Photo Credit: Steve Hockstein/

The 11th annualTravel Editors Roundtable

It was only a year ago that the dominant topics of conversation in the travel industry were related to the relaxation of travel restrictions to Cuba and the spread of the Zika virus. Although neither has entirely slipped off the radar, when top consumer travel editors gathered in New York last month for Travel Weekly's 11th annual roundtable, other travel opportunities, matters of concern and aspects of the travel experience itself had become top of mind: the intersection of politics and travel; the impact of technology on service; travel agent resiliency; airplane food; the importance of psychographics vs. demographics; tipping anxiety; amenity kits; international gastro-nerds; jet-lag strategies; the possibility of cellphone conversations on airplanes; and new travel trends.

There was a bit of self-examination, too, as the editors exchanged thoughts about how, and whether, to use their platforms as pulpits for political commentary.

Those participating included Afar editor in chief Julia Cosgrove, New York Times travel section editor Monica Drake, Conde Nast Traveler editor in chief Pilar Guzman, Travel + Leisure editor in chief Nathan Lump, Saveur editor Adam Sachs and National Geographic Traveler editor in chief George Stone. Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann moderated, and the group was hosted at the Gabriel Kreuther restaurant in midtown Manhattan.

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: Although controversy about the travel ban primarily centers on the inability of citizens from certain countries to enter the U.S., there is some concern over the broader ramifications, particularly as regards the restrictions' impact on inbound travel and America's image abroad. Are you writing about it? What are you saying?

Pilar Guzman, editor in chief, Conde Nast Traveler: I'll start. I got a lot of heat for an editor's letter that I wrote about this topic. It was just postelection, and I was in Japan, and I had allowed myself to go on a bit of a social detox program. Then I saw a cartoon of a sputtering, quadruple-chinned [President Donald] Trump in the window of a cartoon artist's shop and it brought me back to reality again. I wrote about that and then about hearing in dribs and drabs about the cabinet nominations. Well, a huge number of my readers were outraged. It went to the tippy top of our organization, and I got my wrists slapped.

Adam Sachs, editor, Saveur: Did you meet the man himself [When he was president-elect, Trump met Conde Nast editors.]?

Guzman: Yes. I shook hands with [him], yes, I did. And he was perfectly lovely within the context of that meeting.

There may be more travel for readers who potentially are going to see their taxes go down; that will be a favorable story for them. So I'm trying to play it with sensitivity and taking the opportunity to say, "OK, what's the possible upside? Does this make people less afraid of other places? Is this an opportunity to push people out of their comfort zone and get them, for instance, to parts of Africa?"

In digital, that's a whole different thing. There's constant conversation, and we are covering the ban, up to the minute, as best we can.

Nathan Lump of Travel + Leisure. Photo Credit: Steve Hockstein/
Nathan Lump of Travel + Leisure. Photo Credit: Steve Hockstein/

Nathan Lump, editor in chief, Travel + Leisure: It's been very similar for us. We're covering all the developments to the story, whether or not it affects our travelers directly, because it's an important story for the industry. We're doing that, certainly digitally. It's moving and changing too quickly to effectively do that in print on our monthly schedule.

Do I have concerns? Of course. We do research with our audience all the time, and what they're telling us right now is no changes to their travel plans. They're traveling as much, if not more, than they ever have because their travel tends to track to economic outlook more than anything else, and for a certain kind of affluent traveler, the market's good for them.

Obviously, we know inbound travel is being affected. I've written that, as America's position internationally evolves, it's more important than ever for people to travel and to represent our country and their point of view as best they can.

I think that we all become ambassadors when we travel. I was just in Japan myself, and I could not have a single conversation that wasn't about politics. They want to know what you think. They want to know whether you are aligned or not with the administration. As a traveler, that changes your experience.

My major concern, longer term, is that we end up in some kind of conflict, which obviously is not good for travel or for any of us.

Julia Cosgrove, editor in chief, Afar: We had a company meeting a few weeks after the inauguration, and I was getting a lot of feedback from my younger employees about, "What is our stance here? What are we going to do? What are we going to say?"

We had talked about it as an executive team, and we reminded ourselves that when Afar launched, we were just going into the Obama administration, and so the values that we launched with -- open-mindedness, curiosity, getting outside your comfort zone, inclusion -- for the last eight years, we were in this time of nicety and bliss.

And suddenly, with everything happening in the world, this administration, [our values] started to feel under attack. And you could look at that two ways: glass half full, glass half empty. I think for us, it's an opportunity to just keep bringing those [values] to the fore and talking about them.

We just published our expat issue, and we have a story about a photographer who did a project with Save the Children in two different refugee camps, and we're talking a lot about what does it mean to be a global citizen today in a world where nationalism is rearing its head in myriad ways and myriad places.

How should a travel magazine that's about getting outside of what you're accustomed to respond? And so, we're trying to give our readers the service they need and as up-to-the-minute as a non-news organization can be.

Weissmann: Julia raised something interesting. Did you all assume that values like those of Afar -- open-mindedness, curiosity, inclusion -- were inherent traits among all your readers? And are you now questioning if that's true? Is there perhaps less a connection than you thought with, on one hand, the desire to travel and on the other, the desire to interact with other cultures, to be welcomed and welcoming?

Cosgrove: I think any kind of travel, even if you're sequestered in an all-inclusive resort, you're still going to interact with people who are from a different place. And that is why travel defies fear, and I think there's so much fear that's just been stirred up in the last two, three, maybe more years, and we do have to deal with that. We have to face that as a nation. It's not up to this group of editors to fix it squarely, but I think if we can do our part in whatever small way to just keep saying, "This is what's important, people: It's important to get outside of your bubble and realize that we don't need to be so afraid of others."

George Stone, editor in chief, National Geographic Traveler: Conversations with your guide or with your driver can be powerful opportunities for cultural engagement, but we don't have to go so far to interact with others. I stopped off at the Trump Hotel in Washington, and you can see a lot of people from around the world working there. Our industry, tourism, is one of the great industries that brings people from the world to us, and together it creates an economy that is a winning economy. So it's really strange, from an industry perspective, to see restrictions on people who are supporting and creating opportunity in this country or others. It's ridiculous to start to see restrictions fall into place.

Lump: And we've got to leave our blue counties and towns and red counties and towns and talk to people in our own country.

Stone: I like what Julia said about a time, such as now, that causes you to reflect on your founding mission and what your goals and principles are. That's definitely something that we've dealt with at National Geographic, because our travel coverage is to a degree rooted in the mission of National Geographic: exploration, conservation, cultural engagement and sustainability issues. Those potentially come under threat in these coming years, but our approach to covering these goes back to how we see ourselves as a publishing company, and that is that we tell fact-based stories. We write about science. We write about exploration. We write stories for a broad audience, and we work hard not to impart judgment but to support our positions with facts. And so that does affect our overall output because we're having the same questions with all of our employees about what is opinion and what is fact, what is serving our readers' interest and what can we just not contain any longer? I would say that in the past few months, it's been a kind of week-to-week conversation about: What is our mission? Who is our audience? How can we not judge the audience? And how can we deliver that kind of inspiring travel storytelling that's going to motivate people?

But it's not easy.

Weissmann: And has there been any guidance from your corporate ownership? [21st Century Fox, parent of Fox News, acquired National Geographic in 2015.]

Stone:<laughs> Facts matter. National Geographic Traveler carries on the values of National Geographic. We have a broad-based audience, and they don't come to us primarily for opinion. So we stand on the side of facts, stand on the side of science through our storytelling across the board.

Sachs: At Saveur, we obviously see the world and travel through food and drink first, but there's a sense we have that if you travel to eat and you go out and engage with cuisine in the world, or you go in your own neighborhood and go to restaurants and eat different foods from the world, that you will come up against a global presence, of people coming here, or meeting people on the road.

But talking about editors' letters, I was sort of stuck for how to address it, because we're a food and travel magazine. So how do you take on global affairs? I did what I thought was a very quiet and sort of read-between-the-lines note about, well, about anxiety, basically, and that one of the ways that we deal with it is to cook. And I just wrote that, without mentioning Trump, without mentioning TV news. Just that I had been up late making stock and taking stock. And it was very delicate. It wasn't aggressive.

Guzman: The stock?

Sachs: The stock was nice and dark.

Frankly, I was sort of thrilled to get the "shut up and cook" email, because I felt like, "All right, that means we're actually touching a nerve." And then I also got the thank-you note. But it is surprising to me that anyone who engages with a brand like Saveur, which is all about engaging with the world through cuisine, would think, "Shut up and cook."

I think it does put to the test this idea that if you travel or that if you eat well or if you love to cook, that you really are open to the world. And the truth is that some of us are, and some of us aren't.

I think as editors and writers we need to find ways to subtly shift the conversation without throwing away what we do.

And if we got very political, we'd be leaving or getting away from our mandate. But I think we can talk about food at the border. We talk about immigrants who fuel the food economy here, and we can talk about embracing the world through food.

There's a culinary bookstore in San Francisco that put out about six or eight cookbooks with a handwritten sign that said, "The people who make this food aren't allowed in this country anymore," and if you think about that, that's profound. It makes you think we should look at this food, and we should hear these stories.

Monica Drake, travel section editor, the New York Times: It's a weird year for us.

Guzman: It's a weird year for fake news.

Sachs: At the 'failing New York Times.'

Monica Drake of the New York Times. Photo Credit: Steve Hockstein/
Monica Drake of the New York Times. Photo Credit: Steve Hockstein/

Drake: What's interesting is that people come to us for news and politics, and they also want an escape [in the travel section]. So basically my philosophy has been to do what we do, which is cover destinations with an eye toward surfacing themes that are already out there, in a delicate, not in-your-face way because that's going to turn off some people, and we're not an opinion section. I can't write an editor's letter telling people my thoughts, although I have probably been a little more vocal than I have been in years past.

So we do stuff on aboriginal rights in Canada and work in the discussion of the pipeline, but maybe it's only a line. We do a lot of international destinations, but actually for the last couple of years we're also doing a lot of domestic. We've been encouraging people to reach across the divide in our own country. And the pieces that get the warmest reception are the ones that are really immersive and people read them and say, "I never thought of things that way," or, "I never knew about that." That's what people are responding to. Still, once in a while, the comments section sort of devolves into a whole political debate.

Guzman: I think if you're in the travel space, you can't ignore politics. People who didn't respond well to my editor's letter, who said, "Stick to what you know how to do, kid. Make pretty pictures." Well, there's some truth to that. But we reserve the right to have an opinion about things sometimes. When the ban was first called on Jan. 27, we did a little social campaign about destinations on the ban list, and the most surprising image was a beautiful shot of Yemen that you would have never imagined was there. In some ways, that's the best thing we can possibly do. You're not going to be in-your-face and change someone's mind.

Weissmann: But despite a great deal of apprehension within the industry pre-election about what might happen if Trump won, from the day after the election, there has been an unbelievable burst of outbound travel. Suppliers I speak with are ecstatic, saying it's a very strong year -- strong to Europe, strong pretty much everywhere. To what do you attribute this?

Lump: I think it's the economy, particularly for those of us who are talking to the affluent segment of the market. They're in a good spot right now. Their bank accounts are flush, and they feel good, and I think people's optimism about spending is tracking up with the market. That's a big part of it. I'm sure there are other factors, but that's the clearest.

Weissmann: Was there perhaps also a sense that once the election was over, regardless of whom you supported, that there was a feeling that I need to go on with my life?

Sachs: If you were anxious going into it, regardless of however you hoped it would turn out, you were just probably waiting to see. And now there's some relief.

Stone: Escapism unleashed, perhaps.

Guzman: Certainly. I think that's probably true.

Lump: We talked last year about how the industry tends to be soft in election years, and I think that proved to be true last year. So there is probably a certain amount of pent-up demand that also fuels it.

Drake: And anecdotally, people are saying that they want to leave and not think about what's happening in this country. On both sides, there's just a lot of excessive anger and stress. So, yes, people have been leaving on long vacations to just get away from this head space and decompress.

Weissmann: I'm going to shift topics.

Cosgrove: Good luck.

Weissmann: Let's move to technology. The ways in which it facilitates travel are accelerating. Technology enables planes to fly longer distances and point-to-point between more destinations. Virtual reality has been added to the toolkit of travel marketers. People's phones are unlocking their hotel doors. Disney has Magic Bands that facilitates the flow through their parks, and Carnival Corp. has introduced the Ocean Medallion, which provides a host of benefits for guests and a host of marketing opportunities for Carnival.

What technologies in travel have you seen recently that surprised you, delighted you or perhaps frustrated you?

Drake: If it works, it's largely invisible, right? If it's really good, you don't really think about it. So the best things, like the mobile phone entry [to hotel rooms], are only going to stand out if it doesn't work.

Cosgrove: I feel like every marketer has jumped on the virtual reality bandwagon, but it doesn't do it for me. It doesn't make me feel emotional in any way.

Drake: But is that the quality? Sometimes people use it but don't tell stories with it. They're like, "Hey, you're next to this waterfall now."

Guzman: I saw some mixed reality for the first time and was like, "Holy cow, yeah!"

Cosgrove: But do you think from a marketing standpoint it's effective?

Guzman: In this case, yes, because the head of the company is a very creative guy, and their whole goal is to partner with other creative people so that it is a narrative experience. Yes, there will be marketing opportunities, but I think they lead very purely from a creative place, and it is light-years ahead of anything else that I've seen.

I'm a hater of technology that doesn't really work or isn't necessary. With hotels in general, I feel like the right human interaction, a quick conversation, is nice. So if you're ordering room service, what the hell is wrong with just picking up the phone? What I would really like is for a robot to drop the coffee so that I don't have to stand in my bathrobe and add a gratuity to the bill.

Stone: While they watch.

Guzman: And while my husband hides under the covers because he doesn't want to deal with any of the human interaction. That would be fantastic.

Lump: I stayed at a hotel not long ago, and one of my favorite things was when I checked in, they said, "You can do everything the way you normally do, but if you want, here's a phone number, and you can text requests." I loved that. It was so simple, first of all, because what do we do all day? Text people, right? I didn't have to learn a new behavior. And then also, it's so much easier to just say, "Pull up my car" as a text message, as opposed to picking up the phone and saying, "So my car's with the valet. Can you pull it up?"

It doesn't replace all forms of human interaction, but I thought it was great.

I know a lot of people in the industry who do a lot of hand-wringing about this kind of thing and say, "Well, that's not luxury." I don't know. For me, that's a luxury.

Sachs: Streamlining it is the luxury, because you don't have time to create a real bond with your butler, who's not really your butler, just someone who answers the phone and mispronounces your name. You've got a limited amount of time, you've got a limited amount of patience.

Lump: I also think that car-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft have really been, for me, a huge boon, especially in countries where you don't speak the language. It makes that whole interaction, which used to be stressful, easy. And you don't have to worry about the money.

Cosgrove: I take umbrage with Uber at this point for other reasons. But they nailed the user interface, and the user experience makes total sense.

Sachs: It's so easy it's hard not to use.

Weissmann: Nathan talked about the relationship of technology and luxury in providing service. You want the technology when you want the technology, and the human when you want the human. But wouldn't that vary tremendously by individual? How can hotels prepare for that?

George Stone of National Geographic Traveler. Photo Credit: Steve Hockstein/
George Stone of National Geographic Traveler. Photo Credit: Steve Hockstein/

Stone: I think the hotel lobbies without desks, where people magically appear with iPads, are weird. You walk in, and it's bewildering. Someone maybe comes up to you or maybe they don't. If they take your bag, you're not sure if they work there or if they're stealing it. They're kind of wearing a generic uniform, and it's a little too minimalist.

Guzman: The Nehru collar is usually a giveaway.

Stone: Am I old-fashioned to want a check-in desk at a hotel?

Guzman: Yes, you are. And I have wheels on my luggage. I don't need you to walk me upstairs and show me where the TV is. And why is the TV always on? It drives me nuts.

Sachs: It's so you can see that they put up your name.

Guzman: But they misspelled it.

Sachs: I'm very happy not to go to the check-in desk and have that conversation about how my flight was. I'd be happy to take away as many of those steps as possible.

The ideal version of travel for me would be that someone would break into my house the night before and chloroform me. I'd be out for the entire process, and I would wake up in a beautiful hotel room. The television would be off.

Drake: That's a really interesting tour operator.

Weissmann: Unconscious Tours.


Guzman: Everything is in the execution. I think that if you have a human who is intuitive, who is reading the room, then the goal is for it to be frictionless, however you get there. If it's technology that allows you to be frictionless in certain cases, as in the case of Uber, that's great.

For certain things, like food, you ultimately do want an opinion at the end of the day. You're getting 90% there through the app, but the last 10%, where you're really deciding "Where should I go?" is critical, and you're thinking, "Thank God for humans."

Sachs: And with food, we want technology to take us places, to take the friction out of finding places and to help make the decisions, to smooth the transition from home to your destination. And then, when you get there, you want it all cooked caveman-style, as if there's been no advances for 2,000 years. You want everything super simple, cooked over wood, but you want everything that gets you there to be as up to date as possible. It's an interesting little contrast there.

Stone: We're taking jets wherever, but when we land someplace and you go to meet weavers in a village, it's a buzzkill when they're on their phone.

Weissmann: Or they're weaving wool cellphone cases.

Guzman: Or when they have their robot doing the weaving ...

Cosgrove: ... and they accept credit cards. But I do think that it's a core value of travel not to permit the technology to intrude on an organic experience, and I think that's valid.

Drake: Yes, but I don't think technology is the antithesis of luxury. When I want coffee or to let someone know to pick up my laundry, I don't want to have a conversation about it. But for anything that's almost nurturing, that's when the human connection is much more important. Hospitality has to be intelligent about when guests need people. I don't need someone to greet me at the hotel, but you definitely want somebody at the airport. It's understanding when some human assistance is going to be valued.

Cosgrove: And there's other types of technology. I actually think hotel lighting is often so beautifully designed, it's mind-boggling.

Lump: The problem a lot of times is turning the lighting off. There's always one lamp that you end up unplugging.

Or how many times have you gotten into the shower, you're naked, you're often in a hurry and you're like, "I can't figure out how to work this."? And you just know if you turn the wrong knob you're going to get a dash of cold water.

Guzman: I would rather have tipping included in a luxury property. Some do that, but not enough. So, back to the breakfast, where you're standing there in your bathrobe, and you're looking to see whether 18% has been added or not.

Weissmann: And whether it's a service charge or a gratuity that's actually going to the person who brought it to you.

Guzman: And then you feel like an ass if you don't add more. You should be able to opt in to something that says, "Just put 18[%] to 20% onto whatever I charge, and I don't want to see the bill."

Lump: I was reminded of that in Japan recently, because it's not a tipping culture. It's so great.

Guzman: It's liberating, yes!

Lump: I never have to even think about giving anyone a tip in any scenario anywhere. It's such a dream.

Stone: The number is the number.

Sachs: It's not actually about giving the tip; it's about getting it wrong, or the anxiety that this isn't the right time to do it, or how do you do it.

Guzman: Am I being cheap? Am I overdoing it?

Lump: I often don't have the currency.

Guzman: "What's your name? I'll come take care of you later."

Lump: I was just in Paris, and I didn't go to a cash machine before going to lunch, and I realized it's now customary in a nice restaurant in Paris to leave 10%, and I didn't have it. And you don't put it on the credit card -- that's not done -- so I put down U.S. dollars.

Cosgrove: And you were that guy.

Lump: And I was that guy. And luckily he was very sweet about it. He was like, "Ooh, I'll save it for my trip to New York."

Arnie Weissmann of Travel Weekly. Photo Credit: Steve Hockstein/
Arnie Weissmann of Travel Weekly. Photo Credit: Steve Hockstein/

Weissmann: You will welcome bitcoin then, right?

I recently went to CES, where many new technologies debut, and I looked at things that were both overtly travel and some that were possibly travel. I'd like to get your reaction to some of these things.

The first is a carry-on suitcase called the Modobag, which you can ride. You sit on it, and there's a motor and a handle you can steer with.

Stone: A-plus! I'm from Toledo, Ohio. We'd do that. We'd use it to go to the grocery store.

Drake: No, nuh-uh.

Sachs: Never. No.

Lump: I think you would look ridiculous.

Cosgrove: Lazy American.

Stone: Does it swivel in all directions?

Sachs: Does it have a loud "beep beep beep" when it backs up?

Weissmann: How about something called Mymanu, which are earbuds that will translate 37 languages with a seven-second delay.

Cosgrove: That's cool.

Sachs: That's wild.

Cosgrove: It's like having the U.N. in your ear.

Stone: That's "Star Trek." Yeah.

Guzman: Pretty rad.

Drake: It's a cool idea, but I would be the person who'd just try to do without it, and suddenly realize I don't know Portuguese.

Sachs: But seven-second delay? It would be like an awkward first date.

Stone: And who wants to know what they're saying about you?

Lump: And you've got to answer back.

Drake: Yeah, does it tell you what to say? I went to Mexico City last year. My husband used Google Translate, but he couldn't have a conversation because he kept taking breaks to look things up.

Guzman: But I do think that could be great eventually.

Sachs: It's amazing that it exists, but not ready for prime time.

Weissmann: My thought was you'd have to be in a very quiet room, with no one else talking.

OK, moving on. Another item was a thermal shirt called Climb SAS that detects your body temperature and turns on and off to keep you warm in cold climates, without having to layer up.

Stone: We're not that helpless yet.

Sachs: I think wearable technology is great.

Guzman: I mean, is it like any other technical fabric? Like skiing in the Northeast?

Weissmann: It's not windproof. You'd have to wear a shell to ski.

Guzman: Is it ugly?

Weissmann: It's got wavy stripes on it.

Guzman: Yeah, sounds ugly.

Drake: And sometimes I want to be cold. I want to experience things, right? So once in a while I don't layer up enough when I'm skiing. I don't know, I go camping in winter, so maybe I'm weird.

Weissmann: How about insoles from Zhor-Tech that you put in your shoes to monitor fitness, rather than wearing a wrist fitness band?

Cosgrove: I recently heard wearables are just dying. They buy their Fitbit, they wear it for six weeks, they stop wearing it.

Guzman: It's not contributing to any sort of fitness or wellness.

Sachs: They buy it, and then they ride their suitcase.

Cosgrove: I don't know, perhaps in time. It's like, from the Newton to the iPad.

Lump: But with the insoles, if it would be useful information, I like moving from a visible to an invisible solution because I think that we're running the risk, with all of our accouterments, of becoming overloaded with devices. I wouldn't wear a Fitbit because I don't want that on my wrist. I have something called a watch, and I don't want another thing there.

Weissmann: And finally, the Zenergy Portable Bluetooth Sound and Light Therapy Speaker, which combines sound and light and a sleep app and alarm to help travelers align their circadian rhythm when crossing time zones.

Cosgrove: I mean, if it works for you, great.

Lump: I'm sure we've all found our best solutions for adjusting and dealing with jet lag.

Weissmann: Well, Monica's interested.

Drake: I haven't found a solution. I'm just hopeless for a full day.

Stone: Have you ever used No-Jet-Lag? An herbal kind of thing from New Zealand. You crunch into a pill every two hours throughout your journey.

Drake: I don't know if it's the flight itself or the jet lag, but I just feel like there's half a day where I'm just not really smart.

Lump: My philosophy is to stop worrying and sleep whenever I can. I used to be really obsessed with trying to adjust the clock of where I was going, and now if I can sleep, then I should sleep, because who knows when I'll have that chance next?

Cosgrove: Sounds like life with an infant.

Weissmann: Moving on to an all-too-familiar technology, there are proposed changes that would allow people to talk on cellphones during a flight. (The proposal to allow cellphone use on planes was withdrawn last week.) Thumbs up or down?

Drake: I kind of already use my phone, through WiFi.

Sachs: You talk?

Drake: Yes. I Facetime my daughter.

Lump: Really?

Drake: Yes.

Guzman: You're doing it through WiFi?

Drake: Through WiFi.

Cosgrove: And it works?

Drake: It works well enough. I usually use it around her bedtime.

Lump: How do your seatmates feel?

Drake: Yeah, well, it's like I want it for myself, but I don't want anyone else to be able to do it.

Guzman: Same.

Julia Cosgrove of Afar. Photo Credit: Steve Hockstein/
Julia Cosgrove of Afar. Photo Credit: Steve Hockstein/

Cosgrove: I'm sort of curious though. I mean, young people don't even ever use the calling part of their phone, so would they be yammering? I don't know.

Drake: People do start using their phones as soon as they can when they land, so perhaps all those conversations might be happening in the air, and that would be unpleasant.

Sachs: We've all been on that endless train with someone who's conducting business or talking to a family member the entire time.

Guzman: It's annoying.

Cosgrove: Always salespeople.

Stone: I was on that train this morning. But is there something about flying that puts people in a different head space? That almost harkens back to a kind of golden age of air travel? It's different from the train, where you're going to do your own thing.

Guzman: Flights are my only alone time in my entire life. Truly.

Stone: So it matters, and maybe collectively people feel that way.

Lump: I could envision it being really horrible. I don't think people talk that much on the phone anymore, so I suppose there wouldn't be huge numbers of people doing it, but all it takes is one next to you.

Guzman: Actually, one is worse than many.

Lump: And you could imagine, if you're sitting next to that person and that person is talking ...

Cosgrove: ... for six-plus hours.

Lump: I mean, ugh!

Cosgrove: I'm just not sure we can count on civility winning there.

Weissmann: Have you seen anything on airplanes lately that you do like?

Lump: Nothing particularly innovative. I haven't seen anything really new and exciting.

Weissmann: Are you encouraged by the fact that some American legacy carriers are beginning to reintroduce meals?

Sachs: I think it's like jet lag: Just don't think about it. If you're traveling domestically, it's likely not to be so great.

Guzman: I think they try too hard. It's like most food experiences. Stick with the basics, and don't try too hard because it gets too fussy too quickly.

Drake: I guess it seems like it's an improvement over having people bring on their own food, which is often kind of smelly and unpleasant. And then there's their trash. Bringing on your own barbecue or whatever. It's not ideal.

Lump: When it's Panda Express -- when you're sitting next to Panda Express [food] -- you know it.

Drake: Or when you're behind it.

Stone: And how strange are amenity kits? I mean, they're kind of delightful because you feel like you've won, and then you open it up and then you aren't sure anymore, and you see a brush and a tiny tube of toothpaste. I like the socks.

Drake: I like the socks.

Stone: The socks are great.

Sachs: Yeah. It's like a Happy Meal for adults.

Lump: Yeah, I enjoy an amenity bag.

Guzman: Especially when they have nice product.

Drake: Yeah, the flimsy ones are not so fun.

Lump: I flew Tap Portugal not so long ago, and theirs comes in -- it's like a large replica of a sardine can. I thought that was so cute.

Stone: Is anybody else starting to anticipate the scenes on the safety videos? Like, "Oh, this is the time where the guy runs around with a panda bear but it makes him put his seat belt on?"

Sachs: Yeah, give me a free drink. Don't give me clowns making jokes.

Pilar Guzman of Conde Nast Traveler. Photo Credit: Steve Hockstein/
Pilar Guzman of Conde Nast Traveler. Photo Credit: Steve Hockstein/

Guzman: It's all so confusing. I can't follow the mandate. Are we supposed to do the worm to the emergency row? Or moonwalk off?

Weissmann: A number of travel trends seem to have emerged over the past year, and I'm wondering if you're seeing or focusing on them in your publications. One is the "safe haven travel," in which people are going to places that aren't associated with terror. They tend to be in northern climes. Iceland, Scandinavia and Alaska are among the haven destinations.

Guzman: We try not to hit it on the nose; we address it obliquely, especially on the heels of an attack. We wouldn't emphasize going to Scandinavia because it's safe. I want people to not be so fearful. I think people are much more receptive to going further afield because Europe was the comfort zone, and then it wasn't anymore.

Cosgrove: And I actually think it's our job to do exactly the opposite [of safe haven travel]. That's why we put Paris on our cover in January and February, because Paris needs travelers, they need your tourism dollars.

I wrote about this little village in Greece that I think should win the Nobel Peace Prize. The villagers, 100 or 150 of them, rescued thousands and thousands of refugees, and now their local economy has been eviscerated. Nobody's going there because they associate it with migrants, and I think we have a responsibility to say, "Whoa! You can actually make a difference by going and spending money in these places." And the Scandinavia thing, I don't quite buy that people are traveling there because it's a safe haven.

Weissmann: Is it Norwegian Air?

Cosgrove: Sure, but I think it's also that there's so much interesting stuff happening there. If you've already been to Copenhagen, Denmark, maybe you want to see Helsinki. And Iceland is its own magical place.

Lump: I think you wouldn't see some of those places popping if they weren't dovetailing with other trends in some ways. I think there's a great desire for people, particularly coming out of heavily urbanized environments, to go to places that feel very clean and pure, that have food supplies that are not tainted. It isn't just people not wanting to go to places where there could be terrorism, because I think our audience, passionate travelers, understand that things can happen anywhere. There's no such thing as a true "safe haven," so even if that might be in the back of their minds, I think those places have to have something else that's compelling about them to make them pop.

Weissmann: How about digital detox?

Guzman: That's definitely something.

Lump: We did a piece.

Drake: We have, and we'll probably write more about it, just because there are different ways to do it every year. I think it's funny that people are on their phone, reading advice on how to detox. We'll probably be focusing a little more on strategies that you can more easily incorporate into your vacation.

Lump: We did a piece about digital detoxing -- we sent someone on one of these experiences -- but I think it is also true that while that is a thing, travelers are also more connected [to technology] than they have ever been, and that's a huge part of travel. I think it's equally true that a large number of people are wanting to live their technological lives in a fairly identical way when they travel to the way that they live at home.

The days of saying to a traveler, "You can only have three connected devices," are behind us. The average person has in excess of that, particularly if they're traveling as a family. You might have eight, nine, 10 devices on a single WiFi connection. So clearly people are also taking their tech behaviors with them.

Stone: It is weird though, because we encourage so much of our community through digital engagement. You write about digital detox, but we're existing primarily on digital content and digital interaction. So there's an irony in the middle of it all, and when people go places we want them to share with us through digital. There are probably generational elements to it as well, though maybe less so now.

Guzman: Technology's not the problem. Humans are the problem. I mean, don't be addicted to your phone when your spouse is before you.

Drake: I did talk to some people in the hospitality industry, and they were describing the difficulty of trying to get people off their devices and into an experience without beating people over the head. There are really subtle ways of doing it, saying, "We'll take pictures for you. I'm going to take a picture of the view and I might even take a picture of you looking out into the vista."

Cosgrove: We've all seen these very sad moments where Mom and Dad are taking kids to a fancy ranch or on safari, and the kids are just on their iPads while they're out in the middle of nature. Pilar is right: The problem is the humans.

Sachs: I need [technology] more at home than on the road, but on the road, I like taking pictures. I like reading about what I'm doing. And frankly, I still am kind of amazed that I can keep up with the world of work while I'm on a beach. I think that's part of the fun of traveling.

Lump: There's no way any of us could travel to the extent that we do if we didn't have the means of being able to do our jobs elsewhere.

Weissmann: Another trend we've been tracking is transformational travel, which is the upping of the authenticity trend. You leave as one person and you come back another, whether it's because you're trying to do something that has social impact or because you're just taking care of yourself.

I was surprised when Fathom, Carnival Corp.'s social impact cruise line, stopped sailing. They're keeping the experience alive as a shore excursion for other Carnival lines, but the ship itself is going to be sent somewhere else. Is that indicative of anything? Was there not as much appetite for this as we thought?

Sachs: I wonder if it has something to do with the scale of the project. What I want out of a trip, or what I want to come back with, would be different than what Pilar would want. You want some sort of proof that the experience has changed and improved you, and I don't know that I would go seek that out on a tour or cruise.

Cosgrove: That's the hard thing, to think of several hundred people who all want the same transformation. It's just hard to imagine.

Drake: I wondered about the destinations, too. Cuba is softer than people had predicted, and then the Dominican Republic, it's kind of a more party destination.

Lump: People have for years been struggling with the idea of how do you make voluntourism meaningful? This is something that people have been playing around with for a long time. I think it's hard to make that a good experience.

Sachs: I think people do want to go somewhere and come back with something amorphous that changes and improves you, but it's hard to pick that from a menu.

Lump: You do see it quite a bit in the wellness space, where there are programs, and people are really into it, the idea that "I'm going to go somewhere, and they're going to tell me what's wrong with me, and I'm going to spend a week getting myself on the right footing, and I'm going to go home, and I'm going to have a new lifestyle." Whether or not that's effective has to do a lot with you, I suppose, but I do think that's a real thing.

Cosgrove: Self-improvement.

Guzman: And the medi-spas. There are the newer ones, the destination spa, but then there's also the old-school ones in Austria and Switzerland that are incredibly expensive and super hardcore.

Lump: You'd better like your colonics.

Guzman: Exactly. You'll been scraped from head to toe and evaluated. It's not some lady putting warm rocks on you. You get your ass kicked.

Lump: But I know a lot of people who really want that.

Guzman: A lot of Europeans will go there for two weeks and have a full head-to-toe -- dental, eye check, everything.

Weissmann: Have you all seen that Equinox is opening hotels? And also, that Cornell University recently came out with research saying that fitness centers are among the most underutilized aspect of a hotel?

Cosgrove: I think it's Equinox as a lifestyle brand aimed at the same people who find their gyms appealing. They're broadening that. I don't think it will be about the fitness center.

Lump: Yeah, it'll all come down to whether they get the hospitality aspect right. I think if they do, it could be very successful, but if they don't get that part right, people aren't going to stay in it just because it's branded Equinox and they have a nice gym.

Weissmann: Where are you going in 2017?

Cosgrove: I want to go to Tofino for the 150th anniversary of Canada, but I don't know. Got to see what kind of baby we're having.

Drake: I didn't plan a lot of trips this year. I've been kind of struggling. I'm taking my daughter to Disneyland with her school friends. She's 5 1/2.

Cosgrove: You're doing Disneyland, not World?

Drake: Yes.

Weissmann: Any particular reason why?

Drake: We don't have any reason to go to Florida, and everyone has told me it's a little more manageable for a first visit.

Stone: I'm going to Madagascar. I'm super, super excited. It just seems a place apart.

Guzman: Dying to go.

Lump: I'd love to go.

Sachs: I'm going to Paris and Tuscany, Pienza, for a little bit. London, but that's not definite. If I don't get back to Tokyo, I'm going to be angry at myself, so I'll come up with some reason.

Weissmann: Is there a restaurant that you heard of that you just really want to try and get to?

Sachs: I should have an answer to this. I don't know.

Weissmann: Is there a new El Bulli or a Noma or La Huella, that puts a destination on travelers' maps?

Adam Sachs of Saveur. Photo Credit: Steve Hockstein/
Adam Sachs of Saveur. Photo Credit: Steve Hockstein/

Sachs: I think the ones you mentioned. We talked to Danish tourism people, and they talk about Noma-nomics. It's a huge amount of pressure to put on one restaurant and one chef, but it's brought up the general level and brings in the international gastro-food nerds. It certainly can change the economy.

But there's a little bit of exhaustion on the part of our more well-traveled readers -- this idea that there's going to be a 12-seat restaurant that is the hardest place to get in and that that's the place you have to go. But you get there and then what else are you going to do?

So I think one of the pleasures of going to Copenhagen now is that, yes, Noma is closed for renovation, but there's also this satellite of great restaurants, a generation that has moved on from there, and they aren't all copycats. They get to be a little bit more personal and creative and peculiar. So going back to a city like Copenhagen now is really rewarding because there's such a range of stuff.

Stone: The Filipino restaurant Bad Saint has put D.C. on the map again in a really exciting way. You have to start standing in line at 4:30 p.m. But it's a great story of a cultural food that's being prepared really well, at a high level, and people in Washington are going crazy for it.

Guzman: I was supposed to go to Iran a week after the ban. I'm doing a trip, sort of: Austria-Switzerland: Bregenzerwald, Sils Maria, around there.

And I'm hoping Zimbabwe. And Milan, Paris, just for business. London, that's somewhat on the horizon.

Lump: I'll be in London and Paris next week and then India for a little while. I'm going partly for business, so I'll be in Delhi and Mumbai. I'll be in China again in May, which I'm looking forward to. Switzerland and Sweden this summer. Rwanda later in the year, which I'm really excited about.

Weissmann: Julia had mentioned Canada and its 150-year anniversary. Last year everyone did something on national parks and their centennial. Is anyone going to feature Canada?

Drake: We feature Canada.

Weissmann: Canada, Canada, Canada? Everyone except for Adam?

Sachs: They do have restaurants there. Great cuisine. And poutine.

Lump: I also think the Canadian anniversary comes at a really interesting time, as well, because they're so much a part of this political conversation. It's a very nice mix editorially for all of us to work with.

Weissmann: Did you all see the announcement about U by Uniworld? I thought that was an interesting approach to try to appeal to millennials, but by using riverboat cruising, a format that primarily appeals to boomers.

Cosgrove: Well, all of the river cruise lines have been trying to figure out family travel and trying to determine how young they can go and keep boomers happy. It makes sense for them to try it and see what resonates and what doesn't. It's a pretty great way to see lots of places.

Sachs: The promise of that form of travel is being able to really get out and engage with the places more than when at sea. That makes sense. But it depends on execution.

Weissmann: [Uniworld parent company The Travel Corporation] has had a lot of success with their Contiki brand. I'd guess they'd like to find as many entry points into that generation as possible.

Lump: I also think, too, that nonmillennial -- I mean, Gen X and the younger boomers -- are also aging in a much younger way than any generation before them. And what they're looking for as they travel and as they age are experiences that also feel young. They may not end up only with millennials on that boat. They may end up with people in their 50s, which would still be a decade younger than the more typical river cruiser.

Weissmann: Well, there's a lot of discussion about psychographic vs. demographic. It could be that that's really what it's about, a mindset and outlook. And there's also research that has now been replicated several times showing that millennials, more than Gen Xers and more than boomers, are using the services of travel agents. Does this seem intuitive or counterintuitive?

Drake: I think that's the way they are. They trust people. They aren't concerned by profit motive. They'll follow people and influencers on social media, even if they're paid. We've researched this at the Times, saying, "We don't take anything. Don't you trust us more?" And the response is, "Yeah, I don't really care. I want to know that you're thinking about the things that I care about, that there's a payoff if you give good advice. I don't care if there's an incentive in it for you." They're just a little more trusting and less skeptical.

Stone: On your point about psychographics, I hear cautions not to make generalizations around generations, and millennials especially. You're looking at a bubble bigger than the boomers, but to Nathan's point, you get some interesting psychographic overlapping.

Lump: Again, being cautious of making generalizations, I think millennials are very comfortable having their hand held. They're very comfortable with getting assistance from other people.

I also was listening to a talk by a technology person, and his argument was that we're all millennials because we all use the same technology, and whether it's software or hardware, it's being developed by and for millennials. But we're all using it, and so we're all being trained in millennial behaviors. There's actually much more psychographic overlap between older generations and [young people] than was true in decades past.

Weissmann: And on the topic of millennial behavior, Airbnb and other peer-to-peer apps are building significant networks of local, self-credentialed tour guides. I wonder what sort of impact that's having on tour operators.

Cosgrove: I think it's really hard to look at that without the context of a trip and travel experience. You can go to L.A. and use Airbnb's new Experiences platform to meet a chef in Malibu. That's not competing for direct business with A&K going to Tanzania. I haven't looked at whether there's an Experience network in Tanzania, but I would doubt it. It's really important to think about whether this is a $50-to-$500 experience, or is this something that you're ponying up five grand, 20 grand for? Those are very different things.

Lump: I think one of the things that's really nice to see in travel is that as new things have come in, they really have been additive to the marketplace.

And travel agents haven't gone away, in part because when those young people are taking their trip to Paris, maybe they will use an Airbnb Experience, but when they're on their honeymoon, they're going to do something much more controlled.

Weissmann: Every year we discuss how changes in the media affect how you cover travel.

Cosgrove: It's probably true for most people at this table that digital is the primary focus. Print is still, for us, our flag in the sand, but where we see the biggest potential for growth is on the digital side. Figuring out what really resonates in this sort of content-commerce landscape is interesting. What role can we play in moving people down the funnel without becoming a transactional company?

Lump: I think that's absolutely right. The continued move toward digital in its various ways is reshaping the media business generally, including the corner of it that we occupy. And I think part of that is video, and its rise is critical in the transformation of what we do. Nothing works better on a smartphone than video, and that's where so much content conception is happening.

Weissmann: We've spoken before about the challenge with video and leisure travel, which tends not to create very dramatic narratives. How are you dealing with that?

Lump: Creatively.

Guzman: It depends on the channel. It's not just cut-downs of long formats. I think about production values, depending on the channel, and humor. We'll all experimenting and seeing what hits, and sometimes what hits is completely surprising.

Weissmann: What has hit? What has worked?

Guzman: The thing that always makes me very happy is when something that is beautiful and not Hallmarky hits.

But we have to ask ourselves, "Who are we in this space?" Yes, of course, we are absolutely not who we are in print, But there has to be some kernel of, "Who are we, and what do we stand for?"

I think part of our job as brands is to educate the advertisers, so that it's not just a sort of sheer-volume numbers game. We all want more eyeballs, but I think that there are nuances within that. I think that all of us at this table are in the quality game.

Sachs: Travel video is expensive to produce. And with food, you don't need another channel of people showing you what they had for dinner on Instagram. So I think what we're trying to do is find, "What can we do?"

We show these little slices of food scenes around the world, or behind the scenes, or how something is made or grown or the people behind it. That lends itself well to little short, social videos, whereas a long travel narrative isn't something that we really try to do.

We just have to get better at actually doing what we say we're going to do, which is that every time we assign a story, every time we send a reporter and a photographer into the world, we make sure that we know what we want from social, we know what we want from video, we know what we want from web stories. That it's not an afterthought.

Drake: Our brand is different than it was a year ago -- like, dramatically different. So to find a way to deal with that, that's been a huge shift. Video is a separate, distinct department now, and we're doing video embedded in traditional text articles. But the biggest transition has been that while we are [doing] that, we're aggressively trying to get digital advertising. Our biggest benchmarks are with subscribers. They pay a lot of money to get our content, so we're trying, aggressively, to find ways to deepen the engagement. They're invested in us, literally, so that awareness has been a huge focus for me in the past year.

On the digital advertising side, they'll say "Hey, we have this new cool tool. Don't you want to use it? Won't it help your journalism?" And half the time we agree. The other half we say, "That's OK," and we won't use it, but a year later we are sometimes feeling, "Aw, we should have used that."

In addition, the programmatic advertising digitally is challenging to editorial autonomy. If someone is saying, "Well, I'm willing to sponsor for this amount," or, "I'm willing to advertise against this type of content for three months," and if it's supporting a dream project that we've struggled to get traction on, it makes it more complicated. You don't want to be doing something at the behest of an advertiser, right? It's the biggest sort of ethical challenge. I shouldn't say "challenge"; "adjustment," I guess.

Stone: The kinds of numbers, the engagement we get on video across all our different channels, dwarfs what we've seen in the past. It's really shifted the way we're thinking about things, and similar to Monica, there's a slightly separate group that specializes in videos with text on top of the image.

But it presents that kind of challenge that Monica was talking about: about your mission and your integrity in what you're trying to say. You get to a point where you see what's very successful, and everyone wants to say, "Let's only do what's super successful." But that might not be a well-balanced diet of your editorial content over a longer period.

And it gets even more complicated because National Geographic has a TV channel, and the TV channel is building out a travel blog. The question is to what degree will that travel blog be informed by the travel group? There are overlapping groups working in travel with different bases of knowledge in the industry, and it presents brand-new storytelling problems, brand-new problems about your mission and your integrity as a brand. Ultimately the goal is to have a consistent, unified, uniform kind of experience in National Geographic media, but it is so hard to get there. It's not about a typeface; it's about having a consistent storytelling point of view. It's hard.