the Sicilian cobblestone streets of Season 2 were just as coveted as the hotel's piano bar. And the Tourism Authority of Thailand hopes to showcase more than just luxury properties. Earlier this month, HBO announced that Thai singer Lalisa “Lisa” Manobal, of the South Korean K-pop group Blackpink, will make her acting debut in the series.

“The fair will undoubtedly raise great awareness for Thailand,” the Tourism Authority of Thailand spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “'The White Lotus' will undoubtedly strengthen the kingdom's status as a preferred filming destination and experience-based tourism model, inspiring even more filmmakers to consider filming in incredible Thailand.”

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