The dust has just settled on 2013, a year in which travel publishers, weary from six straight years of declining sales, weathered several headline-making mergers and acquisitions. What’s come next is perhaps even more newsworthy: good news. “The markets in both the U.S. and the U.K. have seen the first major shakeout in a generation,” says travel-publishing expert Stephen Mesquita, author of the 2014 Nielsen BookScan Travel Publishing Year Book, which will be released next week. “And while publishers may not be breaking open the champagne, after a number of really fairly awful years, there are some things to cause them to be more optimistic.”
Mesquita gave PW an exclusive look at his new data, which shows that total 2013 U.S. sales in four key categories—world travel guides, U.S. domestic guides, U.S. activity guides, and road and street maps—were down just 2.85% from 2012. “This is probably the best performance in a number of years,” he says, comparing that small decline to the fact that the American travel publishing market has, over the last decade, fallen 40%–45% overall. (The drop from 2011 to 2012 alone was more than 18%.) World travel guides, which account for almost two-thirds of U.S. travel publishing sales, were down 4.47% in 2013, according to Mesquita.
Two of the factors that he cites as reasons for the long slump—the global financial crisis and the evolution of the way consumers buy books—now seem to be evolving, or at least stabilizing, in publishers’ favor. The third, however—consumers’ increased reliance on free, user-generated content—is here to stay.
“People have realized that the tools they use every day to find out about the world around them—Google Maps, Yelp, Open Table—work just as well while traveling,” says Jason Clampet, who in 2012 left his post as the online editor of Frommers.com to launch travel industry intelligence service Skift. While Clampet says that “publishers are kidding themselves if they think things have cooled down and are going back to normal,” he does see many of them are making smart moves—most of which have to do with investments in their digital brands.
Lonely Planet, which the BBC sold to Nashville-based NC2 Media in March 2013, is the year’s biggest success story: Their world travel guides saw an 8.64% increase in sales last year. “With the new acquisition, we’ve managed to change a significant amount of the business and to provide our customers a better experience,” says Lonely Planet CTO Gus Balbontin, who recently relocated from the company’s Melbourne, Australia, headquarters to Tennessee. On the company’s post-sale to-do list last year: a redesign of the Web site, which now receives around 14 million monthly unique visitors, and a reassessment of their range of mobile apps, with the goal of launching new ones later this year.
“The fact that their brand is so strong is because their digital activities have paid some dividends in book sales,” says Mesquita. “My advice to their new owners is, ‘Don’t give up the day job.’”
And while Balbontin says that Lonely Planet will remain loyal to its guidebooks, the company has of late been snapping up other types of established travel media, including the long-running public television series Passport to Adventure, the travel app TouristEye, and, earlier this month, Budget Travel magazine, which was originally conceived by travel guru Arthur Frommer (pending court approval).
Frommer’s, which has had a tumultuous 18 months, endured the most notable loss of 2013, according to Mesquita’s data: Their sales have dropped 49% since 2012, the year that, in August, John Wiley & Sons sold the company to Google. Then, this past spring, Google sold Frommer’s back to its founder. (The news of the sale came just days after Skift reported that the tech company had decided to cease production and publication of the brand’s iconic printed guidebooks.) The fact that the new incarnation of Frommer’s print guides, now released under the new name of Frommer Media, only hit shelves again in late 2013—and delivered to bookstores, 10 titles a month, in November, December, and January—may account in part for the $9 million dive.
While Frommer Media co-president Pauline Frommer, Arthur’s daughter, declined to discuss any specifics regarding the company’s digital traffic or revenue, Arthur is bullish about their print business. In an email to PW, penned while he and Pauline were in the midst of a 15-city media tour, he wrote “Unexpectedly strong winter sales, coupled with current reports from Nielsen BookScan, lead us to believe that in the seven-month period from February through August—the peak selling time for travel guides—our 30 new titles will be purchased by the public in total quantities that we now predict, conservatively, will reach between half a million and seven hundred thousand copies.”
Citing the economic slowdown as the biggest cause of sales decline, Arthur Frommer said that “recession and its impact on travel guide sales seems now to have been arrested to a considerable extent.” The Nielsen numbers support his contention: After removing Frommer’s loss from the equation, Mesquita found that the remainder of the top-10 travel publishers had positive sales figures.
Sales for Dorling Kindersley Publishing held steady this year; between their recently relaunched DK Eyewitness Travel Guide series—which the publisher says has seen an increase in sales—and its strong Rough Guides brand, DK now owns close to 18% of the market. “We are always looking for new opportunities to get our books seen—and ultimately purchased,” says DK publishing director Georgina Dee. “Understanding what the digital-savvy consumer wants from their ‘guide’ is obviously key.” To that end the company recently launched DKTripPlanner.com, a custom travel itinerary planner that can also be accessed offline through a free mobile app. Last year’s revamp of RoughGuides.com, which received an honor last year at the U.K.-based FutureBook Innovation Awards, “has given us the opportunity to market directly to our consumers and hear from them about what they want,” says Dee. Indeed, it seems to be a growing audience: As of last month, the site attracted 760,000 unique monthly users, which was, according to the company, a 388% increase from January 2013.
The company that gained even more market share than Lonely Planet last year was Avalon Travel, which publishes, among others, the popular Rick Steves and Moon series. The reason for Avalon’s success, says Skift’s Clampet, is that unlike more general publishers like Frommer’s, “the Moons and the Rick Steves each target a niche and hit it really hard while doing so.”
While both RickSteves.com and Moon.com have also been redesigned within the past year, and each Web site has significantly increased the volume of reader interaction (the former attracts more than 1.2 million unique visitors a month, according to Avalon, and the latter 85,000), “they haven’t fundamentally changed the reality that people read travel guidebooks for expert advice, which they continue to see as preferable to the crowdsourcing comments on TripAdvisor and elsewhere,” says Avalon Travel publisher Bill Newlin.
The Web sites also haven’t changed the way Avalon customers are purchasing content, according to Newlin: “Virtually all our sales for both Rick Steves and Moon are either print editions (85%) or e-books (15%), a ratio that has held steady for the past year,” he says. “For us, digital content sales are negligible.” Far more impactful, he says, is the way digital innovation has impacted the company’s guide production process—from quality of design to cost-efficiency of printing.
Fodor’s, whose print sales were up 5.62% in 2013, is “seeing growth in all areas—online and in print,” says Fodor’s senior vice-president and publisher Amanda D’Acierno, who stresses that the July 2013 merger of Random House and the Penguin Group, which brought Fodor’s and DK Publishing into the same family, has not been detrimental to either brand. “While we’re not in conversations about day-to-day business, the two brands are very complimentary,” she says. “The Fodor’s and the DK traveler are not the same type of traveler—we have richer hotel and restaurant listings, while their destination guides have beautiful, detailed maps of cities and museums.”
Fodors.com—which had an average of six million monthly unique visitors at the close of 2013—brings in ad revenue that is, according to D’Acierno, “a healthy part of our business, and one that’s also seeing growth.” Fodor’s City Guide apps, which have always been free, are monetized through affiliate marketing of hotels, tickets, and tours.
A new mobile app partnership recently announced by Globe Pequot Press suggests that companies once seen as separated by the digital divide can together give travel content a new audience. That publisher—the seventh-largest travel publisher in the U.S., according to Nielsen BookScan data—struck a deal to bring the content of the Globe Pequot Curiosities series to Google’s Field Trip app.
“The series is 15 years old—for all intents and purposes, there’s no Web site or social media for it—and we were looking for a very interesting way of getting it out to a new generation,” says managing director Alexander Merrill. “We see the digital interaction as a great opportunity to augment the brands that we have.” The Field Trip app works with Google Maps to notify users that they’re close to a location of interest; when the Globe Pequot information pops up onscreen, it includes a logo of the Curiosities series and a link to the book’s listing on the Google Play store.
Most of the top travel publishers insist that their trusted, branded content, whether found in their books or in less-traditional arenas like apps or partner Web sites, will more and more distinguish itself from a glut of user-generated information. “Our editors are looking at every destination, and we have 500 writers who live in those destinations—they’re not travelers staying in a hotel,” says Fodor’s D’Acierno. “We also don’t have negative reviews, which means you don’t have to sort through the ‘bad.’ ”
But Skift’s Clampet is not so sure. “Travel writers do provide a level of expertise that the average traveler doesn’t have,” he says, “but if you put up, say, a Rough Guide to Mexico City against listings for hotels and restaurants on TripAdvisor, those are two equal voices. The volume [of responses] provides comparative intelligence.”
While there is clearly no single right answer, the uplifting sales news leaves room for the conversation to continue amidst what Lonely Planet’s Balbontin calls “an evolution of human consumption that’s not quite done yet.
“We are starting to rediscover the value of curation—not just raw information, but advice,” he says. “There are many ways to do that. We just try to remain true to our original promise to provide truthful and honest advice to people who explore the world.”
Safe Landing for Travel Bookstores
Over the past dozen years, travel bookstores have had to overcome major challenges—September 11, the recession, and e-books. As Greg Ohlsen, who spun off the Travel Bug in Santa Fe in 1998 from his general bookstore, likes to boast, “We outlasted Borders.” Unfortunately, many did not. But those who remain continue to meet at conventions like the upcoming Travel Goods Show in Phoenix in mid- March, and stores like the country’s oldest, 38-year-old Wide World Books & Maps in Seattle, are holding their own. Six-year-old Idlewild Books in New York City just added a third store, its second in Brooklyn, and one closed store, Globe Corner Books, was given a second life as part of Brookline Booksmith in Brookline, Mass.
“In this day and age, bookstores can’t just survive on books,” says David Del Vecchio of Idlewild. Although his store sells a lot of travel books, maps, and foreign literature, its language classes in French, Italian, and Spanish are what’s enabled it to expand from its 19th Street location in Manhattan—first to a 600-sq.-ft. store in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, two years ago, and to a third location double that size in the Bedford Mini-Mall in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in January. The new store also stocks unique items, not necessarily travel-related, made by artists who live in the area.
Lately, Barbara Tolliver, who co-owns 19-year-old The Traveler, Inc. on Bainbridge Island, a ferry ride from Seattle, has seen an uptick in book sales. “People want books,” she says, adding that maps also do well. Together they account for roughly 30% of the store’s sales, with the other two-thirds coming from accessories and clothing.
“Now,” she says, “we’re facing something else. Business has been really slow. Christmas was not as robust as any of us would like [on the island]. Online has definitely made inroads.” To counter the impact of online discounting, Bainbridge Island is in the midst of revamping its Shop Local Campaign. And The Traveler is one of several travel bookstores to be in the midst of redoing its Web site (www.thetraveler.com) to do more e-commerce.
Across the water Wide World Books has one advantage that The Traveler does not, owner Julie Hunt, who purchased it five years ago, never quit her day job as a behavioral scientist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Her paycheck and health insurance contribute to the store’s bottom line, as does her expansion of the store’s inventory to include more travel-related items. Some customers are suggesting one more change, she says, not that she’s prepared to follow through when her lease ends in May. They would like her to move the store into a vacant pub down the street so that she can serve beer and wine.
At the Travel Bug, books represent a relatively high percentage of sales, 60%, plus the store offers digital map printing. It’s also one of the few, possibly only, travel bookstore with a café. In addition to guidebooks, and literary travel titles, the store stocks new releases of general books, which it displays on two tables in the front of the store. If a book sells out, the store doesn’t reorder it. New books are intended to be one more reason for customers to stop by. “We’re doing a lot better than we did during the recession,” says Ohlsen. “I’m not totally pessimistic. But I’m realistic.” He remains hopeful that business will continue to pick up, particularly with a planned summer opening of a $100 million hotel across the street.
At Brookline Booksmith, general manager and co-owner Dana Brigham says that the store increased its travel section by 20% when it purchased the assets of Globe Corner in 2012. It also added folded and rolled maps as part of its Globe Corner travel boutique, which includes accessories like neck pillows and luggage tags. The first year sales increased 38%, according to Brigham. Since then it has experienced some leveling off in travel sales. But the store could get a boost when it relaunches the GlobeCorner.com Web site later this year.
Armchair Travel: Spring 2014 Travel Book Listings
There are plenty of destination guides out there for the traveler, but for those staying put for the time being, here are some armchair guides that can provide some virtual travel.
Rogue Elephant: Harnessing the Power of India’s Runaway Democracy by Simon Denyer (June 24, hardcover, $30, ISBN 978-1620406083). A penetrating portrait of what has happened to India in the past five years—and where the country is headed—written by the former India bureau chief for the Washington Post.
The Footloose American: Following the Hunter S. Thompson Trail Across South America, by Brian Kevin (May 20, paperback, $14.99, ISBN 978-0-7704-3637-7). This award-winning travel writer traces the footsteps of America’s bestselling “gonzo” journalist’s 1963 trip across South America—a yearlong journey—for the now-defunct National Observer.
(Dist. by Globe Pequot Press)
Organic A Journalist’s Quest to Discover the Truth Behind Food Labeling by Peter Laufer (July 1, hardcover, $24.95, ISBN 978-0762790715). Part food narrative, part investigation, part adventure story, Organic is an illuminating, entertaining, and cautionary look into the anything-goes world behind the organic label.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America by John Waters (June 3, hardcover, $26, ISBN 978-0374298630). A cross-country hitchhiking journey with America’s most beloved weirdo.
(Dist. by Random House)
The Broken Road From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos by Patrick Leigh Fermor (Mar. 4, hardcover, $30, ISBN 978-1590177549). During the winter of 1933, 18-year-old Patrick (“Paddy”) Leigh Fermor set out to walk across Europe, starting in Holland and ending in Constantinople—a trip that took him the better part of a year. Decades later, he tells the story of that life-changing journey.
(Dist. by St. Martin’s Press)
Teach a Woman to Fish Overcoming Poverty Around the Globe by Ritu Sharma (June 10, hardcover, $26, ISBN 978-1137278586). The firsthand account of one woman’s rugged travels through three impoverished nations, and of the women living, struggling, and overcoming the forces that threaten to keep them in poverty.
(Dist. by IPG)
The Politics of Washing Real Life in Venice by Polly Coles (Apr. 1, paper, $14.95, ISBN 978-0719808784). A riveting account of ordinary life in an extraordinary place, packed with charming anecdotes that will have readers hooked on Venetian life.
University of Wisconsin Press
Coming Out Swiss: In Search of Heidi, Chocolate, and My Other Life by Anne Herrmann (Apr. 15, hardcover, $26.95, ISBN 978-0-299-29840-1). This professor emerita of English and women’s studies at the University of Michigan—a dual-citizen born in New York to Swiss parents—offers readers an exploration of her heritage that includes the obvious clichés as well as an exploration of Swiss exports, like Dadaism, that have lost their identity in the diaspora.