Travel editors discuss hot topics at TW roundtable

Arnie WeissmannAt the invitation of Travel Weekly, the chief editors of Travel + Leisure, Budget Travel, Gourmet, Food & Wine and the travel editors of USA Today and the New York Times convened at the Friars Club in New York earlier this year for the fourth annual Travel Weekly Consumer Travel Editors Roundtable. (The editor of National Geographic Traveler joined by phone.)

Travel Weekly Editor in Chief Arnie Weissmann moderated. This year, the focus was on the effect of the economy on their readers' attitudes toward travel, hotels, cruises, tour operators and travel agents. The editors were also asked to gauge their readers' interest in environmental concerns and other aspects of "responsible travel" and to reveal which destinations, when featured on the cover, work best to spur newsstand sales.

Conde Nast Traveler Editor in Chief Klara Glowczewska was unable to attend, but she later sat down with Weissmann to address some of these topics (see box at bottom of page).

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

Arnie Weissmann, editor in chief, Travel Weekly: How are changes in the economy affecting your readers and the way they travel?

Nancy Novogrod, editor in chief, Travel + Leisure: I had a very interesting conversation with Priscilla Alexander [president of the upscale New York travel agency Protravel International], and one of the questions I asked was whether she saw among her clients a rise in interest in smaller and more authentic places. She said no, but she is seeing a rise in interest in what she calls "four-stars," particularly big-brand hotels. She felt there was greater confidence on the part of the consumer that with these properties a deal would really be a deal. With a little inn on a coast, who knows?

Nina Willdorf, editor, Budget Travel: All of our readers are seeking value, and it's found in the four-stars, and it's also in local communities. It's an exciting time for Budget Travel readers right now. There's a sense of a kind of intrepid passion for value, and there's the notion that right now it's broader, that you can go to more places than ever and still find value.

Keith Bellows, editor in chief, National Geographic Traveler: Everybody is sort of pulling back a little bit in terms of how much they spend. But they're also starting to think, "Well, wait a minute, maybe things aren't going so well, but maybe now is still the time to travel."

Ruth Reichl, editor in chief, Gourmet: We got one letter that amazed me, where someone said that as they watched their 401(k) going down, what they felt was, "Why didn't I spend it? I lost it anyway. I should have been traveling." I think there's some of the attitude that you could have had a great time, and instead you didn't. The thing that we find is that people still want to travel. And they probably still want to stay in really nice places.

Bellows: We've gotten letters from people who have lost their jobs and wrote, "I'm going to spend this time that I have and go travel." We've become very conscious of changes in how people look at travel.

Willdorf: Frankly, I've been very surprised by how our readers are responding to the economy. We posted a question on our blog at the end of '08: "Where are you planning on going in '09?" And I expected that people would talk about how they were paring back their travel plans or taking a wait-and-see approach. I was thrilled and heartened to see where our travelers are going. We got over 500 responses. And people are just as eager to get out there as ever.

There are just so many deals right now: a lot of resort credits, extra nights free, discounting here and there. For the Budget Travel reader, it's a gold mine. Obviously, this is a really tough time in the American economy, but our readers are saying that they can't afford not to travel right now.

Stuart Emmrich, travel editor, New York Times: People feel like their vacation is sacrosanct. They will cut back in other areas -- they're much more cost-conscious -- but that two or three weeks that they have off, they still want to have an experience that's memorable. And they'll find ways to pay for that. It may mean not going to Paris but instead going to somewhere in the U.S., or taking eight days rather than 12. They are looking for bargains, they are looking for value, they are looking for ways to economize, but they do not want to give it up altogether. And should they spend a lot of money on a vacation, they want to make sure it's a great experience.

Dana CowinDana Cowin, editor in chief, Food & Wine: One of the questions that we dwell on is: How long is this going to last? Will it be a year, and then we go back to normal? Or is there some seismic shift that is happening simultaneous to the recession, so that when you come out on the other side you're actually looking at something different? People pull back because of the recession, but will it change them forever in some way? Are we going through some sort of change in our psyche, or is it something that we can just react to right now and wait for the cycle to end?

Weissmann: To Dana's point: Does, for instance, the meltdown in the luxury sector represent a permanent shift in attitudes or a cyclical one? Nancy mentioned the movement to "four-stars." The Arctic Club in Seattle recently brought itself down from five stars to four, voluntarily, to allow it to reduce its costs and lower its rates to be more competitive. Are people no longer finding value in the five-star range? Does the downturn in luxury travel go deeper than fallout from the "AIG effect"?

Novogrod: I think luxury itself as a concept is devalued right now. Being a real luxury hotel requires huge investment, and if you don't have the occupancy, you don't have the ability to make the investment. Many hotels need to reduce their service. They can't afford to have as large a staff as they have, so taking yourself down a notch seems like a smart thing to do. And the other part of it is that there's a lot of backlash against luxury and a lot of feeling that luxury is an old concept. People don't want to walk around with $2,000 handbags.

Willdorf: Travel is about connection as opposed to excess. So excess, at this moment, is embarrassing. I mean, you see people going to luxury stores and getting the white bag instead of the bright orange bag. I think that you're going to see the same thing in travel in '09. There's a search for meaning, and it's kind of embarrassing sometimes to go so over the top, even if you can.

Reichl: As regards luxury, it's going to come back.

Novogrod: It will, sure.

Reichl: This is cyclical. Right now, everybody's embarrassed by luxury, even people who can afford it. But that's not going to last forever.

Veronica Stoddart, travel editor, USA Today: There's a market for it. Frankly, there will always be a market for it.

Willdorf: It's pampering. It's pleasure. Luxury exists because it's really nice. I don't think luxury's going to disappear. I don't think it should.

Emmrich: When I'm in a hotel room, I want a really good bed and really good sheets. I don't care about the evening turndown service. You may eliminate that part of the luxury service, but give me a good pillow and I'm happy.

Reichl: But I would like to go back to Dana's point, which I think is really interesting and worth exploring, because I do think that at the end of this we are going to have a kind of new ethic of travel and a new morality. I think at the end of this period you're going to have people who have traveled differently, who were used to being taken care of perfectly, and who have now discovered adventure and discovered doing things for themselves and going places that were maybe not quite so comfortable, and they liked it. And they will be different people because of it. They were kept from anything that resembled authenticity and suddenly loved experiencing the places that they went to instead of being locked up in some pseudo-America in some other part of the world. I do think that a year from now, a year-and-a-half from now, we are going to see a new kind of travel in America.

Weissmann: Last year, there was consensus that green travel would forever change the way we travel and the way the travel industry operates. Do you still see that gaining in strength?

Nancy NovogrodNovogrod: I think that there's a backlash. We did our second "responsible travel" issue this past November, and we got letters complaining about it. People don't want to be preached to. Some of them care. Obviously, some of them are deeply, deeply concerned about global warming and other aspects of responsible travel. But they don't want to read about it.

Bellows: Responsible travel, sustainable travel, that has been our positioning for a long time. And I have to say that we've backed off in terms of how we prosecute that notion, because people really want to travel, and they don't want to think about how they travel. And for us to sort of hector them, it doesn't promote the advances we want to achieve. And so I agree with Nancy. I think it's got to a point now where people are going to travel within their means and within their ethics and within their sort of sensibility. And we all have to work through that.

Cowin: I think it's a little disappointing that on both sides of the equation it's so difficult. On the traveler's side, they're not asking for it -- they're not. It doesn't seem that travelers choose where to stay by whether it's a green hotel. And on the hoteliers' side, they need to limit what they do, because the traveler doesn't want it, or it stretches their finances, or they just don't want to do it. I feel like we're at a bit of a standstill, and yet we all know it's so important for the planet. So I feel like we've become selfish travelers.

Bellows: Correct me if I'm wrong, but don't you feel the hotel industry has really gotten the bug? They've really gotten religion, and they are on a plan to really be green in 10 years?

Weissmann: There are, if nothing else, economic motivations for them to do so. They can certainly reduce energy costs.

Willdorf: I don't see travelers choosing a hotel because it's LEED-certified. And I think that's kind of where green stories present a challenge. I'm not sure green or responsible travel is a motivating factor for many travelers. I think people want to be green, as Dana said. But in terms of the hotel industry, whether or not somebody has a low-flush toilet, that's not really exciting.

Reichl: In this economy, when it comes to travel, it is about pleasure. And [travelers] just want to be left alone. I will be responsible when I feed my family. And I will recycle. And I will save water. But when I am on vacation, leave me alone.

Emmrich: If they get a green hotel, fine, but it's not what they're looking for when they're booking. They may feel it's an added bonus, that they're doing some good for the community, but it's not how they choose a hotel.

Novogrod: On the other hand, I have to say that some interesting things are happening in terms of architecture and design with green building and green hotels. And many of them are kind of fresher in spirit and have a whole new style that is appealing and often lower-cost.

Willdorf: A place like the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco is a place that's sort of exciting in that way. It happens to be green, and that's the focal point. But it also happens to be really beautiful and exciting and a very interesting space.

Novogrod: Have you been?

Willdorf: I haven't yet. I'm from San Francisco. I'm really excited to go. You didn't like it?

Cowin: The central space is actually quite difficult. It's not enticing to navigate. The roof is an example of something we were all so excited about, because it sounds so great: They're plucking greens for salads from the roof. But there was not a lot of traffic up there on that roof.

Willdorf: I'd like to do an informal poll about how many of us have actually done carbon offsetting. Because that's something that you read about all the time, but I have to be honest, I've never done it myself.

Stoddart: It's so controversial, and no one can prove that it really does any good at the end of the day. There are two schools of thought on it, and they're really at loggerheads about this.

Stuart EmmrichEmmrich: I did, on Qantas to Australia, just because it was easy to do, and so why not? But I'm not sure it made a difference.

Stoddart: But you know, the other thing I wanted to point out, the five-star hotels are in a quandary as far as greening goes because they can't green too much or they'll lose their five-star rating. They can't have shampoo and soap dispensers mounted onto the shower walls.

Novogrod: My only concern is that I don't want us to deter hotels from their efforts, because I think that they are really good efforts, whether our readers want to know about them or not. I think it is the way of the future. And we should be supportive.

Reichl: I have hopes that they'll do it because it's good for the planet.

Stoddart: And good for their bottom line. That's what's going to drive it for many.

Bellows: The competitive edge in the next five or 10 years is going to trend toward green. I know from the [National] Geographic perspective, we're really trying to do that. It's very expensive. It's really a pain in the ass. But it's sort of where we're going. And I think the hotels -- I think you all know when you talk to hoteliers that they're all trying to move in that direction.

Willdorf: The question then remains: Are people going to pay more for a green hotel?

Stoddart: Some say they will, surveys always say yeah, but at the end of the day, I don't think so.

Bellows: If there's a $200 hotel that isn't green and a $200 hotel on the other side of the street that is, they may go there.

Weissmann: What about other aspects of what has been called "responsible travel"? We have a new president who has been trying to set a tone for the country that parallels the call for connections in place of excess. Voluntourism had been picking up steam. But like green travel, might this all go by the wayside, as well?

Bellows: I think you'll still see purpose-driven travel. There is still interest in the purpose-driven life. That's a really exciting opportunity, because it broadens what travel can be. It isn't just sitting on the beach having a martini. It isn't just going and seeing museums, it isn't just plunking down and having a vacation. It's having a meaningful interaction with a different place. And that's a really exciting opportunity for travel journalists.

Reichl: And I think it's only going to grow.

Stoddart: We did a story recently on travel as transformation, and we asked our readers to send in accounts of trips they had taken that truly transformed their lives. I mean, not just came back and said, "Wow, this was a cool place," but came back, changed their occupation, changed their spouse -- you know, whatever it happened to be -- and wonderful, wonderful stories came out of that.

I think voluntourism is really going to take off this year because it meets both the needs of the luxury traveler who wants to feel like they're giving something back to the communities they're visiting as well as just the do-gooders who are the 20-somethings with stars in their eyes who want to make a difference in the world.

Cowin: What we are talking about adds up to this notion of authenticity, that whether the economy is flush or not, the tide has changed in travel so that people really do want an authentic experience. And you can get it inexpensively or you can get it at a high price, but you're always trying to get something that's going to last.

Willdorf: I think the other thing we're going to be seeing a lot of in '09 is the learning trip, people seeking out experiences to better themselves. This is something that could be seen as luxury, or it could be seen as being for the value traveler. But it's the idea of betterment, and this speaks to the tone of the economy right now and also of the tone of the political environment. I think we're all kind of craving experiences that make us better people, and travel has the ability to do that for us. And that's travel at its most exciting and gratifying.

Bellows: Obama is going to set a different tone, but I think the economy is also going to set a different tone. And I think we're all at a point where our readers have all done things and seen things. Now, they want to make things happen.

Reichl: I'll be quoting that.

Weissmann: According to the U.S. Travel Association, there has been a persistent perception among visitors that as soon as they arrive in the United States and step into the immigration hall, they're in "Fortress America." There's now a new administration, but given that our security needs have not necessarily lessened, do you think that there are going to be any changes in the welcome that visitors receive in the U.S.?

Reichl: It's a great question, and my guess is no, it doesn't feel to me like we're going to welcome people with open arms. But you sort of feel like, if nothing else, could they at least make luggage carts free?

Weissmann: Right on.

Novogrod: I'm hoping that there is some better judgment ultimately about who is welcomed and who should not be. It's really been very harmful to us, some of these laws.

Bellows: Take Miami Airport, for instance. I travel on a Canadian passport, and coming into Miami, I don't feel welcome. I really don't feel welcome. There's just this sort of malevolent eye that's cast upon you that you just feel like you've got to defend yourself when you're coming through the border. I can't imagine what it must be like for somebody from the Middle East. I just can't imagine.

Emmrich: There will probably be no change. But, you know, if you travel to the U.K. you are grilled there, as well. I think France is surprisingly open. But I've had a hard time in Canada. I've had a hard time in Britain. I was once detained for an hour in Berlin because I had lost my e-ticket and they wanted me to prove how I got into Europe in the first place. So I think that every country has some policies, some more strict than others. And I think ours are pretty strict, and I think especially if you come from a Muslim country or you look a little different, you may be grilled much more by the American immigration officers than you think is appropriate. But I think it's not that much different than what you find in other countries.

Veronica StoddartStoddart: Well, even [visitors from] the Visa Waiver countries will have to be thumbprinted. That's not a very welcoming thing to do to people. I think people will be a little bit offended by the notion that they're being treated like criminals.

Weissmann: Given all the economic and political change that is occurring, what are the dangers and opportunities for your publications?

Willdorf: We've seen some of the highest numbers ever on our website. Ad sales are still a struggle, and I think they will be for a little while for all of us. But in terms of readership, I think our readership is really poised to grow at this moment. And I think that it's an exciting opportunity. Finding value in our environment isn't a compromise; it's actually a point of pride. As editors, we have a greater responsibility, now more than ever. People have limited resources, and when they take those two weeks and go off, they'd better have a good experience, because these people live to travel.

Novogrod: We also are seeing enthusiasm for travel. I thought it would drop off much more. One thing on my mind as an editor is to keep them engaged. If we don't address their particular interests right now, we can lose them. And what they seem to be more interested in -- it makes sense, and we're hearing it loud and clear -- is value. For our advertisers, it's a challenge because they don't really want to discount. Most of them have five-star properties, and they know that discounting is a slippery slope. And our readers are not just looking for news about rate cuts. But I am conscious of the mix more than ever.

Reichl: The thing that we find is that people still want to travel. They still probably want to stay in really nice places. And the thing that they'll trade down is the three-star restaurant for the great little bistros, the street food. We did 50 restaurants in Paris under $50, and our newsstand [sales] on that was amazing, because that's exactly what our readers want. Anybody can go find the three-star places, but they want us to do the footwork for them and say, you know, "Find this out-of-the-way place that nobody else knows about."

Emmrich: We're seeing a lot more traffic on the website than we were three months ago: people searching destinations, looking for back articles, looking for specific information about Paris or London or Miami or Las Vegas. And also, our ad pages are up, which is shocking for us. Sandals Resorts bought a strip ad on the cover of the travel section, and they signed up for the entire year. And every month, we get the list of who our advertisers are on the section front, and every month I look and expect to see that Sandals has pulled out. But they're still there. People often buy our space a week in advance, so we're very tied to the market. We were actually down for most of 2008. But the last month we've actually seen an uptick in advertising -- not huge by any means, but an increase.

Cowin: We also have seen some solid support from travel advertisers, the idea being that, you know, they have beds that need heads, right? They can't stop advertising, because the hotel rooms are still there and they need to get people excited. It's not like fashion, where you may just have a smaller spring collection.

Weissmann: Which destinations work best on a cover to help newsstand sales?

Novogrod: One of our most popular stories and cover lines in the last six months was emerging destinations, where the dollar still goes far. People want to experience the new, certainly.

Cowin: Although Food & Wine readers can't get enough of Italy.

Emmrich: France, definitely, as well.

Reichl: And America.

Cowin: America, America, America. Italy and America. Italy, Italy, Italy and some more America.

Keith BellowsBellows: America doesn't sell on the cover; at least not for us.

Novogrod: Not for me either.

Bellows: Italy is a slam dunk. France does well, but America -- if I put America on the cover, death-by-newsstand.

Novogrod: It's so true. But I wouldn't have thought that was true of your magazine, Keith.

Bellows: I think the reason is that people think of National Geographic exposing them to foreign, exotic destinations, so when we stay home, they don't trust us.

Willdorf: For us, France no, Paris yes. Costa Rica is a sure thing.

Bellows: Oh yeah, home run.

Stoddart: I think we go against the grain here because America really is most desired in our paper. They like the foreign destinations, as well, but we get more traffic with the domestic.

Emmrich: Do you have travel covers at Gourmet?

Reichl: We do. September was an all-Paris issue.

Emmrich: And how does that sell, compared to others?

Reichl: It depends what the destination is. But Paris was one of our best sell-throughs. We publish an all-travel issue, which used to be a hotel issue.

Weissmann: There are a few topics of keen interest to Travel Weekly readers that we haven't touched upon yet. For instance, what do you think will be happening with cruising?

Novogrod: Cruise capacity has increased so much that they're being hard hit, and it's going to get worse because they have so many new berths, so many new ships coming on line. They're in a vulnerable spot.

Emmrich: I wonder, though, if cruises actually might benefit from the economy. People are feeling like they want to go into a vacation knowing what their end cost will be, and they like the notion of a fixed price and a good deal. We will probably cover cruises more into next year, because I'm seeing a lot more interest in cruise packages from our readers.

Nina WildorfWilldorf: For our online readers, it was the single most talked-about trip that they're planning for '09. A fifth of all the people who responded to our question, "Where do you plan on going in 2009?" mentioned at least one cruise.

Stoddart: And the cruisers today are going to be future cruisers. This is an opportunity for them to have people test their product who maybe never would have previously. And there's a high, high repeat rate with cruising. So I think they may take the long view and work to bring in new people who may be future cruisers.

Emmrich: And they've gotten smarter about niche markets. There's been an explosion of smaller or medium cruise ships or cruise ships that offer adventure travel.

Cowin: They've not only expanded capacity; they've upped the ante and cut the price and are going to new destinations. And they've rethought the onboard offerings. There is some amazing [food and beverage]. Elizabeth Blau, who was responsible for putting incredible restaurants into Wynn Resorts in Las Vegas, is now working with [Celebrity Cruises].

Weissmann: Prices are dropping for tours, as well. Tour operators have been making efforts to change their products, to provide more authentic experiences for travelers. How do you and your readers view them these days?

Emmrich: I think people who, before, would not take a cruise or go on a tour are more open to the idea now.

Novogrod: I feel a sea change out there in favor of tours. In our January issue, where we always do a trends package, this year one of our key writers, Peter Lindberg, did a piece called "In Defense of Tourism," saying it was OK to do this stuff. I think the factors you mentioned, Arnie, are correct: authenticity, what they can give you, cost.

Cowin: How about simplicity?

Novogrod: Yes, ease. I think baby boomers are another factor. But obviously, it's not going to appeal to everyone.

Cowin: Tours have changed. It's no longer only the idea of people on a bus. You just don't want to be one of those people on the bus, and now you don't have to be.

Novogrod: There's much more. Whoever mentioned the word "connection," there's much more of an opportunity for that. The market that's feeding into the more traditional tours has also been doing bike and hiking and food tours and I-don't-know-what, art tours, for years.

Weissmann: Where do travel agents fit in? Is this a time when they can bring their expertise to bear, or are economic forces going to hurt them? Do you all use travel agents?

Ruth ReichlReichl: I definitely use a travel agent, and I think travel agents do give their customers the benefit of their expertise and have become more than just people who book travel. They actually tell you, "No, you don't want to go there. This is what you want to do. Let me give you some museum advice. Let me arrange." I'm sure what all of our readers really want are the things that money can't buy. That is the ultimate thing that travelers want. And that is increasingly being seen as something that, if you don't use a travel agent, you might miss out on.

Willdorf: Travel agents need to change and evolve as the challenges of travel are changing and evolving. What we really see is a need to help navigate the airport experience, the security, all of these things that are so onerous but are part of the travel landscape. That's where a travel agent can really be of help. When I have found them to be amazing was when my flight's canceled and they make it happen for me. But our readers consider themselves sort of travel agents. They love the research part of the travel experience, the pretrip experience. Researching stuff online is almost as much fun as the travel itself. It's where you get to discover things. And when you find them yourself, it's all the more gratifying, because you experience the process of discovery. So travel agents, I think, are less poised to have success telling people where to go; it's more about making it smooth. Help people have easy trips, and do all that behind-the-scenes work that makes it successful.

Novogrod: I don't agree. I think the good travel agents stand out. They're the ones who have survived so far. They have great opportunities because of their knowledge of destinations and the operations. They can do better than ever because people now don't want to make mistakes. And yes, travelers research online, and yes, they research in magazines and books. But they still want expert advice because, I think, spending money has become harder, and the need for a vacation and a good escape has become greater. People are looking for information that they really can trust more than ever. And ultimately, there are opportunities for experts.

Stoddart: Especially ones that really specialize in a region of the world or a particular destination or kind of travel. They really have what's so valuable right now. The kinds of questions I get most often are: "I want to go to Italy. Do you know an agent that specializes in Italy and can take me to the great places there?"

Cowin: That's a great advantage -- to have somebody who has been on the ground in a place, really knows it well and can help you navigate. And I agree, the niches are where I see the greatest value.

Bellows: The micro agency is really where it's going to be, the people who really, really mine the specialty.

Weissmann: Keith, do you use an agent?

Bellows: I don't, unless I'm going somewhere where I really feel like I need somebody who can give me the nuances. I am one of those people who books the flight, gets the first night, gets on the ground -- and then goes to a travel agent.

Weissmann: How about you, Stuart?

Emmrich: I don't use one. I love the research part myself. So I spend a lot of time going online and reading stuff and researching. But I do find that people who have found a good travel agent are loyal for life. I think after you've gone to a couple of bad ones, if you find someone who really knows the area or topic, or knows whatever you're looking for, then they're as good as gold. Once you find a good one, you're very loyal to them. But I like doing it myself.

Weissmann: Nancy, I know you have a travel agent feature every year.

Novogrod: Every September, our A-List of travel super-agents. And the people we list get enormous response from our readers.

Emmrich: And from us. We call them afterwards.

Novogrod: Right, from other magazines. And I call them, too. It suddenly occurred to me that we had a brain trust there, a huge one. And you're right, we break them down into specialty areas. We had 132 last year.

Emmrich: I shouldn't admit this, but when I started this assignment four years ago, we did our first annual "where to go" issue. We broke it down by region of the world, and I had the reporter call your travel agents to get their input about what was emerging, what hotels were opening up. They were a fantastic resource.

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