The travel industry is under siege these days. Airlines are floundering, and with each new scare (and each resulting increase in security precautions), travelers are increasingly reticent to fly. The economy is poor, to put it mildly, and consumers find themselves with little money left over at the end of the month and considerable uncertainty about the future.
Not for nothing does the overview of the U.S. Travel Association's “2010 Outlook for Travel and Tourism” begin, “There are glimmers of hope on the horizon, but plenty of reason for caution.” The World Travel and Tourism Council says global travel industry profits worldwide shrank by 3.6% in 2009. It's logical to assume that the travel publishing industry is suffering as well.
Indeed, Interlink Publishing Group's publicity director, Moira Megargee, points to “terrorism fears and the general deterioration in the quality of air travel services, be it no in-flight food or huge baggage charges, or long waits at airports due to staff cutbacks and new security rules” as items hurting the travel industry, but notes that in response, Interlink is growing its list, rather than scaling back. “The core of our travel list is less affected by economic downturns in travel than are standard guides, mainly because we focus more on the culture and history of a place than where to lodge or eat, thus having continuing appeal to readers whose means of travel is limited to their imaginations or armchairs,” she says. Interlink is also on the lookout for new destinations such as Syria, a country that it says saw a 35% increase in travel in 2009. As a result, the house is publishing an updated edition of Warwick Ball's Syria: A Historical and Architectural Guide.
And don't discount the upside to the downside. Clare Currie, travel publishing director for Rough Guides, says, “For travel guides, 2009 was a year of understandable caution among consumers. Many people held their breath and waited for the impact to become personal rather than global. Others tightened their belts in preparation, cutting out the luxury of travel at a time when attention was focused on necessities. That said, our solid performance in the market seems to indicate that many people—in the spirit of keeping calm and carrying on—continued to travel while they could, taking advantage of some great deals along the way.”
Currie also sees a flurry of activity among the unemployed: “Many people previously committed to careers have found themselves—admittedly not out of choice—with the mixed blessing of having the time to travel, and sometimes with a bit of severance money in their pockets.”
Frommer's even sees opportunity in the new travel restrictions. This month, Frommers.com launches the Fly Safe, Fly Smart series, and an e-book on the subject is due out in June. (For those interested in the nitty-gritty of the airline business, Ashgate is publishing Aviation and Tourism: Implications for Leisure Travel.)
Vanessa Dube, director of publishing for Let's Go, which has specialized in budget travel for students since its inception in 1960, says, “Although the downturn may affect travel as a whole, we believe that student travel will remain strong. As a demographic, students have a completely different philosophy about travel—one that's less dependent on money and more influenced by a carpe diem attitude.” This year Let's Go will add six new guides to such destinations as the Yucatán Peninsula, as well as 19 updated editions.
Many travel publishers are making adjustments to the “new normal.” DK Eyewitness will launch its new photo-filled Back Roads driving guides series in March with five titles (France, Great Britain, Ireland, Italy, and Spain, with Germany and Australia in the works). The Italy entry offers two dozen leisurely drives, including a tour of Sicilian volcanoes and another of the places important in the life and career of painter Piero della Francesca. In April, Michelin Green Guides will undergo a major design overhaul and will begin sporting kelly green covers with photographs. Information will now be organized geographically rather than alphabetically. The first round of updated guides will cover 20 destinations, with cover prices of either $19.99 or $21.99.
Across the Atlantic, Katherine Leck, publisher and managing director of APA Publications UK, which publishes the Insight and Berlitz guides, takes a positive outlook: “The incidence of terrorist attacks is minutely small, and flying is still safer than any other form of travel. There's no doubt that people feel that getting through tightened security is a hassle, but at the same time most travelers understand the need for the measures. We do see a lot more people changing their patterns of holidaying and staying closer to home due to concerns about their carbon footprint. This, with the added time it can take to get through security, is all adding to the growth in 'staycations.' ” In response, Insight has just launched the Great Breaks series on U.K. regions.
Others are adjusting to the fact that travel within the U.S. has increased among Americans. National Geographic has seen sales of the sixth edition of the National Geographic Guide to the National Parks of the United States increase 55% over the previous edition, so it's reissuing many of its top-selling park guides, including those to the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon. Out this month is Complete National Parks of the United States, a $40 travel planner to all of the country's national parks. (Some 50,000 copies of that title were sold via mail last fall through the publisher's direct sales membership program.)
John Boris, managing director, Lonely Planet Americas, says that due to the euro exchange rate, “Americans who decide to visit Western Europe are booking shorter stays or postponing their trips altogether, deciding on destinations closer to home or where the U.S. dollar has a more favorable exchange rate, as in Latin America. Americans have also rediscovered their big cities and backyard paradises like the national parks and Hawaii.” Similarly, Adams Media reports that TheHidden Magic of Walt Disney World has sold 15,000 copies since June 2009. Countryman Press editorial director Kermit Hummel says, “The current travel climate and general economic caution have many people forgoing exotic, far-flung travel plans.” The press hopes that interest will shift to quieter, less expensive vacations, such as those described in Monastery Guest Houses of North America.
And there's more good news. While many are cutting back on travel, there are still those undaunted by current difficulties or restrictions and wanting travel guides, according to at least one publisher. Bill Newlin at Avalon Travel argues that guidebook buyers are a self-selecting subset of travelers who “are usually looking for something new and different that will give them an authentic experience and a few good stories to tell. For these travelers, navigating logistical hurdles is an acceptable price for the reward of a genuine travel experience. In Europe, terrorism has been a fact of life for longer than in the U.S., and airport security is generally much tighter, yet travel hasn't declined as a result—and among U.S. travelers, a recent TripAdvisor survey indicated that Americans expect to travel more in 2010 than in 2009. This is consistent with our recent experience with Rick Steves and Moon, as sales of both series are up substantially from the comparable period in both 2008 and 2009, and are now very near the high-water mark of 2007.”
Says Kim Atkinson, v-p, content, for Forbes Travel Guide, “After the most challenging year for the travel industry in recent history, we're seeing a return to business and leisure travel. Hoteliers are cautiously optimistic that business and group travel will continue to pick up through 2010.”
Chronicle is celebrating luxury lodging with its Hotels for the Discerning Traveler series, and though launching $100 hardcovers might seem an odd fit for frugal times, publishing director Sarah Malarkey says titles such as Overnight Sensations: Asia Pacific meet a need: “Throughout the world each year, 3% of the population accounts for 25% of the money spent on travel. Even in this economic climate, new luxury hotels are opening in increasingly remote locations, as travelers become less interested in just a place to stay and more interested in a complete experience.”
Nina Hoffman, president of books and school publishing at National Geographic, concurs: “People no longer take ordinary vacations; they want more meaningful and substantive experiences. Travelers who venture abroad want experiential travel that will provide a transforming perspective on their lives.”
Although Bill Wood, AAA Publishing executive editor, has seen improvement, he isn't breaking out the champagne just yet. “The fourth quarter of 2009 was significantly more profitable for us than the same period of the prior year. During rough economic times, many people wait until the last minute to make travel decisions, making it difficult to accurately forecast travel intentions. Nevertheless, due to the strong quarter, AAA is cautiously optimistic for the travel industry in 2010.”
The Internet: Friend or Foe?
With its abundance of free information, the Internet has nipped at the heels of the travel publishing industry for years. Why would anyone buy the guide when they could get all that information on line for free? went the thinking. But now, as the World Wide Web is well past its 15th anniversary, publishers and Web sites are more like a bickering couple than mortal enemies. For some time publishers have been integrating increasing amounts of electronic content into their publishing programs.
Sterling editorial director Michael Fragnito says, “Though the travel category is under a serious threat from the Internet, certain titles do work very well if they offer something different.” An example is the publisher's Weird series, which, with the May addition of Weird Colorado and Weird Oregon, will include 31 titles, each with text and photos on a state's oddities.
Ensley Eikenburg, associate publisher for Frommer's, says, “The travel category has had competition from the Internet for a long time now. Happily, the book is still a great technology for travelers—it's portable; it works without having to have a power source handy; it can be dropped in the ocean and still work. That said, the Internet and other digital platforms also work well for certain types of travel content. Our goal is to match our travel content to the right platform and give travelers the most appropriate, usable content for books, online, e-books, and mobile.”
“For a travel guide company, the Internet is definitely a friend, and for Let's Go, it's a best friend,” says Dube. “We were the first travel guide company to put complete, free content online, and we believe that's only for the best.”
Craig Nelson, managing editor of the Not for Tourists guides, says, “The Internet is completely changing the way people plan their trips. Browsing the shelves of a bookstore is still helpful, but you can get so much information on the Web from travel sites, blogs, and thousands of other resources. If you're patient and can filter through the mountains of content, it can be of great value. However, established travel guides that are on the Internet will probably rise to the top because people are already familiar with the brand and trust the content.” In addition to traditional paper guides, such as a 2010 Not for Tourists Guide to Brooklyn, Not for Tourists has released a series of iPhone apps for travelers to use once they are on-site.
Fodor's publisher Tim Jarrell says, “As far as Internet competition is concerned, in the short run, the decline in travel guide sales in the past 18 months has matched the overall decline in the travel industry, but as the economy recovers, so do the guide sales. While the Internet provides free information, guidebooks are still the best at offering a large amount of relevant information in an easy-to-navigate format. While consumers can easily find hotel and airline pricing online, they continue to express frustration at planning a trip without the use of a guide. We are seeing that our color books are selling well and outpacing the market, showing that quality in content and format makes a difference with consumers. Fodor's is continuing to augment and support our full color publishing program with new color guides, showing our commitment to books.”
While most of the major guidebook publishers now host electronic bulletin boards where travelers can share information, a different sort of sharing happens on Doug Lansky's Web site, www.titanic-awards.com. There, travelers share their horror stories and vote for underachievements such as worst airport layout and most overrated tourist attraction. In May, Perigee will publish much of that information in The Titanic Awards: Celebrating the Worst of Travel. “So much of travel writing is celebratory, but we were really drawn to the contrary nature of The Titanic Awards,” says editor Meg Leder. “We've all had canceled flights, lost luggage and weird hotel situations, but this book celebrates them. It seems appropriate for the rough economic environment and less glamorous times—not all travel is beautiful, but it can be pretty hilarious.”
For a list of titles mentioned in this feature, go to www.publishersweekly.com/travelbooks.