At the invitation of Travel Weekly, the chief editors of Afar, Budget Travel, Conde Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler and Travel + Leisure and the leisure travel editor of USA Today convened in New York earlier this year for the sixth annual Travel Weekly Consumer Travel Editors Roundtable.
The event was held at, and lunch provided by, A Voce restaurant in the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle.
Travel Weekly Editor in Chief Arnie Weissmann moderated. This year, the focus was on consumers and changing travel patterns, and how the industry and these publications are changing as a result.
The original transcript has been edited for length, and the chronology has been altered to keep dialogue about specific topics together, even though the topic might have been discussed in recurring intervals during the course of the conversation.
Arnie Weissmann, editor in chief, Travel Weekly: Economic conditions have been challenging for more than two years now. As a result, have any changes occurred that you believe will permanently alter the way people travel or the way travel is sold?
Klara Glowczewska, editor in chief, Conde Nast Traveler: We just did a study about what people expect from luxury, and a number of interesting things came up. We found that people are relooking at the whole value proposition. People want to get a lot for their money, and they hate being nickel-and-dimed. That keeps coming up over and over, both in the survey and in anecdotal information from our readers. What drives people crazy across the board is the WiFi situation at hotels. It enrages them. I chaired a panel at the International Luxury Travel Market last year, and [Emaar Hotels CEO Marc Dardenne] said, "If Starbucks can give you free WiFi, why can't a hotel that charges you $800 a night give you free WiFi?" And it brought the house down.
Nancy Novogrod, editor in chief, Travel + Leisure: The interesting thing is, a lot of the less expensive hotels are giving you free WiFi. I had the head of a five-star hotel company say to me, "Well, our guests don't care."
Nina Willdorf, editor in chief, Budget Travel: How could that be?
Novogrod: Exactly. Is that possible? I don't believe it.
Willdorf: We just did a survey of the five fastest-growing midrange hotels in our February issue, and every single one of them offers free WiFi. The comparison is really the high end vs. the low end. What is the reason?
Keith Bellows, editor in chief, National Geographic Traveler: I think it's worse here in the States. I just got back from Norway. Bed and breakfasts, small hotels, whatever, WiFi was free. But here, we just seem to cling to this idea that you have to charge 10 bucks a head.
Novogrod: It's very unmodern, really.
Glowczewska: Very, very.
Novogrod: Online access should be immediate and easy. But it's not only WiFi. There are a lot of charges being added on to hotel stays: charging for using a credit card, charging for using bell hops, charging for maids. They're just hidden.
Veronica Stoddart, leisure travel editor, USA Today: Or being asked to pay resort fees, when you haven't used the pool or the beach or anything connected to a resort experience.
Glowczewska: But I think there's enormous pushback from consumers on this, so I wonder how long that will go on. I think this is changing. Things will change. I can't believe it won't change.
Novogrod: Well, I don't know.
Glowczewska: Maybe I'm an optimist.
Weissmann: Have any of you pushed back on the resort fees?
Stoddart: I have.
Weissmann: What was the result?
Stoddart: They've taken them off. I just said, "I didn't use it."
Novogrod: I think maybe the consumer is in a transitional point, because now airlines are charging for everything, I mean, charging extra if you're overweight, or I saw that Ryanair is now charging, I think it's $1.30, to use the restroom on the flight.
Bellows: Five years ago, we thought that was a joke, a "Saturday Night Live" punch line.
Stoddart: [Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary is] all about gimmicks.
Novogrod: But they're charging for carry-on bags. How about that one?
Willdorf: Well, I think you can see how consumers are responding by looking at some of the places that they're gravitating. Southwest, which doesn't charge for bags, had more people on their planes last year than ever before. So in places where you are able to make those choices, I think consumers are smartening up and making the choice to go where they're not getting nickel-and-dimed.
Stoddart: But you know, the airline industry is looking to make 35% of their revenue from ancillary fees in the next 10 years, and that's enormous. So they're not going to give those up anytime soon.
Greg Sullivan, editor in chief, Afar: They need to do it.
Stoddart: Everything from booking on their own sites, to the packages that they sell, to baggage fees, to everything.
Glowczewska: InterContinental Hotels has an interesting promotion, where they are giving you a credit in the amount of fees you had to pay an airline to check in luggage on your way to the hotel.
Novogrod: That's great. It's smart.
Bellows: Well, switch this around. What if an airline simply said, "We're going to go back to the way it was. We're going to charge you per ticket, and all the other stuff is full in." How do we think that would work?
Glowczewska: Just raise the prices.
Bellows: Raise the prices. Because I'd much prefer to pay the extra 30 bucks and not get nickled-and-dimed.
Sullivan:Well, people say they want more comfort and they're willing to pay for it [in the base fare], but when it comes down to it, they won't. People will shop for the lowest fare. And so airlines have to find a way to make money. We've seen that the American airline industry, in particular, has had its ups and downs. They have to work with the way the consumer acts.
Stoddart:The tickets are commoditized. They just don't make much margin on those tickets. So they need to have the ancillary fees.
Glowczewska:And you know, some of the choices are fun. I have not yet flown on Virgin America, but a bunch of our staff just flew to Vegas, and one flew on Virgin America, and she said how great it was, because all throughout the flight, there was constant choice of movies, a constant choice of snacks and sandwiches and food. It was fun, and she didn't resent paying for any of it, because it was totally discretionary.
Novogrod:JetBlue has gotten very far with that.
Bellows:But your word is fun. I don't want to pay extra to bring a bag into the cabin. I'm not doing it because it's fun.
Stoddart: Where you're going to start to see a lot more change is in the pricing of individual seats. In fact, we're doing a story on this. But look at what Air New Zealand is doing with this "cuddle class"; have you guys seen that? Where they're selling you three seats for two people?
Glowczewska:I love that name, "cuddle class."
Stoddart: And you can lie and recline and cuddle with your honey. The third seat is half off. I think you're going to start to see a lot more of that kind of pricing on seats.
Sullivan: Charging for an exit row, that makes sense. The one that didn't make sense to me was the one for checking bags, actually, because then you encourage people to carry their bags onboard, where there's not room, and it slows down the boarding and deplaning. And it really ticks off the frequent flyers.
Weissmann: The airlines position the ancillary fees as giving consumers more choices. Let's talk about choice and personalization. Are consumers happy with all the options and choices they have? Are they enabled or overwhelmed?
Willdorf: I think the consumers are both enabled and overwhelmed by the number of choices that are out there. And it's problematic at this point.
Bellows: But we're headed to more and more personalization. Certain websites will get this right. Wanderfly.com is working in this area, trying to really get a handle on your profile, way beyond your booking propensity. They're looking at who you are, what kind of experience you want, what kind of travel IQ you have. It seems to me that's the direction we're going, and I think it's probably the direction for our publications and our ancillary properties. We get to know consumers in a much more granular way, which means you can kind of cut through this commodity sensibility. We're all moving in that direction editorially.
But I think that the new emerging websites are saying that Expedia, or TripAdvisor, are still kind of bulk, mass-market commodity products. I think the industry is moving beyond that, to get to know you so well that it can almost anticipate what you want.
Novogrod: That's been on Amazon for quite some time -- you know, "You like this book, why not try that one?"
Glowczewska: I think that's a huge trend, actually. I mean, we're finding that, in our conversations with our travel specialists [Editor's note: Conde Nast Traveler publishes a list of recommended travel agents each year] that some of them are not yet fully attuned to the fact that people who go to travel agents don't want a trip from A to Z with a single price that doesn't actually spell out what they're being charged for. People want a segment of this, or they want this tour for a day. They want to know how much the thing costs.
Bellows: A la carte, right.
Glowczewska: And if you want to just show me the total price, I don't know, because you're not telling me everything that you're charging me for. I think consumers want transparency and they want to customize it to who they are, to what their interests are. I think that's going to be a huge trend going forward.
Sullivan: People are looking for value, but what that means is different things for different people. They're really looking for something that can be meaningful, or an experience that really makes a difference in their lives. That's still there, and, in fact, I think it's growing.
Glowczewska: And I think they're willing to pay for that, they're absolutely willing to pay for that. It just has to be rich, and has to be lasting and the memories associated with it, you know.
Weissmann: Where do travel agents fit into all of this? Do you think consumers are looking at travel agents as experts who can help them sort out their choices and get the experience they're looking for?
Novogrod:I do, yes.
Glowczewska: And I think with this increasing interest in experiences, and in-depth, and authentic, I think these experts bring a lot to the party, a tremendous amount to the party.
Novogrod:As the profusion of choices in sites becomes greater, many people may turn back to travel experts. It's just so complicated now. Also, people are connoisseurs. A lot of people who are planning trips have highly targeted interests, and they want to spend their money and time well, so they want to go to an expert who has superior knowledge to what you can divine on the Internet. It really can make a huge difference.
Bellows:Here's an example: A very wealthy woman I know decided she wasn't going to go with a travel agent, she was going to plan a trip to India by herself. And she emailed me saying, "I'd like to rent a car in India."
Bellows: She said, "I think I can get around much more quickly," and I said, "If you rent a car ..."
Novogrod:And very fast.
Bellows: That says to me, of course you need a travel agent.
Stoddart:Cruise buys have traditionally been made through agents for years and years. That's one sector where it's a complicated buy and it's an expensive buy, and you really need someone to guide you through it, so I don't think that has ever diminished.
Novogrod: And the cruse lines really try to support agents.
Stoddart: Yeah, they encourage going to them, even though they are increasingly getting more direct bookings. But they still prefer that you go through someone who knows and can guide you through it.
Willdorf:Perhaps more than some of the other brands here, Budget Travel readers are usually do-it-yourself planners. They really thrive on the booking process, and to that end, the travel agent hasn't been as much a part of that process for them. But there was some Forrester research a couple of months ago about a rise in use of travel agents, and so we put that up on our blog, just to say, you know, this is what's going on. And we asked: Have you used a travel agent in the past year? And I was shocked. Sixty percent of our readers had used a travel agent in the past year, which was a lot higher than I had expected, and they gave really thoughtful comments about why and when and how, the types of trips that they plan on their own, the types of trips that they used an agent. And I think there's sort of a travel therapy that comes through using travel agents. As travel gets harder, you know you have someone to call upon. It's about that curated experience that's just for you, but it's also about knowing there's somebody that you can reach out to, and I think that's becoming increasingly valuable.
Novogrod:I think it does relate to this trend toward personalization and our recognition that our needs are different from other people. People are seeking something extraordinary. And I think it relates to the trend toward going to destinations that are a little less known, or even wanting a discovery of a new place that's within a familiar destination.
Willdorf: And also, it's about resources, time as much as money. There's such a premium on your time that when you do decide to take a trip, you really want to make sure it's the one that's going to pay off. There's the time of planning, but also the time that you're out there and you just want to make sure that you are getting the value from that experience.
I think travel has always been an investment, but now it seems like people are thinking of it as an investment in themselves, an investment in their family, their relationships. I think that that's about value, but it's also about a sort of hominess, and a shift in what people are looking for in their travel. There's something experiential and --
Novogrod:That's the first mention of that word, experiential, and that's it. I mean, it's all about experience now, and something that transcends the everyday, that puts you in touch with something enduring or authentic.
Weissmann: Are the industry's travel products keeping up with the consumer's desire for enduring or authentic experiences? One of the fastest-growing areas in the industry is river cruising. Does that reflect this trend?
Novogrod: River cruising is growing at three times the rate of the seagoing cruise. There's a number of new ships coming, and the size of the cabin is increasing. They're becoming more stylish. And I do wonder if it's connected to people wanting to reach out and touch something real and distinct and slow down when they travel.
Bellows: I think that's it exactly.
Novogrod: I did it. It's a lovely way to experience travel. A more intimate approach to travel.
Willdorf: I think people associate it with the older traveler, and they're now trying to market to the younger groups.
Novogrod: With biking.
Willdorf: Yeah, biking and WiFi, better-designed cabins. I've been really impressed with some of the new boats that I've seen that are coming out. And I think that it's going to grow even more.
Stoddart: It's a wonderful way to go.
Glowczewska: We do an annual cruise poll, and we added a separate category for the first time on river cruises, and we got a huge response.
Novogrod: We did, too. We put it in our world's best tours. It's significant.
Weissmann: Have any of you other than Nancy been on a river cruise?
Stoddart: I have.
Glowczewska: Not yet.
Bellows: A long time ago.
Stoddart: I went on one of the new Uniworld ships.
Weissmann: What was the experience like for you?
Stoddart: Absolutely fabulous, I loved it.
Novogrod: Where did you go?
Stoddart: It was the Danube.
Novogrod: That's the classic.
Stoddart: It was phenomenal.
Novogrod: How long?
Stoddart: It was a week. It was perfect. Germany, Austria, Hungary and Slovakia. And you dock right in the middle of the town. That's the beauty of it. You can get off and on whenever you want. You just walk on to shore. You can stay in town at night. Eat out at night, do whatever you want. In Vienna we listened to music in the evening in town. It's like the grand tour, but it's on the boat. And it's just a wonderful way, you unpack once and just have all of the mobility you want. And a very congenial group of people. That was the other thing. I think it's going to be a wonderful option for singles, because a lot of them are also waiving their single supplements.
Willdorf: That's actually going to be a big thing.
Stoddart: Yeah. Especially for single women. There were a number of other single women on the one that I was on, and I thought, "This is a fabulous way. It's safe for a single woman to travel on her own."
Novogrod: Well, they're thinking about this audience, clearly.
Novogrod: On the NCL ship, the Epic, they have those single cabins.
Stoddart: I think that's going to be a growth area.
Willdorf: We're doing a story on solo travel in our next issue. The NCL move was so significant because to charge people more to travel on their own has just been sort of an expectation of the industry, but it should have no merit.
Glowczewska: And it's really punitive.
Stoddart: And they're missing the boat, so to speak. Because there's a huge appetite for this, a huge market. Especially baby boomers, women who are on their own all of a sudden and want to get out there and do things.
Bellows: I mostly think [the growth of river cruising is] partly a response to the interest in sustainability. I mean, these gigantic boats come in and just take over a port with 4,000-plus people. Nobody really likes that experience.
Glowczewska: I think it's a separate group. Because we're finding a lot of people love those big ships. Another category we added was the megaship.
Novogrod: The Allure of the Seas, 5,400 passengers. I think it's kind of the dialectics of travel. For every trend there's a countertrend. Some people love these super, super ships. And some want to go small, which makes our jobs really interesting. Someone could be a subscriber to any of our magazines, but vastly different from the next subscriber. It's more true than ever because there are so many options. And that's why a lot of other things we're talking about, like people turning to travel agents, may be related to that, too. It's a very confusing world in terms of the choices and the destinations that are accessible, the kinds of experiences on offer and the pricing levels. It gets more complicated.
Bellows: Well, it's the death of mass. I mean, that's what we're seeing almost in everything.
Weissmann: The Oasis and the Allure of the Seas have been very successful. They're huge, but are they a mass experience?
Novogrod: They're not selling a mass experience, and that's true with larger hotels. And they're all about discovery and the intimate corner. Even a place like the Sands in Singapore, that's so huge, but it's all about finding a way to be unique.
Weissmann: A lot of new cruise ships have come out over the past few years. Have you been covering them?
Willdorf: I'm going on the Disney Dream with my mother and my toddler.
Novogrod: We cover them when we do roundups.
Glowczewska: We cover them, as well.
Stoddart: We cover every new ship in depth because we have a full-time cruise editor and we have a robust section of our site that's only on cruising. So we've carved that out as a really important niche.
Weissmann: Do you think the new ships will attract a broader audience to cruising?
Novogrod: It must be happening, because the audience is growing. You know, one thing that I've always wondered about is how effectively overall they have lowered the average age of the cruiser. And I know there's been a huge effort for that and also to attract the family market. I think that at least initially it was more challenging than a lot of the cruise lines thought it would be.
Willdorf: We did a story a year or two ago about how a lot of cruise lines were launching shorter trips geared toward people inclined to do three-day weekends or four-day weekends. That was very much with the purpose of introducing a new audience to the ship. Our readers love cruising. I don't think they're looking for new reasons. They love the ease, they love the one-time buying, the amount of activities, the food, the family aspect and how it's so safe. I don't think the people are necessarily craving new reasons to go cruising, but the new offerings are just kind of giving more to the field.
Stoddart: And the other thing is the cruise lines have now developed more than 30 cruise ports in North America, so it's become a drive-to market. That was very smart on their part, so you don't have to fly. There's going to be a place near where you live, unless you're smack in the middle of the country.
Novogrod: And beyond that, they've been very good at developing new and interesting international ports.
Sullivan: Exactly. We asked our readers, and I was very surprised how many of them cruise and want to go to new destinations that way.
Weissmann: Another area that seems to have been growing, and I'm curious to know whether or not you cover it, is all-inclusives.
Stoddart: Huge interest.
Bellows: We certainly are seeing more of it. But it's not who we are as a magazine.
Willdorf: It's very much who we are as a magazine. There's a sense of value. There's a sense of family-driven activities at your fingertips. And there's a sense of power, actually, for a consumer, which is a little bit counterintuitive. You don't need to be watching your hotel bill for all of the charges. That's a really big deal right now. Here's a place where you can leave your wallet behind in the safe. And there's something really relaxing about that. I think if you're looking at sort of a landscape of three to four trips a year, this is one of them.
Stoddart: I would agree with that. It's about the value, I think, at the end of the day. Kind of like cruising on land.
Weissmann: Are you seeing all-inclusives evolve?
Stoddart: Yeah, because more luxury hotels are offering all sorts of packages. It's really exploding. So, I think, it goes on all of the different levels.
Willdorf: We're publishing a story in our March issue about some new all-inclusives in Mexico. And I'm just looking at these photographs. You would think that a place that's all-inclusive for under $150 a night would be a little scary. But they're gorgeous. Just beautiful properties. Right on the water. And the value, it's really there. And you just can't deny the appeal of something like that. I would go tomorrow if I could.
Weissmann: Looking at your own publications, how are you changing to adapt to consumers' desire for the personalization of the travel experience?
Bellows: We're grappling with it. [Digital delivery] allows us to do so much more, but that's the problem. We're going to have to do so much more, because we don't have a general-interest travel consumer anymore. Everyone has very specific interests, and how we're going to have to cater to that is a big problem.
Stoddart: The other part of that is the social network planning sites that have popped up. At [the PhoCusWright conference last November], this was the biggest theme, the idea of finding your community and getting recommendations from your community. I think that's going to grow exponentially, as well.
Weissmann: So how do you tap into that, what are you doing differently? Traditionally, you have a service box that gives details about hotels and suppliers you mention, you have essays, which give a very individual perspective, but you're not necessarily offering a lot of choices and options. How are you going to adjust your editorial approach to take into account that consumers want more personalization?
Willdorf: I think it becomes more about ancillary products that filter under the main brands.
Glowczewska: Yeah, I think it may have to do with apps.
Glowczewska: Yes. Less so in print. We can't quite adapt it the same way.
Novogrod: There are so many opportunities to embrace our readers. We have content that is innately interesting and in demand. All of this development of other products, most of them digital, is really a very interesting way to think of our brands. Print is just one of the ways we express ourselves.
Bellows: In fact, I would guess that if you compared how we spend our day this week vs. five years ago, five years ago we would have been spending 80%-90% of our time thinking about our print product. Today I'd say it's 40%.
Weissmann: Would everyone concur?
Stoddart: Ten percent. Ninety percent online and mobile apps and so on, 10% in print.
Weissmann: And online revenue, as a percentage of total revenue, is ...
Bellows: Not there yet.
Stoddart: No, but the truth is that our print footprint in the paper is very small now. We've lost a standalone [travel] section, so we just don't have that much content appearing in print. It's all online.
Bellows: It's creating a whole new opportunity for us to rethink what our connection is with the consumer, what kind of products we do, the mobilization of travel information, that sort of 24/7 connection we have. All this is just changing how we think of everything.
Novogrod: And the layering of information -- there haven't always been layers for us. There are so many aspects to planning a trip, and we have not really been able to do justice to this in print, whereas in digital, you can present so many different options. It's so much more satisfying.
Willdorf: And the way that consumers are interacting with digital does have an effect on print. One of the things that we're doing is presenting our information to our readers in a different way now, and assuming a different level of education. They're always been really informed, but they're craving dialogue. That dialogue is reflected in the pages, and there is more Web-to-print dialogue happening. We don't think of it as discrete products; they're really integrated, part of the same world.
Bellows: Our biggest challenges now is: Is our tech support up to the job? And can we pay for what we need to be able to do to stay ahead of consumers? We have a bajillion ideas, and we go to our tech people, and they go, "Well, you know, we can't really do that."
Stoddart: "Maybe in three years, we'll get to that."
Bellows: Yeah. Our community-building stuff is pathetic. And if our readers can't stay connected with us in the way they want to, they'll start to reject us. And I think we fight that all the time. Our upper management has said, "This stuff is easy, it's like it's moving the magazine onto a digital platform." No, it's not. It's a completely new medium.
Willdorf: Well, if that were the only thing you were doing, maybe that would be easy.
Weissmann: Can each of you tell me where you are with mobile?
Bellows: Everybody wants travel information where they are and when they want it. And so we have to figure out how to take the stuff we're doing for one medium and morph it into an on-demand product. And we're fortunate, we have a mobile division. But even though we know what we want to do, the cost in resources that we need to do it effectively is going to be a barrier.
Glowczewska: And there are no effective business models yet.
Bellows: We're spending quite a bit of money. It's experimental money, and you know that it's only going to be there for maybe a year or two years, until there's a revenue return. I don't see the revenue return model instantly there. We kind of see the outlines of it, disaggregated content, pay as you go, that kind of stuff, but it's not like selling an ad.
Weissmann: Are you developing apps?
Bellows: I think that's definitely one of the areas that we're looking at, but you know, have you gone into the App Store on a regular basis, a weekly basis, and tried to navigate that? To find our products? I mean, we were in the top 10 travel products when we launched Traveler's iPad. But within one week, I couldn't find it. And there's all these different platforms. We've got the Android, we've got Nook, we've got Kindle, we've got all of those. It's not that you can just produce it once and it ports to all these different products.
Willdorf: The marketing portion of it is key.
Bellows: Totally. How do they find you?
Novogrod: It's like the Wild West right now. Here we are, all busily producing material for a consumer we really don't know. We don't even know how it will evolve, what the demand will be, how well it's working.
Willdorf: And we're talking about one device. There are going to be so many more coming.
Bellows: Different aspect ratios, different design presentations. You know, our people go, "Everybody loves video. Do more video." Who says everybody loves video? I don't love video.
Stoddart: I'm interested to hear that. We have discovered, people don't consume video. I have the numbers to prove it.
Glowczewska: That's what we're finding, as well.
Stoddart: We generate a lot of original video, and they do not click on it. They do not.
Willdorf: Do you sell it?
Stoddart: No. We aggregate it with stories.
Weissmann: Is it related to a specific news story, or general destination reporting?
Stoddart: Both. They do not click on it. And I have been talking to others. Lonely Planet has the same issue. I've talked to other folks in the online travel space, and everyone concurs that it's just not consumed a lot. It's a mystery. I guess video, unless it's funny or wacky or goofy or your own kids or something, people don't click on it.
Willdorf: It has to go for silly.
Stoddart: I think part of the reason [people aren't looking at] video is that a lot of people are online at their noon hour, their lunch hour, and if they're playing a video, all their office mates can hear it, and they don't want to let the office mates know that they're visiting a travel site on their lunch hour. Our traffic spikes in the noon hour, and I think that might be part of the picture.
Weissmann: Does all of USA Today spike, or just travel?
Stoddart: All of USA Today. It always spikes around noon, between 12 and 2.
Novogrod: We're all in a really vulnerable position right now, I think, because we are expanding in ways we never even knew would exist. In order to do the best job possible, we have to have knowledge, we have to have funding, we have to have opportunity, to have the time and support to do it well. It's an interesting time in publishing, but it's a very challenging one.
Willdorf: We can't continue to look at what we do as pushing out. We can't just create and deliver, we have to look at what we do as connecting, and that's where we're going to find our power, and that's the sustainable thing. Once you connect people and they can talk, and they're in your community, then you have self-sustaining content that you don't even really need to get involved with.
Stoddart: And the classic example of that is FlyerTalk. One of the most successful sites on the Web, and it's 100% community, 100%. They all monitor themselves, it's just pure community, and it's phenomenal.
Willdorf: That's scary. One hundred percent is scary.