Travel editors discuss challenges in the media business

2014 Travel Editors RoundtableAt the invitation of Travel Weekly, the top editors of Afar, Elite Traveler, National Geographic Traveler and Travel + Leisure and the travel editors of the Associated Press and the New York Times convened in New York earlier this year for the ninth annual Travel Weekly Consumer Travel Editors Roundtable.

The event was held in Manhattan in a suite at the recently renovated Loews Regency Hotel, which also provided lunch.

Travel Weekly Editor in Chief Arnie Weissmann moderated. This year, the group spent a great deal of time focused on media itself: ownership changes at Travel + Leisure, a change of editor in chief at Conde Nast Traveler, how changes in media models are affecting travel titles and how the consumer media covers the cruise industry. (Editor's note: Conde Nast Traveler's new editor in chief, Pilar Guzman, was invited but had a conflict on the date of the roundtable.)

The original transcript of the discussion 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: We've seen some structural and directional change in consumer travel media recently, with a new editor in chief at Conde Nast Traveler and Time Inc. taking 100% ownership of Travel + Leisure. Nancy, how is the ownership change impacting your brand?

Nancy Novogrod, editor in chief, Travel + Leisure:
I think that, for us, the opportunities are significant. It's exciting to be part of a big media company, and especially in a time of change at that company where there is a great emphasis placed on innovation and extension of brands. We haven't had the investment we needed to extend our reach, in a number of ways. And I know, because Joe Ripp, the CEO, has told me that there is a huge commitment to the Travel + Leisure brand and the belief that we can grow with Time Inc.'s help. And I think we will see that.

Weissmann: What does Time Inc. bring to the table that you didn't have before?

Nancy NovogrodNovogrod:
A great deal of expertise in digital extensions. They're hiring. They hired Colin Bodell from Amazon. They've hired a number of people who are really experts, and they bring a kind of critical mass. Before, when Time Inc. [had only 50% ownership], we had advantages in terms of [buying] paper and other production elements. But now we're going to have advantages in terms of very deep and knowing guidance in addressing the new opportunities that technology brings. It's not without its stresses, of course. We've had to say goodbye to some very good people. But I think the future is really, really good.

Weissmann: Do you foresee any changes in the content of the magazine?

I'm always making changes. Magazines are organic creatures. And I think that [Time Inc. is] very respectful. We've been successful, and Time Inc. is, especially with Joe Ripp leading the spinoff from Time Warner, very profit-focused. Travel + Leisure has had a good year, and they don't want to see what we do impacted by this change in a way that our success could be endangered. So I haven't heard about editorial changes. I think there is a great support for what we've done.

Weissmann: I imagine you all have heard that, when Pilar Guzman was named editor in chief of Conde Nast Traveler last fall, a new emphasis was going to be put on "lifestyle." The first issue reflecting that came out last month. What's your reaction?

Keith Bellows, editor in chief, National Geographic Traveler:
It will be very interesting because travel is about life. Conde Nast Traveler was the first magazine that brought high-scale luxury in, but it took it to this sort of almost unrealistic level.

Ever since I've been at my magazine I've said, yes, there are going to be luxury travelers, and we'll deal with them in their own way. But it's not an interesting place for us. It doesn't have a brand connection.

I'm hoping they do well. But I wonder what their identity is. I thought "Truth in Travel" was an absolutely brilliant positioning. At the time it happened under Harry Evans, it was so resonant. We all got it. It's clearly not the case anymore, and that's fine. So Pilar and Anna [Wintour, artistic director of Conde Nast] reinvent the brand.

Julia Cosgrove, editor in chief, Afar: I think anything that casts the spotlight on our category helps all of us. And I think travel is poised, just as food was five to 10 years ago, to become the next obsession of readers.

Novogrod: I agree.

Bellows: I do, too.

Arnie WeissmannWeissmann: There are other sorts of changes occurring across all media brands. As digital platforms and social media evolve, so does the thinking about the way that advertisers can reach audiences. How is that affecting your titles?

Social media now is part of the package our [sales] side prepares for advertisers in many cases. They are willing to send out tweets and posts supporting advertisers. There is increasing pressure on editorial to also promote advertisers in that way. And unfortunately, as soon as you [adopt] a new platform, it becomes a challenge in one way or another for editorial. We're creating videos that can go out through social media, and there are similar pressures on that.

Weissmann: There is a lot of discussion around native advertising, in which advertisers provide content within the context of a title's category. Have there been proposals to you from the publishing side of your operations about what they would like to do in this regard?

Novogrod: Oh yeah.

Weissmann: How has that played out?

We're forging into new territory all of the time. And the rules we live by on the editorial side, the American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME) guidelines, don't necessarily extend as far as we're being asked to go.

It's been an interesting process. Some of the requests involve our making real judgment calls on whether it feels right or not, whether we have comfort. And whether the debt we owe to our audience to be honest and authoritative and to keep their interest in mind above all, whether it is in any way impacted by this. It's all very new.

Bellows: It's the readers who count. If we lose their trust -- and by the way, they can smell it a mile away -- then we're screwed.

Cosgrove: I think that transparency is what matters the most to the people sitting around this table. As editors, we're charged with thinking about how our reader is going to view something, and we can't lose that trust, or else there's nothing to sell.

Bellows: I remember the days when you said, "No, that violates ASME guidelines." You can't do that anymore. It used to be the industry standard.

Cosgrove: I'm still holding them in every meeting.

Weissmann: Monica, I think a lot of editors look to the New York Times for signals about what is acceptable practice and what is not. How is that discussion going inside the New York Times building?

Monica DrakeMonica Drake, editor, New York Times travel section:
That's a very fraught discussion. I think that the consensus is that our content is changing. We don't just have articles. We have active social media accounts. We are trying to do some visual journalism. We have 300,000 followers on an Instagram account, and we're devoting resources to that. That's our content, and we feel we should be able to reap some reward from it, and the way we monetize it is we mine our social activity and produce content that lives on our site.

But I agree, I think, at the end of the day, the discussion always comes back to what the reader perceives. The divide between editorial and business is particularly strong at the Times. So I think that we're just now starting to kind of let go of ... I don't want to call it hostility, but previously we were very hesitant to even engage the business side in discussions about content. And that's slowly dying.

Weissmann: The word "transparency" has been raised. Do you see that you can experiment in areas that you would have never dreamed of experimenting in before, as long as you're telling the audience what you're doing? Is that the new norm?

Yeah, exactly right. So when we have advertising that's embedded in content, we want it to be very distinct and very clear. We want to say that if [the word "advertisement"] is in a tiny font, that's not enough. We don't want it to look like the rest of our content.

Novogrod: The reality is that advertisers are trying to make their promotions look more like editorial. Many advertisers love creating a blurring of these lines, so we're always racing to underscore the difference and to remain more distinct.

Weissmann: Doug, you carry the dual titles of president and editor in chief. How do you approach these issues?

Doug GollanDoug Gollan, president/editor in chief, Elite Traveler:
I started on the editorial side at Travel Agent magazine, and then I made the step over into sales and got into the management side of it. And I learned there's often a disconnect between what advertisers are telling the salespeople and what public relations people are telling the editors. And I think sometimes the ad people are just in a rush to get a deal signed -- they say that this account wants to do this, this and this. But if you ask, "What are they specifically trying to accomplish?" you usually can actually give the advertiser what they're looking for.

They're willing to pay for it, but we want it all to speak to what our audience is looking for. You have to deal with everything on a case-by-case basis. And at the end of the day, if the information doesn't serve our readers, then it doesn't serve the advertiser. We sometimes have to talk with advertisers about what they can offer that might be more on target with what our readers are looking for. And I think that takes a lot more time than it used to.

Cosgrove: I think more and more editors are in the role of being the creative solutions people -- so, taking in what salespeople are asking, taking in what the marketing team is asking and then coming back with something that everybody can live with, be comfortable with and that ultimately will serve the reader. And that's a challenge, more often than not.

Weissmann: We've been talking about changes in media, but I'd like to also talk about media coverage of the travel industry. The cruise industry in particular has felt it was unfairly portrayed, with disproportionate attention paid to the stranding of ships, crime at sea, norovirus. What are your impressions of the media coverage of the cruise industry? And what, if anything, are your readers telling you? Did the negative coverage suppress the urge to cruise? Does it still?

It seems that anything that happens that impacts the cruise industry does get a lot of coverage. Certainly on television news. Many of the problems that are cited exist elsewhere, but I think there's an innate drama in the idea of an immense ship being laid low by norovirus, which is the recent one. And I guess there's a certain drama to it, it's a kind of horrifying human interest story, and it's a good story for the media.

Drake: I think that you're right. I think there's something really compelling about the idea of people being adrift. It's innately gripping, and in the past year-and-a-half or two years, it's happened with just enough regularity that the cruise industry is probably still reeling. It's supposed to be your escape, your fantasy, so just when you think [you might cruise], you hesitate because a ship returns to port early because of illness.

Novogrod: I wonder if the ships were less large whether there would be so much coverage. These enormous vessels, they're like the eighth wonder of the world to begin with. And then when something goes wrong ...

Drake: Right. As a news reporter, you have a very solid number, and it's a large one.

Beth HarpazBeth Harpaz, travel editor, Associated Press: The news is the news. I mean, AP is a news organization. My travel content is very different from most of yours because it's mostly driven by news. It's not always bad news, but we come at it from a different perspective. I think it's partly that there is an innate drama, but I think it's partly that you can't get away from it. If you're in a hotel, you can check out. If a crime happens, you can call the cops. If you get sick, you can go to a doctor. But you're on a ship. There's no escape. I think there is something innately Hollywood about that. It's like our worst nightmare.

As you all know, there are many, many millions of people who have never taken a cruise. And when something like this happens, it reinforces their sense that "I would never do that." I can't tell you how many educated, well-traveled, interesting, sophisticated people who, anytime there's any little thing on a cruise ship, say, "Oh God, the last place I would ever want to be is on a cruise." But like 99% of cruises are fine. What they're talking about is that sense of, they're stuck on this ship and there's no escape.

Gollan: And when you've previously invited the media for coverage of good news, you're also going to put yourself in the spotlight when something bad happens.

Harpaz: Right, it can't just be one way. The news is the news. Someone got sick. Someone died. The ship is stranded. The ship sunk. What are we supposed to do, not cover the trial in Italy of this captain? I mean, come on! So I have to say as a newsperson, the news is what it is.

Gollan: It used to be that whenever there was a hurricane in the Caribbean, the weathermen didn't really know geography very well and they would act as if the whole Caribbean was devastated. So Vincent Vanderpool Wallace, when he was director general of the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism, organized a meteorologist conference in Nassau, and it ran for five or six years. The whole idea was to educate them about the geography of the Caribbean and hurricane paths so they understood that if a hurricane hit somewhere, 98% of the rest of the Caribbean was open for business and not impacted.

And I think a lot of the stuff that you see where we say the travel industry is misrepresented, it's just an education issue. And I say that as someone who has a magazine that goes on private jets, which is probably one of the most misrepresented industries in the business. I think in every industry there's an education process. It's really up to the industry.

Harpaz: And there has been a huge education of the media by the cruise industry. I give them a lot of credit in making sure that we understand that norovirus does not just happen on cruise ships. It happens at bar mitzvahs, it happens in daycare centers, it happens in restaurants; they say, "Why aren't you reporting on that?"

Partly because I'm the guardian of a lot of the travel copy that crosses the AP wire, I always make sure that a paragraph is in the story explaining what is norovirus, how it's transmitted, that it's not just the cruise industry. And unlike a lot of things that happen on cruise ships which are not actually regulated, the Centers for Disease Control has a database on this on its website. So if a ship were repeatedly getting outbreaks, you'd see there's really something going wrong with the cleaning. But usually not. I remember looking at the database for these last few, and some of the ships had fantastic ratings. We have to make sure that context is in there.

Julia CosgroveBellows: Hold on. There are two types of media. We're in the celebration business, mostly.

Harpaz: I'm not in the celebration business. I just want to make that perfectly clear. [To Drake] And I don't think you are either. 

Drake: I'm not. I'm in the more celebratory part of the New York Times.

Bellows: I'm sorry, but you are in the celebration business. And what I mean is that you mostly look for good things to say about places, as opposed to bad things. If you look at what's happened in media, mostly on television, what you're seeing is traffic accidents, child molestations, all of the bad stuff. And so when something like a cruise incident happens, that's what they seize on. It's getting worse -- we've been going lower.

Harpaz: I think if you picked up a copy of a tabloid from 1955 it would be full of child molesting and murder and all kinds of lurid things. I don't think that has changed. I think that's just a given. That's just the way it works. Bad news sells.

Gollan: What's changed is also the Internet and all of the stuff that gets out there. 

Harpaz: That's true. What's changed is that the person on the ship can tweet their own misery.

Weissmann: But are your audiences still showing a strong interest in stories about cruising?

I think the issue for our readers is that cruises run counter to what they're interested in it. They're interested in immersive travel. They're interested in these very curated trips. Even a medium-sized ship doesn't look like it can deliver that experience, so that's the main issue for our readers.

Cosgrove: But I think the cruise lines, especially the smaller ships, have woken up to the idea that, onboard, it's grandparents bringing their children and grandchildren and they all are going to want different experiences. And it all comes back to experiences. The smart [cruise lines] are figuring out ways to give the people onboard these amazing offshore, in-port experiences.

Novogrod: Right. And spending an extra night in port, finding a way to provide an immersive experience of the destination. Taking people to see the local craftsmen, olives being pressed. 

Bellows: That's dead on. Our Lindblad cruises are sold out. [Editor's note: Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic market cruises jointly.] I mean, it's exactly what you guys are talking about. The big ships? We don't do that stuff.

Cosgrove: And that phenomenon is only going to increase as boomers age further and that's the easiest way to travel. 

Keith BellowsWeissmann: And at Afar, which is very much positioned as an experiential publication, how do you approach your cruise coverage?

Cosgrove: Multigen is very important. Twice a year, we meet with our advisory council of travel specialists. And they all say that what they're seeing from their clients is you have multigenerational trips, booked well in advance. Sometimes celebrations onboard where they take over the entire ship. And they want to go home and feel like they've had that exceptional local experience. I really think that people I've spoken to in the last year in the cruise industry know that, and they're really thinking of innovative ways to give that to their guests.

Drake: But I don't know if most travelers have gotten the message yet.

Bellows: The leading edge has.

Drake: So it will trickle down.

Gollan: Thirty years ago, [former Carnival Cruise Lines CEO] Bob Dickinson was talking about the cruise as an all-inclusive vacation, and five ports in seven days and meals and wine and everything included. And I still think cruises provide great value. Some people are looking for great experiences and going to museums and making pasta in Tuscany. But there's also a big market out there of people who just want to go and have a good time for four days. And I think the cruise industry has done an amazing job developing products for different targets.

Harpaz: And you can go on the same ship and have both of those experiences, where you're just with your margarita and you're lying on the lounge chair and you're reading your book or whatever and you're going to the club every night. Or, having the most amazing experience in port every single day and then paying a little extra for a really fantastic meal. And then you do the ropes course and then you go to the jazz seminar, and it feels more like the curated experience that a New York Times reader might enjoy, probably more so than the average New York Times reader could imagine.

Email Arnie Weissmann at and follow him on Twitter.

Photos by Steve Hockstein/Harvard Studio Photography
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