Arnie Weissmann, editor in chief, Travel Weekly: So to shift a little bit, the November elections are front of mind for pretty much everyone.
Julia Cosgrove, editor in chief, Afar: Arnie, you are bringing us down again.
But it's not just Americans; the whole world is watching what's going on here. So in what ways does who is president affect Americans as they travel?
Cosgrove: We can all agree that travel is the best antidote to fear, and with all of the crazy fear-mongering and vitriol that's happening right now in the media, travel is more important than ever. Raising children who are going to be the next global citizens, who are going to approach the world in an open-minded way, is more important than ever. And I remember when George W. [Bush] was president, traveling around Europe and seeing Americans put Canadian flags on their backpacks.
Adam Sachs, editor, Saveur: There was a lot of explaining.
Cosgrove: I don't think that that's happened in the last eight years.
Nathan Lump, editor in chief, Travel + Leisure: It has been so great to travel for the Obama years.
Lump: And it's been so great to go around the world and people are like, "You guys did something right!"
Pilar Guzman, editor in chief, Conde Nast Traveler: This is true.
George Stone, editor in chief, National Geographic Traveler: It is weird when you meet people who somehow know more about American politics than you. But then, they're just like, "What is this Trump? What is that?" And you're like, "I don't know." And they're basically saying, "What's wrong with you?"
I'm sorry, that's what it is internationally. It's weird. And especially coming off a period that's been strong in a lot of ways. When we discover that people around the world have a stronger sense of what might be better here in this country than we do. It's alienating to them.
Arnie Weissmann. Photo Credit: Steve Hockstein
Weissmann: Are you all familiar with the concept of the election year curse in the travel industry? That travel is always down during election years?
Lump: People are saying it's soft right now, that's what I hear from the industry. You could argue that that is driven very much by China, and what's happening there. So I don't know if that's election year curse or not, but there certainly is some softness.
Weissmann: Sometimes I would think it should be the opposite: It would be a great year to escape all the political noise. But last week I watched primary returns from my cabin on a cruise ship; there is no escape.
Well, perhaps one place: This is the centennial year of the National Park Service. How are you all approaching it?
Stone: We have an unfair advantage. We are so knee deep in this at National Geographic. We dedicated our first complete issue to National Parks in, like, 1916. So again, there will be another complete edition dedicated to National Parks this fall.
As far as the market and audience [of National Geographic Traveler], we've grown together. Our readers love national parks. We have books and we have digital travel planners coming out. And of course, we have all sorts of feature stories. The trick is to find a story that people don't feel that they've read a million times before. For Geographic, it's a very exciting year.
Weissmann: Are you going to be focusing on the known parks, or the lesser-known parks?
Stone: Well, that's a question that also has to do with travel and tourism patterns. We can talk about the origins of the National Park Service, of course, but the question is what new stories are you going to share, and where are some interesting places for people to go? Not everyone can go, for instance, to American Samoa, but that's a story. And that's not Yellowstone, which will be everywhere. There are more than 400 [parks], so you've got a lot of different options. Our goal is to tell a new story, keeping travel patterns in mind and maybe lighten the load on some of the most popular parks.
Monica Drake of the New York Times. Photo Credit: Steve Hockstein
Monica Drake, editor, New York Times travel section: I’m trying to think of what I can say [that’s not proprietary]. We have pretty solid plans. I can say that we're going to have a package; I don't know if it's going to be an entire issue, but we're going to cover it significantly. And I do think that there are national parks that people don't even know about. I think it's safe to say that everyone is interested in bringing out some of those.
Guzman: Even people who are not given to traveling to national parks consider it a bucket list item. So how do you appeal to people who are intimidated by the experience because they're not campers? How do you, from a service perspective, navigate rather than glorify? Glorifying is easy. But how do you help the people who say, “I want to tick this off my bucket list, but I'm not that guy, so I how do I do it?" That's a refrain that we hear. Because the people who do it regularly don't need us.
Cosgrove: In our issue devoted to solo travel, we actually shot our cover at Arches [National Park in Utah]. We have a package that's sort of artists’ take on the national parks throughout the years; the national parks as muse. And then we'll be doing a lot more digitally, in mobile.
Sachs: We'll probably do something online, sort of planning an interesting eating tour.
Weissmann: Is there a park that you personally haven't been to but which would be on your personal bucket list?
Cosgrove: I'd like to see Bryce. I'd like to see the Everglades.
Lump: I haven't been to Glacier, and it’s losing its glaciers. So, talk about urgency!
Guzman: I've been to Glacier, and sort of grew up at Yosemite, but I haven't been to Yellowstone.
Lump: The diversity of the park system, the monuments, I’ve been to some really fantastic places, like Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, which is really hard to get to, but it's so extraordinary, it's so great. And part of the reason it's great is that there's no one there. You're walking around an ancient Anasazi City, and you're by yourself, and it's so ghostly and interesting. And Volcanoes is amazing.
Weissmann: Let's shift gears again. Most of you have seen how Crystal Cruises has been diversifying its brand into private jets, into riverboats, into, it seems, any place they can think of. Virgin is another brand that appears to have a lot of elasticity in travel. Hotels, planes, now a cruise line coming on and soon, outer space. Can you think of other travel brands that have a quality that could transfer from what they’re doing now into another travel vertical?
Julia Cosgrove of Afar. Photo Credit: Steve Hockstein
Cosgrove: I’m going to pull back from travel for just a second because I think five years ago you wouldn’t have guessed that Netflix and Amazon and Hulu would be producing and distributing original content. And so I think a lot can happen in five years. Could Ritz-Carlton be a cruise line? Absolutely, if it makes financial sense. Aman has very small ships now. Viking, an ocean liner. If you’ve built a brand that people have a really, really strong affinity toward, why not, if it makes financial sense?
Stone: If you can pull it off. It takes knowledge and expertise to do all of these different things, including produce travel magazines or content that’s reliable. It’s relevant, because there are cruise lines, hotels, whatever, that produce travel content. That could be seen as a challenge to us. Can they sustain producing quality content that enhances the brand and connects with readers? Maybe, if they poached all of us. But at a certain point these different sectors exist as specialties for a reason.
Weissmann: So you need to make sure you have the core competencies before branching into something?
Stone: Or you need to make the right partnerships.
Sachs: And, I think, know what consumers want from you, what they really value. To Julia’s point, no one would have predicted that Apple would be a telephone company. It would be making mobile phones.
Weissmann: Or Google, cars.
Sachs: I think you have to get into something where consumers trust you in a certain way. Like Uber getting into food delivery; I think that makes sense because it’s all about ease.
Guzman: What you said about content, I feel the same way. Sure, there are any number of hotel brands that put out a lovely looking publication. Whether or not it’s credible and people follow the recommendations or care is another question. There’s a fine line between a vanity project and, “Yeah, I can play in this content space.” I’ve seen wonderful executions and spectacular failures. I also think, maybe, the transition from hotel to cruise is perhaps not as great a leap as hotel to content. From hotel to cruise, you’re still playing in the hospitality space. Even with an airplane. Of course, they have their particulars, but it is all hospitality.
Drake: I guess it seems like I don’t know what the rationale was for Crystal entering the air travel industry. That’s an interesting decision. It’s a difficult space to enter.
Guzman: But I also think the argument for some of the smaller vessels is that they can go places that you can’t get to on land. It’s about access. And I think that that becomes the thesis. That becomes the common denominator.
Drake: So you’re not going to necessarily fly New York to L.A. on Crystal?
Cosgrove: I would imagine that [Crystal’s diversification decision] came from a lot of market research that showed that the air travel to get to the ship was a major pain point for their consumer.
Lump: But Crystal Air is interesting because they are owning and operating their aircraft. So when Four Seasons goes in with their private jet venture, [the planes are] owned and operated by TCS, who they contract with to do that, and which has core competency in those experiences. So Crystal is doing something actually quite ambitious by getting into that business with ownership in a way that other folks have partnered to do.
Weissmann: Going in a different direction: A young woman I sat next to at an event told me she was a fashion blogger. She said she has a friend who takes a photo of her in a different outfit every day, and she tweets it and pins it and posts it in various social outlets, saying something like, “I’m so lucky, I just found this wonderful dress from…” — and she names a merchant or boutique. All the clothes are sent to her by different manufacturers and stores. She’s doesn’t feel a strong need to be transparent about her relationships with the people who are providing the products. Similarly, there are travel bloggers who seem to operate under different journalistic ethics or approaches. Do you think audiences care about transparency in these instances?
Guzman: I think there’s like a baseline assumption that it’s going on and [her followers] don’t care.
Sachs: And you said a different set of journalistic ethics; not to be too cynical, but different from what? From 10 years ago? Different from what we’re all grappling with now?
Guzman: A matter of degree.
Nathan Lump of Travel + Leisure. Photo Credit: Steve Hockstein
Lump: I also think the consumer, her audience, looks at it a little bit differently. I think they view her as someone who brings things to life for them so they can decide whether they like or not. If you asked her audience if they would go out and buy every outfit that she posed in, they would say, “No, I’m interested in the ones that I like.” And so I think it’s a slightly different idea about the role of the interlocutor in this in some ways. These folks don’t necessarily occupy the same space we think we occupy.
Weissmann: Is there an overlap in audience?
Lump: One hundred percent.
Drake: I do think that people assume a level of collusion that actually doesn’t exist. Some of our readers certainly do. They see links that this person placed an ad on this page and, interesting, you’re doing a story on them. And not realizing I have no idea what’s running in different sections. I don’t even see the ads for my own section. So I think in a way that the audience might already be there, sadly.
Cosgrove: I was speaking to a group of journalism students at San Francisco State University and I asked them, “Do you guys know what sponsored content, branded content is?” I think those are the common parlance terms for it these days. And they all did. It surprised me that they were that savvy and aware of the differences between pure editorial and sponsored content.
Lump: Because [sponsored content is] basically where half of them are going to get jobs.
Drake: I will say that it’s harder to sometimes find new writers because they’ll send pitches and don’t realize that you’re not supposed to take things and then offer to sell them to us. And apparently there’s someone who is approaching a lot of our freelancers saying “Hey, if you put a link to one of my clients in your story I’ll pay you in addition to the fee that you’re getting from the Times,” which is infuriating. Their response has been to forward his email to me, but I don’t feel like that’s something that would have happened even five years ago. It’s so brazen.
Sachs: I’m surprised to hear that. I’ve never seen that.
Guzman: It’s more evolved. I think it’s always been there, especially in this industry. More than many others, in fact.
Pilar Guzman of Conde Nast Traveler. Photo Credit: Steve Hockstein
Lump: But I think in terms of the talent that we all work with, it’s tough because the industry is not what it once was. You can’t make a great living doing this work as a freelance writer.
I do think that there’s the gray areas that are prevalent in our industry and are there for many people, and they all come down to money. They all come down to the fact that, fundamentally, at some point, people don’t really pay for content. And that’s sort of half of the general media equation today, where people don’t pay for content in a large and widespread manner. And all of the stuff that’s happening comes out of that.
Sachs: I think if you’re looking for a positive, it’s that the audience has evolved and grown and educated themselves in certain ways, and they’re making decisions. They’re deciding. They’re looking at Instagram, at a beautiful hotel, and if the production value is very good, they get it that someone was paid to take that picture or some exchange happened. But they can also look at the hotel and say, “Is this right for me?” Or is this cafe or is this experience for me? And they’re using it in conjunction with the media we produce. It’s not in a vacuum.
Cosgrove: I mean you could look at Instagram as one really brilliant content-marketing tool.
Cosgrove: And I would say our partners who are thinking about it that way are the shrewdest and smartest in their approach to it.
Lump: And I do think the consumer has evolved in some ways. I think they’re savvier consumers of content than they used to be. I think they also look at journalistic entities in a slightly different way than they used to. They look at their other content sources in a different way than they used to. And it’s all much more fluid than it once was. People pick and choose what matters to them as opposed to having their one trusted source that they always go to. If their one trusted source doesn’t have what they need, then what do they do? We don’t live in that world. Maybe we never did, but we certainly don’t now. And so, I follow folks on Instagram, for instance, who do product placement all of the time. I don’t really care. I may choose to ignore or not ignore those moments that are less authentic.
Cosgrove: Or you may see some shoes that they’re talking about and go buy them.
Lump: Probably most of us at the table will sell placements in Instagram feed to sponsors. We clearly label those posts, for instance. We have about a million and a half followers on Instagram, one of our most engaged channels. And when we post sponsor shots — which, again, are clearly labeled in our feed — as long as they’re good, they get the same number of likes, the same number of comments as ours do. It’s all about the quality of the content, but if it’s good, people don’t really care. They don’t care that Santorini or Greece bought that spot.
Stone: That should be part of the value that the brand sees in coming to us, and that that's the deal. If they start with the product, it doesn’t end as a product. It goes from product to content to experience, even in a very small framework like Instagram. But if it begins and ends as only product…
Cosgrove: Right, there’s nothing there.
Sachs: There’s no value to it.
Stone: So it is content, story, experience, something or other, but that’s part of the relationship. The dynamic in working is to make sure that you’re communicating with the brand. And that they’re remembering why they’ve come to you. And that you are also sharing your readers with them. And so if your first responsibility is to the readers, you think that this is a reasonable share, and you’ve invested in it editorially. That, I think, is fair.
Cosgrove: And if you can help them tell their message better for your readers, then that’s better all around.
Stone: Yes, it is. And I do think that a lot of the time we content people, we editors, tell a brand story better than they tell it themselves.
Lump: It’s why they now hire us. That’s why those journalism students will end up working with brands, at least some of them, because they’re trained in a different kind of storytelling that’s effective.
Weissmann: OK, we’re at the point in the roundtable where I need to know where you’re all going this year.
Sachs: This is the round where I get very depressed. You guys all wheel off 84 places.
Adam Sachs of Saveur. Photo Credit: Steve Hockstein
Cosgrove: I’ll go first. I’m going to Sweden and Denmark. I put out an informal poll in an editor’s letter a few issues ago seeking advice of where to go with a toddler, and Sweden and Denmark won. And it’s great because I haven’t been to Denmark in many years.
Guzman: How old is your toddler?
Cosgrove: She’s 15 months. We’ll be there in May.
Weissmann: Where else, Julia? That’s surely not all.
Cosgrove: Well, that’s my fun leisure trip. I’ll probably also be in Italy and France and London and possibly all over South America before the year is out. And a lot of trips to New York.
Guzman: The Dominican Republic just for two days. And Madrid, Gascony, possibly the Medoc. We have a big Asia trip: Hong Kong, Singapore, the usual suspects for now. And possibly Botswana.
Weissmann: Are those new to you?
Guzman: I’ve never been to Gascony.
Drake: I’m doing a bunch of West Coast travel. If anyone has any suggestions on where to go camping in California, let me know. I’m taking both Southern and Northern California trips. We have a lot of domestic travel. Last year I went to Antigua for the Carnival; I might go back. I haven’t planned my big trip yet.
Stone: I’m getting married in Asheville in July. My partner’s family is from Asheville, so it’s going to be a very beery event. We had thought of all of the different places we could go, then we thought what a pain it is to plan a wedding. And then we thought of Chris’ mom, who can do a lot of that work for us. So we don’t know where we’re going to go on our honeymoon yet, but I have a feeling that it’s going to be California because this year I think it will be very nice to savor and enjoy things that are a little bit nearer. So I’m thinking Big Sur for the honeymoon.
Guzman: Which isn’t very big.
Cosgrove: Post Ranch [Inn, in Big Sur]?
Guzman: Or Ventana Inn?
Stone: Or just any place without WiFi.
Weissmann: A honeymoon may be the one time when everyone understands you aren’t going to be getting back to them right away. Nathan?
Lump: I’m trying to visualize my calendar. I’ll be in Berlin, Dallas and in India later on in April. I’ll be in China in May. June I will be in Aspen and in Miami for a little bit. It starts to get a little bit more fun after that. I’ll be in France and Italy some time before the end of the summer. Egypt. I’m trying to get Ecuador in before the end of the year, maybe back to Africa for the end of the year if I can. And probably there’s some Mexico and other things a little closer to home in there, too, business trips to other places.
It was all designed to make Adam feel really bad. (Group laughter.)
Sachs: Where am I going? I’m going to Charleston tonight for a wine festival that we’re involved with down there. I’m going to Australia with my friend Peter. I went to L.A.. Cleveland. Louisville, Kentucky. London. That’s all I can remember right now.
Weissmann: That’s better than last year. Is anyone going to a national park?
Cosgrove: We’ll probably go to Yosemite at some point.
Lump: I was just at Bryce.
Stone: I can walk to the [National] Mall.
Weissmann: George, let me ask you, there’s been three editors in chief at National Geographic Traveler in 18 months…
Stone: But who’s counting? I was about to talk about happy things. Now this.
Weissmann: You have a new owner, as well. Can you tell us what’s going on?
Stone: Dream, plan, go, share. Our travel mantra. National Geographic Traveler has been around 33 years. And it’s evolved along with the relationship of our travelers. Our readers originated as National Geographic readers, which partly explains our heavy emphasis on parks.
George Stone of National Geographic Traveler. Photo Credit: Steve Hockstein
We have the same challenges that every other travel platform has now. A number of them have to do with identifying content that is telling a story that’s attractive to a reader right now. That’s different than under the strongest editor in the past. It’s different today. So our challenges really have to do with talking about how we originate story ideas. In the past, it had been a print-first idea. My background is in magazines, and, in fact, my first job was at Saveur. That was my experiences, you know, that beautiful relationship of content and print and photography that’s rich and engrossing.
But nowadays and for very good reasons, when you think about stories it’s not about how beautiful this is going to look on paper. It’s about how are you going to tell stories you love that are relevant right now, and then how are you are distributing them across all of these various platforms? So Nat Geo Travel is a dominant player in social media. We have just about 14 million followers, and on Instagram we have 9 million. So that means that a lot of the decisions we make, at least in the ideation of content, have to do with what works in social.
But we don’t just want to have a social idea that’s disconnected from our other platforms, digital or print. And actually, even beyond print. We have books, and live events at National Geographic. And some of our writers go on National Geographic expeditions to lecture. So what I’m doing is part of quite a large effort to pull together the strengths of National Geographic and to build up National Geographic Travel as a content platform and National Geographic Traveler as the print expression of that content. Have it all come together, really express the values of National Geographic today and meet our readers, our audience, where they are and help them get to where they want to go.
Weissmann: Are there any shifts that are a direct result of the change in ownership?
Stone: To tell you the truth, we’re learning as we’re going. This is my fourth week in this position. It’s my 18th year at National Geographic. We're learning. And lot of that learning is good. In fact, most of [the changes] probably [will occur] because Geographic had been thought of as an organization, often driven by a nonprofit mission. And that sometimes dictates the choices you make. Some of the time, those choices aren’t always the best ones.
Now, it’s we’re structured much more like a media company, a corporate media company. We’re leaner. I would say, through and through, the staff is aware of the market impact of editorial or content decisions. And maybe that’s good, and maybe that’s not good if a young staffer who is 25 is thinking about brand relationships and trying to think of strategies for engagement. However, that’s where we are.
We’re a brand. We think like a brand. The staff understands that, and we’re trying to discover what that can mean. We’re approaching the market more forcefully, and we’re learning as we’re going.