Consumer travel editors get personal

2013 Travel Editors RoundtableAt the invitation of Travel Weekly, the chief editors of Afar, Conde Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, the New York Times, Travel + Leisure and USA Today convened in New York earlier this year for the eighth annual Travel Weekly Consumer Travel Editors Roundtable.

The event was held at, and lunch provided by, Delmonico's, located in lower Manhattan.

Travel Weekly Editor in Chief Arnie Weissmann moderated. This year, the group explored far-ranging topics: consumer sentiment toward travel, the impact of the rise of collaborative consumption and the share economy, the evolving role of travel agents and the ways in which the industry shapes traveler preferences. Regardless of the topic, the good, the bad and the ugly about destinations found their way into the conversation.

The original transcript has been edited for length, and the chronology has been altered to keep dialogue about specific topics together, though the topic might have recurred in intervals during the course of the conversation.

Arnie Weissmann, editor in chief, Travel Weekly: Industry CEOs I speak with are quite optimistic about 2013. What are you hearing about your readers' intentions to travel?

 Nancy NovogrodNancy Novogrod, editor in chief, Travel + Leisure: We know from a recently fielded survey of our readers that the intent to travel internationally is probably higher than ever. It's huge, almost approaching 100%, and concern about exchange rates is not going to hold people back from Europe.

Weissmann: Might higher airfares keep them home?

Novogrod: I think we can assume that they can deal with the airfares. And everything I've heard from hotels, resorts, and about destinations is almost insane. I mean, finding hotel accommodations in Burma is really, really hard. 

Keith Bellows, editor in chief, National Geographic Traveler: Our guidebook sales are way up. In our expeditions group, we've had something like four consecutive million-dollar-plus bookings days, the highest being $1.9 million for around-the-world jet trips. All that's sold out. People have an exuberance about wanting to see places that I don't think was there two years ago. And the magazine -- it used to be a no-brainer to put France or Italy on the cover to increase newsstand sales, but readers now want a different level of exoticism. Partly it's our brand, but I think it's also because people have sort of "been there, done that" and they're willing to go farther afield.

Klara GlowczewskaKlara Glowczewska, editor in chief, Conde Nast Traveler: Frankly, we never felt a real downturn. I think the appetite for travel is enormous right now, and people don't seem to be skimping on it. We are getting queries -- this is new over the last several months -- about around-the-world trips. These are hugely expensive. And it's not just older or retired people. Everyone is wired, so it's people who can work without having to be in the office. They can just afford to go on these big journeys and stay connected. We feel extremely bullish. 

Veronica Stoddart, editor in chief, travel media group, USA Today: We have a lot of business travelers as readers, and we're definitely seeing an uptick in business travel along with growth in leisure and the other sectors, as well. As regards mainstream leisure -- you know, the Vegases and Orlandos -- you see Vegas coming back strongly, as well.

Danielle Mattoon, editor, travel section, the New York Times: [Editor's note: Shortly after the roundtable, Mattoon moved from travel to culture at the Times.] I'd echo what everyone else is saying, but we have a funny relationship to luxury travel. Whenever we do something even slightly high-end -- mention a hotel room that costs $350 -- we'll get complaints. We'll be totally dissed, and then "How could anyone pay that much?" There's a general interest in getting out in the world, but I think our readers are looking to do it in a more modest way, so there's a lot of domestic interest. Whenever we do a U.S. cover, it's tremendously popular. And I, too, agree that there's this urge to get out to these exotic locations, but with the comforts you had at home. 

Julia Cosgrove, editor in chief, Afar: Boomers are already getting out there, and they're looking for these deeper experiences. And they're bringing their families with them, so it becomes these multigenerational trips. But then there's also these readers who have worked for 10 years and want to take that gap year or sabbatical. And they can work from wherever in the world. So they're going, and they're taking that time either as single people or with husbands or wives.

Bellows: I've gone on a couple of our round-the-world trips, and you get an astonishing range of people. You've got the girl who just graduated from college -- grandma's given her the trip. You've got the dot-com millionaire for whom $85,000 for 30 days is no big deal. Then you've got the person who's 82 years old, and he just sold his farm, he's never been out of the country. So you've got this amazing range of people, and that's very typical. 

Arnie WeissmannWeissmann: Is the travel industry stepping up in terms of product for these new travelers? Is what you're seeing driven by industry offerings, or is the industry reacting to demand?

Bellows: I don't think it's industry offerings.

Glowczewska: It seems to me the industry always reacts to consumer demand. The travel industry seems to be driven by what people want. For instance, Crystal Cruises just offered a slew of short cruises, five to eight days. It used to be 10 days or more. It's the obverse of the world tour, but you know, sometimes you want just five days on the cruise ship.

Novogrod: And Azamara, they're doing longer stays in port for a fuller experience with the place and the culture.

Stoddart: And you look at demand for something like culinary tours. It's just exploding. 

Bellows: Today vs. even five years ago, it's more experiential. Live-like-the-locals. Slow it down. Transformational. Wellness. Spiritual. All these things are totally driven by consumer demand. And to the travel industry's credit, they come up with the [products] in a heartbeat.

Novogrod: I think one interesting development in recent times has been the launch of less expensive, slightly more experiential travel from Butterfield & Robinson and Abercrombie & Kent and Cox & Kings. That certainly addresses the market and possibly the new, younger travelers who don't have the same level of money to invest, but who want to see things that are unique.

Weissmann: So, industry is reacting to demand. Can you think of an example where the industry changed traveler expectations or behavior?

Veronica StoddartStoddart: I wonder if river cruising doesn't fall into the category of industry-driven change. You see this enormous explosion -- I mean, Viking River Cruises launching 10 ships this year and eight ships next year -- and I wonder if people knew that they wanted to go on a river cruise until the product was available for them?

Novogrod: It also fits in with the desire to integrate more into the culture and have a real sense of place.

Stoddart: Yes, it's a slower cruise experience, but until that existed, did people even think, "I really want to cruise those rivers?"

Bellows: Look what Orient-Express has done with hand-tooled great railways, going back to the true sense of Orient-Express and that romance and mystery.

Glowczewska: I heard there was a Cape-to-Cairo train that's starting, which would be great. Again, something the industry will have driven. I'm on that train. I'm there.

Weissmann: There are other types of experiences at the high end. The presidential suite in Manhattan's Peninsula Hotel now features a $20,000, hand-stitched mattress, and one still sees incremental rises in amenities for luxury travelers. So what's next? The $40,000 mattress? Or are luxury travelers looking for something else?

Keith BellowsBellows: They're looking for something real. I wouldn't be telling people I slept on a $20,000 mattress. But I would talk about an amazing guide I had.

Novogrod: Yes, it's not about the mattress. It's about the experience.

Cosgrove: I mean, a $20,000 mattress? That's just conspicuous. It should be about the heart. The soul.

Julia CosgroveNovogrod: It's about access, I think, rather than the details.

Glowczewska: It's something not packaged, not canned. Authentic.

Novogrod: Unique.

Glowczewska: The whole idea of privacy of space.

Bellows: Time.

Cosgrove: Distinctive.

Mattoon: It's funny to hear all these things because, trend for trend, these are the things that the travel industry is telling us they're going to be focusing on this year. And I agree with everybody that it's coming from consumers, but they're on it. They're saying, "We need to make people feel that they're not part of some sort of herd tour group." "Bespoke" is sort of the wrong word, but [travelers want] a particular, authentic experience that they can call their own. They don't want to feel part of a mass experience.

Cosgrove: I probably get 200 press releases a day that throw around the word experiential, but they just use it in the same way that "green" was being tossed around about five or six years ago. If they're really committed to that, they need to do it and not just say it.

Weissmann: Luxury travelers can afford bespoke experiences. How about everyone else?

Danielle MattoonMattoon: The whole blogosphere is focused on that kind of travel. There's a whole lower-level industry that isn't as commercial but that's leading that kind of travel and directing those kinds of travelers. We did a piece on bloggers who can take you on a tour of their city. You go, you find a local, and if you like nightlife, they'll do that. If you like food, they'll do that. So there are ways to do it without the kind of trappings of a more expensive trip.

Glowczewska: And Airbnb, I mean, it's huge. That's about the authentic experience. You're living like a local. You're living with locals. And it's not expensive.

Bellows: And they're launching crowd-sourced guidebooks.

Weissmann: So who's the expert? The local providing on-the-ground information? The travel professional? You and your editors?

Bellows: The big trick for us is: How much can you rely on unfiltered information? How do you curate and package it? How do you keep your brand alive adjacent to it?

Novogrod: And there are real issues now around consumer trust. I've seen studies, and there are indications that the traveling public would prefer their recommendation from a peer than from an expert. There's a lot of distrust of authority right now. The belief in one's fellow American may be greater sometimes than [in] an expert.

Stoddart: But the flip side of that is you don't know who's putting up those reviews on TripAdvisor and other sites. 

Novogrod: And all the while that people are questioning reviews, TripAdvisor is growing.

Cosgrove: You can have a one-on-one discussion with somebody offering a personal tour over email or through their website before you get there. It brings a personal touch, and as people spend more and more time online, they want that personal experience. 

Glowczewska: I'll take a slightly contrarian position. I really think expertise matters. And it depends upon what type of traveler you're talking about. Really sophisticated travelers want the best information. They don't really trust crowdsourcing. They don't want a guy on the corner in Hong Kong telling them about some little fish joint unless he can articulate what is it, where it is and why it's good. Our consumer news editor, Arnie WeissmannWendy Perrin, gets queries all the time to "Give me the best travel specialist." Even if they have our list of specialists in front of them, they still say, "Which one? Because I just want the very best." That's the flip side of "everybody's got a voice and everybody's an expert." I'm not fully buying that.

Bellows: Internally, it's like, "We're the Geographic. We should be the experts." Yet our blog "Intelligent Travel" is bursting with local intelligence, and I think people really respond to that. We do vet it -- our imprimatur is on it.

Novogrod: I think readers like to be amused by what others say. We might ask, "We're going to see the Eiffel Tower; what's around it that you recommend?" And the response has been amazing. People love to share opinions. And we find, too, that they want expert guidance. Obviously, they're reading our magazines for our expertise. But I think people are very attracted to this idea of exchanging their finds with others.

Cosgrove: And I think it really depends on the trip. If you're booking your first safari, you're going to call a travel agent.

Bellows: You'd better. 

Cosgrove: A safari is a lot of money. On the other hand, if you are going to San Francisco, you might use these sites.

Novogrod: We're still in this Darwinian moment in travel where the best are surviving and where you're judged on the quality of the information you give. The travel agents on our advisory board are doing extremely well. Most of them are agency heads, and they have reputation going for them. But the niche people who develop a focus seem to do really well. Luxury travelers still are relying on these experts, they're using TripAdvisor as a backup.

Glowczewska: We really judge the travel specialists on our list by how much time they spend in the destination they represent. Some live in the destination, others go there many times a year. Otherwise you're not going to know about the new restaurant or the cool little hotel. It really matters. And you must like talking to the consumer. If they don't take phone calls, they're off the list.

Julia CosgroveWeissmann: Do you get the sense destination marketers understand the experiential aspect we were talking about?

Mattoon: I'm getting more and more letters saying, "I do want to go to a beach, but I would like some access to culture." And I think it's why places like Nicaragua and Colombia are coming up, because it gives people the opportunity to be in a tropical setting and yet have some access to something authentic. Many Caribbean islands don't really have that.

Cosgrove: It's a challenge. I was just on a panel in the British Virgin Islands, and we talked about how you can't sell the Caribbean like you did 25 years ago, because blue water and white-sand beaches, that's not enough. There's no heart to that. There's no sense of "I should go to this island as opposed to that island because I'm going to get this deeper cultural experience by connecting with people in one place vs. another." Destinations need to respond.

Weissmann: Have any of you recently made a return visit to a favorite destination and been impressed either positively or negatively about the changes that have occurred there?

Bellows: India. Delhi five or six years ago was a mess, but it just seems cleaner, more efficient, more together. And I went to the Taj Mahal and found that the level of guides there had improved enormously. They'd ask for my iPhone and say, "We'll take the pictures for you." And they would get down on their knees and on the backs, and it made a wonderful photo essay for me. And I never had to take a picture myself.

Weissmann: This is National Geographic admitting this?

Bellows: The point is, it used to be great in terms of its "Incredible India" campaign, but now the infrastructure on the ground -- rail, hotel, the service component -- has risen to a level of professionalism that is much deeper than I'd have expected five years ago.

Veronica StoddartNovogrod: One has to be careful not to be an old fogey, but I've noticed places like Bali become more crowded, buildings going up that are not attractive, more commercial shopping streets. And that makes me sad, because once a resort, a beach area, becomes really discovered, it's difficult to maintain the kind of relevance that it had to its region and to the people who live there. And there is a moment where it seems to cross over into something that exists for the tourists rather than for the local people. And, sadly, I think that's happened to some extent there and in some other destinations in Southeast Asia. 

Stoddart: You know what was a positive surprise was for me? Downtown L.A. I spent New Year's Eve attending an event at the Disney Concert Hall, then going to a wonderful, cool restaurant right in walking distance. That whole area -- I know it's been happening for a number of years now -- it's just buzzing.

Cosgrove: Yay! That's my favorite neighborhood!

Bellows: And San Antonio. The food scene there is amazing. Denver is doing interesting things downtown. It's a trend. They're all very aware of preserving the old bones of cities in the middle of the country, places where artists can gather. They can rescue an old warehouse or theater for not a lot of money. It's a movement. That's going to start to percolate up, and we're going to have new kinds of destinations. We did a cover story last year on Detroit. I think Kansas City's another one. Cincinnati, Cleveland, all these unheralded towns.

Keith BellowsCosgrove: Portland and Seattle. And I've been going to Palm Springs, Calif., since I was a kid, and there are a lot of new properties, like the Ace and this tiny one, the Lautner House, which was really cool. 

Novogrod: There's also 21C Hotel, which will have a big impact, I think, on Cincinnati.

Bellows: And Washington [D.C.], by the way. What we've seen in the past 10 years is stunning. Cool city with amazing restaurants.

Novogrod: And how about Brooklyn?

Mattoon: It's wonderful when cities revive, because the revival doesn't displace indigenous culture. You're reviving something that was disused. I think that's happening abroad in Rio. What's been happening there has been very interesting. It has all been for the Olympics. It's going to be a much more accessible place, if they can get their act together.

Danielle MattoonNovogrod: And Cartagena [Colombia]. It's such a vital destination. It's a real place with really great food and a culture you wouldn't find elsewhere else. It's a wonderful destination for food.

Glowczewska: Who would have thought? It used to be Pablo Escobar, and now we're going to Medellin and Bogota. I can't get over it.

Weissmann: Have you seen any destinations fall off the tourist map from exhaustion, places where it's just been so overrun by tourists that what initially made it unique and attractive begins to be overwhelmed?

Bellows: Most of the Caribbean. I think they've done it to themselves. They were all just referring to beaches and sun, and that's not distinctive enough. And I think they've sort of sold themselves kind of to a common denominator. I wouldn't say it's the lowest common denominator. And there are lots of pockets of culture that don't understand service. I think they've burned out a whole bunch of consumers. So -- I've just lost all our Caribbean advertising.

Novogrod: Brave man.

Bellows: We didn't have any, anyway.

Stoddart: It's a mixed bag in the Caribbean. Some of the destinations are really overdeveloped. Sadly, it tends to be where the cruise ships go, how that impacts the ports, especially San Juan's port. 

Arnie WeissmannNovogrod: I think also the Caribbean suffers from a kind of backyard problem, that as travel has become more wide-ranging, the opportunities to vacation at resorts in Asia and Australia and elsewhere have perhaps become more attractive.

Cosgrove: And if you're coming, as I did, from the West Coast, it's not that much longer to get to Bali or Vietnam.

Stoddart: But the flip side is that it is closer and more affordable for most people.

Novogrod: Jamaica's a real place.

Bellows: It does have its culture, at least if you get away from Montego Bay and all.

Stoddart: Totally. Totally.

Bellows: And the music.

Weissmann: Where are you going in 2013?

Glowczewska: Istanbul early in the summer. And I'm taking a lot of small trips in the U.S. I did a long weekend in Nantucket in October and just had the best time. And Anguilla, just on a holiday.

Mattoon: I have Vermont, possibly New Hampshire. Basically any place I don't need to buy plane tickets for four people. So let's see. There's no money, no time off, but I'm hoping to plan a big trip for my kids. They both want to go to Africa. I'm kind of counting pennies for that. That's something that I would like to do before they're too old. There would be a safari involved, and I'd like them to see a big city. I have many, many travel dreams, but it's unrealistic to think that I'll be ticking any off in 2013.

Klara GlowczewskaCosgrove: I'll be in Sydney and hopefully Tasmania for our Afar Experiences event in May, and then Italy for my honeymoon. I'm embarrassed to share with this group, but I have never been to Rome. So some Rome, a little Amalfi and then maybe Bari.

Novogrod: I'm going to Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Hiking in the Dolomites, British Columbia for more hiking. And Rome. And probably India and Asia.

Bellows: I'm chained this year to book and magazine launches, so it's very prosaic. It's Montana, India, Ireland, London, Scotland.

Stoddart: I'll be in Hong Kong at the end of the month doing a custom culinary tour. And I'm going to Namibia, which I'm very excited about. And a bunch of domestic trips, including San Francisco, Miami, L.A.

Weissmann: Is there a travel experience that's not necessarily destination-specific that you haven't done but is really high on your list to do?

Bellows: Going with James Cameron in his submersible. I'd love to do that, go deep underwater in a small, little submarine. That's very cool. And so it's real, it's coming. Just as Branson's sending people to space, the oceans are the next frontier, and I think it's so much more interesting than space.

Glowczewska: I'm obsessed with deserts, I love the immensity, the sulfur springs, the flamingos, that emptiness. I'd love to go to Atacama [Chile]. That and Patagonia, where I also have never been. I cannot stand sedentary vacations. That's my problem with safaris, because you sit in those damn vehicles all the time, and then you have sundowners and tea sandwiches, and then you just get wider and wider.

Novogrod: They're changing.

Nancy NovogrodGlowczewska: I'd love to do a safari on horseback or a walking safari.

Bellows: Swimming with whales.

Stoddart: I'd love to go on the Silk Road, do some kind of a horse trek.

Mattoon: I'd go to see the Northern Lights. I'd also like to experience almost an endless day during the summer.

Bellows: I thought you did that at the New York Times.

Mattoon: [Laughs] Night does fall, and it falls hard.

Cosgrove: Iceland. And I want to explore the Norwegian fjords.

Novogrod: I'd like to go to Mongolia and Iceland. I like a lot of hiking, trekking, and I love to see nature I haven't seen before.

Weissmann: Is there a mass-market travel experience you haven't tried but want to?

Cosgrove: I want to take a river cruise with my mom.

Novogrod: I'd like to try Adventures by Disney, their tours. I'd like to just see what the reality of these trips is like.

Bellows: I'd like to go ballooning over the Serengeti. I've been to the Serengeti ...

Novogrod: Is that mass? That doesn't count!

Glowczewska: I took my kids to Disneyland when they were 5, but I've never been to Orlando, and I'm curious. A bunch of us at the office were talking, and it turns out there are a lot of people that are these closet Disney-philes. Our style director says he really, really wants to go. Yes, our fashion guy! And the editor of "The Informer," our new section, also. He wants to do a story on why we all love Disney.

Stoddart: I actually did Disneyland in December the week right after Christmas, on the second busiest day of the year, with my extended family, and I don't recommend doing it on that day.

Novogrod: I think it'd also be fun to go on one of the really large cruise ships. I know people have a great time.

Mattoon: I'd do Disney. I've never been. I'd also be up for a cruise. I'd like to cross the Atlantic. I don't know if that's mass.

Bellows: It used to be. Arnie, getting back to your very first question, I do think things feel a lot better for travel.

Novogrod: Yeah. I do, too.

Bellows: It's settled out a bit, and I think definitely travel is back.

Glowczewska: Agreed.

Novogrod: Yes, travel is back; I sometimes wish the world would spring some new destinations, though, both for my personal traveling pleasure and for my editorial possibilities.

Email Arnie Weissmann at aweissmann@travelweekly.com and follow him on Twitter. 
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