“There was a lot of anxiety,” said Jesse Ashlock, Condé Nast Traveler’s U.S. editor, of producing a travel magazine and website when large swaths of the world went into lockdown back in March.
According to airlines and the TSA, air travel plunged by around 96 percent at the beginning of the pandemic and right away Condé Nast Traveler witnessed a drop in the number of readers visiting its website to plan a trip because they weren’t going to be vacationing anytime soon.
“We were in a doubly challenging position because we’re in media and media was hit hard and we’re in travel and travel was obviously hit hard,” continued Ashlock. “We were scared. It’s like what are we going to do. I think everybody was.”
While The New York Times made the decision to temporarily ditch its Sunday travel section and replace it with an “At Home” supplement throughout the duration of the pandemic, for those publications whose main purpose is travel, a complete change of topic wasn’t an option. Condé Nast, whose staff were all working from home like much of the media industry, also did not want to reduce Traveler’s eight issues-a-year frequency.
The answer, it turned out, was to quickly pivot into two categories: in-depth COVID-19 coverage as it related to travel (up to date information on all the new rules and regulations) and pure armchair escapism (“The 50 Best Travel Films of All Time”; “41 Movies to Watch If You’re Dreaming of Italy”; 36 Vintage Photos of New York City”; “101 Ways to Travel Without Leaving Your House”). The impact of COVID-19 on people in the travel industry also became a bigger part of its coverage, with Traveler running a series of first-person articles like “We Opened a Boutique Hotel in February, and Now We’re 100% Vacant,” published in April. “When you’re in a situation like this there’s always the opportunity to innovate,” said Ashlock.
As for print, the schedule was shifted to be heavier later in the year, while still sticking to eight issues to give its partners more lead time.
The content play paid off, with website traffic picking up by 44 percent between March and April. While it didn’t fully recover immediately from March’s bottoming out, Ashlock pointed to “a really, really strong upward trajectory in April, May and June.”
But back then, Ashlock never imagined that almost one year later he would still be pivoting. That realization arrived during the summer, even though that period marked a return in interest from the magazine’s audience in its core travel content. More recently, some countries have imposed more travel bans as new strains of COVID-19 have been discovered in the U.K., Brazil and South Africa.
“One of the things that was starting to become clear at that time in the summer that we didn’t understand at the beginning was the vaccine wasn’t going to be the silver bullet,” he continued. “There was this whole second act of vaccine distribution that we’re now living through that was going to prolong the situation that we’re in. Once we were three or four months in we started thinking about this as more of a long-term strategy.”
In addition to COVID-19 coverage (engaged minutes in air travel were up 101 percent in 2020) and armchair travel, that included thinking about how values have changed and crafting content that reflects the reason for traveling, such as visiting families, which many readers have cited as being the first trip they’ll take when they can travel again. “That’s going to be a really important story for us. Not just until there’s widespread vaccination and we’re not wearing masks anymore, but even beyond that as the travel industry rebuilds itself. I think we’ll boomerang back and demand will return, but the reasons for the demand won’t be exactly the same as it was in 2019 and before that,” Ashlock said.
It also recently launched the “1 in 10 Project,” a new platform that takes its name from the one in 10 people worldwide who work in jobs connected directly or indirectly with tourism such as taxi drivers, bush guides, sommeliers and flight attendants, sharing their tips with readers for life after the pandemic.
And for those who are taking trips, its New Standard section, launched in September, recognizes travel brands and providers who are meeting travelers’ concerns. Still, Airbnbs have been the preferred option by far, with unique views of rentals’ stories jumping 221 percent between January and October 2020, according to the publisher.
Julia Cosgrove, editor in chief of San Francisco-based independent travel magazine Afar, was on a press trip organized by Visit California, a travel and tourism agency for the state, in southern California in early March when speculation mounted that it would soon be heading into lockdown. She rushed back to her home in the Bay area and described the next few weeks as “a form of whiplash.”
“What we quickly realized was that people needed news so our role shifted. I think we’ve always been the inform, inspire, educate guide to this, but we really doubled down on that inform piece of it,” she said, adding that there was still some “fun” content to both entertain and distract readers, such as a social media travel at home challenge where people could try to recreate certain photos and videos by imagining they were anywhere else than in their small apartments and homes.
“We crafted the strategy as we were going by seeing what is the information that people needed to know, what were the consumer ombudsman stories that they were desperate to find and reporting that deeply,” she added. “It’s a crazy thing that happened during the pandemic. When travel was at a standstill we were able to grow our audience across platforms by 130 percent from September 2019 to September 2020 and I really do think that that’s testament to our news team.”
More recently, Afar published its annual “where to go” issue of the print magazine, which pre-pandemic was published six times a year, but released just three issues last year due to COVID-19 weighing on both advertising and production. Afar is aiming for four issues in 2021, with the hope of a return to six in 2022.
“Print was a challenge because of the long lead time and just the situation changing as often as it was it didn’t seem like a ‘where to go’ package that was built around new hotel openings or art exhibits would make much sense for this year just because of the continued uncertainty. So instead I would say we leaned more into that very inspirational piece of travel,” she said.
As for Travel + Leisure, which timeshare company Wyndham Destinations recently acquired from Meredith Corp. for $100 million, it hit a record high of 13 million unique visitors in November, according to editor in chief Jacqui Gifford, who added that it is the only monthly travel title in the U.S. She believes this was due to her staff finding creative ways to cover travel, such as an article on virtual tours of museums around the world, one of its most viewed stories in 2020.
Gifford also said that while many people are unable to travel currently, they still want to read about where they could go in the future. “No matter what, people are hopeful about travel and whether or not they’re going some place at this exact second it doesn’t really matter because they still want to read about the world and we’re able to provide that through using local photographers and contributors. And then on our site we’re giving them constant updates about what things are opening, sadly what things are closing, how travel is changing day to day.
“In 2021, one of the big keys I believe is universal testing and how that’s going to be one of the ways that people get comfortable traveling again is knowing when they set foot on a plane everybody on that plane has been tested and has tested negative for COVID-19. So we’re able to cover all that,” she continued. “It’s just a radically different world and a radically different way of looking at travel than what we did last year, but we’re still doing it. We’re still here. I have a team that’s really dedicated to this mission and just giving people ideas.”
As well as switching up its content, Travel + Leisure has branched out away from traditional print and its website, launching a podcast focused on diversity and inclusion in travel called “Let’s Go Together” and a luggage collection in partnership with Travelpro.
Condé Nast Traveler has also delved deeper into e-commerce, like many of its sister brands, with affiliate links in stories such as “Boots for Day Hikers and Mountain Trekkers Alike” and “13 Travel Experts on the Luggage They Swear By.” According to a representative for the publication, engaged minutes in e-commerce content in 2020 were 248 percent higher than in 2019.
But while all the publications saw total audiences increase in the year to September 2020 versus the same period in 2019 despite travel nosediving, according to the latest available data from the Alliance for Audited Media, how has advertising fared?
Pam Drucker Mann, Condé Nast’s global chief revenue officer, said that while 2020 was a challenging year for its partners in the travel industry “for obvious reasons,” there was a rebound in the final quarter.
“I’m optimistic that this momentum will continue into 2021, especially now that we have a better idea of what to expect, a new [presidential] administration in office, and vaccine distribution underway. All of this changes how travel advertisers are thinking: they don’t want to wait too long to get back into the marketplace, but they also don’t want to get out there too quickly,” she added. “I anticipate 2021 and 2022 will be huge for brands like Condé Nast Traveler that have already established authority and trust among consumers. Consumers are going to be looking for answers — when it’s safe to travel, where they should go, and how to stay safe once they’re there. It’s up to us to help them answer those questions as they navigate reentry.”
Meredith, which is still handling operations such as ad sales for Travel + Leisure, did not provide anyone to comment, but in December Doug Olson, president of its magazines division, told WWD that while it’s no secret there has been a decline, “we think that we’ve been a good partner to our advertisers. we’ve been a good publisher to the consumers that buy our products and when it comes back online we’re ready to go.”
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