Travel Publishers Pivot Editorial Strategy Amid Pandemic

What does a travel magazine do when a global pandemic effectively grinds travel to a halt? They pivot. 

That’s what four editors at some of the top travel publications told Publishers Daily.

All the editors spoken to noted the COVID-19 pandemic catapulted the topic of travel to front page news, across media organizations. “The news became travel news,” said Jesse Ashlock, Condé Nast Traveler's U.S. editor.

George Stone, National Geographic's travel editor, said: “Coronavirus has turned a lot of media outlets into de-facto travel outlets.”

When COVID-19 hit, Traveler's upcoming issue “was going to have a lot of cruises and long-haul travel,” which didn’t fit the current state of travel. Traffic declined in late March. The magazine needed to do an “editorial reset,” Ashlock said. The Traveler team leaned into COVID-19 and travel news coverage, as well as service-driven content that provided people with an escape: inspiration for future travel, rather than more destination-specific content.



Traveler came out with “101 Ways to Travel Without Leaving Your House” and an “Ultimate Guide to Armchair Travel,” among other editorial initiatives.

A COVID-19 travel hub was created on the Traveler site, updated regularly with news updates and stories on the impact of the pandemic on the travel industry. A weekly COVID-19 newsletter was launched. This pivot brought a “strong recovery in April.” 

“Hard COVID19 reporting has gotten tremendous engagement, and so has human interest, softer COVID-19 reporting,” Ashlock said. Engagement went up 20% month-over-month, nearly recovering from pre-pandemic times. Travel news engaged minutes in particular went up 44% month-over-month.

Average time spent went up 28% month-over-month.

Armchair and inspirational travel content engaged minutes was up 21% month-over-month and 26% year-over-year.

National Geographic’s dedicated travel magazine, National Geographic Traveler, ceased its print publication at the end of last year. Travel stories have since moved to the National Geographic magazine, as well as its website and in a dedicated travel newsletter, with 1.2 million subscribers.

When the pandemic hit, Nat Geo Travel pivoted “from reporting on the journeys of travelers to reporting on the journeys of places,” Stone said. It has since launched multiple new editorial series, such as destination dispatches of on-location reporting from Istanbul to Costa Rica, and news coverage of National Parks and UNESCO World Heritage sites.

“They are portraits of popular places as destinations, and looking at how they are contending with this pandemic and all the implications of it. We are reporting on the economic impact, which relates to their annual tourism revenues, the number of jobs dependent on tourism, and the structure of their economy as it relates to tourism,” Stone said.

Traveling tourism represents 10% of worldwide GDP, and is being threatened by COVID-19.

A new weekly news series called “The Radar” features virtual experiences and positive news for people who love travel. Another weekly series, “The Travel Book Club,” is for those interested in travel literature. 

COVID-19 has “given us an opportunity to flex our muscle” as a publisher that does not focus on leisure travel, but covers travel “through lenses of science, environment, population and cultures,” Stone said.

The transition was “a little easier” for digital publisher Atlas Obscura, because the brand is "not focused on travel recommendations,” said Samir S. Patel, who was named editorial director of Atlas Obscura just last month.

Its mission is to “expose people to the world with science, history and culture," which can continue despite travel restrictions, thanks to a network of writers around the world.

All of the magazine brands spoken to have their teams working from home, or where they are currently based. Some are even stuck on location. “We are unable to send anyone anywhere,” Stone said. “We were lucky enough to have some of our correspondents stuck in places around the world.” 

A story about how New Zealand has effectively eliminated the virus came about because the writer, Aaron Gulley, was stuck there at the time of the pandemic. It became one of the most popular travel destination stories, with 3.5 million Apple News readers in the second week of May.

Being stuck in a location has “given us a chance to dig into local reporting,” Stone said. “All along there have been these layers that have not gotten as much attention in travel journalism because they weren't front burner. Now is the chance to grow with our reader and expand what travel writing can be.”

Going forward, “we are going to continue to report on destinations, cultures and communities. But the lenses we are reporting through - conservation, community and economy - will resonate more with readers” after living through this global pandemic, Stone said.

Meredith Corp.’s Travel + Leisure is taking a different approach: “armchair escapism.”

“We can still be connected with the rest of the world by reading about these beautiful places and people and traveling from your home,” editor in chief Jacqui Gifford said. Travel + Leisure is the only monthly travel publication in the U.S. There are no plans to change the frequency, Gifford said.

Prior to this time, Travel + Leisure had “never produced a magazine remotely,” she said. The magazine was closing its May issue on Europe “when things started to change quite fast.”

Travel + Leisure, as well as Condé Nast Traveler, pulled stories on Italy in April.

“Things changed over there dramatically, and we wanted to be respectful,” Gifford said. She addressed the spreading COVID-19 virus in the editor’s letter of the May issue.

The June issue has more editorial changes, in response to the pandemic. A story on the resilience of Puerto Rico was slated for the August issue, but was moved up because its “message will resonate with people right now," Gifford said.

The issue covers national parks and how they will reopen, as well as how to plan activities for the outdoors, such as a road trip close to home, or a summer picnic.

In the months to come, Gifford predicts travel will be more local.

Without anyone from the team out in the field, Travel + Leisure is commissioning essays and photographs from different locations, such as a portfolio of photos of Art Deco signage in Porto.

“We have tricks up our sleeves to make beautiful content in this weird time,” Gifford said. “Smart writing and commentary gives people a sense of things to look forward to.”

Condé Nast Traveler is also not dropping an issue, according to Ashlock, the U.S. editor.

It is, however, pushing the July/August issue, and will publish an August/September issue. Future issues will be for October, November and December (rather than July/August, September/October, November and December).

This means there will be a “rapid-fire succession of issues in Q3, Q4.” The change was made “to give advertisers time to adjust their messaging,” Ashlock said. “We are doing a lot of consumer research and relaying those insights to advertising partners."

The Traveler team surveyed readers to see how COVID-19 and the news around it has influenced current and future travel plans, pulled together in a “What Matters Now” trend report and in webinars with over 300 clients.

A big goal of the second half of the year is to rebuild people’s confidence in travel. 

The October print issue will be “the first… robust announcement of this next stage of our editorial strategy," Ashlock said. Traveler’s tagline was “truth in travel,” until it was abandoned a few years ago. That tagline will return.

The issue will also include the travel industry’s response to the situation, and celebrate innovations and the responsiveness of companies and travel providers that have most effectively risen to the moment, Ashlock said. For example, destinations are partnering with external evaluators to establish health and safety measures, like Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts collaborating with Johns Hopkins Medicine International to provide guidance.

Atlas Obscura’s Trips and Experiences offerings — which are “essential parts of our business,” Patel said — can no longer take place as planned, due to restrictions on travel and group activities.

So Atlas Obscura launched “Wonder from Home,” an editorial franchise “to keep that spirit of discovery — of finding new things, of going down rabbit holes - alive,” Patel said.

It includes articles and videos, as well as activities that rea ders pay to take part in online, such as a $7 virtual walk through of Seattle, or an $8 talk with art specialists on unique pieces for auction at Christie’s.

“Obscura Academy” is a hub for educational content that parents and teachers can use — especially useful with children stuck at home this summer.

Patel said internal data shows people are returning to the site’s travel utility.

“Whether it’s because they are thinking about hitting the road this summer, or it’s because of the saturation of COVID news and they want to be inspired, the Atlas has wondrous things that they can visit close to home,” Patel said.


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