Travel editors gather to rap about the issues du jour

The Travel Editors Roundtable series:

This year's roundtable focused on which types of travel industry news and activities the editors really care about (and why), how the economy might affect travel this year, the importance of China and India as destinations in 2008 and the group's reaction to a book that charges that travel editors are in the pocket of the industry.

(Editor's 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.) 

Arnie Weissmann, editor in chief, Travel Weekly: How closely do you follow behind-the-scenes industry activity? Do you pay attention, for instance, when the ownership of Oceania Cruises or Hilton changes, or when Starwood or Carlson Cos. gets a new CEO? 

Klara Glowczewska, editor in chief, Conde Nast Traveller: I follow it. I don't necessarily think that it translates into any stories for us. I don't think it's necessarily of interest to our readership, but I just feel I need to know.

Nancy Novogrod, editor in chief, Travel+Leisure: I'm interested when I think there's a possibility that the change will affect the product. For instance, when the Kor [Hotel] Group hires someone from Mandarin Oriental, it makes you aware that they're trying to up the ante in terms of their service.

Kate Sekules, editor in chief, Culture+Travel: And size. They [Kor] started so boutique-size and intimate. What's going to happen to the spirit of the individual properties, and how big is it going to get? There are lots of things to watch. It's not necessarily a story we're going to tell our readers, though I wouldn't rule it out.

Veronica Stoddart, travel editor, USA Today: I do follow this fairly carefully because I oversee both business and leisure travel for the paper. We have a consolidated travel group now, so we follow these stories aggressively from the business perspective. We're covering, for example, the potential merger between Delta and Northwest, and we will always peel off a piece of consumer news for what that means to the consumer in terms of prices or service and that kind of thing.

Keith Bellows, editor, National Geographic Traveler: I don't parse it on a day-to-day basis, but I look for trends. And I think when you see consolidation or you see certain movements -- maybe, for instance, some groups are getting together around an ecotourism effort or a sustainable-tourism effort or somebody's doing something in one part of the world and they're gathering resources -- you pick up on that. And it's not necessarily going to develop into a story immediately, but our job is to look at trends as they emerge.

Heidi Mitchell, editor, Town & Country Travel:  Sometimes something on a very micro level will catch your eye. Like [General Manager] Ali Kasikci moving from the Peninsula Beverly Hills to the Montage [Beverly Hills] makes me think Montage might be something more than I thought it was going to be.

Weissmann: And how about product announcements? For instance, about a new cruise ship or hotel being built? 

Erik Torkells, editor, Budget Travel: I personally have a sort of aversion to the announcement that something's going to be built. So what? It doesn't really impact the consumer for three years, and they're not going to remember. I'm going to just worry about the near-term instead.

Weissmann: You've all gotten announcements about the opening of so many luxury hotels and resorts over the last five or six years. But things are shifting economically. Do you think there will be a culling of luxury properties? 

Novogrod: I think that it's going to be tough for some. I think it's a moment when established brands have a particularly strong opportunity. It's certainly more difficult if you're a sole operator or you're launching a new brand. Also, the affluent consumer is interested in new experiences, so they're willing to try a hotel that hasn't been on the market that long that is super luxury and has good word of mouth. But I think the challenge is for these properties to really deliver. The ones that don't will feel it. I don't think it's a moment for any mistakes. If service doesn't live up to what it's supposed to, if a hotel doesn't maintain its reputation and quality, they may be in great trouble in a downturn.

Stoddart: Well, I think we all would agree that the economy is going to have a huge impact, even though many Americans now consider travel a birthright. I think practicality is going to come into play, and people are going to be looking for cheaper destinations, closer to home, probably not traveling internationally as much, maybe looking for alternatives to flying if indeed air fares go up. I think that would have a huge ripple effect on the entire travel industry.

Weissmann: Is that good news for Budget Travel, Erik? 

Torkells:  To the extent that value comes up in the equation, absolutely, because that's how we differentiate ourselves. But, obviously, the economy going down isn't good news for anybody, really. There will always be people who want to continue to spend money, and if travel's their No. 1 priority, they will continue to do it. And there will always be people who want a deal, and an incredible part of the experience for them is finding that deal. People tend to do what they do unless they absolutely can't.

Glowczewska: What we know is that our readership takes about six trips a year: three short-distance trips and three long-haul. So these are pretty committed travelers. A lot of them piggyback a leisure trip onto a business trip, so I think that a lot of them will continue to do so. It's sort of part of their lifestyle unless, as Erik said, they simply cannot. I definitely think that domestic travel will be more interesting to everyone. Travel to Western Europe might suffer just because of the euro-dollar situation. But then maybe travel to Eastern Europe will increase. You can get a lot of good value there. It's going to work itself out in all kinds of complicated ways that we can't fully envisage yet.

Sekules: Well, there's travel and there's reading about travel. I think whatever our readers do, they'll still want to read about other cultures and the stories and all the places that we bring them. There's going to be an audience but, of course, I worry about the advertisers, whether they will, you know -- well, do I need to spell it out? That's my first thought, to be quite honest. I want us to keep going, and we need their ad dollars.

Mitchell: I've sat in on those ad sales meetings, and the reports seemed to say that we're healthy and it's going to be a great year for our readers, though not necessarily for all general consumers. Our readership travels 10 or 11 times a year. They travel for work constantly, they tack on trips, like Klara's readers do, and that high cost of travel and the low value of the dollar right now don't seem to be affecting their choices, apart from Western Europe, where maybe they'll go for short trips. But no longer to London for shopping.

The long-haul flight has added another dimension. It's easier to get to Asia; it's easier to get to Latin America, and your dollar goes really far there. Whether you're a budget traveler or a luxury traveler, there are a lot more options than there were even three years ago.

Novogrod: We got some results last week from a survey that was taken at the end of last year that showed that our readers were more concerned with perceptions of Americans abroad than the decline of the dollar. It'll be interesting to see what happens with the elections. I think that for many reasons it is America's moment again, and I'm interested in the possibilities, to examine opportunities that we may have overlooked. But we are certainly not going to become a national travel magazine. Our readers are international travelers. They're affluent. I think they will continue to travel.

Bellows: It's sort of an interesting assumption that there's, you know, the low-end traveler and the high-end traveler in this equation. Whether it's Conde Nast Traveler or Travel+Leisure, all of those consumers want value. And in a moment of seismic shift, it's not so much about money. It's about ideals. What I think is going to happen is we're going to see a movement toward idealistic travel, whether or not budget's part of the equation. When you see volunteer travel explode, that plays to Erik's constituency as well as mine as well as Nancy's as well as Klara's. I think that the movement is not so much about money, it's about purpose.

Weissmann: Are you seeing any evidence that your reader's sense of purpose extends to action? For instance, are travelers actually acting in any meaningful way on their beliefs about "green" travel? In the U.S., there doesn't seem to be the level of consumer engagement that you see, for instance, in Europe. Will that make its way across the Atlantic? Kate, you're nodding yes. 

Sekules: I hope it does. I welcome it. You know, all the hotel groups, the whole industry is talking green. Whether it's greenwash or real, it's certainly out there, and it's not going to go away, because the world is getting warmer, and it's incontrovertible. We're all aware of it as we weren't even a year ago.

Glowczewska: Are you asking about what the industry is doing or whether it will matter for travelers, or both?

Weissmann: Travelers. Will the notion of travel guilt influence U.S. traveler behavior as it has in Europe? 

Glowczewska:  I don't think we're there yet, but I think there's an absolutely growing awareness of it. We do readers' polls all the time on this issue, and people are definitely saying that it matters to them, and more of them are saying it this year than last year and the year before. I don't think we're yet at the point where most American travelers would give up a lot for this, but I think we are already at the point where they want to feel that the businesses to which they're giving their travel dollars are doing the right thing.

Novogrod: Did anyone see the article in the Wall Street Journal on "staycations," about people electing to stay home? That's certainly out there.

Glowczewska: People will continue to travel; you're not learning anything when you stay here.

Bellows: The research we've been doing shows that there is a huge groundswell of people who are willing to spend 10% to 15% more for a sustainable travel experience, and I think you're going to see most of the industry get behind this. And I think it's the kids who are going to drive this. The family vacation is sort of the center of our experience now. More and more kids are having an influence on where families go, how they're traveling. It's very real.



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