The disruption of legacy businesses by online competitors is not, of course, restricted to travel distribution, nor even to retail sales. It's happening within (and being reported by) media outlets, as well. Traditional platforms in television, radio and print are either (like Travel Weekly) increasing investment in online development or abandoning print altogether in favor of Web-only distribution.
Many print publications are under pressure. Almost every week, Folio, which covers the publishing industry, sends out "alerts" about a title that has been shuttered. Earlier this year, one of the two primary newsstand distributors in the U.S. folded up shop. Even major consumer publishers such as Conde Nast have closed publications.
In the midst of this relatively steady stream of unwelcome news, I was contacted by a company with ambitious plans to launch a print travel magazine called Afar. It would focus on experiential, authentic travel with stories about lesser-known but accessible activities that curious travelers might discover and enjoy.
While that positioning certainly has appeal, my initial reaction was that there was quite possibly no idea good enough to support the entry of another print consumer travel magazine at this time. While it's one thing to continue forward with a strong, existing brand, there seemed to be just too many economic and media trends pointing in the wrong direction to justify a startup.
But having now met with its founder and editorial and sales leadership, and having read the first issue, I'm more hopeful.
At the magazine's launch party last week (it hits newsstands today), CEO Greg Sullivan was praised by his partner, Joe Diaz, as having "the passion, vision and intelligence" to make it work.
He possesses another important attribute not mentioned: a lot of money.
Sullivan made his fortune by growing and selling companies that sold electronic games and insurance for used-car dealers. He took a break from entrepreneurship to travel the world, and in the course of doing so became convinced that none of the existing consumer travel magazines satisfied travelers like him. He believed he had identified an unclaimed niche with commercial potential.
The first issue features articles about bog diving in Wales, Berber communities in Morocco, apprenticing at a French bakery (to learn to make the perfect baguette) and the phenomenon of Tokyo's maid cafes, where the waitresses dress up as maids, rock stars or anime characters.
The issue was praised by the New York Post, which proclaimed it was "just what the doctor ordered to get us traveling again." The Post rated it four stars, whereas the best any other travel magazine got this month was two-and-a-half.
Even so, as travel agents can attest, when the climate of opinion about your very business model is filled with doubt, your challenges are multiplied. To better understand what led more than 30 advertisers to support Afar's launch, I contacted a few of them.
Three used the word "surprised" to characterize their initial reaction upon learning there was a new entrant in the consumer travel space. Annette Choynacki, director of the Belgian Tourist Office, was impressed with their "guts," and Gregg Truman, vice president of marketing for South African Airways, said he thought "they were a little bit nuts."
Truman initially turned them down, he said, but later became convinced that they had found an unserved niche in the carrier's target audience. With regard to print as a medium, he said, "I believe strongly in traditional print media. There is nothing like having something in your hands to evoke an emotional response. I do not know of many online publications that have the loyalty of great print titles."
Nitsa Lewis, vice president of marketing for Crystal Cruises, said she felt Afar "has a nice story to tell. They are looking at travel in a way that enriches people in the same way Crystal does. Online offers us different opportunities."
Tourism Australia's director of marketing, Lisa Wooldridge, said that "tough times generate innovation. We have been targeting the experience seeker, and [Afar] mirrors perfectly the positioning of Australia."
Michael Gigl, the Austrian Tourist Office's North American director, said, "I do not believe it is smart to move away from print at all. Online is extremely important but works best in combination with more traditional media."
Sullivan said he has found opportunities that would likely not have been available if he had started Afar when print was more in favor. A newsstand distributor, delighted to see a new consumer title launch, promised to give him prime display space, and Barnes & Noble agreed to offer the publication at its cash registers as well as on its magazine racks.
There seem to be parallels between the Afar launch and the situation travel agents find themselves in. Just as many agencies have evolved into specialists, Afar, too, seems to have found traction with a highly specific editorial position. Although it launched in the midst of a difficult operating environment, it is taking advantage of opportunities that exist only because times are tough. And, most importantly, its founders do not plan to stay exclusively in a legacy position forever.
"This is a long-term play for us," Sullivan told me. "The magazine is one piece of the brand, a great way to start. We're now going to put a lot into our Web effort."
Contact Arnie Weissmann at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter.