Despite high airline costs and swaths of flight cancellations (looking at you, Southwest), “revenge travel”—vacations planned to make up for the past few years spent in dry dock—are on the rise, and travel publishers see revitalized opportunity.

“2022 was a year when we could take a bit of a breath,” says Georgina Dee, publishing director at DK. “The list of books we saw selling was normal, and normal was my favorite word.” Travel guidebooks had been among the hardest hit of all genres; big publishers scaled back significantly or halted their usual publishing schedule entirely. Many have enthusiastically restarted their engines within the past year.

After seasons when demand skewed toward titles focused on outdoor destinations and sparsely populated attractions, sales began trending back toward the familiar: books about popular sights, big cities, and checklist tourist attractions. PW spoke with editors and publishers about how they spent their lockdown years, and about what travelers are looking for in the year ahead.

Regrouping and revamping

The pandemic era has been a time of experimentation, travel publishers say. When regular guidebook updates were impossible, publishers found new ways to reach consumers.

“The last couple of years were difficult—a near-death experience,” says René Frey, CEO of APA Publications, noting an astonishing 95% drop in revenue in 2020. While guides were paused, APA focused on building a direct-to-consumer bookshop, a major strategic investment that launched in March 2022. In addition to bringing in revenue, Frey says, the site gives APA a view into reader behavior: “It’s really important to gather intelligence about what people care about. This puts us one tick closer to consumer needs.”

Rough Guides is testing the concept of personalized guidebooks, with custom covers, titles, subtitles, dedications, and title-page photos, geared toward gift-giving. On the home front, there is no more home front—the physical offices have closed and all 42 employees are working remotely, many from new locations, with only half of staff staying in the London area.

By contrast, DK looked for new retail channels, expanding beyond bookstores to new-to-the-publisher outlets such as Anthropologie. A fortnightly podcast, Where to Go by DK Eyewitness, launched in August 2020; in each episode, two DK staffers invite a guest to talk about some aspect of travel—food and drink, culture, adventure, and more. The goal, Dee says, was to service a community of readers even when guidebook production was shut down. Season five is slated for a February kickoff with a Sicily episode (paging White Lotus fans).

Frommer’s went a different route, says copresident Pauline Frommer. The company partnered with the platform Road.Travel, which may be added to the dashboard of some models of new cars, to create free guided road trips for in-car listening. Frommer wrote Redwood Empire, one of five California-focused trips that comprise the initial offering.

Piers Pickard, managing director, publishing, at Lonely Planet, says the publisher is “gently” beginning a year of celebrations for its 50th anniversary, and adding new titles to its Experience series, which launched in 2022. Each book relies heavily on local talent, and functions, Pickard says, as an “anti-guide book”—one that assumes the reader is a seasoned traveler who wants to see a destination through a new, more focused lens. February’s Experience Tuscany, for example, homes in on 40 key experiences for visitors to the region.

Let’s go

Three years of thwarted vacations have led restless travelers to amass significant nest eggs, publishers say. “Many people have been locked in for two and a half years, and they’ve been saving,” according to Frey at APA. This is good news for the tourism industry and for guidebook publishers.

In addition to its direct-to-consumer initiatives, Rough Guides is emphasizing its Mini series, Frey says. Launched in 2022, the series highlights traditional vacation destinations—forthcoming installments cover locales including Caribbean ports of call, Crete, and Menorca—and provides readers with highlights and top attractions without getting bogged down in details.

While perennial favorites are regaining popularity, a split in purchasing trends is emerging; travelers from the U.K. and Europe are staying domestic, and Americans, with the benefit of the strong dollar, are going everywhere. Grace Fujimoto, editor in chief of Moon Travel guides, was pleased to see the new Egypt guide get off to “a great start,” she says. “We’re a little past Covid being front of mind—people are interested in traveling again.”

Domestic travel and road trip books have lost some ground at Avalon Travel, which publishes Moon guides, says Avalon v-p and associate publisher Jaimee Callaway. She sees this as a correction more than a collapse; these books “had rocketed up, and now are coming back down to earth. They got an artificial boost when no one could travel internationally. We’re not back to 2019 sales levels quite yet, but we’re so much closer than we’ve been.”

At a crossroads

As travel publishers reconsider what a guidebook is at its core, they remain confident that even when travelers have the internet in their pockets, traditional guides have value. “People are feeling let down by the Google experience and the ‘tab trap’—they have 30 tabs open with no easy way to organize them,” says Pickard at Lonely Planet. “As people get more savvy online, they’re getting more disappointed with the experience.” The answer, he adds, is focused guidebooks with beautiful images, recommendations from trusted experts, crafted itineraries, and tips on how to structure time.

Allyson Johnson, senior editor of National Geographic Adult books, has a different take. NatGeo, she says, is publishing fewer itinerary-based travel books in favor of best-of reference guides. “We want to help readers plan their bucket lists,” she says. “Storytelling is a large part of that; it allows people to get a better sense of these places, the people, the landscape.” She notes that “travel is becoming a way of showcasing your identity”—I am a scuba diver rather than I enjoy scuba diving—and NatGeo is publishing into the new year accordingly. December brought A Diver’s Guide to the World by Carrie Miller (2019’s 100 Dives of a Lifetime) and Chris Taylor, and February sees the newest entry in a popular NatGeo series: Joe Yogerst’s 100 Trails, 5,000 Ideas.

No matter what form travel books take, how they get to readers, or how those readers consume them, the publishers consulted for this piece agree with Pickard’s assessment: “Guidebooks still do some jobs really, really well.”

Liz Scheier is a writer, editor, and product developer living in Washington, D.C., and the author of the memoir Never Simple.

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