Travel editors discuss economy and other issues at roundtable

2010 RoundtableAt the invitation of Travel Weekly, the chief editors of Afar, Budget Travel, Conde Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler and Travel + Leisure and the travel editor of USA Today convened in New York earlier this year for the fifth annual Travel Weekly Consumer Travel Editors Roundtable.

The event was held in the Grand Ballroom of the Plaza Hotel, which recently completed a three-year, $450 million restoration. Lunch was provided by Plaza partner CPS Events' Liz Neumark.

Travel Weekly Editor in Chief Arnie Weissmann moderated. This year, the focus was on emerging trends, destinations and global travelers, and how, during the economic downturn, travelers' preferences might have changed, as well as how the editors balanced industry concerns with reader interest.

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 might have been discussed in recurring intervals during the course of the conversation.

Arnie Weissmann, editor in chief, Travel Weekly: Last year was a very tough year for the travel industry, but from the viewpoint of travelers, there was unprecedented opportunity and value. How did you balance your sympathies between your readers and the industry?

Nina Willdorf, editor, Budget Travel: We feel very "on brand" lately, in ways that are both fortunate and challenging for the industry. People know the world opened up to them in a way that was never before accessible, and people are looking for deals. So that's exciting for travelers. There's a lot of opportunity there, and we really want to share those opportunities with people.

But it's something that we have to navigate. You don't want to celebrate the bargains, because they're at the expense of the hotel companies that are discounting to fill their rooms. The way that we handle it is to really think about the underlying issues that bubbled up in the downturn, what people are really looking for.

So we created a series called "The Budget Travel Challenge," where we take some of those issues, like the idea that all of a sudden people are making much more impulsive, last-minute purchases because of discounted airfares, and we explore how that really panned out.

We did a story on Vegas which ultimately had a -- I don't want to say sad, but a complicated undercurrent, because Las Vegas has had a very, very tough year. And at the same time, it's accessible to people who it previously hadn't been accessible to. So there's a fine line, and you have to figure out how to approach these issues. A lot of that happened with tone.

Weissmann: So you kept the industry's sensitivities in mind?

Willdorf: We're partners. We have to be. Readers are always at the forefront, but we are in business together with the travel world -- hotel companies, airlines, all sorts of operators.

Klara GlowczewskaKlara Glowczewska, editor in chief, Conde Nast Traveler: Our mission is always to put the interests of the reader first, but obviously we want to support the industry, as well. In a way, I found that this year was sort of a weirdly happy confluence of those two things, because there were so many travel experiences on sale. Hotels are so desperate to fill rooms and cruise ships to fill berths, and we wanted our readers to know about that, because in a way this was a fabulous year for travel. It was never as affordable as it was these past 18 months, so we're very happy to report on the discounts the industry was offering, which serves reader interests, as well.

On our website, we did a "Deal of the Day," where we took all of the deals that were coming in, scrutinized them and did a lot of reporting around them to make sure the deal was actually a deal, because you have to investigate to see if the numbers added up. And we had a big response from our readership about that. They really liked it. I think it was actually quite simple to serve both interests.

Weissmann: Was there anything that you did this year that you're going to carry over once the economy has recovered?

Glowczewska: We always try to respond to what's happening. We did more coverage perhaps of cruise than we have in the past, only because there was so much to be said about it. I think a lot of people perceived it as a real value because you didn't have a lot of unknowns; you pretty much knew what you were paying, and our readers seemed to like that. We'll probably continue doing more of that than we have in the past.

Nancy Novogrod, editor in chief, Travel + Leisure: By encouraging our readers to travel and pointing out the many opportunities out there, we were serving the industry well. I found it a very interesting time editorially, because I became aware that a new consumer of travel is emerging.

I think one of the discoveries for me is the kind of weariness with the concept of affordability and discount. There was a little moving away from the idea of deep discounting and a real interest in value, getting something that really makes you feel good. And trends developed that have to do with an interest in adventure, an interest in authenticity, an interest in experience, because they're about the kind of things that matter, rather than the excess.

Keith Bellows, editor in chief, National Geographic Traveler: I'm going to pick up on that a little, because we've always positioned ourselves as being for the inquisitive traveler, not the acquisitive traveler. So last year actually played more to where we really sit.

Luxe is under great pressure, obviously. The notion of experience and authenticity has really been around, and a drumbeat in our business, for a long, long time. But this year it became almost a marketing replacement for "high end."

We focus on place, and I think this gave us a chance to focus even more on place, especially in the context of the general-interest media, which is saying, "Ugh, planes are terrible. Everything is terrible. The economy is in the toilet." It allowed us to just step back from that and celebrate place, and celebrate what you do in a place. That's really liberating, I found, and I think that's going to remain.

Weissmann: Did you ever overtly look at value and try to tie it to bargains?

Bellows: No, because I think everybody was doing that. When I first came to the magazine, the mandate was, "Be more luxurious, be more high-end." And that doesn't make sense for our brand. It was more like, how do we move with the result of the economic downturn? How do we harvest the opportunities there for our readers? And I think certainly focusing on affordability was one way, but it's also focusing on this wonderful emergence that we're seeing: It's no longer about vacations, it's about transformation.

That's a real opportunity area, especially for magazines vs. online, because we're in the inspiration business, and online is in the engagement business. And if we could be the engine to inspire people, it doesn't become just about the money.

Weissmann: You say "we" this and "online" that, but you have a website.

Bellows: Oh yeah.

Weissmann: But you don't really think of yourself as an online medium?

Bellows: Yeah, well, that's going to change. We're taking all of our travel-related properties -- expeditions, online, books, kids, games, mobile, education -- and putting it all together in one sort of consolidated group that can start to move around concepts and reach to different kinds of audiences. So online is obviously a very important part of it, but it does a certain thing really well, where magazines do something else entirely really well.

Veronica Stoddart, travel editor, USA Today: Our best-read story of the year was "Cheap Vegas." It outdid, by a huge number, any other story, and this is by the measurements online where we can track it, so clearly there was an enormous appetite this past year for those kinds of stories. And we developed an ongoing series called "Affordable America," and every month we do a story on either a bargain destination or ways to save money -- for instance, going to three of the most expensive ski resorts in the country and showing how you can do it on the cheap.

So value has really been important to our audience all year long, and it always has been a big factor for our audience. And it certainly will continue that way throughout this year, I anticipate.

Weissmann: When you say "Cheap Vegas" outdid the others by a huge number, how huge a number?

Stoddart: That story outpolled the next story, oh my gosh, probably by almost double. Well, you know, Vegas. The deals in Vegas right now are just astronomical. You have never seen rooms under $50, and in some cases under $25 a night. So when you show that to readers, they're going to respond.

Weissmann: And, to the question about balancing your sympathies to your readers and the industry?

Stoddart: We're always looking to serve the readers. I mean, that's in the DNA of newspapers in general and certainly for us. That's what we do: We put the reader first. But I think as someone else pointed out, it does also serve the industry at the same time, because you're making these offers available to people who can book them and travel.

Greg SullivanGreg Sullivan, editor in chief, Afar: We launched in the middle of this, so it's a little bit different situation. We're all about experience. We believe that people are looking for something meaningful in their travels. Luxury isn't about the number of zeroes, but it's about the quality of the experiences. This trend, I thought, as Keith said, in some sense had been building over time. What has the economic environment done to this? I think the economic environment has enhanced people's yearning to do something more significant with their time.

Weissmann: How, besides the price/value equation, has this down economic cycle affected travelers? What issues have readers brought to your attention that seem linked to the economy?

Novogrod: I think people are caring about service more than ever, and that is one problem with all the discounts. You have a consumer that is really harried, for whom deciding to travel may be a big decision. To risk the possibility of not being treated well is a huge issue. And as these hotels have taken a beating and cruise lines have had to discount, maintaining the service level is an issue.

Willdorf: And when people are booking with online travel agencies, and then something happens with your reservation ...

Novogrod: ... who's going to help you?

Bellows: You can have amazing experiences for not a lot of money. We said to a writer, "I want you to find an exotic place that you really want to go to. I want you to find something real cheap, last minute, and pretend that you've got disposable time but not disposable income." And he went to Vietnam, roundtrip, for $728. There are a lot of places in America you can't go to for that. So it suddenly changes the whole metrics of travel.

Glowczewska: The world has really opened up as a result of all of this. That's definitely the silver lining. I think people are venturing where perhaps they wouldn't have before, both for economic and other reasons. It's a very interesting moment to be in this business.

Novogrod: There is a greater readiness to explore. So many places have become familiar, but we're traveling more, so people are forging into new territories.

Willdorf: It's been a horrible year, and people are just craving travel. Consumers in America just feel that intensely. We've been through so much, and it's just that travel is this treat. It's the release. It's where you finally are connecting with your family after running around like a crazy person. It's where you finally are taking that breath. And I think people were so hunkered down in 2009 that 2010 is so going to be ...

Bellows: ... liberating.

Willdorf: It's time.

Bellows: Yeah, there's also this generational thing that's happening. I read a stat, I think it was in Harpers, that said that 70% of the graduating class this year will not have a job lined up. Which means that maybe we're actually going to have gap years, where people are going to take a year off and travel. You're going to be able to seize the moment. You don't have a job. You can sit around and mope about it, or you can ...

Glowczewska: ... get up and go.

Veronica StoddartStoddart: And people who have been laid off, if they had a little money stashed away, why not go and take the six months now? It's what they've always dreamed about doing. Now they have the time to do it.

Willdorf: We did a story called "Pink Slip Trips"-- same thing. But we had an internal discussion: Is this offensive, or is it just what's happening?

Stoddart: It's a genuine phenomenon.

Sullivan: A lot of people's mindset has changed. They really view themselves differently. They're saying, "I'm a global citizen, I'm not just a U.S. citizen, and I want to really understand my world neighbors at a more personal level. And contribute." And I think the younger generation is leading that charge, but it goes for baby boomers, as well.

Glowczewska: From the metrics that we have to gauge reader interest and travel plans, we've seen a very good and strong picture of the past year. We have a particularly affluent readership perhaps, but more than 25,000 people took part in our yearly Readers' Choice poll that we publish in the November issue, which is huge. That's as good as any of the years when the economy was booming. And they were judging recent travel experiences, so these people have been out there. I was actually quite worried before the poll results came in. Would we go down to 9,000 respondents or something? This said a lot to me.

Novogrod: Maybe they had more time on their hands.

Bellows: You know, it's interesting. Our expeditions group had the best year in its history.

Stoddart: Really?

Bellows: I mean, it was very pronounced -- best year in history.

Willdorf: I was talking with a couple of tour operators that regularly advertise in the magazine and trying to get a sense from them about their bookings, and I was shocked to hear that Europe was exactly where it has always been. People still want to take those grand tours. It's just a fundamental baseline that is nonnegotiable. If you want to take that trip, you're going to take that trip.

Glowczewska: You save up in other ways, in other parts of life.

Willdorf: People were sometimes changing their decisions about how they were going to travel. But whether or not they were going to travel was never on the table.

Glowczewska: On our website, we have a blog called Island News. The very first question posted was from a couple who wanted advice on travel to Bora Bora and Fiji, and I thought: That is fabulous. They were celebrating a 25th wedding anniversary and they had stayed at Hotel Bora Bora on their honeymoon, and they were going back and taking their grown-up kids to Fiji immediately after. They knew the hotel was closed for renovation and wanted to know how they should arrange that trip. And I thought: I love that. First of all, I love that they're going in this economy and also that they're of an age where they have grown children, and yet they're going to a blog to post their travel question.

Bellows: How did you field the question?

Glowczewska: We answered from what we knew internally about Bora Bora and also got the advice of one of the travel agents on our list of travel specialists.

Novogrod: We've seen an increasing interest in long-haul travel, and Asia has risen in the metrics we have. What I think has happened in the current economic conditions is that Americans have really come of age as world travelers. And what was said about taking a gap year, or taking time after your job ends to travel, I mean, that's something that was just not even in the American consciousness.

Weissmann: Americans may be going abroad more, but America is not where the greatest growth in travel is occurring, is it?

Stoddart: For the first time ever, the air traffic in the Asia-Pacific region has outstripped North America. It just shows you they're there, moving, they're traveling. It's the biggest growth market right now, for sure.

Weissmann: Do you see travel suppliers shifting their attention from America?

Novogrod: I've heard that the U.S. is still important, but it's not No. 1. I've been hearing, "We've developed new markets to replace the U.S." Chinese travelers are really significant, and Indians are becoming so. I just met with a hotelier from Switzerland who said they were getting a lot of Indian guests, which is new.

Keith BellowsBellows: We're used to an America that's sort of driven the travel industry. I think those days are, if not over, certainly in descendancy, because the Chinese and Indian outbound is going up. That means an international hotel chain will tell you today that it may be a tough market here, but somewhere else it may not be.

Weissmann: In previous years, we've talked about sustainable travel as a trend, or voluntourism, or experiential travel, or intergenerational travel. What are you seeing out there now? What's come on your radar recently that you think has the potential to take off?

Stoddart: Health and wellness travel. We're doing a story on medical spas at casinos in Macao. Can you believe that? Yes, they're building medical spas into their casinos.

Bellows: You can get heart surgery in India and stay at a beach for four weeks while you recuperate.

Willdorf: But who wants to?

Bellows: For half the price.

Stoddart: There is a market for it.

Willdorf: Yeah, I don't want to go to that place.

Novogrod: There are reasons for this. It's all about money.

Stoddart: We did a story on dental tourism to Hungary. It's huge. They have all German-trained dentists. It's right across the border from Germany.

Novogrod: We're seeing a lot of spas introducing rather serious health care components.

Stoddart: You've always had the cosmetic surgery overseas.

Glowczewska: But really, this is totally outside the privy of travel, isn't it? We had this conversation at Traveler, because it's impossible to evaluate these places. We did a big spa poll, which is going into the April issue, and this came up because we had a lot of data from the poll on these medical spas, and someone was arguing we should include it, and we said, "Well, we can't." I mean, these are medical facilities that just happen to be abroad. We cannot have any ratings for this. I don't know if the surgeon is good. This is not our business.

Stoddart: There are websites that do that, by the way. They have doctors onboard who will do that kind of evaluation and recommendation for you.

Sullivan: What people are looking for is, what can the family members who go over with them do?

Glowczewska: Yeah, travel information, sure, sure.

Bellows: But it's a powerful trend.

Novogrod: I did see a figure on spas, though, that they're up something like 20%, which is really interesting and probably not that surprising when you think of all the stress that people are dealing with.

Willdorf: And with our health care situation here.

Nancy NovogrodNovogrod: And, I guess, our greater awareness of spiritual searching and meditation or yoga.

Stoddart: Religious and spiritual travel is way up, as well.

Bellows: And heritage travel.

Weissmann: Heritage travel? To find your roots?

Bellows: I was preparing to speak to some Norwegians, and I found out there were more Norwegians living in America than there are in Norway. And I thought, what a great opportunity!

Novogrod: When do they cease being Norwegian?

Bellows: They could do what Israel has done, because Israel has built their tourism industry on people coming back to the homeland. I think that's going to be a big growth area. And then this whole idea of mission-driven travel is huge, and it's not just voluntourism. It's much richer than that. It's a mission also for your own personal growth, a sort of search for meaning. Transformational travel.

Glowczewska: I think the whole trend in voluntourism and giving back, that's by no means in the past. That's just gaining momentum, really.

Stoddart: The other big trend I see is culinary travel, and much deeper than just, "Where do I go for dinner?" It's going to farms and visiting the source of the food, taking cooking classes. The quest, you know? The wine tourism, searching for the best olive oil in Italy, all of that. In fact, I think it was in 2009 that the Specialty Travel Agents Association did a poll, and culinary travel came up No. 1 as their hottest trend of the year.

Willdorf: People aren't just looking for a place. They're looking for a purpose. There has to be another layer, and that's what's driving travelers.

Novogrod: Educational, cultural travel is really big because of the search for meaning.

Glowczewska: In our polls, culture is the No. 1 motivator for travel.

Willdorf: We talk about the word "value" a lot, especially at Budget Travel. We usually think about it on a monetary level, but this year, we're looking at it as internal value. That word has become invested in two ways.

Bellows: And if you look at travel magazines six or seven years ago, I think it would be fair to say that the predominant diet of articles was, "I went there, I did this, I had that, I slept there." That's changed dramatically, because what we need now is to layer in this idea that there's something more to having time off than R&R on a beach.

Novogrod: Well, people want to make connections. It used to be that you traveled in a kind of bubble. You were American, and you went out into the world. But I think it's changed so much now. You want to meet people.

Weissmann: From an industry point of view, two of the biggest stories of the year were the launch of Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas and the opening of CityCenter in Las Vegas. Do you believe that either of these represent a trend?

Willdorf: These were projects that were conceived in a different time, a very different moment of American psychology, when big was best. And then you end up with them coming out in 2009. With CityCenter, there was sort of a disconnect, this fabulous, huge city within a city, while Vegas is just struggling to fill all their new rooms.

Novogrod: I just think that they were exciting. They have used architecture and design, and it's on a pretty high level. It's not all about "gigantic." Oasis of the Seas also offers opportunities for intimacy onboard. So I think there's an awareness on the part of the people behind these initiatives that they have to do something more than just be big.

Willdorf: We sent a staffer on Oasis of the Seas, and she came back just raving. The model for ships now has become even more that the ship is the destination.

Glowczewska: An interesting thing about the Oasis, which I didn't realize until we reported this, is that environmentally, it's actually quite advanced. The sheer scale of it is allowing them to test certain things and make certain things happen that even hitherto large ships were unable to do. In terms of waste recycling, gray water and all that, they're very advanced.

Bellows: Well, they're a big target.

Novogrod: Being new is a huge advantage.

Stoddart: They really push the envelope with that ship, I think, in a very exciting way, whereas CityCenter is kind of a departure for Las Vegas, architecturally certainly, and maybe that's a little bit of a disconnect for that city. Traditional Vegas-goers maybe don't know quite what to make of CityCenter. It's much more minimalist, pushing the envelope architecturally. It's not the splashy, over-the-top kind of Vegas that people are used to, and I think that's probably why they haven't gotten traction so far, in addition to the bad economy. It kind of stands out on its own there.

Bellows: It also speaks to another trend, and that's what I would call the envelope trend. These are things that are pushing the envelope. This is what [Virgin Group Chairman Richard] Branson wants to do in space. It's very much trying to figure out what the next frontier in travel is.

My feeling, especially with our ocean initiative, is that oceans are going to be one of the next major focuses because they are so important to us, and though they cover 70% of the earth, we really don't know much about them. There's another frontier for us.

Architecturally, in terms of design, everyone's looking at City-Center, at Chicago, what they're doing in terms of changing the entire face of the city and how they make sustainability part and parcel of their urban approach. These are all things that are exciting, new opportunities for travelers because they're changing the definition of what an iconic destination might be.

Arnie WeissmannWeissmann: Is there a polarity of interests among travelers, where on one hand they're looking at a megastructure that is interesting on its own, and on the other hand going with a more intimate, authentic experiential trip?

Glowczewska: Different tastes, different times.

Novogrod: Or the same people, different tastes, different times.

Weissmann: What are some of the destinations that, all of a sudden, are popping up on your radar?

Bellows: Sierra Leone.

Novogrod: Sri Lanka.

Glowczewska: Yeah, I've heard that, as well.

Bellows: The ever-reliable Bhutan.

Weissmann: Yes. It's the destination of the future, and always will be.

Stoddart: My homeland, Colombia, I'm happy to say.

Novogrod: New destinations within countries.

In China, Hangzhou, where an Aman is opening, a Banyan Tree opened awhile ago. I think there's a great interest in going beyond the known places in different destinations.

Glowczewska: China and India, I think, just continue to charge along.

Willdorf: We saw Hawaii suffer so much this year, but looking at queries on our website, Hawaii is No. 1 for us. I was so surprised to see that. It's always Costa Rica. It's always Puerto Rico, especially this time of year. But Hawaii was No. 1.

Stoddart: Do you know, by the way, which country had the fastest growth of tourism last year, No. 1 in the world? Lebanon. They had a record year.

Bellows: And Morocco has gone from completely off the radar to being right in the center of it.

Glowczewska: Gosh, I never think of it being not on the radar. I've thought of it for 30 years as just smack in the middle.

Novogrod: Well, the big brands like Mandarin Oriental and Four Seasons are coming.

Bellows: Branson's in there.

Novogrod: And it's a very accessible destination that's exotic but has great infrastructure.

Nina WilldorfWilldorf: It's approachable exotic.

Weissmann: What is your take on Dubai?

Novogrod: It's a good thing for Dubai that Abu Dhabi has developed and that there are so many resorts coming up around it, because I think it will extend its potential. As a destination on its own, I'm a little worried about it, but as a jumping-off point to desert resorts, to the Six Senses in Oman, to just explore the area. I'm hearing about Sharjah and other places within the UAE. I think a lot of hotel companies are looking at this area and realizing it's underdeveloped. And I think it will be good for Dubai.

Weissmann: I agree about Abu Dhabi helping Dubai. Especially after all the museums in Abu Dhabi are completed. It'll be as if the Museum Mile on Fifth Avenue in New York and Las Vegas were just a two-hour drive apart.

Novogrod: Right. Well, Abu Dhabi has a very interesting model, which is called culture, and Dubai, despite what they say, really doesn't have that opportunity. And it's interesting what an airline can do for a destination. I know many people who want to go to Dubai because of the opportunity to fly on Emirates. And the truth is, they could fly to Bombay on Emirates. You could go to the Maldives or Singapore.

Willdorf: I so rarely talk to people eager to get on a plane these days.

Weissmann: But if they're first class in Emirates, they're not going to mind.

Novogrod: I tell you, I loved it. I mean, I loved it.

Glowczewska: Emirates is fabulous, yes.

Novogrod: And I love long-haul flights. No one can get to you.

Willdorf: Just to read, finally.

Glowczewska: I adore it. It's my vacation.

Novogrod: Me, too. An 18-hour vacation.

(For more from the Roundtable, see "From the Window Seat: A trendsetters wish list.") 

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