Photos by Steve Hockstein/ Harvard Studio Photography
Photos by Steve Hockstein/ Harvard Studio Photography
Joining the chief editors of the largest and most influential consumer travel media brands this year were the founder of an upstart webzine and a multimedia travel author. The result was a change in the dynamics of this annual gathering of travel pundits. Opinions were challenged more frequently, and disagreements were a bit sharper on topics ranging from storytelling to the roles artificial intelligence (AI) will play in travel advice. The conversation was simultaneously robust and thoughtful, often witty, and moved from insights with practical applications to deep dives into public policy and even a bit of navel-gazing about media.
Roundtable veterans Afar editor in chief Julia Cosgrove, Conde Nast Traveler editor in chief Pilar Guzman, Travel + Leisure editor in chief Nathan Lump and National Geographic Traveler editor in chief George Stone were joined by WonderlustTravel.com editor in chief Bob Guccione Jr. and travel writer Andrew Evans. Guccione is best known for founding Spin and Gear magazines, and Evans is the author of Bradt travel guides, more than 30 articles for National Geographic and “The Black Penguin” (University of Wisconsin Press, 2017), which chronicled his 10,000 mile journey — mostly on public transportation — from Washington, D.C., to Antarctica. He has hosted documentaries for the National Geographic Channel, as well.
Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann moderated, and the group was hosted for lunch by the Chatwal, a Luxury Collection hotel, in its Director’s Suite in midtown Manhattan on March 15.
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. Owing to time constraints during the roundtable, additional questions related to participants’ opinions about cruising and escorted tours were subsequently solicited via email.
‘This industry is rife with travel cliches. You could Mad Libs the sentences.’
—Pilar Guzman, Conde Nast Traveler
‘There are people who slavishly follow what they’re told. But most choose among options.’
—Nathan Lump, Travel + Leisure
‘There’s an army of writers living off junkets. A big part of travel writing is crap. Phony crap.’
—Bob Guccione Jr., WonderlustTravel.com
Arnie Weissmann, editor in chief, Travel Weekly: This is an interesting time. On one hand, we saw in 2017 the worst hurricane season on record in the Caribbean, wildfires sweep through California wine country, Mexico hit with a travel advisory and an illegal-alcohol scandal, the hobbling of travel to Cuba, the Las Vegas shootings and terror incidents in New York. Yet Americans, who used to be among the most skittish of travelers, are undeterred. You’re seeing record cruise line profits and tour operators so confident going into 2018 that they’re guaranteeing departures. Most countries are expecting to welcome more guests than ever. What’s changed?
Pilar Guzman, editor in chief, Conde Nast Traveler: I think people are getting braver. They’re pushing into new frontiers. Social media has a lot to do with it. People are used to seeing ever more exotic locations in their feed, and they feel a sense of entitlement to those things.
Nathan Lump, editor in chief, Travel + Leisure: I think, too, the frequency with which certain things happen, things like terrorist attacks, just makes it the new normal. Things cycle in and out much faster than they used to. At the same time, too, it’s important to remember that the well-traveled American is more well-traveled than at any other time in our history. They have been more places, they have done more things, they travel more frequently. That’s how they see themselves, how they see their lives. Those who are at the leading edge of this market are very advanced.
Bob Guccione Jr., editor in chief of WonderlustTravel.com: I think there’s two things. One is we see how quickly places rebound from terrorism. The other is that millennials base their travel greatly on their ability to improve their Instagram page — which I think is terribly sad, by the way. I remember in the ’80s when I’d see Japanese tourists with video cameras, looking at all the things but not looking at them. Just photographing them. And I’d think, “Why did you come here?”
[Social media] creates a terrific obligation. It says, “Here are all great places you’ve got to see. You’re not living unless you’ve been in this infinity pool.” It’s driving a lot of travel.
And then, of course, all of us in this room have gotten good at making places interesting. We’re oiling the machine. This is a very efficient industry.
Julia Cosgrove, editor in chief, Afar: And the most obvious factor is the economy is booming. And solid.
Lump: It’s really true. Peoples’ travel aligns with how they feel about their pocketbooks. And if they’re feeling flush, they travel more.
George Stone, editor in chief, National Geographic Traveler: We’re meeting a younger generation that thinks about the world differently. They probably should be credited with having a somewhat more globalized outlook. And that leads to this idea that it is a sort of an entitlement, like, “I should travel. I can travel. I’ll do this.” That’s ongoing.
Andrew Evans, author: To add onto that, I think travel is a learned behavior. Americans really started traveling after World War II, and the “Ugly American” image came from the ’60s, when Americans were first getting out. And now we’re dealing with Chinese and Russians who are also just getting out and [also criticized for] their bad behavior abroad.
But Americans have learned. And this generation is really the third generation since we’ve started traveling. To George’s point, they get it. They’re not afraid of it. They’re starting younger. Travel’s much more accessible. Kids are leaving the United States for the first time much, much younger. And we now live in an age where there are more Americans with passports than ever before, and potential travelers are facilitated by cheap airlines. There’s a democratization of travel in America.
Guccione: And there are many surveys saying that people today would rather have an experience than own something of equal value. Instead of buying a new car, they’ll go for two weeks on an Africa safari, or to the desert in the Emirates, or to the Galapagos Islands.
Guzman: Experience is the new luxury.
Guccione: Yeah, exactly. Perfectly put. Would you finish all my sentences today?
Stone: And with [low fares on] Norwegian Air, people can have shorter-term experiences, as well. It’s experience-driven travel more than destinations. Not, “I’m going to go to France!” but, “I’m going to go do this specific thing.”
Guzman: “I’m going to go to Faviken and have a fantastic meal.” I think people feel greater permission to go for an art opening, the opening of an opera. It doesn’t have to be the grand tour anymore. You don’t have to lump four major cities into one trip. Actually, who has time like that anymore? Time is luxury.
Stone: And they might not even spend as much money on the airfare as on the dinner.
Weissmann: So perhaps it’s no coincidence that there’s a growing awareness of what’s being called overtourism. It has been an issue in Venice for quite some time, but I think that you’re seeing it in a number of cities that are currently trendy. In Barcelona and Madrid, politicians are saying, in essence, they’ll push back against tourism even if it slows the local economy.
The travel industry is taking it seriously, and the World Travel and Tourism Council commissioned a study about how to deal with it. There’s a realization it’s in the industry’s interest to be proactive. But what should be done? Is a tour operator going to pull out of Barcelona and just leave business in such a popular destination for competitors?
Cosgrove: We’re actually looking at a de-tourism movement. It’s happening in Venice right now, and Venice is made of tourism. They just need to make it clear to people that you don’t necessarily have to all go to the same places. The more unusual experiences you can have with locals might be a little bit farther afield. The destination is rich with options. Maybe they need to be marketing that a little bit more, think more broadly about the different experiences that you could offer a traveler.
Lump: I think also there’s more that can be done to spread demand over a wider range of time. I was just in Venice at Christmas, and it was wonderful because no one was there!
Of course, because no one was there, a lot of things were closed. But if you’ve been to Venice a bunch of times, that doesn’t really matter that much. And you can just absorb the atmosphere, and it’s lovely. So it’s about trying to get out of those crunch periods, and there are things that both destinations and the industry itself can do to encourage that kind of behavior. And I worry a little bit about the hammering on the subject, because I think it’s for every destination to decide what’s right for them.
And I worry about anything that is discouraging of people encountering places and people and experiences. There’s important thought to be done here, particularly around sustainability and the impact that too much tourism could potentially bring to the environment. But I do worry slightly that we could get overzealous in some of this, and that wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing.
‘I just updated my guide to Iceland. It’s really disgusting, what’s happened.’
—Andrew Evans, travel writer
‘You need to find your own personal Iceland.’
—Julia Cosgrove, Afar
‘What are we trying to inspire people to do? Check a box or conceive travel experiences?’
—George Stone, National Geographic Traveler
Guzman: The islands, Venice’s islands, could obtain greater travel cachet. If you’re going someplace to Instagram, then ultimate bragging rights are in those places. It’s not the Taj Mahal anymore; it’s the lesser known temple that is just as great. And I think that’s on us, to some degree, to make that interesting, sexy, to lure the industry there to get hotels built. We worry about spoiling places, but at the same time, as story- and content-makers, the more we can spread the love and deprioritize the traditional bucket list, that’s something that we can do.
Weissmann: There’s an endless number of places that are undiscovered and that are wonderful, and everyone at this table could be focusing on them. But if you put those on the cover, is it going to sell? Will a cover with a photo of Venice’s St. Mark’s Basilica sell better than the Venice island that almost no one’s ever heard of?
Evans: Italy, man, always Italy.
Guzman: It’s true. We just did an Italy issue. This is what everybody wants, myself included. But we did, for example, tackle Venice with the idea of the overtourism in mind. We sort of did the off-the-beaten-path and Friuli [a region northeast of Venice], which nobody talks about. Actually, I think some of the more traditional places need a little back-door demystifying, a plan on how to tackle famous sites to avoid a certain time of day. So you can provide a little strategy. Because you shouldn’t avoid Rome.
Guccione: I’m very wary of saying the media has a responsibility. No, the media’s responsibility is to be honest, that’s all. After that, it’s pretty much whatever you want to do that you think is moral and right.
I do think the responsibility lies with the places. Barcelona doesn’t owe it to us to be there when we decide we want to go. And if too many people are going, then it’s Barcelona’s duty to make it such that it’s good for the citizens who live there first and regulate how we get there.
Cinque Terre did it. Cinque Terre said, “Just too many people walking through our damn villages.” (In 2016, the villages capped the number of visitors at 1.5 million annually, following a year when it recorded 2.5 million visitors.)
Each venue has its own problems and can deal with it in its own way. I would imagine somewhere like a Barcelona or a Venice could impose some kind of city visa — you would need a visa to go there. Which means you might have to go at a certain time of year if you don’t get the visa for when you want to go.
Weissmann: Some people don’t like that Bhutan requires that visitors are always accompanied by a guide, but that guide ensures that they don’t jump into the middle of a religious ceremony to use it as the background for a selfie. I’m typically not a fan of a government telling me what to do, but my experience in Bhutan benefited greatly, in many ways, by having a guide always with me.
Stone: I agree that destinations can direct tourism. The best solutions are going to come from within. But we on the editorial side can maybe focus on the time of year to go. Joss Kent of AndBeyond Safaris was telling me how dependent villages are on year-round visitation, but often people only want to go for great migrations. It’s a challenge to try to get people to think not only about distributing their visitation geographically but over the course of the year. There are more variables than just place.
Evans: I have two case studies that apply to this. The first time I went to Iceland was in the mid-’90s, and they had 100,000 visitors that year. I wrote a guidebook about the country that’s now in its fourth edition. Last year, they had 2-and-a-half million. And this upcoming season they expect 3 million. Its population is 300,000; they just do not have the capacity.
And that’s been pushed by the budget airlines. First Icelandair and Wow Air, and now everybody’s flying to Iceland. And it’s really become a problem. I just updated the guide, and it was horrible for me. All the places that I loved and that were so forlorn and far-flung, there are now tour buses going by every 15 minutes. It’s really disgusting, what’s happened. And it’s changed the country. The center of Reykjavik is no longer Reykjavik. It’s all Airbnbs, and it’s empty for a lot of the year. You won’t hear Icelandic being spoken in any of the restaurants. There’s been pushback, and to George’s point, the governments can step in.
They’ve launched great videos on YouTube to educate travelers, “Welcome to Iceland, and this is how we want you to treat our country.” They’re fun and entertaining and very informative, and it’s had an effect, slowly. It’s popping up first when you Google “Iceland.”
The other case study is Thailand, with the Buddha. The symbol has been desecrated by tourists, but now there’s a huge PR campaign. It begins the minute you enter Bangkok’s airport: “Respect the Buddha. This is not a tattoo, it’s not jewelry, it’s not a toy.” And I think that we, in travel writing and publishing, need to tap into that and share that narrative, that each destination deserves respect, and there are certain travel skills that apply to certain destinations.
Cosgrove: We did a story about Iceland, and our writer, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, went with the conceit of “Every American I know is traveling to or has traveled to Iceland,” and she was very cranky about it. She had not been to Iceland and wanted to experience it. The crux of the piece ended up being, you need to find your own personal Iceland. For Taffy, that was a moment that she had on the cliffs looking at a colony of puffins. And she was there by herself.
Stone: Isn’t travel actually finding the puffin at the edge of the cliff, versus collecting places? I mean, what are we trying to inspire people to do? Check a box, or try to create a motivation and a desire and maybe supply it with some tools for a reader to conceive of having a travel experience they create themselves? You end up having to do it yourself anyway. That’s what you remember, when you actually invest personally, even creatively, in that moment. And at that point, an entire journey can be distilled down to one moment. That’s the story you tell your friends.
Evans: George, can I hold you to that? Can I hold everyone here to that? Because I think it’s important, what you said, but I don’t see it in practice. That’s the ideal. But how much of the content that’s being published nowadays fits into that? Is what you describe actually being published?
Guzman: Quite a bit, actually.
Evans: I’m not sure. Maybe one or two features are in there. But for the most part, it’s a path dependency on iconic destinations. And over and over again, I see lazy photo editors dropping in stock [photos] of the same iconic thing rather than to create a different sense of place. There’s only one place in Iceland you can actually [see the colony of puffins]. And the rest of the places, which are where the mass of tourists go, are hugely path dependent. I’ve been writing a lot about Jordan, and no matter what happens, it’s the same old Petra shot again and again and again. No matter how much I fight. And it’s the same with Paris. And with Italy.
Guzman: Get a new photo editor.
Weissmann: Pilar, I sense you disagree.
Guzman: I do disagree. Especially with the players in this room. Obviously, this industry is rife with travel cliches. But I think the people in this room would fight tooth and nail to not fall into those cliches.
Lump: Although there are people who slavishly follow whatever they’re told to do, I think that most of the people we’re speaking to are picking and choosing among various options that we recommend to them. That’s what I see them doing. That’s what I hear they do.
Evans: It’s good to hear that perspective. As somebody who writes and who reads, it’s not what I’m seeing. You’re one force, but there’s a much bigger force of industry that’s pushing the kind of off-the-shelf experiences.
Guccione: I know what Andrew’s saying. I do think there are a couple of factors, and most of that is not in this room. One of them is the junket, where there’s an entire army of writers who are basically living off of these trips. And they’re never going to interrupt that. Now, some of them can be people we send — we in this room send — who say, “I want to get sent again, so I’m not going to disrupt the apple cart.” A big part of travel writing is crap.
Guzman: Yeah, a lot of it is, for sure.
Guccione: But it’s also phony crap.
Stone: And it has been for a long time.
Guccione: Sometimes when a piece just says, “Oh, beautiful Capri, blah-blah-blah. Here’s a restaurant to go to,” we’re not giving a sense of place. And I think that’s Andrew’s point. To me, a sense of place is best personified by finding the humor of a place. It’s a lot more difficult, in a way. But a lot more nourishing and valuable. I think all travel journalism needs to make sure there’s an authenticity to it. And sometimes that authenticity is in the awkwardness. It’s actually not in the perfection. I think a lot of travel reporting doesn’t go that extra mile to find the imperfection, and then say, “This is what defines that place.”
Evans: This is why I don’t envy your jobs. You have to shuffle through the great collective consciousness of travel cliches.
Guzman: It’s almost like you could Mad Libs the sentence.
Cosgrove: “The verdant green hills …”
Guzman: “… dotted with …”
Evans: “… sheep — dotted with sheep.”
‘People want a sense of identity away from technology. It’s going to be a golden time for travel agents.’
—Bob Guccione Jr., WonderlustTravel.com
‘Artificial intelligence, if trusted, will be very successful in the future.’
—George Stone, National Geographic Traveler
‘We don’t know about the future capabilities of AI. It’s like talking about the proto-internet in 1979.’
—Nathan Lump, Travel + Leisure
Weissmann: We’ve talked in the past about the ways technology has impacted the media options at your disposal to reach your audience. Technology has also enabled travel advisers, but some new technologies seem primed to compete with them. At Travel Weekly, we’ve been following the advent of trip-planning tools that employ artificial intelligence, or AI. Do you think machines can get to know you better than another human being and provide better travel recommendations?
Cosgrove: No, I don’t think an algorithm can know you that well. I don’t see that happening for the next 20-plus years. I don’t think we’re that binary.
Guzman: And I don’t even think anything but the best humans are good at that.
Lump: I don’t think we know what the capabilities of AI are right now. That’s a bit like talking about the proto-internet in 1979.
I think AI will affect travel, for sure. I don’t think anybody needs to be quaking in their boots right now, but there are a lot of ways we can learn to use AI to make things more efficient. Delivery of information, delivery of content could be a good thing.
Cosgrove: People have been talking about personalization and customization for 15-plus years, and this is one step toward that. But do I think it’ll mean no more travel advisers? No.
Evans: Can I play devil’s advocate? I think that Arnie’s question begs another question, which is: How are we measuring travel? How are we measuring pleasure and satisfaction from travel? Because it’s not quantitative. So much of AI is based on quantitative data.
I was very against Spotify at first, but now I love Spotify because I’m introduced to new bands every day that I absolutely love. They know me, they get me. And I feel like if we could have a Spotify for travel that could say, “Well, you had an amazing family vacation to Northern Arizona. Patagonia is where you need to go next.” That’s where I see it working. But I don’t know how you get there.
Lump: Structured data.
Guzman: That’s just a question of refinement and nuance. It will get there. It’s not like, “Nah, nothing will replace the human.” Lots of things have replaced the human.
Stone: If trusted, it can become a form of word-of-mouth. Like an Instagram influencer. I think there’s going to be an AI influence on decision-making that will be very successful in the future.
Cosgrove: Yes, now we have human expertise. AI, if it moves in the direction it seems like it’s going to move, that will also be expertise. And it’s different than an Instagram influencer who takes selfies of herself in front of the Eiffel Tower.
Guzman: That’s self-serving. But AI can’t just be the canned itinerary that’s like, “You will enjoy Egyptian music aboard the blah-de-blah-de-blah!” I’m like, “This may be a fantastic river cruise, and you have just completely turned me off.” Because the pat language, the cliches, the “travelese” — maybe a certain percentage of the market wants this, but in reality, you just want your most trusted person whispering in your ear, “Don’t eat there just because it’s a Michelin star! Go for this instead. This is the meal to have.”
You want a trusted person whispering in your ear, “Don’t eat there just because it has a Michelin star.”’
Guccione: Right, and you select that person to tell you. That’s the difference.
Guzman: How can even we, as human beings, approximate that? And then, eventually, how can AI approximate that?
Guccione: I don’t think AI can.
Guzman: Not yet, right?
Guccione: No, I don’t think ever. Look, the computer’s evolved as much as it’s evolved, but it can still only deal with the information it’s given, the data it’s aggregated.
Guzman: I don’t agree. We’re only at Stage 1.
Guccione: AI can only respond to the data. Human beings are not the aggregation of data. Human beings are more likely to be serendipitous. We don’t know what the next five minutes are going to bring. We’re innately serendipitous, innately unpredictable. We have mood swings. The great thing about travel is surrendering our sense of control. To try to replicate that or to return a sense of control is antithetical of human spirit, especially antithetical to the experience of traveling.
Arnie, I want to take the second part of your question and address that. I think we’re coming to a renaissance for travel agents. To me, they’re great. I don’t like technology intruding upon my life. I like to use it as a tool. I think that this intrusiveness is felt along a spectrum. Some people feel it greatly, like I do. Some people feel it less so. But instinctually we all feel it a little. And I think we’re going to say, “I’m losing my identity as a human being on this planet of 7 billion human beings. I want to do something a little unique. I want to do that trip to the mountaintop, I want to be with a fisherman for a week off the coast of Africa.” They want to recover a sense of identity away from technology. Will that eventually change? I don’t know. But I think for the next few years, it’s a golden time coming up for travel agents, because they’re like a weight balancing against the sense we’re losing our individuality, that we’re being submerged by, we’re being consumed by and subsumed by technology.
Guzman: I don’t think that technology and individuality are binary. In the best-case scenario, technology has the ability, through observing behaviors, to pinpoint what I might like and anticipate my needs.
Guccione: Better than you would?
Guzman: I agree there’s nothing that will replace human connection, but that’s different than human recommendation.
Guccione: Well, answer the question: Will AI, or does AI, anticipate as well as you do, or better, where you’d like to go? What you can do?
Stone: It has greater access to data.
Guzman: I guess my position is that, not yet, but I think it could.
Cosgrove: It could also lead you to discover something that you hadn’t been thinking about.
Guccione: Right, it can introduce us to things, just as media do. We, in our limited way, introduce people to new things. But I don’t see it replacing travel agents, no.
Evans: The market is going to try to reduce risk. You are going to a place you’ve never been before. You may or may not like it. But the industry — and media — are saying, “No, it’s always going to be sunny. You will see that giraffe.” We’re selling a reduced-risk experience. And AI will probably push us more and more in that direction. But to me, that takes the humanity out of travel.
Guzman: But it does not take the humanity out of your experience, because you will still see that giraffe, and you will still see that sunset.
Evans: But the “artificial” of the artificial intelligence will be more artificial than if it had happened spontaneously.
Guzman: I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive.
Evans: We all know Patricia Schultz and “1,000 Places to See Before You Die.” It was an ingenious idea, but it created this idea of a checklist. In a way, it was artificial intelligence before artificial intelligence. It was saying you should limit to these kind of iconic things. But the best stories we all have are spontaneous, where we just happened to break down, or whatever else.
‘The haves have private suites; have-nots don’t even have overhead space, let alone legroom.’
—Arnie Weissmann, Travel Weekly
‘There have always been people who can afford three months in St. Moritz with their 56 steamer trunks.’
—Bob Guccione Jr., WonderlustTravel.com
‘There’s a universe of opportunity to create something between premium economy and business class.’
—Nathan Lump, Travel + Leisure
Guzman: Sure! But again, not a binary experience!
Lump: But some people need that, need that guidance. Some people are not you; they’re not going to be, “I am open to the infinite possibilities of the world.” They’re going to need something that is a little bit reductive so they can wrap their heads around those possibilities. I think it’s good if it gets them places.
It’s the same thing we saw when the OTAs came out. There was a class of agents who didn’t succeed because all they were doing was taking orders.
Others did better. And presumably what will happen with AI is it’ll develop to a point where the people who are simply fulfilling today’s version of an order, which is a canned itinerary, those people will probably also lose their value in the marketplace. But there will always be other people who will rise to the top and provide something more. That’s what we do as human beings. We adapt to our situations. Not everyone adapts, and those who don’t have challenges.
Cosgrove: And no matter how scripted your itinerary is, whether an AI bot or a trusted travel adviser came up with it, you’re still going to have happenstance and serendipity when you’re actually in the moment. An itinerary is just the beginning.
Stone: Absolutely. You’re a person with an identity and a creative spirit. Go find the puffins!
Cosgrove: But there are people who need more hand-holding.
Guzman: And they shouldn’t be apologetic about it.
Evans: I think my point is that we’re all spoiled at this table.
Cosgrove: Can we go with privileged as opposed to spoiled?
Evans: I’ll say we’re privileged. Because when most people are making these decisions, it’s an investment, it’s a financial investment. I go on two safaris a year, and I can tell you the ins and outs of it, but some people will only ever be able to go on safari in Africa once. And they have a very specific idea of what it’s supposed to be like.
Now the serendipity is the whole key to a good safari. It’s the things that you’re not expecting. But there are risk mitigations, too. [Some travelers] don’t want to chance not having the experience they’ve planned. It’s the qualitative and quantitative, it’s the financial and the artistic that are at battle. I think that’s why I love what I do, but I also feel like it would be great to send somebody on assignment who’s never traveled at all.
Weissmann: Let’s look a bit at the current state of the traveler experience. Over the last year, aviation stretched boundaries for both the haves and have-nots. The haves have private suites, the have-nots don’t even have overhead space, let alone legroom. Is this widening divide between the top and the bottom a good thing?
Guccione: I don’t think it’s a thing at all, good or bad. There have always been people who’ve been able to afford three months in St. Moritz and bring their 56 steamer trunks. The rich are always going to be able to afford whatever they want, and the low fares allow people to do travel they wouldn’t have done otherwise. The low fares are probably gobbled up quickly by young kids who don’t mind sitting cramped, because they’re excited! They’re going somewhere!
Lump: Actually, for myself, I wish there was more in the middle. I often feel I’m not going to buy the business-class airfare, but I also don’t really want to be squeezed in the back.
Weissmann: Premium economy?
Lump: I know premium economy. It’s not as good as I want it to be. There’s not enough of it. I think there’s a universe of opportunity for airlines to have the people who want to sit in-between.
Evans: I may have a unique perspective in that I don’t really have that much choice in who I’m flying or where, because it just depends on who I’m on assignment with. Yes, I have status with one airline, but last year, I was being flown on all these other airlines because the client wanted to save a hundred bucks, which leaves me in Bangkok for 16 hours. It’s about comfort, but the travel industry is also selling a sense of entitlement, which is what I think you’re talking about. People automatically, especially in America, enter the plane already incensed by how badly they’ve been treated.
So my approach, having no choice in this, is to be completely Zen. If I don’t get punched in the face, it’s a good flight. I’ve taken up knitting. I’m in 56K, next to the toilet with screaming babies. And I just zone out and knit.
Guzman: What do you make? What do you knit?
Lump: A lot of scarves?
Evans: Baby blankets and hats.
Cosgrove: The one thing I will say about the premium experiences is that they have nailed them. You feel like your trip has started the moment you get on that flight, whereas for others on the plane, the trip officially starts when you get to your destination.
Stone: But to Nathan’s point, I think instead of premium economy, there should be something called, like, Mediocre First Class. I would be totally happy to pay for that.
Guzman: Upper Middle Class perhaps? Mediocre is just sad, like you’ve got a little mustard on your tie. I think your point is excellent, though. I was recently in a coach middle seat for, like, I don’t know how many hours, and I got into this mode of, I’m going to read this giant book and order bloody mary after bloody mary, and I’m going to pay for it with glee! And get the snack box! And the Oreos! The mini ones.
Lump: Which pair really well with bloody mary mix.
Guzman: And on the hotel end of the spectrum, this sort of freehand, chic hostel has cropped up of late. Which I think is fantastic, because I am thrilled to sleep in a twin bed. There’s something very containing and wonderful. As long as the sheets are clean and there’s a bar of soap, I don’t really care. If there’s a groovy downstairs coffee WiFi situation, I’m totally fine. You don’t need lavish rooms necessarily; I mean, as long as, you know, the tile grout is not mildewed.
Weissmann: While we’re on the topic of hotels, have you seen anything in the last 12 months that just blew you away? Amazing, wonderful, incredible?
‘Hotels get guests into communal spaces; or even better, to have experiences in the neighborhood.’
—Julia Cosgrove, Afar
‘I’m thrilled to sleep in a twin bed. As long as sheets are clean and there’s a bar of soap, I don’t really care.’
—Pilar Guzman, Conde Nast Traveler
‘I loved Zhiwa Ling in Paro, Bhutan. In the hotel, you experience the country.’
—Andrew Evans, travel writer
Cosgrove: I think Hyatt has the technology piece down better than most. I was checking into the Hyatt Place in Eugene, [Ore.], visiting family. They communicated to me via just the right number of emails. I didn’t even have to talk to anyone when I checked in. The room was ready. Super clean. They got the touch points right.
I also stayed at the Four Seasons recently with my family in Maui, and there is something to be said for tried-and-true hospitality. I think the big brands have really caught up with the fact that travelers these days want the communal spaces where they want to do their work and socialize. It’s less about keeping people tucked away in their rooms, no matter how nice those rooms may be. Get them into the communal areas; or even better, out to have experiences in the neighborhood that the hotel is situated in.
Stone: I’m not sure how I feel about Ace Hotels, but in New Orleans, where I was a week ago, they had this bandstand, this stage, and they are kicking out hours and hours of the best jazz in New Orleans, every night of the week. And it’s in a part of town where normally you’d have to go kind of far to hear jazz. So, the fact that they’ve made that investment in something local, six or eight hours of local musicians every single night, was really exciting to me.
Guzman: I think New Orleans is particularly successful because it is that lounge space downstairs, and the roof bar is really quite nice. And the same with [Los Angeles], you know? There’s a little, you know, too cool for school, if you’re up for that.
Cosgrove: I give them a lot of credit. They’re imitated so much!
Guzman: And they go to neighborhoods that are …
Cosgrove: … on the verge.
Guzman: Exactly, pioneer neighborhoods, which I think is brave. And the food is good.
Cosgrove: At all of them.
Stone: And that does come down to community and partnerships. If you’re a hospitality group and you’re making a true investment in the community, you’re really making friends, even if you’re a multinational chain.
‘If a hotel company is making investments in a community, it’s making friends. Even multinational chains.’
Lump: You know, it’s nothing new or trendy, but last summer I went to Big Sur and went to Post Ranch Inn. I love the Post Ranch Inn, and I love Big Sur. And you know, when Big Sur was cut off, they stayed open.
Cosgrove: Did you helicopter in?
Lump: I helicoptered in. The idea of being able to stay in a place that special, when there’s no one there, to take a drive down Highway 1 and have not a single car on the road. You could pull over, and as I did, take a selfie in the middle of Highway 1. When we talk about experiential travel, those things really resonate with you. That experience was so special to me, I’ll never forget it; and I will never be able to replicate that in my lifetime.
It was a really smart decision to come up with a creative solution to a problem but also to recognize that the small number of people they were able to do that for would really remember and cherish it. That was one of the more meaningful hotel-branded experiences I’ve had in a long time.
Evans: I would highlight two properties. I love going on safari, and it’s always interesting to see innovations for low-impact camps. I’m sure you all know AndBeyond. My favorite camp they have is Savute Under Canvas, which is their least visited. They move every five days. You know, I benefit often from having either subsidized or free travel, but I paid full price to go back, it’s so spectacular. And part of it is the location and the wildlife, but it’s also that in the four days that you’re camping there, the staff is like your family. You can cook with them, you’re hanging out with them. And for those four days, it felt like summer camp. And when they move, they leave no trace at all.
Another place I really loved last year was Zhiwa Ling in [Paro,] Bhutan. They’ve hired local craftsmen to carve everything. In the hotel, you experience the country. They have a functioning teahouse, and it’s not just for show. They have a meditation room, an incredible room. An active Buddha shrine where monks are coming. So, just staying in the hotel, you experience Bhutan in a very authentic way. And the staff is proud of what they’re doing. They’re proud to be a part of what’s happening.
Guzman: If the staff is happy, that’s the best sign.
Guccione: A couple of years ago, I went to the most remarkable place I’ve ever stayed in. Not particularly fabulous or fancy. It’s in Italy, in a converted monastery that’s actually a drug rehabilitation center. And the whole staff is recovering drug addicts. What you just said about staff being happy, they’re the happiest people I’ve ever met in my life. I interviewed the woman who runs it; she, herself, is a former addict. She said, “We train our people that our guests are angels.” Real angels, as in heaven. It’s founded by a Catholic priest, although Catholicism is not forced on anybody.
‘The most remarkable place I’ve ever stayed is in a converted monastery that’s a drug rehab center.’
Guzman: Where in Italy?
Guccione: In a town called Cetona, in Tuscany. And it’s part of Mondo X, a network of drug rehabs, but it’s the only one open to the public. And the restaurant is the best I’ve ever eaten in anywhere in the world. It’s phenomenal. And everybody, including the executive chef, are recovering drug addicts. They till the land, they grow the food, they make the food. It’s very small; they only have six rooms. It’s really the restaurant that people go to. It was remarkable from a spiritual point of view as much as a pleasant experience. When they cut a piece of cheese for you, they are delighted to do it. It has meaning for them, because every moment, they are distancing themselves from the hell they had been in. The actual name is Il Convento di San Francesco. It’s a beautiful, special, special place.
Weissmann: It sounds fantastic. There has been another, less inspiring side of travel, or the travel industry, that surfaced in the past 12 months. Some companies took significant reputational hits, from United pulling David Dao off the plane, to the spotlight on Uber’s culture and ethics, to the high-profile ousting of Steve Wynn as a result of the #MeToo movement. Do you think any of these had a significant impact on people’s travel decisions?
Cosgrove: I sure hope so.
Weissmann: But if a ticket on United was $20 less than a comparable flight on a competitor, would all be forgiven?
Cosgrove: I don’t know about that. I was more focused on the #MeToo piece.
Lump: I think it’s a little different for the airlines, honestly, because a) everyone’s expectations are so low, and b) it’s not just about price sensitivity. In many cases, it may be the only convenient choice, maybe the only direct flight. I think airlines have a lot more ability to get through those moments.
Cosgrove: Yeah, and the short news cycle. Those stories are in and out and forgotten.
Stone: And overlaying that are loyalty programs.
Weissmann: Did anyone download Lyft after Uber’s cultural problems became apparent?
Lump: Yes, absolutely.
Cosgrove: If you don’t agree with what you read about these companies, you should show it with your dollars.
Evans: There’s immense power with travel dollars. The NAACP [last August] put out a travel warning for Missouri for African-American travelers, which got a lot of press. I know the state tourist people are very upset, but I was glad they did that.
‘There’s immense power with travel dollars. The NAACP put out a travel warning for Missouri. I was glad they did.’
And the same with Bermuda rescinding same-sex marriage. I went there on my honeymoon with my husband. I wrote them a letter and said, “I’m not coming back until you change this.” And I had talked Bermuda up for the last decade, but I can’t support it. I agree with you, Julia, it’s important. Travel is political. We vote with our dollars. And if you can’t serve all humanity, get out of the business.
Guccione: I wonder how many people canceled reservations at Steve Wynn’s hotel. I bet it’s a very tiny percent.
Evans: I think it’s hard to bounce back from that. A tarnished brand.
Guccione: But the brand’s not tarnished is what I’m saying.
Evans: It is for me.
Weissmann: Have any of you been on a river cruise lately? Ocean cruise?
Evans: I did a story for the Chicago Tribune last month about a Mekong cruise. The new trend I’ve seen is being active. There aren’t planned stops. You get off with a bike, and you meet up again that night with the ship. So you’re out biking through villages with a guide, and you can stop whenever you want — a much more authentic, spontaneous experience. I’ve been to Cambodia and Vietnam four times before; I used to work there. But it was a completely new experience. You’re eating amazing food, but you’re also biking 20 miles a day, and you’re meditating and kayaking.
Cosgrove: I think Backroads has collaborated with one of the river cruise companies. On the oceans, this news that Ritz-Carlton is entering the market — that and Virgin are intriguing. I can’t wait to see how they disrupt the onboard experience.
Our readers opt for river cruises, small-ship cruises that access out-of-the-way ports and expedition cruises to far-flung destinations. I sailed with Viking down the Volga River in Russia. I enjoyed the ease of travel and getting into small, rural areas of Russia I might otherwise have missed as well as being able to engage with knowledgeable local guides onboard. They added an important layer of cultural and historical context to excursions.
Guzman: I also like the smaller vessels that take you to routes that can’t otherwise be reached by land, such as the Antarctic Peninsula, Falklands and South Georgia [Island] on the National Geographic Orion. And on the other end of the spectrum, Panama to Florida with stops in Colombia and St. Barts on the Crystal Symphony isn’t your typical route.
Lump: I think overall, river and ocean, there’s a big emphasis on land. And it’s not just pre and post. That’s been part of the experience for a long time, but I think there’s much, much more significant focus on land because the industry understands that if you’re going to attract new people who don’t think of themselves as cruisers, they need a really robust frame on that.
For me, on a personal level, cruising has two chief benefits. First, when you want to see a place that is simply best experienced by boat, like Antarctica or Papua New Guinea — on my bucket list! — or the Nile. And second, when you want to spend quality time with family or another type of group. You get the fun and novelty of travel, but it’s so much easier because all of the logistics are being attended to by someone else, and there are fewer decisions to be made. When I travel with family or friends, I tend to default into a “tour guide” role. Cruising means I get to enjoy myself.
‘Group escorted tours can offer incredible access. Ours had a private dinner on the Great Wall.’
—Nathan Lump, Travel + Leisure
‘I’m going to Egypt. I hear, from people I trust, it’s safe. I want to support its recovery.’
—Pilar Guzman, Conde Nast Traveler
Guccione: The river cruise has evolved as a sophisticated and appealing vacation option. I’ve been on one and loved it. I haven’t been on an ocean cruise because, previously, they looked like voluntarily going to hell for a week. Some still do, but the industry has done an incredible job of transforming its image and its product. Now, I want to go on one.
Stone: I love cruising. I like small ships and river cruises because you can literally sit there and watch the world go by. On rivers, you can see fields and farms and animals and fishermen and children running home. Sometimes they even wave. With all their fingers, not just one. One of my favorites was a Mekong cruise on Viking. We visited a brick factory, and we saw rice crackers being made and silk being woven. And the other passengers were really nice, fun people.
‘I like small ships and river cruises. Sometime people even wave to you. With all their fingers, not just one.’
I think AmaWaterways is really smart, and they have itineraries for active travelers who are into fitness. My dream would be to go on a Windstar sailing cruise in the South Pacific or a National Geographic Expedition cruise to the Galapagos.
Evans: I’ve cruised, and in several different capacities. What I enjoy most is moving into a room only once and having it remain my room for the duration of the voyage. I love having a balcony, a sea view and the ever-changing view of the ocean.
Cruising can be a wonderful way to explore the world. That said, the larger cruise ships, 3,000-plus passengers, tend to be gargantuan, overbearing and internally focused. They can be a destructive force, both environmentally and culturally. I have seen them wreck whole seaside villages and towns [that have been] reconfigured and repurposed for the cruise ship industry. Once that happens, a place loses a degree of authenticity. For that reason, I prefer smaller expedition ships.
Weissmann: How about escorted tours or, as some are calling them, guided vacations? Have you been on one? What appeals to you about them, or doesn’t appeal?
Guccione: Whatever you call them, if they involve walking around following someone holding a flag over their head, I think they could be used as enhanced interrogation for terrorists! The more interesting part of the industry has evolved away from that image and toward bespoke, curated travel, concentrating more on sensual and exquisite experiences rather than merely presenting buildings. The best tours allow for serendipity, the unappealing ones do not, having distilled all possibility of it away.
Evans: I like escorted tours with good, local guides who can really bring context and access to a hidden world. This is especially true with naturalists or art curators or historians who have real passion or expert knowledge for a place. I don’t like tour buses or large group tours, as there is a degree of theater, and worst of all, the entire experience becomes a lowest common denominator of fellow travelers. It’s amazing, when traveling with a large group, how much of your vacation is spent waiting for strangers to return to the bus.
Stone: Guides are great. In fact, a great service for magazines would be to offer a guide to guides. Airbnb Experiences is doing a good thing by surfacing personalized ways to connect with people and places. National Geographic Expeditions does this at the highest level by creating excursions where guests explore the wilds with scientists and researchers working to advance our knowledge of the world.
Last October, I had the chance to snorkel in the Seychelles with Enric Sala, Nat Geo explorer-in-residence. It was like a master class in marine biology, and it was the first time I fully appreciated the devastation of coral reefs. But it was also fun, friendly, warm-spirited. Snorkeling means a lot more when you know what you’re looking at, and that’s the gift that guides can offer: wisdom, along with experience.
Cosgrove: There are many destinations in the world where I would absolutely go with a group — and more importantly, go with the best guides.
Some might call our Afar Experiences guided vacations. They get beneath the surface by connecting with influential locals and providing insider access, things an independent traveler wouldn’t be able to experience on her own. Editorially, we’re putting to bed an issue right now devoted to the world’s most epic trips. We’ve searched out those trips that are really designed for discerning early adopters looking for over-the-top experiences.
Lump: I believe group trips often self-select for like-minded people. I’ve traveled frequently with guides but generally on my own or as part of a private group. One of the brands I oversee is Departures, and last year I co-hosted a group trip to China for a group of readers, which was my first taste of a group escorted tour. While I must say I don’t think this would ever be my preferred form of travel — I would miss the freedom to go off and explore as I see fit — I do see the real benefits for some travelers. This kind of trip can offer some incredible access to special places. We had a private dinner on the Great Wall, for instance. And there’s the logistical ease of having everything planned for you.
Weissmann: Let’s end as we do every year, by hearing what destinations you’re planning on visiting this year.
Guccione: Well, I’d go anywhere at this point. I haven’t had a day off in the last 14 months. Maybe two days off.
I want to go to Ukraine, to Kiev. And I would love to go at some point to Marrakesh. Actually, I will be going to Kiev. I’ve got a plan for that. But I’ve not got a plan for Marrakesh.
Evans: I can recommend a really good guidebook for Kiev.
Cosgrove: He may have written it.
Guccione: Really? You wrote it? Excellent! I want it! I want it!
Guzman: I’m going to Hoi An in Vietnam, Bangkok and Delhi. I’m also headed to Kenya in the next couple of weeks. Egypt, Jordan. I was recently in Banff, skiing. St. Lucia.
Weissmann: Egypt is an unusual choice. Why now?
Guzman: Well, political turmoil and, of course, bombings, which, while episodic, have dogged the tourist economy for the past few years, leaving even major sites vulnerable and with diminished security. But I hear from many people I trust that it’s as safe as any European or American country or major city. I want to support its recovery and lead by example.
Cosgrove: I’m doing a lot of California because of my family. And Mexico for our co-founder’s wedding in San Miguel. And I’m going to be here [New York], actually, for a few weeks in the summer, which I’m excited about. Probably some international trips at the end of the year.
Weissmann: It’s atypical for you to stay domestic.
Cosgrove: I know, it’s unusual, but I have a 9-month-old.
Stone: So one of my favorite articles was the one in Afar on Georgia, the country. And that’s my big dream.
Cosgrove: Definitely trending.
Stone: I have a Georgian friend, and all she does is talk about the beauty.
Cosgrove: And the food.
Stone: And the wine. And then I bumped into these two people who had hiked and saw some pictures. So that’s the big dream I’m looking at making happen.
Evans: I just got word that my visa to Iran was denied. That was my next trip.
Lump: They’re really not letting almost any Americans in at all.
Evans: I’m also scheduled to be in Cuba this summer. I’ve been before. I’m hosting a trip, but nobody’s buying, so they may cancel that. But I am planning a trip to Central Asia this summer, so …
Weissmann: Which countries?
Evans: Several “-stans.” Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan.
Weissmann: What is your assignment? Or are you doing this on your own?
Evans: It’s an assignment, yeah. Hiking.
Guccione: You work for the CIA, don’t you? That’s getting clearer.
Evans: I would be far wealthier if I did.
Lump: On the docket, I’ve got Argentina and Uruguay, India, Singapore, Indonesia, Northern California, Canada a couple times, Mexico, Sweden, Italy, New Zealand.
Lump: That and probably Kenya and Tanzania.
Cosgrove: It’s always Nathan.
Stone: When Nathan has to, like, re-up his global entry pass and list all the countries he’s been to in the last five years, it’s going to all come back to him. It’s going to be the worst nightmare ever.