Michael Spring, Frommer's

Safety Concerns = Later Bookings

Frommer's publisher Michael Spring recently returned from a two-week vacation in the Greek Islands—at least he tried to vacation. Travel writers, he admits, "are always looking under hotel mattresses when everyone else is at the beach."

When Spring's not checking out Sealeys, he's doing some serious thinking about the challenges facing the travel industry. "It's hurting largely because business travelers are staying home, crouched in front of their teleconferencing screens, and foreign travelers have been forsaking our fruited plains since September 11. The good news is that neither group buys guidebooks. Leisure travelers do and they are still traveling. What is changing are their travel patterns."

One of those patterns is that travelers are putting off booking their vacations. "They're waiting for the best bargains and wanting to make sure there's still a world to travel in. This means that travel guide sales are on a different curve—selling a month or two later than in past years, but still selling."

As to where Americans are traveling this year, Spring sees Hawaii as the hottest destination, "proof that the issue for most Americans is less 'car vs. plane' than where can I go that's safe, familiar and accessible, yet provides a sense of adventure and escape?" Also topping his most-traveled list are Alaska, Mexico, Costa Rica, French Canada and Las Vegas. The latter is, he says, "the perfect destination in these unsettling times, because it's so easy to get in and out. And you can visit Egypt, New York and Italy in a weekend without crossing the street."

"Family" travel, gaming vacations and cruising are among the travel trends noted by Spring. He also sees travel to Asian and Third World countries decreasing while Americans' interest in ecotourism and "soft" adventure will continue to remain strong. And, reports Spring, it's a myth that Americans are avoiding Europe—their best-selling Dummies travel guide is Europe for Dummies and Frommer's guides to Italy, England and France are all selling strongly.

When it comes to selecting the perfect guidebook to help them on their way, Spring sees travelers cutting back on marginal, niche titles and focusing on the "big hitters—guides by major publishers to major destinations." (Frommer's #1 seller, The Official Guide to Walt Disney World, sells 100,000 copies annually.)

Spring is optimistic about the future of the travel book industry, noting that Frommer's market share has "increased dramatically" in the past 18 months and that the publisher is "moving full speed ahead" on plans for at least two major new series. He also sees travel making a slow but steady return to pre—September 11 levels. "I suspect that domestic travel will be flat to +2.5% in summer 2003 and foreign travel down 15% against record highs in 2000, but will return to 2000 levels in time for summer '04. Americans will learn to live in a less safe world and continue to exercise their right to travel. Americans have to travel to realize that the world is still there and that it's a beautiful place."

Bonnie Ammer, Fodor's

Gold Changes

When the travel market gets tough, tough travel publishers... do market research. At the beginning of 2003, reports Random House Information Group president and publisher Bonnie Ammer, Fodor's commissioned a survey to examine how people were using their travel guides and what was needed to make them even more user-friendly. The answer, reports Ammer, was that consumers wanted guides that were filled with "fast, accessible, easy-to-use information. They wanted trip planning to be fun, not a boring research project."

With that in mind, Fodor's undertook a major redesign of its 2004 Gold Guide series, adding a two-color interior and a more open design. "The two-color allows us to highlight features that are both fun and practical such as our Itineraries, Good Walks and Close-Up sections, and it also makes the maps much easier to read," says Ammer. Some 79% of the respondents wanted ratings in their travel guides, so Fodor's expanded its Choice Ratings section. Because offerings for a wide variety of budgets was important to 68% of those surveyed, the publisher added a more inexpensive price category. The new design and features, as Ammer puts it, "invite readers to jump right into a destination."

And where will travelers be taking these new guides? Ammer sees a "continued rise in domestic travel as more and more people realize how much our country has to offer." While she believes that foreign travel is still influenced by the strength of the dollar, she cites Mexico, Brazil and Australia as having friendly exchange rates. She says, "Europe is having a bit of trouble with the state of the euro and Southeast Asia is obviously having a hard time attracting travelers with the recent SARS problems. However, French Canada is close to home and also offers a good value for Americans. We've seen strong sales on our guides to Montreal and Quebec City, which are affordable, European-like destinations within driving distance from the Northeast."

Ammer also sees the current rash of bargain deals in travel as "good for our business because it encourages travel in general." Fodor's has recently seen an upswing in sales of its "How to" guides, which offer money-saving and bargain-finding tips, and a steady increase in traffic to www.fodors.com from travelers lured by the online bargains offered through the site's link to the Expedia Web site. And after travelers book their bargain deals, reports Ammer, many of them are returning to fodors.com to gather additional information on their destinations or use links to booksellers to purchase guidebooks for their trips.

While Ammer sees Americans staying closer to home and taking shorter and relatively inexpensive trips until the economy starts to recover, she also emphasizes that "Americans believe it's their 'right' to travel; traveling is as much a part of their yearly planning as organizing their Thanksgiving dinner." And even a sputtering economy has a silver lining for Ammer. "Now more than ever travelers will want to do their homework—to consider all of their options—and that can only bode well for travel guides."

Todd Sotkiewicz, Lonely Planet

Connecting with the World

"Travel is absolutely a growth area," says Lonely Planet president Todd Sotkiewicz. One of the company's triumphs: a 15% increase in market share in the past six months, with excitement going forward as Lonely Planet's entire line of guidebooks gets a new look beginning in January. The content is changing, too: the newer travel advice reflects more closely the current tastes and needs of U.S. travelers—i.e., shorter trips; tips to places off the beaten path; and directions on how to find the "authentic" experience, which is at the heart of the Lonely Planet philosophy.

Another important ingredient being added to the mix is more opinionated and engaging advice, which sources like Lonely Planet's online travel forum The Thorn Tree (reached via the Lonely Planet site at www.lonelyplanet.com) clue them is what travelers crave. To Sotkiewicz, the upturn in sales indicates a commitment the Lonely Planet traveler has to exploring the world even during challenging times (a "trifecta," he says, of SARS, the economy and the Iraq war).

What are the popular destinations? Americans are heading for Ireland or, even closer to home, Costa Rica and Mexico. Foreign buyers are venturing into Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Thailand, China, the U.S. and Europe. "Our Iran book picked up in sales a week after the Iraq war started," says Sotkiewicz. (People from the news media were using the guide as a reference tool.) Ten years ago there were no guides to North American destinations; now there are more than 40, with more to come—including forthcoming books for Coastal California, Austin, San Antonio & the Hill Country, Orlando & CentralFlorida, and Savannah, Charleston & the Carolina Coast.

According to marketing v-p Robin Goldberg, Lonely Planet defines its role not just as providing information about travel, but as inspiring travel and promulgating travel as a valuable activity. In this way, it considers itself a partner with businesses other than publishing houses. This view mandates that Lonely Planet help booksellers figure out how to serve the consumer in this category.

Rack signage, point-of-sale material and backlist promotions are some of their tools, along with going in and actually sharing information proactively with booksellers about why and how people are traveling. As a global company (offices in Melbourne, Australia, and Oakland, Calif.), 30-year-old Lonely Planet has what Sotkiewicz terms an "insider-outsider" status. "We see ourselves as book publishers, but also as an important element of the travel industry," he says. "Our perspective is defined by travelers. Our vision is about inspiring and enabling travelers to connect to the world." With a small core of loyal consumers, the company is embarking on a brand identity campaign to help more people find them. As Sotkiewicz puts it, "We are committed to assisting travelers who are actively aware of the world and curious to explore it."

Linda Kennedy, Globe Pequot Press

Learning Month by Month

"There are two segments within the travel guide business," says Linda Kennedy, president and publisher of Globe Pequot Press. "The domestic/regional segment is very different from the international side. We publish in both, and since September 11 and since the war in Iraq, the long-haul travel abroad has not been very hot. Actually, international sales are up from immediately post—September 11, but they're still soft. On the other hand, we're having a very good year with U.S. regional guides."

Kennedy quotes from surveys published in April and May by the Travel Industry Association of America. They note that Americans who set out this year on driving vacations within the U.S. may approach an all-time high number, that Americans say they are more interested in travel by car or RV or bus to small towns or rural areas and in taking shorter trips of fewer than three nights away. The May TIA report adds: "As the war [in Iraq] drew to a close, Americans' interest in visiting national monuments and places with large crowds increased significantly."

"For Globe Pequot," says Kennedy, "that means that the audience looking for guides is primed for our books." Acquired by Globe Pequot in 2000, titles released under the Falcon imprint are especially strong in U.S. outdoor recreation and sports such as rock climbing and mountain biking. Acquired in 2001, "Lyons Press has books on fly-fishing and hunting, a lot of how-to to complement the where-to that Falcon produces," Kennedy notes. "We're going to continue what we've always done and build on that. Globe Pequot's signature Off-the-Beaten-Track series has 63 books on its list, and we'll be adding 18 new and revised editions." Also expanding, she adds, are the City Guides. "The Insiders' Guides are up to 56 titles, and we're doing 15 this fall. We're adding to our geographical base wherever it makes sense. This fall we're starting a Stadium Stories series with six titles on teams like the Dallas Cowboys and the Michigan Wolverines. These are regional books perfect for tourists and for locals. Since we traffic in small regional locations, our books will help people find where they want to go this summer. This kind of travel may not remain the norm, but it appears it will be this year, and as the summer goes, we'll be watching some of the longer haul destinations in the U.S. We don't know how popular they'll be, but we're learning month to month like everyone else."

Although there is less emphasis on international travel, Kennedy points out that surprises still occur. "We're the North American publisher of the Bradt Guides, and the guide to Iraq, which came out in February, sold out immediately," she says. "I was told by Hilary Bradt that it was the top guide book in England for several months. It's clear that a lot of people are hungry for this kind of information, even if they may never go and see the place." Two other sites in which political interest remains high are subjects of a pair of Bradt guides this fall: Kabul and North Korea.

Bill Newlin, Avalon Travel Publishing

Travel as a Necessity

Despite the downturn in the economy, worries about terrorism and fear of the next new contagion, Bill Newlin, publisher of Avalon Travel Publishing, remains "truly optimistic" about the future of the travel business. That's because Americans love to wander and see new things, he says, and the irrepressible urge to hit the road means sales down the line. "We recognize the precariousness of the industry, that a world event can reset our business at any time, as was the case during the Iraq war." But by adjusting the company's programs and staffing, he says, "we've been able to stay one step ahead of the game."

To maintain the bottom line, the company has allowed attrition to the staff but has made no layoffs since September 11. A number of adjustments to existing programs have included the cancellation of three series (Travel Smart, City Smart and Adventures in Nature) totaling more than 100 titles, the axing of city guides in all series in favor of the new Moon Metro line and the postponement of individual titles including Southeast Asia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore. "We are concentrating on our core series," Newlin says—this includes Rick Steves European guides and phrasebooks, Moon Handbooks, Moon Metro and Foghorn Outdoors.

With North and South America as favored destinations among more American travelers, the 30-year-old Moon Handbook series has seen a proliferation of guides to the Americas—more than 80 of the 100+ titles cover locales in North and South America and the Caribbean, with 55 of those inside the U.S. (Charleston & Savannah is currently a top seller, with Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone leading sales among the new National Park titles.)

Newlin credits the Rick Steves guides with providing steady income for the company. "Two years ago the Rick Steves Italy book became the bestselling travel guide in the U.S. to any international destination, and it has remained firmly at the top of the heap ever since," he boasts, noting that the data is based on Bookscan information and comments from travel buyers for the major chains. Steves's France guide used to top the lists too, Newlin says, but all titles to France other than Paris have dropped off the charts since April. "Most weeks Rick Steves titles are ahead of every other comparable travel title (followed by DK and Frommer's), and their number and ranking continue to advance steadily, even while other titles to European destinations on the list are replaced by North America titles."

In past years, Newlin says, flat sales such as the company is currently experiencing would have been unacceptable. "This year it feels good," he says. "Our operating profit within a flat year has increased dramatically. Steves has been a big reason for the profit." Calling this a "challenging and interesting time"—and laughing as he says it—Newlin supports his optimism with the view that travel is embedded within the American spirit and psyche. "The good news is that Americans continue to view travel as a necessity, not a luxury: the decision today is not whether to travel, but where."

Ruth Jarvis, Time Out Guides

Not Cutting Back

Ruth Jarvis, series editor for Time Out Guides, has stared the weak economy and waning travel statistics in the face and refused to back down. "Our U.S. sales have bucked the downward trend: they went up by 12.5% in 2002 over 2001, even without factoring in new titles. And our U.K. figures are even healthier. So we're cutting back neither on new titles nor on frequency of updates."

Jarvis is quick to point out, however, that it would be foolhardy to ignore reality. "We're acutely aware of the volatile situation," she adds. "We're just trying to stay flexible. We're continually reviewing our schedule, ready to make changes at a later stage than previously if necessary, and we've got a backup list of new titles to replace any that look risky. I'm sure at some point we'll be releasing the wrong guide to the wrong place at the wrong time. But we're in good shape to ride it out."

Time Out sells the same guides in the U.S. and the U.K. Jarvis explains, "Very roughly, about two-thirds of sales of European guides are in the U.K. and a third in the U.S., but some titles buck this trend. Barcelona, for example, sells far better in the U.K., where the development of budget airlines has recently made it hugely popular. And most of our U.S. cities sell better in the U.S., with the exception of New York. That's our best-selling guide in the U.S., but sells even more in the U.K., no doubt due to the high visitorship."

Guides to tried-and-true European destinations are experiencing the greatest growth overall now. Those include books for travelers to Berlin, Brussels, Edinburgh, Prague, Madrid, Naples, London and Paris. "Anxiety breeds conservatism," Jarvis opines. "I suspect revisiting places we've been before rather than striking out into new territory appeals in a world that has suddenly started to change all around us. That doesn't mean that there aren't hot destinations in the fashionable sense, but I suspect other guidebook companies will be wary about introducing them since the hot places are often by definition up-and-coming and therefore might not have a high enough volume of potential readers, especially in the current travel slump." Time Out, however, is not shying away from guides to trendy spots—they'll publish a guide to Marrakech in August and another to Reykjavik next year.

And Jarvis remains relatively bullish on the long-term future of travel guides. She says, "Making some pretty big assumptions about everything returning to normal, there's definitely room for growth. I think we'll see lots more niche guides, such as our International Eating & Drinking guides, more style guides, perhaps a move away from the traditional detail-packed, text-heavy product." Time Out is dipping its toes into high-tech waters, too, and has already teamed up with cell phone companies in Europe to transmit reviews of restaurants and other information to tourists' cell phones in the form of text messages.

Stuart Dolgins, Langenscheidt Publishing Group

Greater Focus Stateside

"International travel books are not strong these days," says Stuart Dolgins, president of the Langenscheidt Publishing Group, but his company is holding its own with U.S. guides and a design overhaul. "I don't want to overstate this," he says, "but I think the thing that saved us was our new cover design that began two years ago. The Insight Guides have been known for faces on the cover, but in the U.S., that approach had become a little tired." So the series began carrying larger geographical concepts with scenic illustrations. "Foreign sales are still down a bit, but not all of them," declares Dolgins. "Australia, Italy, China, the Dominican Republic—they're all up. Of course, no one wants to go to France today."

Domestic destinations not under apparent threat of terrorism, SARS or the aftermath of war are the current celebrities. "Hawaii has become our number one seller," says Dolgins. "Alaska sells, and so do our books on Arizona and Las Vegas. And our map business [American Map Corp. and Hammond World Atlas Corp.] is going off the charts. People want U.S. maps. They're afraid to fly, so they're driving greater distances. At one time, they might have driven a couple hundred miles. Now they'll go more than 500. The economy isn't strong. Gas prices are down. Hotels are more accommodating. So they drive."

Dolgins was aware of weakening retail sales prior to September 11. "We are very sensitive to what's happening," he says. "We're exclusively in Staples and CVS. We have 55 vans that do direct store delivery. Our people do inventories, restock shelves and pull books that aren't selling. Each pocket is extremely important. We see how things are moving in different regions of the country, and that data gives us an edge."

The domestic upturn has led to a greater concentration here. "We set up U.S. editorial last year to develop more U.S. products, books like guides to the national parks, U.S.A. guides split into different regions," says Dolgins. "At the same time, we look very hard at foreign titles. We update them, of course, but print runs are shorter now."

Dolgins is also counting on Langenscheidt's recent acquisition of the Berlitz product line to enhance the company's opportunities. "One of the strong Berlitz titles has been on cruises. We'll probably expand that," he tells PW. "The Berlitz name will be on other new things as well, but I can't talk about them yet. They'll be something exciting, something innovative." He expects to make an announcement in the fall.

With Internet users scouring the Web for information, Dolgins says that Langenscheidt will develop its own site further. "The Web affects maps more than travel guides," he observes. "However, there will always be paper maps. People are comfortable with them. The quality is better than what you can download. Today on our Web site there are 13 different doorways to our different brands. You can go to the Berlitz site and listen to word pronunciations in French or Italian or German or Spanish. The Internet is a key factor in our thinking of the future."

Lisa Senz, St. Martin's

New Destinations for Old?

At St. Martin's, which publishes the Let's Go series targeted to the 18-to-29 set, the impact of the poor economy and lowered number of Americans travelling has been milder than one might expect. "It's back to business as usual for our demographic," says Lisa Senz, associate publisher of the reference group. "Students are still taking trips in the middle of all this, and the farther we get from the blip with the war, the more it improves. In January we had double-digit increases over last year."

Partially responsible for that growth in sales is a relaunch of the series last year, which involved new covers and a new focus on socially conscious travel. According to Senz, "We're trying to strike a new chord with the approach of travel being more of a social cause and making a difference. We're continuing to expand that aspect of the books and highlighting cultural programs that are actually run by local communities."

Let's Go is also tentatively planning to reinforce its image as the socially conscious guidebook publisher by instating a grant program that will give funds to travelers who are planning to make a difference, and for the first time this year the brand was given a human face when researchers of a few of the guides did readings at Chicago and Minneapolis bookstores in January. Turnout, Senz reports, was more than satisfactory.

Although guides to Europe continue to sit among its top sellers (so successful that in 2004 the series will launch a sub-group of "10 days more or less" guides, beginning with Spain, France and Italy), the Let's Go series has shifted its focus somewhat to meet the new political reality. Researchers won't be venturing to the Middle East or China this year. "We don't want to put them in harm's way," explains Senz. "We're doing updates that can be done without being there."

On the other hand, there are plenty of newly popular destinations to take the place of those now dangerous spots. Reports Senz, "The Dalmatian coast and Croatia are certainly the hottest places in Eastern Europe right now. Overall our May sales are dramatically better than March, and Eastern Europe in particular is up 150%."

This year Let's Go will add guides to Japan, Puerto Rico and Brazil. Japan, with its complicated street address system and high prices, presented particular challenges. "Our book is full of insider tips and bargains to make it affordable," says Senz, "and we commissioned an official Japanese Map Bureau to create over 100 new and innovative maps for this book."

So, Let's Go is healthy and growing, but what about the travel industry in general? Senz admits, "It's coming back, but with recent volatile eruptions in Saudi Arabia and Morocco, who knows? I'm optimistic. We're optimistic. We have to be."

Chuck Lang, DK

Having a Grand Time

When DK first dipped its toes into the travel publishing pool back in the early '90s, "travel was not the most exciting part of the bookstore," recalls Chuck Lang, senior v-p of publishing. "All the guides were sort of the same."

DK's Eyewitness Travel Guides series quickly staked out a niche for itself as the only full-color guidebooks on the market, he says. "Now four or five publishers have them. The whole area has gotten more competitive, because so much information is available online, and consumers are used to getting information that is current and exciting. The travel audience is requiring more."

This year marks the 10th anniversary for the popular Eyewitness Travel Guides and DK, to celebrate, is rejacketing all the titles, which now number nearly 100. Interestingly, the post—September 11 economy hasn't seemed to affect sales in the slightest, says Lang, who notes that, in fact, "we are up tremendously—some titles as much as 150% over last year."

However, the events of September 11 did affect one of the titles in DK's new Top Ten Guides, which debuted in January 2002. The title that was slated to launch the series—New York—was on press in September 2001. Says Lang, "We made a few editorial changes."

The Top Ten series, which is designed "like weekend or quick trip guides," says Lang, uses what he calls "quirky lists" to introduce readers to an eclectic mix of cities and countries. "It's not literally a list of the 10 best things to see," he explains, "but rather lists that give you the flavor of a place—the 10 best things to see with kids, the 10 best places for an excellent dessert, the 10 best places to avoid and so on."

"Sales are extremely healthy in both the Top Ten series and our existing Eyewitness Travel Guides series," Lang affirms, adding that they haven't seen a skew in destinations, either. "But then we may be a little different. Obviously air travel is down, but people tend to use our particular guidebooks for planning a trip—so they might say 'I'm not going to Germany right now, but I still want to go,' so they'll purchase the guide and do their homework."

Others buy DK's books as souvenirs of a trip, he says, "and I think a lot of people buy them for reference as well."

There's only one thing he's seen in reference to world events that Lang terms "sort of odd." He explains that "through our online accounts, we can watch sales for a specific destination. Turkey spiked incredibly a couple of months ago. I think people were not necessarily saying, 'I'm going to Turkey,' but were hearing about it and wanting to learn more about it."

Travel trends, Lang contends, are "cyclical." Vietnam has swung into the limelight recently, but DK's steady bestsellers still remain such European hot spots as London, Italy, Paris and Rome.

Overall the outlook remains bright, he says. "We're having a pretty grand time with travel with right now."