Consumer travel editors discuss hot topics for '06

At the invitation of Travel Weekly, editors from Travel+Leisure, National Geographic Traveler, Budget Travel, USA Today, Town & Country Travel, the Associated Press and Travel Savvy gathered in the Ed Sullivan Room at the Friars Club in New York to discuss a range of destination-related topics.

How effective are tourist boards and public relations firms in reaching editors? What impact do celebrities have on creating buzz for a destination? Which destinations feel overdeveloped, and which are on the rise?

Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann explored these and other topics with the group, and discovered along the way which Caribbean island inspires unflattering comparisons to being stuck in Danbury (Conn.) on Route 202, which destinations will guarantee a lift in newsstand sales and where these editors plan to vacation in 2006.

(Editors note: 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 may have recurred at intervals during the course of the conversation. USA Today participated by phone.)

Weissmann:What are the ingredients that create buzz for a destination?

Veronica Stoddart, travel editor, USA Today: Look at Philadelphia. Its celebrating Ben Franklins 300th birthday, and theres a huge marketing campaign. The campaign works because the city is really coming into its own anyway -- its going through a renaissance. Its right at the top of the list of domestic destinations.

Melissa Biggs Bradley, editor, Town & Country Travel: I am blown away by whats available in that city.

Nancy Novogrod, editor in chief, Travel+Leisure: Its definitely on the food map.

Keith Bellows, editor, National Geographic Traveler: And its on the art map.

Erik Torkells, editor, Budget Travel: Im having trouble with this. Ten years ago, we were all doing stories on Detroit. Philadelphia is the destination of the year because theyre having a birthday.

Bellows: Wait a minute. No, no, no. We did a story on Philadelphia because I think its the next great American city. Thats where it started. It had nothing to do with any anniversary. I felt this city was ready for prime time.

Beth Harpaz, travel editor, Associated Press: Right.

Bradley: Nancy agrees, Beth agrees, I agree. I mean, theres a confluence of things going on in Philadelphia, between museums and dining.

Novogrod: Absolutely.

Torkells: We do a thing in (Budget Travel) called Trip Coach, where people write in and we help them out. No one writes in and says they want to go to Philadelphia. They want to go to New York!

Novogrod: But they may want to go to Philadelphia.

Torkells: They may. They very well may -- and if they do, its because this room has anointed it very nicely.

Bellows: No, no, no, no. You dont get it. We dont anoint it. I disagree with that so strongly.

Jill Brooke, editor in chief, Travel Savvy: Are we reflecting or promoting?

Bellows: We are reflecting. I honestly believe that.

Harpaz: I agree (with Stoddart) about Philadelphia. And I think Atlanta will be the next Philadelphia.

Stoddart: Absolutely.

Brooke: Yes, right.

Harpaz: A bunch of things happen to create a situation where a destination gets buzz. Atlanta is putting a lot of money into tourism, they are branding themselves. But they also have museums that are unveiling wonderful things. Theres the aquarium thats supposed to be the biggest in the country. There are discount airlines going into Atlanta, and its affordable for Middle America. Certainly an event, or institutions opening their doors, or news, can swirl all of us toward one destination, but economics plays a huge role, at least for my readers, and the readers at Budget Travel and USA Today.

Bellows: All readers.

Weissmann:If economics plays a big role for all readers, why do some of you primarily emphasize the high-end?

Bellows: Well, thats the secret of our business. In an advertising-based industry, you dont want to promote inexpensiveness ...

Torkells (interrupting): I do!

Bellows: ... because thats not what our advertisers want to hear. But the truth is that no one wants to spend a dollar more than they have to.

Novogrod: Yes. I think there is the factor of affordability.  One of the great joys of getting to a place first is that it costs less. 

Bellows: Nancy, Travel+Leisure absolutely does inexpensive, I do inexpensive, yet we still try to make it look luxe. (To Torkells) And you guys have gone from zero to 60 based on the fact that Americans want to have great experiences for the least amount. 

Torkells: My feeling is that we all want to go to the same destinations, but some of us dont have as much money, or if we have as much money, we just dont want to spend it. I guess thats why this hunt for the hot destination rings a false bell for me. I dont want to go to the new restaurant in Philadelphia -- I want to go to the Taj Mahal! (quietly) God, Im going to be struck dead by Philadelphia.

Bradley: Youll be covering it in a year, trust us.

Torkells: But its not where people want to go. They want to go to Rome.

Bellows: Erik, I agree with you on some of this. I think that the hip, hot, cool, baddest, greatest destinations -- people are a little tired of that. Those lists are devices to sell magazines, but its not what people care about. What people care about is to know where to go next.

Weissmann:And how do you know where that next place is?

Stoddart: There are destinations that suddenly get buzz for very different reasons. Im thinking of India, which is the second-fastest growing destination. And why? Its because of the outsourcing business that is going to India. People are traveling there on business and suddenly they think, I have a few days I could spend here. What should I do with my time? Or maybe the second time they go, they take their family with them. Business crowds bring leisure business afterwards.

Bradley: India is quite popular right now for my audience, but for a very different reason. In the last four or five years, a level of hotel that would attract our reader was built, and it did not exist before. A lot of sophisticated travelers were not going to make that trip because of concerns about food and comfort. Its not always paramount, but it is in this case.

Novogrod: And always, there have been people in the fashion world going to India. People in the art world, the style world. And these sophisticated travelers come back with incredible treasures: jewelry, fabrics, antiques. Certain companies -- Taj a bit, and Oberoi -- see the possibilities and know people are coming there, and they build amazing hotels. And theres the adventure traveler. The adventure traveler is not necessarily the one out there climbing rocks. Theres also the adventurous traveler whos Donna Karans friend, searching for a new experience.

Brooke: A new Nirvana?

Novogrod: A new Nirvana -- or a new thing to buy. Were working on a story, on Indian textiles. Their tourism people did an amazing promotion, one of the most astounding campaigns Ive seen. Remember those little booklets they published? Brilliant work. That may have lodged in my mind. I cant say whether it was a confirmation or an inspiration as far as the story goes.

Bellows: That new adventure traveler is the person who wants to fly to India first class or business class. They want to stay in a great hotel. Then they want to be taken to a small village where they meet the rug dealer. Then they want to buy the rug. But the thing is, they want the genuine, authentic experience, and theyre willing to pay to get there.

Torkells: That doesnt sound authentic at all to have someone take you to a rug dealer.

Bellows: I dont agree. You can go there and find someone who can take you into the mountains. I have a story in the works on just this thing. They will take you to the guy who will sell you the rug. And it is real, and when they return, it is what theyre going to talk about when people come over for dinner.

Novogrod: People are desperate for discovery, and discovery takes different forms. Sometimes its going to Guatemala or Libya or Tajikistan, and other times its going to a familiar place where it suddenly looks like something is happening. And its not even cool yet, but there are signs, and you know were all desperate for that -- we all want to be the first on the block to go there, and we all want to know something before its been written about in too many other places.

Brooke: Readers are looking to travel magazines to guide them. Not place to place, but experience to experience.

Bellows: Theres the entry-level market, which is the future. Lets go back to (the Budget Travel) audience. You have a backpacker audience in there somewhere ...

Torkells: We have a wider audience. Some people think its the backpacker exclusively, and some people think its Arthur (Frommer).

Bellows: But youre talking about people who cant afford to go business class, who want to stay in a really reasonable hotel, and thats a really big part of the market.

Torkells: Oh, I mean, look at the plane. You have eight seats in business class and 70 in the back. Well, Ill take that chunk of the pie, thank you. I used to think Budget Travel was very much aimed at the entry-level traveler, but Ive come to realize after two years that thats not really who it is. For my readers, travel is their luxury. Its their No. 1 luxury. This is what they spend their money on, and they travel like crazy. Theyre going to places I dont dream of going. They write and say, I spent three weeks riding on a camel in India, and I think, Good Lord, better you than me. But they are out there. They want to do it, and they find a way to do it.

Novogrod: I like going to places that are a little bit on the edge. Its nice to have the comfort when they have the infrastructure, and great hotels, but there is also a point when you are almost too late. I went to Shanghai nine years ago, and then just went back recently for the launch of Travel+Leisure in China. Not only do they have Gucci and Prada, they have Marc Jacobs!

Torkells: So it feels like everywhere else.

Bellows: Which is a big issue -- homogenization.

Novogrod: We have to recognize that there is the danger of places blending together. Bhutan may be an example. Lets see what happens now that Christina Ong is there, now that Aman Resorts is there. I know that I feel better about going to Bhutan right now, but on the other hand, is this the beginning of [too much development]? In Angkor, (Cambodia), you see it. The roads are absolutely littered with hotels.

Brooke: Its like what happened in Aruba. There was a time when it was just these beautiful beaches, and was pristine.

Bellows: Or Jamaica.

Brooke: Jamaicas still pretty.

Novogrod: Or Puerto Rico, where I just was. I remember I was there as a child, when El Conquistador opened. It was beautiful, and now its like being stuck in Danbury, (Conn.) on Route 202. Its the worst kind of miracle mile development.

Bellows: Heres the essential ingredient for all of us: We want to be ahead of the curve, get there before everybody else. But its a fine balance of preserving and prophesizing. All of us around this table want to get there first, see it before its seen, and we want our readers to do that, too. But we know that at the same time, we are, in some way, contributing to its degradation.

Bradley: The whole concept of what is responsible, sustainable, ecotourism is something thats relevant to our readers, even in a place like Shanghai. I mean, yes, its wonderful to go and be able to eat at Jean Georges Shanghai ...

Torkells: Is it?

Bradley: Its fantastic.

Novogrod: It is amazing. Its gorgeous.

Bellows: Its not budget travel, Erik.

Torkells: But is that why you flew around the globe?

Bradley: My point is that its wonderful to eat at Jean Georges, its fun sitting in that beautiful, renovated building and having the sense of the old and new. Its not for everyone, and maybe not for your readers.

Torkells: Ive never been to Shanghai. Its a luxury. I didnt see it 10 years ago, Im not there now, and I may not be there 10 years from now. The point of view of my reader is: Shanghai -- thats a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Once they go there, theyre probably not going to go back.

Novogrod: Im not so sure that its a once-in-a-lifetime now.

Bellows: What we have now is a baby boom generation thats going to have increased amounts of time to travel and increased amounts of money to do it. That is a real market. And what they want are trips of a lifetime.

CONTINUED...

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