How travel operators achieve digital leap? (part 1)

How travel operators achieve digital leap? (part 1)

How we discover, dream, and plan vacations has changed radically as print has given way to digital and desktop gave way to mobile. Lost in much of this are the gatekeepers — legacy print brands on newsstands and in bookstores — which were slow to adapt to the changing media landscape.

Two decades ago, travelers had limited choices when they wanted to research their upcoming vacation. They could open their local newspaper’s travel section, buy a glossy magazine, call a travel agent, request brochures from a resort, or even experiment on their dial-up modems with slow and confusing online booking tools.

Travel magazines, newspaper travel sections, and printed guidebooks represented the most trusted and popular way for travelers to find inspiration for their upcoming vacations and bring crucial information on the road during a trip.

Over the last 10 years travel magazines have shrunk in size while the global guidebook market has been halved as consumers have moved to websites and apps for their travel fix. Today, consumers can turn to TripAdvisor, Google, Yelp, online forums, social media, YouTube, and countless other content sources.

Consumer travel brands have had trouble cracking the digital space, for reasons both institutional and determined by the shifting media marketplace.

Print consumer media, in particular, has been most powerfully disrupted. As legacy consumer travel magazines withered from a lack of advertising, and staff cutbacks in the wake of the Great Recession, mobile and digital content became more popular among consumers. These brands did a poor job of appealing to readers on new platforms, despite their outsized influence and recognition among travelers.

Why have consumer travel media brands had so much trouble evolving? Skift spoke to editors, marketers, and travel media experts about the past, and future, of print travel media’s digital evolution.

Put simply, print brands were slow to adapt to the digital media ecosystem in ways that other media companies, particularly in the finance and general interest areas, were not. And the effect of abundant, free online content, particularly from sites like TripAdvisor, helped change the behavior of travel consumers while print brands struggled to move online.

“I don’t actually think [print travel media] ceded [authority] to TripAdvisor,” said Barbara Messing, TripAdvisor’s chief marketing officer. “They ceded it to the people, the authority of millions of travelers who post their opinions on TripAdvisor. We create the platform so that people could share. That is the power of TripAdvisor. It’s the community that is our power, not necessarily the corporate entity, and the fact that we created a platform where it was really easy to share, really easy to post photos, and we created it in such a way that people could find what they were looking for.“

Print travel media has gone digital, but not without growing pains. How do you reinvent a business model that has existed for decades, while wrestling with the constant churn and change in the digital media marketplace?

“The single biggest challenge that we face is exactly that,” said Nathan Lump, editor in chief of Travel + Leisure. “And I think successful digital operations are very clear about what they don’t do as well as what they do. There’s essentially a well that has no bottom and so you can’t fill it with everything. You have to be really purposeful about what you’re making.”

THE CASE OF CONDÉ NAST TRAVELER

It can be instructive to look back to the mid-2000s, when it became clear that digital disruption was changing the business model for media companies. Some, like The New York Times, were quick to adapt to the digital space, while others lagged behind. Magazines, in particular, had trouble conceiving of a way to move away from selling expensive print advertising space. Why sacrifice such a lucrative source of revenue, even as readership began to decrease?

At Condé Nast, perhaps the world’s most preeminent media company, the question of what to do with industry leader Condé Nast Traveler was a challenge. First introduced in 1987, Condé Nast Traveler became one of the most visible brands in travel.

It became clear, however, that online booking and travel research was becoming important for consumers in the late 1990s. So Condé Nast launched a new brand, Concierge.com, to house online travel content and sell vacations online through a partnership with Expedia. The editorial teams of Condé Nast Traveler and Concierge.com were completely separate at first.

“Condé Nast had decided at some point that to test the digital audience, they really needed to create separate brands from the magazine brand,” said Peter Frank, who served as editor-in-chief of Concierge.com from October 2005 to December 2009. “So Epicurious became a food brand, and Style.com became fashion. Those had varying degrees of success and attraction for an audience by creating their own distinct personality vis-a-vis their print counterparts. While there are benefits of doing it that way, there are also a lot of disadvantages, mostly that you kept your print teams in their own swim lane and your digital teams in their own swim lane and you weren’t evolving either towards the inevitable future that most of us saw that, you know, print and digital would have to work together.

“At Concierge.com, that was a separate building, a separate business unit, and separate reporting structure, but we shared real estate on the web and that led to inevitable tension.”

It was clear to writers and editors at both brands that there had to be more collaboration between the two sites. Condé Nast leadership, however, was more hesitant and slowed many efforts to better integrate content between them. The scale wasn’t there on the digital side, so it made no sense to move resources towards the digital space when the print Condé Nast Traveler magazine paid the bills through print advertising and advertorial content.

“By 2006 it had become clear that there had to be more synergy between the print and online products,” said Wendy Perrin. “In 2006 I was asked to start writing a blog, The Perrin Post, so that print readers could interact with me online. But Condé Nast Traveler did not have its own website, so my blog was published on Concierge.com—which is where all Condé Nast Traveler content was published. Concierge.com was run by a different staff, in a different building, and it was endlessly frustrating that we had so little control over our online presence.”

While Condé Nast’s travel content was siloed, TripAdvisor had gained traction among consumers looking for travel information. In 2004, TripAdvisor was already the seventh most visited travel site on the web according to IAC, which acquired it that year.

In May 2007, TripAdvisor acquired Smarter Travel Media and The Independent Traveler, bringing a variety of niche media properties under its corporate umbrella. By May 2011, when TripAdvisor was spun off from Expedia, it was serving 50 million unique users a month on its site.

While the Condé Nast Traveler and Concierge.com teams would grow more integrated over time, the economic crisis of 2008 caused major headaches for media companies looking to experiment online. Condé Nast would shutter four magazines and lay off more than 120 workers, as well as reorganizing the staff of its travel brands. Fewer magazines means fewer ad pages, and the need for fewer staff members.

According to The New York Times, Traveler’s ad pages dropped 41 percent through the first eight months of 2009, making it one of the hardest hit magazines in Condé Nast’s stable. Overall, Condé Nast lost about a third of its overall ad pages in 2009.

Condé Nast Traveler’s print ad revenue did rebound, beginning to trickle upwards in 2010, with up and down years followed by solid three to five percent growth beginning in 2013.

How Travel Media Missed the Digital LeapWhat followed is what would become a familiar scene in the media world: shrinking issues, less ad revenue, staff layoffs, and eventually an editorially diminished print product. At the same time that Condé Nast Traveler would have been served by a robust online presence, it simply did not have the resources to develop one.

Frank worked on the print staff of the magazine in the 1990s, and saw the struggles as the publication half-heartedly pivoted to the web. Today, Frank works as a consultant with travel brands developing content for their brand-owned channels.

“Condé Nast Traveler was the authority in travel; we were the journal,” said Frank. “We were the ones who were going out there, saying, ‘Here’s what you really need to see, this is what [these destinations] are really like. We’re going to tell you the unbiased truth. We’re going to take down the sacred cows of the industry because we can and because we should.’ And we got a huge amount of accolades for that. We won awards, we thought, and we were a very successful magazine. But that base in journalism no longer resides in print, that kind of authority for the media no longer resides in magazines, if it resides anywhere.”

By the time Condé Nast Traveler began a digital revamp in 2013, when new editor-in-chief Pilar Guzmán took over, travelers had already been looking elsewhere for years. Eventually, the Concierge.com brand would be completely retired by the company.

“In terms of looking back I think it was really about doing a bit more of a broader goal search about what the brand could stand for,” said Guzmán. “How the mission of the brand would then translate to the different channels, not just the .com but also who we were on Facebook, who we wanted to be on Instagram, etc. And then of course the platforms just keep multiplying.”

Today, Condé Nast Traveler essentially operates one brand with interlocked content across many platforms; a writer researching a hotel for a print feature, for instance, will take photos and notes for use on the web, along with social channels. Other publishers have found success with this model, as well.

There is only one percent reader duplication between its print and web editions, and the cntraveler.com site receives about seven million unique visitors each month, almost ten times its print circulation.

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