Photo Credit: Steve Hockstein

The 10th annualtravel editors roundtable


What happens when hard news threatens to overshadow inspiring travel stories? Has Airbnb beaten traditional hotels in the clamor for authenticity? When pursuing a perfect meal, who are consumers listening to: travel advisers or Instagram? And why do travel-focused television shows tend to be so boring?

At the invitation of Travel Weekly, America’s top consumer travel editors explored these and other issues affecting the traveling public at our 10th annual Consumer Travel Editors Roundtable, hosted by the Per Se restaurant in Manhattan last month.

Joining the discussion were Afar Editor in Chief Julia Cosgrove, New York Times travel section editor Monica Drake, Conde Nast Traveler editor in chief Pilar Guzman, Travel + Leisure editor in chief Nathan Lump, Saveur editor Adam Sachs and National Geographic Traveler editor in chief George Stone. Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann moderated.

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.

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Arnie Weissmann, editor in chief, Travel Weekly: With the exception of the New York Times, none of your brands are positioned primarily as news organizations. Yet from Zika to incidents of terror, 2016 has made it difficult not to factor headlines into travel planning. People typically come to your titles for travel inspiration, so how do you talk to your audiences about the news that might affect their travel decisions?

Nathan Lump, editor in chief, Travel + Leisure: We’re taking it on ourselves to make sure we’re not just following the hype that comes out of the 24/7 cable news channels. You do actually lean into the scariness in some ways but still try to be very measured and factual and help inform audiences about the actual risks.

We surveyed our audience on [the Zika virus] and most of them said it wasn’t really affecting their plans. I think that partially has to do with demographics and partially with psychographics. If you’re talking to an audience that is informed about what the actual risks of something like Zika are, then I think they’re going to be more realistic about whether it is pertinent to them.

I’m not trying to minimize Zika, but [the Chikungunya virus] hasn’t gotten near the attention that Zika has, but [it] has the potential to be a bigger problem for a larger number of people.

George Stone, editor in chief, National Geographic Traveler: We see the same thing among our readers. But at the same time, from a content standpoint, that gives us an opportunity to connect and deliver information in our voice to respond to concerns readers have. And so that’s one way we can initiate a feedback loop on a health concern, which isn’t normally what we’ve been doing. But we did run a story [on Zika] that did quite well. There is a place for that kind of content and to make those sorts of connections for our readers.

Unfortunately, Zika is part of a broader fear, or almost a meta-narrative about leaving home: that travel is scary and dangerous and if it’s not one thing, it’s another — a pickpocket, a disease. It’s unfortunate, but that’s why it needs to be addressed fairly clearly and directly, because the goal is to get people out to see the world, to equip them so they’re comfortable and happy doing that, and that they don’t see the world as a threatening place.

Monica Drake, editor, New York Times travel section: I think it’s interesting that even well-informed people have these perceptions of Zika that aren’t quite true. We’ve run a couple stories, one saying that you’ve probably been to a place where there’s been Zika before, so this is not a new illness. Again, not to minimize Zika, but dengue [fever] is more widespread and probably a greater risk to more travelers. I don’t think we’ve quite gotten a handle on how to convince people that, yes, this is a risk, but don’t lose your heads.

Pilar Guzman, editor in chief, Conde Nast Traveler: By and large, many of our readers are better informed, but I do think that people become stupid when they’re afraid. They lose sight of facts. It’s not that we shouldn’t take it seriously, but look to the statistics, always.

With the attacks, yes, Paris bounced back, but other places won’t. Look at Egypt, which is terrifying to me because I think it has a sort of a domino effect for that part of the world. Istanbul is going to have, I think, a lag in its bounce-back time because it’s more “other” than Paris.

Adam Sachs, editor in chief, Saveur: I think it’s an interesting point that you can be a part of the conversation and not just sort of sell the happy and allure. It’s a role that travel magazines and travel media play.

If you are headed somewhere, you want to know everything, the risks and the rewards. Travel is fraught, and sometimes it’s optional. People sort of forget how to be fully functioning adults when they’re ready to set off on travel. They don’t know if their phone’s going to work or if their ATM card is going to work. And maybe there’s one more scary thing in the news that they haven’t paid attention to, so when it’s finally time to put the family on the plane they kind of panic a little bit.

Arnie Weissmann of Travel Weekly.
Arnie Weissmann of Travel Weekly. Photo Credit: Steve Hockstein

Weissmann: I was speaking with some travel advisers who specialized in Egypt, and they said, in essence, that as a result of globalization, you have so many places to go that it’s easy for a traveler to conclude, “I’ll just let that region settle and go somewhere else.”

Lump: The advisers on our [editorial] board tell us that what happens now is, you go here instead of there, not that you don’t go anywhere. Although that’s really tough on the destinations that are affected, it is fundamentally positive and better than I think it was 10 or 15 years ago where people would say, “Things are unsettled. I’m not going anywhere.” We don’t see people shutting down and closing themselves off to the experiences.

Drake: And I wonder whether everybody’s so cautious because they have only two weeks, and you don’t want to waste your vacation on an experience that’s not ideal, that may be a little scary. And so I can understand the caution.

I feel a sense of responsibility to inspire people. I feel that’s our role. But I don’t know if anyone’s come up with a really credible argument for why you should spend your two weeks off doing something that’s completely terrifying to you.

Sachs: For me, that would be a yoga retreat.

Julia Cosgrove, editor in chief of Afar: A week of stand-up paddleboarding.

Weissmann: Looking at the flip side of news that’s concerning, is there perhaps some editorial opportunity that overlaps into being inspirational? For example, regarding climate change or other environmental threats, could you position a story in terms of “See it while you can?”

Cosgrove: Our next issue is our Exceptional Travel Experiences issue, and this year I’ve framed it around exactly that: experiences that you do need to have, but there’s a sense of urgency and timeliness to them. It may be environmental. It may be cultural. It may be political. Now is the time to go to Iran if you want to get there before there’s extensive tourism infrastructure. I think two years ago, I was talking about Myanmar, and I’m still talking about Myanmar. Bhutan. Zimbabwe.

There are many more places. I heard on NPR a few months ago that some climate scientist says that in X number of years there won’t be aspen trees left in Aspen. Well, maybe you should plan a trip to Aspen.
You’re right: It is the flip side, unfortunately, but sometimes something that’s predicted to happen could inspire travelers to get out there.

Pilar Guzman of Conde Nast Traveler, left, and Monica Drake of the New York Times.
Pilar Guzman of Conde Nast Traveler, left, and Monica Drake of the New York Times. Photo Credit: Steve Hockstein

Guzman: I wanted to see Palmyra [in Syria]. I think about it maybe once a day. It served as a wake-up call on many fronts.

Drake: I would like to go diving or snorkeling in Cuba, because apparently the reefs have been protected. I heard that the aquatic life there is stunning.

Lump: And the Arctic and Antarctic are changing very rapidly. We did a feature last year on what’s happening with food in Greenland, because they now have arable land and a growing season. We just did another feature a couple of months ago on the Northwest Passage. You can sail through it, at least part of the year, because of [melting sea ice]. It’s hard to know sometimes how to celebrate them, but they’re interesting experiences, and it’s worth bearing witness to this change. Still, they’re provoked by something that is fundamentally not positive.

Stone: For us, it’s not just disappearing ecosystems, but it’s also traditions in some places. Cultures, languages.

Lump: If you’re talking about urgency, if you haven’t seen the rhinos in the wild, now is an important time to think about doing that. Obviously, there are important efforts going on to try to help them, but I know a lot of conservationists who don’t believe that fight will be won.

Sachs: Is there a sense that building interest actually helps protect [the animals] in some way?

Lump: The tourism industry is very much involved in the preservation effort, and there are repopulations efforts going on. But a lot of people believe when you look at the rates of poaching and you look at what’s happening with poachers in Africa, the poachers will win this battle.

Weissmann: And some populations are so small that, genetically speaking, they’re museum pieces already.

Sachs: [Reacting to waiters bringing the first course] The optics here are awesome. We’re talking about the end of the world as we are served three kilos of caviar.

Guzman: … While Rome is burning.

Sachs: This is actually the very last tin of this caviar [laughter].

Waiter: You’ll be pleased to know this caviar is sustainable. And I’m really glad it is, because this could have been awkward.

Weissmann: There was a study that Tourism Cares, the industry nonprofit, did with Phocuswright that Travel Weekly published. It showed millennials leading the way in terms of being aware of where they travel, how they travel and wanting to have a sense of purpose integrated into travel. But the study also showed it goes beyond millennials. Has the industry caught up with consumers? Has sustainability been truly mainstreamed into the travel industry?

Cosgrove: About six years ago, there was a lot of greenwashing, and I’m not limiting that to travel and tourism. There are little things that virtually every hotel company does now, perhaps the little note about towels. But are there still places being built and developed by bringing in materials from 6,000 miles away? Absolutely. I don’t know that I see that stopping, really. But I do think that there’s much more awareness. If companies now have chief sustainability officers, that’s got to trickle down in some way.

Guzman: I also think that the aesthetic tide has turned toward a more indigenous wood that and handcrafted this. A little bit of fake it till you make it, which I think is actually OK. If you’re sort of shamed into it and you’re only doing it superficially, the other stuff will follow because then you don’t want to be the only hotel that isn’t doing those things. I think there is a bit of a pack mentality that is positive.

Drake: I do think that message is very mainstream, but I also think that the way a lot of people travel is they go to a resort [and] they want to forget about all of the problems in their lives and the world. They want to throw away the rules. It helps if they see a little note by the towels, but I don’t know that consumers are routinely probing much beyond that. There are people who really prioritize it, but the sort of general traveler is not necessarily really invested in sustainability.

Stone: Younger people aren’t invested in [some things] the way we are. We think luxury is defined by having three little bottles with lotion, shampoo and conditioner. If they are removed, I think people are capable of learning and adapting and still enjoying it.

Sachs: And if you’re not interested [in the environment] and aware, you’re not going to become interested and aware, enlightened, because you see the towel sign.

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Adam Sachs of Saveur. Photo Credit: Steve Hockstein

Lump: I was just at a hotel in California and was surprised that there wasn’t more attention paid to water-usage impact in the hotel, given the drought situation in California.

I think there are expectations around a lot of this, but I don’t know that it’s yet influencing purchasing decisions for the mainstream. They may have the expectation that hotels will give me the option of keeping my towel. And if they didn’t, I would think that was weird and maybe I wouldn’t like them as much. But I’m not necessarily asking that question before I go and making a choice based on that. I still think that that’s the part that isn’t mainstream yet: the part where it’s influencing the choice I’m making in advance.

Guzman: The choice tends to be more superficial. It’s sort of, do I like the vibe of a hermetically sealed resort, where I could be in Orlando or Cabo or Mayakoba? Where it wouldn’t make a difference? Versus a property that’s connected to a place. It’s, “Well, I like the vibe of this. Why? Because it’s more experiential.” What travel tribe are you in? Do you want to be connected or just want to escape?

Stone: Awareness of this exists in the social-responsibility models of corporations that are building hospitality centers around the world. So are they effectively conveying those models to the consumers so the consumer says, “OK, my only option isn’t use a towel or not use a towel, but I’m choosing this hotel chain because I think they’re doing something really good.”

Sachs: I think this is one instance where food can really be a beginning, a way for a consumer to see what’s real and what’s not real and make real choices, because if you go somewhere and you are interested in going on a farm tour or you want the food to be local, you are in some ways making an environmental decision.

Weissmann: You might have read that Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. announced a partnership with the World Wildlife Fund and that some of their goals addressed the sourcing of sustainable seafood. That seems a big step beyond “pick your towel up and put it on the rack.”

Lump: What’s interesting about Royal’s announcement is that I think traditionally those companies, or companies in that sector, have not been as attentive to some of this stuff, or at least publicly attentive to it, and so I think that’s an important shift.

Drake: If they made any efforts, they would be public. They would be bragging about it. I think the Royal Caribbean announcement is really striking because it’s so rare.

Weissmann: Did Fathom surprise you?

Lump: Fathom is a fascinating concept. It’ll all be borne out in the experience. I’m curious to explore that in terms of what it’s actually like. I think always the question around voluntourism in particular is: How real is it? How impactful is it genuinely? And how satisfying is it for a guest and as an experience? [With some voluntourism], folks do it and they feel like, “Well, I did something, but I don’t know what it actually, really meant."

Cosgrove: And I think it’s tied to the [Tourism Cares/Phocuswright] study, the travel with purpose. Here’s a company that’s acknowledging that and committing to that. I think you see it with Hyatt’s Andaz properties. They’ve angled a little bit more toward younger consumers who are interested in having local experiences, having meeting spaces where they can socialize. They don’t want to just go into a beige hotel room and sequester themselves and order a hamburger. If they’re going to be in the hotel or on the ship, they want to have these kind of authentic experiences.

Weissmann: For hotels, do you think that’s, in part, a response to Airbnb?

Guzman: Absolutely. Airbnb allows you to fully embed in a neighborhood that is not a hotel neighborhood. It’s a real residential neighborhood. And it feels like you’re living in London. So I do think that there is a sort of call-and-response as a result. All of these things are kind of happening at once.

Stone: When people choose Airbnb, they’re choosing not to have their experience of a place mediated by a hotel chain, or perhaps mediated by us, by media. So we’re also challenged by this, trying to make a direct line to our audience that feels real to them. People don’t want the clutter, but they still need the information. To be in the media in an increasingly less mediated world, that’s hard.

George Stone of National Geographic Traveler.
George Stone of National Geographic Traveler. Photo Credit: Steve Hockstein

Drake: Do you think people would embrace Airbnb if it cost the same as a hotel room? It gives you a different travel experience, but it’s really the cost factor.

Guzman: I don’t think that’s true about every place. I think people seek out, and pay a lot of money to Airbnb to stay in, a beautiful loft.

Sachs: Right. They might save but get a better place in a better neighborhood and a more authentic experience.

Lump: Both of these things are going on. I think there are some people who are doing it primarily because it’s cheaper. But about a quarter of our audience, a high-end audience, has used Airbnb with a 95% satisfaction rate. I think there’s been an assumption, particularly in the hotel industry, that high-end travelers aren’t using Airbnb because Airbnb is about cost, but obviously there is something else going on, and I think sometimes people just want to have a different experience.

Cosgrove: And there are more niche versions of Airbnb. Let’s remember HomeAway and Kid & Coe, which is aimed specifically at families who are kind of high-design-minded, and then OneFineStay. So I think they’re seeing a real market opportunity, and it’s not about budget at all.

We do these Afar Experiences, events where travelers pay to come with us into a city. We just came back from Dubai. We’ve done them in Cairo. We’ve done them in Johannesburg, Sydney, etc. And, by far, the favorite piece of it for attendees is home dinners. They engage with [the local host] and his friends, and I think that that’s a big part of the Airbnb connection for people. And that’s really hard to do when you’re going into a place where you don’t have friends or have never been there before. Anything that makes it easier to connect with people has value right now.

Weissmann: Adam, is there an Airbnb model for dining?

Sachs: Sure. There are different versions. There are ones that sort of operate as a kind of ad hoc dinner party. You advertise the theme for the evening and your services as a host, and if a certain number of people sign up, it happens. It’s an extension, sort of, of underground dinner clubs and pop-ups. There is this desire to have authenticity but also exclusivity. Which is interesting, because you’re sometimes chasing that and not quality.

This isn’t new technology, but I think one thing that I’ve caught up with is making decisions about food on the spur of the moment based on what looks nice and what looks sort of Instagrammable. I’m not going through the process of trying to remember who’s the local blogger or what’s the local magazine. I’m not even planning ahead, but rather using my location.

Lump: It’s a totally different kind of word-of-mouth from a traditional form of word-of-mouth, which was always people that you knew. And in many cases, a lot of those people you’re following on Instagram, probably you don’t know them, you’ve never met them.

Nathan Lump of Travel + Leisure and Adam Sachs of Saveur.
Nathan Lump of Travel + Leisure and Adam Sachs of Saveur. Photo Credit: Steve Hockstein

Weissmann: How do you square the power of Instagram recommendations with the concurrent revival of travel advisers?

Cosgrove: Well, it’s all curation, right? And that’s what everyone around this table does.

Guzman: It’s about time. Time is the ultimate luxury. You don’t want to mess around. If [it means] getting to the front of the endless museum line, you will pay for the convenience.

Lump: I talk a lot about the idea of value for time. It’s a key thing, at least for a lot of our audiences. They want to make sure it’s amazing from start to finish, and they want all the special things. And that, I think, is where advisers, in particular, need to play: just making sure it is like 100% great from start to finish.

Guzman: It all goes back to who you trust. I get morbidly depressed if I have a bad meal anywhere at any time.

Lump: Isn’t it the worst?

Guzman: The worst!

Sachs: And we’ve sold them on that vision of a perfect trip, right? We don’t generally write about the bumps in the road.

Cosgrove: But it’s just very phony perfect.

Stone: A travel experience is like a wavelength that does have highs and lows, because if you’re lucky enough to go out for a little bit longer than usual, you should be bored, frustrated, annoyed, lost some of the time, confused, hung over. It’s not like a constant ecstasy, because you’d be diagnosed. And medicated.

Sachs: But the highs are unnaturally high in travel precisely because they’re not guaranteed, because they’re in contrast to those moments when you feel lost, you’re doing the wrong thing or you almost go to the wrong restaurant, but you turn the corner and find this place you hadn’t heard of and it’s wonderful. I think that’s the real joy, and part of our job to sort of tell that real story. We don’t tend to write about all the truly bad places that you can squander a meal at, but that’s part of travel.

Stone: Look, travel experts don’t know everything in the world. I don’t. I mean, half of everything I do is wrong, especially the first time I go someplace. And that’s part of the journey.

Drake: I recently went to Mexico City. So my Spanish is super rusty, and I’m thinking, “I’m going to a city I don’t know. I’m bringing my family, I don’t know my way around, I don’t know anything about it.” And I had this moment, right before I left, of, “This is kind of a scary thing to do.” If even I feel like this, then imagine being an everyday traveler.

Cosgrove: But then how was your trip?

Julia Cosgrove of Afar.
Julia Cosgrove of Afar. Photo Credit: Steve Hockstein

Drake: Oh, it was fantastic. It was one of the most magical trips I’ve taken.

Weissmann: We talk about the highs of travel, the magic of it, but why do you think that travel, on television, can be so boring sometimes? Many of the great travel shows are not ostensibly about travel. They’re about food, like “Parts Unknown.” They’re about contests, like “The Amazing Race” and “Survivor.” We all love travel and can put why we do compellingly into words and pictures. Why does TV struggle?

Sachs: We might for ourselves truly, truly want to sit on a white-sand beach and not hear a sound, but that makes for pretty boring TV.

Lump: Entertaining programming is built on tension, and people working in the travel space have not traditionally embraced the idea of tension. So you end up with a lot of travel programming that’s like, “Here, I found these amazing things. Come with me and experience them.” And it’s boring.

Scripps Network owns the Travel Channel. They also own HGTV and Food Network, both of which are way, way, way bigger as channels. And when you think about it, travel is really fun. You know, what’s not fun? Home renovation is not fun. But there’s a lot of tension in it. Is it going to go well? Are they going to kill each other?

Drake: Yeah, and the only tension in travel is just so not fun that you don’t want to revisit it. You don’t want to go through the whole airline boarding process. “I thought I was going to get [TSA] PreCheck.” That’s where the tension is.

Sachs: There’s nothing more tense than the waiting: “Will I get an upgrade?”

Drake: What was that show where people end up in a new house? It was a really popular show.

Cosgrove: “House Hunters?”

Drake: I watched it three times. I cried. I cried every time I saw it.

Sachs: And I cried when I didn’t get my upgrade.

The conversation continues: Read more from the travel editors roundtable here.