That there was a new sheriff in town became clear immediately after Pilar Guzman replaced Klara Glowczewska as editor in chief of Conde Nast Traveler (CNT) last September: Fourteen editorial staff were let go, and new writers and editors were brought on.
An internal memo offered few clues about a directional change other than to note that Guzman would be "drawing upon the insights and vision of the company's artistic director [and Vogue Editor in Chief] Anna Wintour to catapult this legendary brand."
The absence of any reference to the publication's founding motto, "Truth in Travel," led to widespread speculation that it would be de-emphasized.
It has been relatively quiet since then as Guzman and her staff prepared for a relaunch of the brand.
Today, the March issue, the first to fully reflect her vision, will appear on New York City newsstands.
Guzman met with me last week to go over the changes.
To start at the beginning: The cover is, by past standards, stark in imagery and spare in text. The words "Truth in Travel" were retained, in relatively small type, in the upper right corner.
"We will never abandon 'Truth in Travel,' Guzman said. "The only thing we are softening is that we will accept [discounted] press rates. Not junkets; we will pay our way. But I was finding that we weren't covering a lot of properties that we should have because they were prohibitively expensive, or [writers were] staying only one night or just visiting the lobby. That's the truth."
Although the cover is conspicuous in its simplicity — it is dominated by a close-up of model Christy Turlington Burns' face, with Monument Valley reflected in her sunglasses — it represents both subtle and dramatic shifts in editorial philosophy.
It has become a convention of travel magazines to pose an anonymous model lounging in the foreground of a photo, a relatively small figure before a featured landscape. With the March CNT issue, Guzman has flipped the model/landscape hierarchy, but the most striking departure from convention is that the featured landscape, Monument Valley, is not named and does not appear anywhere else in the issue.
The point, Guzman said, is that "travel is a dream state. We spend more time dreaming about the next trip and dreaming about past trips than we do traveling. Monument Valley is the next trip."
I asked what she would do for an encore on the cover. "Keep people guessing," she replied. "Change the lens, not have consistent scale. Keep people looking. If it's the same general idea, people stop seeing it."
The CNT staffer who is most visible to both consumers and the travel industry, Wendy Perrin, the director of consumer news and digital community, was retained. But I was surprised to see that she had been pushed way back in the book — Page 154 of the 158-page issue, in "Travel Intel," a feature of short-takes mostly related to longer stories in the book.
"Wendy is very important and continues to be a huge presence for us," Guzman said. "Because Wendy [writes about] consumer service, she aligns with the DNA of [Travel Intel]. I might move that section up because I like it so much, but we want to pepper Wendy throughout.
"We're using her much more strategically," she added. "We reframed her [print] presence around 'What should I book this month?' but [her other work] lives more comfortably online. Her footprint is huge on the website, and her blog is very popular."
Perrin has traditionally played an important role in the brand's annual feature highlighting retail travel specialists, and I asked Guzman if she planned to continue that feature.
"The [specialist list] will continue," she said. "I actually want us to work even more closely with travel agents, have them be part of our editorial network. But we're looking closely at which agents we want to work with to make sure they're 'on brand' and aligned with our sensibility."
Travel counselors are in fact highlighted in "The Editor's Itinerary," the very first feature of the redesigned publication. Writers of two articles in the issue — one about India, one about Rome — worked with Paul Bennett of Context Travel and Bertie Dyer of India Beat to offer readers two discounted tours. (Guzman said the brand does not have a commercial interest in the offering.)
There are aspects of the relaunch that I liked and a few that might take some getting used to. The approach to "service" is attractive. The use of narrow columns with short, boldface information is graphically pleasing, but more than that, it ties into Guzman's belief that "travel is a dream state."
For example, in addition to information about hotels ("Stay"), restaurants ("Eat") and stores ("Shop) in Rome, it also includes a "Dossier" of inspirational sources, including Fellini's 1957 "Nights of Cabiria," under "Watch," and David Downie's "Terroir Guides: Food Wine Rome" (Little Bookroom, 2009), under "Read."
The publication maintains (as do most in its competitive set) a combination of inspiration, aspiration, entertainment and practical advice, and it does a good job of spreading destination motifs throughout the book. The briefs in the back-of-the-book, "Travel Intel," mostly tie into the long-form stories, as do some of the short "Word of Mouth" features in the opening pages.
But I wasn't loving the way sections and stories often start with a large photo with minimal text on the page that precedes the beginning of the article, requiring the reader to turn the page to actually get to the story. In some instances, without proximity to the opening text, I had to pause to determine whether the large graphic and brief text I was looking at was editorial or an ad.
I think Guzman's approach to keeping the cover art surprising is smart. As Departures has demonstrated, it's possible to offer dramatically different approaches to cover art while maintaining brand identity, though it's a bit riskier to do it on a title that demands strong newsstand sales.
But Guzman was hired to take risks. "The universal feeling was that the brand needed a refresh," she said. "There was a big business impetus to change."
Guiding her approach, Guzman said, is a belief that changes in media and the impact of social media have redefined what readers are demanding, and it circles back to "Truth in Travel."
"Our readers equate raw social experience with truth," she said. "The overly filtered print lens has in some ways become suspect for the reader. If something is hyper-edited, they stop believing it. So how do you speak on an emotional level and appeal to readers and make them believe you?
"When the magazine was launched, 'Truth in Travel' was a big deal. It was necessary and radical. Twenty-five years later, it's a very different landscape. How people respond to content is just different. They trust their friends and people they become friends with through social media.
"We're trying to replicate that experience — who you can trust, who will narrow the universe and tell you where to spend money, where not to, whether an experience is authentic or not. We want to be the rigorous editorial version of that."
I think Guzman's read of the shift in who consumers trust is, by and large, correct, but unanswered is whether the new reliance on friends/social media is an expansion of consumers' circle of trust, an irrevocable transfer of trust away from media, or simply a lapse in trust.
If it's a lapse, there's an opportunity to win it back with something as necessary and radical as "Truth in Travel" was 25 years ago; if it's an expansion, media brands will fight over an increasingly diluted share of consumer trust. And if it's transference, replication of experience will not be enough.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.