A great escape may have never felt so enticing, considering the sub-zero temperatures and myriad chilling realities of the still-plummeting economy. But in these troublesome times, do we dare take off? The answer, say the experts, is a tentative yes. The U.S. Travel Association projects a 3% decrease in travel expenditures in the U.S. for 2009, down to $762.3 billion. Though travel-book sales mirror the fluctuations in the larger travel market, the recent downturn has a few upsides.

Several are evident at Idlewild Books, a new independent store specializing in travel titles, which opened this past spring in Manhattan—an island roiled by the effects of the financial meltdown. “The same week that Lehman Brothers collapsed, we appeared in the New York Times,” says owner David Del Vecchio, who notes that his sales have climbed each month, despite the harsh economic climate. “Would I rather be opening during a boom? Sure,” he says. “But we conceived our store as a fantasy space where people can come to dream... about other places. I think that in some ways, there's even more of a need for that now.” Idlewild carries fiction and nonfiction, all organized by destination rather than by genre, as well as traditional travel-guide titles—a variety, Del Vecchio says, which may have stoked profits while some customers are reticent about travel.

Swelling ranks of bankers-turned-backpackers notwithstanding, most publishers PW spoke with admitted that, to some degree, they are feeling the pinch. “We have seen a drop in sales since early fall 2008 that is clearly tied to the economic crisis,” says Ensley Eikenburg, associate publisher and associate marketing director for Frommer's. Though the category has experienced this type of dip before (many publishers cited historically low sales periods during the first Gulf War and post-9/11 as recent examples), those in the book business are using the downtime to reconsider travelers' changing needs, respond to an ever-growing interest in domestic destinations and explore a value-driven redefinition of the traditional getaway.

Sticking Close to Home

“There's no question that travel is soft because of the economy,” says Fodor's publisher, Tim Jarrell. “The hardest-hit destinations have proved to be once-staples like Hawaii and Italy. Not surprisingly, domestic destinations are holding up best.” He notes a variety of strategies consumers have employed in order to have their vacation and afford it, too—taking advantage of bargains by booking their trip closer to their departure date, for example—but what's most significant, he says, is that “people who are traveling are still taking guidebooks with them.”

Frommer's Eikenburg reports that her imprint has seen higher-than-average sales in domestic titles. “Our Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World remains our top-seller,” she says. “New York City, always a bestseller, is faring well, as are Washington, D.C.; Arizona; Seattle; Florida; Chicago; and Colorado. People see domestic travel as a cheaper option and, right now while gas prices are low, driving vacations make sense.”

When Brice Gosnell, Lonely Planet's regional publisher for the Americas, began analyzing how Americans were traveling 18 months ago, he discovered the same thing: domestic leisure trips totaled 437 million in the third quarter of 2008, according to Global Inc., and Americans average about three-and-a-half short-break trips per year. “Since we know that U.S. regional travel will be the largest travel pattern in the next six months,” says Gosnell, “we decided to create a product that gave more people ideas for the way they're already traveling.” Next month Lonely Planet launches TRIPS, a domestic series specializing in regionally focused journeys people can make from home. Each of the first six titles covers a wide stretch of land (e.g., The Carolinas, Georgia & the South) and offers 50 to 65 itineraries grouped by themes such as “food and drink” or “offbeat.” Lonely Planet, Gosnell adds, is not waiting for the economic tide to turn: “It's easy to get caught up in this particular moment, but things will turn around, and we can't sit still or stop innovating.”

Langenscheidt Publishing Group—home to Berlitz Publishing, Insight Guides and Michelin Guides, among others—will relaunch 10 titles this year in the Michelin Must See series. “The books will be more compact than the original Must Sees, and the series itself is targeted toward weekend and short-stay travelers who may have booked their vacation because of a good deal on last-minute travel,” says senior marketing manager Christine Ramos. (Another sign of the times: the editors of Michelin's classic restaurant guides will also be adding more affordable restaurants to their Bib Gourmand category, which features restaurants under $40.)

Avalon Travel, too, will extend its brands and even expand. “Perseus is such a strong parent company,” says publisher Bill Newlin, “and during the downturn in sales this autumn they've continued to emphasize long-term growth and development.” The latest news was made public January 27, when Avalon and Publishers Group West, both owned by Perseus, announced a publishing, sales, marketing and distribution agreement with Let's Go, the Harvard University undergraduate—run imprint that specializes in student travel.

“We feel we're uniquely positioned during this time of economic uncertainty and are extremely thrilled to be embarking upon this venture with Avalon,” says Laura Gordon, Let's Go's director of publishing (and Harvard class of 2009). “In 2008, youth travel represented 20% of international travel; we believe the study abroad market won't necessarily be tied down by the same things that [affect] adult and family travel.” This fall, Let's Go will roll out 26 titles, which include European study-abroad staples for which they're best known as well as several guides to areas in Latin America, a region that offers both a favorable exchange rate and an increasing number of language, service and cultural immersion programs.

Avalon's popular Moon Handbooks, poised to publish their largest-ever frontlist in 2009, will beef up coverage of American midsize cities: Baltimore, Cleveland, Tampa and St. Petersburg, St. Louis, Denver and more. “If these cities were covered in the past, they were done on the cheap,” says Newlin. “We're taking full advantage of the range of tools we have at our disposal: [the books] have full-color sections and color maps, and they're cross-referenced and cross-indexed, just as guides to more marquee destinations are.”

America the Beautiful

“Domestically, my sense is that people will very much be traveling and that, particularly with the economy, they want a lot more out of travel,” says Elizabeth Newhouse, director of travel publishing at National Geographic. Out this month is the sixth edition of Guide to the National Parks of the U.S. The parks hosted 277.7 million visitors in 2008, up from 2007, and with even lower gas prices projected, Newhouse is betting on another gain for 2009.

Janet Chapple, the one-title publisher of Yellowstone Treasures: The Traveler's Companion to the National Park, says the economic downturn has not affected her company, Granite Peak Publications. “Visitation to Yellowstone hit an all-time high in 2007 at 3,151,343, and was almost as high in 2008, in spite of the huge spike in gas prices during the peak season,” she says. “Sales of Yellowstone Treasures, now totaling 30,000 since 2002, hit a peak in 2008.” Attributing that title's success to both the high number of trips to the park and to word-of-mouth publicity, she notes that Amazon is already taking orders for the new edition, due in April.

Though not exclusively a domestic guidebook—or a traditional guidebook, per se—Perigee's Destination Wildlife: An International Site-by-Site Guide to the Best Places to Experience Endangered, Rare, and Fascinating Animals and Their Habitats (Apr.) has a high concentration of domestic locations. Says publisher John Duff. “People often think of Africa, India and Australia for these sorts of things, but we have amazing stuff here that's really accessible and not so expensive—most of the time you can drive there.” Among the offerings: Texas's Big Bend National Park (home to more varieties of birds, bats and cacti than any other national park in the country, according to the book's author, Pamela K. Brodowsky) and the Channel Islands National Park, off the coast of Southern California, filled with a variety of sea lions and seals and surrounded by whales, orcas and dolphins.

Which is not to say that memorable nature experiences are solely the province of national parks. Down East Books, which specializes in travel books about Maine and New England, for example, is optimistic about sales in its core market. “In tough economic times, people tend to reduce the distances they travel, and that's good news for us, since people from greater Boston, for instance, can travel well into Maine on just one tank of gas,” says group publisher John Viehman. Down East has two June books, Maine Birding Trail: The Official Guide to More than 260 Accessible Sites and Mountains of Maine: Intriguing Stories Behind Their Names, which, says Viehman, “appeals not just to outdoor enthusiasts but also to those who are fascinated by word and place history.”

Several publishers in addition to Let's Go are betting on a road trip renaissance. National Geographic's Newhouse calls USA 101: A Guide to America's Iconic Places, Events, and Festivals a must-have for road-trippers. “These are really... a taste of Americana,” she says. “And many of these trips, like those to Amish country, will be very economical.” Avalon rolls out two new titles that expand on the theme established in its popular Road Trip USA by Jamie Jensen (which has sold more than 450,000 copies): Road Trip USA Route 66 and Road Trip USA Pacific Coast Highway hit shelves in April.

In December, Adams Media released Party Across America! by a Fort Collins, Colo.—based writer, Michael Guerriero, who is a true travel success story for this new economy. After he was laid off, he used his severance package for an around-the-country travel extravaganza that served as the inspiration and research for the book. “He's been to all 101 events, parties, celebrations and festivals included in this book, to give it the requisite authority,” says publisher Karen Cooper, citing Bridgeville, Del.'s Punkin Chunkin (“When someone yells 'Pie in the sky!'—RUN!”) and Louisville, Ky.'s annual Big Lebowski July bowl-a-thon as two of her favorites. “Who couldn't use a little local fun in this economy?”

A New World Order

Though domestic travel will be a best-case scenario for many, these turbulent times do provide a wealth of new opportunity in other parts of the world. Which is why certain publishers, in addition to acting locally, are thinking globally.

“We view 2008 as an economic anomaly, and DK will stay the course in 2009,” says senior v-p Therese Burke. “With the current economic climate causing many travelers to scale back both the length and scope of their trips, DK Eyewitness Travel's Top 10 series has continued to be buoyant.” And the future, she says, looks bright: “We will watch the recovery of the dollar very closely as it supports our thinking that shorter trips to destinations like London, Paris and Dublin will be popular.”

Burke says that in addition to seeing an upturn in sales of Rough Guides and DK Eyewitness Travel Guides to Morocco and Egypt—titles she expects will remain popular for 2009—she's also been encouraged by the performance of the company's three guidebooks to countries in Latin America. It's a phenomenon noted by several other major players as well as by Idlewild's Del Vecchio, who says, “I do get the sense that people have gotten a little smarter about where their dollars will go further.”

But Americans' interest in exploring areas outside the lower 48 may not be solely swayed by the rise and fall of U.S. currency (see sidebar, p. 22). Leading the charge for a new vision of travel is writer, TV host and activist Rick Steves, an Avalon Travel author who has been encouraging Americans to partake in European culture since 1973. This year he expands his empire, beginning with a one-hour special documenting his trip to Iran, which premiered last month on public television. “Our understanding of Iran is miserable; [it's] stuck in 1978. We can learn a lot by going there,” Steves recently told Condé Nast Traveler. “It's a powerful, rich culture that's been a leader in its corner of the world for years. I went in there with all sorts of misperceptions and had a fascinating 10 days.” In May Steves will publish Travel Is a Political Act with another Perseus imprint, Nation Books. “He's proselytizing for a large vision of travel, and he's hitting all the right notes,” says Avalon's Newlin. “If the last eight years have accentuated the isolationist and in some cases xenophobic qualities America is capable of, clearly this has the potential to be a transformative moment.”

Armchair Getaways

Of course, the roads to some of these faraway destinations are paved with more than good intentions—a bit of cash is necessary, too. Happily, readers opting out of travel this year still have loads of good fodder in book form. “The core of our travel list is less affected by downturns in travel than standard guides because we focus more on the culture and history of a place than where to lodge or eat,” says Interlink Books publicity director Moira Megargee, “thus having continuing appeal to readers whose means of travel is limited to their imaginations.” This year, Interlink's list includes Yemen: Jewel of Arabia and Kilimanjaro: A Photographic Journey to the Roof of Africa, the latter a detailed account of the “how and why” of climbing Africa's highest mountain, written by Interlink publisher Michel Moushabek.

Frommer's 500 Places series, also aimed at armchair travelers, has enjoyed record sales, says Eikenburg, “telling us that while consumers may be scaling back their actual travel, they are still interested in [reading] travel information and preparing for sunnier days ahead.”

Perhaps the most enticing title for someone looking to mix economic virtue with a bit of vice may be 99 Drams of Whiskey: The Accidental Hedonist's Quest for the Perfect Shot and the History of the Drink (St. Martin's, May) by food blogger Kate Hopkins. Editor Daniela Rapp says that she's recently seen quite a few proposals for books like Hopkins's—what she calls “intensely subjective travelogues. I'd consider this travel writing in the vein of books by Paul Theroux or Bill Bryson. It will appeal to all whiskey lovers, who arguably might be in a better position to purchase an armchair travel book along with their next upmarket bottle of Glenfarclas, Buffalo Trace or Tullamore.”

All in the Family
One time-honored way to get more out of your travel money is to build a little bonding into the itinerary. “The family travel trend has been particularly noticeable since 9/11 and stemmed from the need of families to reconnect,” says Elizabeth Newhouse of National Geographic, which next month will publish The 10 Best of Everything: Families. And there's no sign of a slowdown. According to the marketing research firm Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown, and Russell, family travel “will continue to grow at a faster rate than all forms of leisure travel.”

The main objectives of travel with the kids are togetherness and experience, echoes Doris Cooper, editorial director at Clarkson Potter. But she sees a generational shift: “People are looking for extraordinary and unusual and yet accessible,” she says. “With more and more families that have two parents who work, there's definitely a trend toward making the travel experience as precious as the time itself.” In April, the imprint will publish Together We Go by Cookie magazine contributor Anita Kaushal. A hardcover book with 360 full-color photos, it is, says Cooper, “an inspirational book,” combining illustrations and anecdotes with practical how-to information.

Other prominent traditional travel guide publishers have gotten in on the act. In April, Fodor's will release four first editions of family-focused U.S. city guides. “Taking your family on vacation is different than going to that once-in-a-lifetime exotic destination,” says Jarrell, “but I think there's a real trend of sharing for families.” Frommer's 500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up is one of the imprint's top sellers, says Eikenburg, while the success of the Frommer's with Your Kids series, which now has nine titles, has shown “a strong cross-market between budget travel and family travel.”

Still, the savviest way to spend quality time with loved ones may be to reserve a long weekend or so to reconnect closer to home, safe from time and cost constraints. In March, Adams Media will publish The Great American Staycation, capitalizing on a buzzword that has, in the past year, popped up on cnn.com, msnbc.com and abcnews.com, among other places. Publisher Karen Cooper's favorite suggestions from the book include staying overnight at a museum, hosting a backyard movie night and checking out factory tours at places like Ben & Jerry's or Budweiser. “We did a ton of these as a family when I was growing up,” she says. “Cutting back on costs doesn't have to mean cutting back on fun.”
Though the hottest trend in hands-on travel may seem a bit counterintuitive to those who see vacations as sleep-till-noon, piña colada territory, several publishers are betting that many Americans will want to use their downtime to roll up their sleeves and help someone else. They have the stats to back them: this past April, University of California at San Diego researchers reported that about 40% of Americans say they're willing to spend several weeks on vacations that involve volunteer service, with another 13% saying they'd stay an entire year.

“It's a different mindset, but people, with their squeezed wallets, have begun to realize that travel is more than luxury and consumption,” says Kermit Hummel, editorial director at the Countryman Press, which will publish Volunteer Vacations Across America: Immersion Travel USA in June. “The best thing about a 'volunteer vacation' is that you return home with more than... a sunburn and a hole in your bank account.” The book, which profiles more than 200 domestic programs for travelers of all ages and stages of life, includes a “multiplicity of indexes,” says Hummel, “so virtually everyone in the country can find something near to them.”

Both Frommer's 500 Places to Make a Difference and National Geographic's 100 Best Volunteer Vacations to Enrich Your Life span the globe, the latter title offering a wide range of opportunities that include excavating ancient artifacts in Colorado's Crow Canyon, monitoring climate change on the Arctic Circle and delivering food to children in Haiti. “There's something to satisfy everyone's taste,” says Elizabeth Newhouse. “People want to have a deeper connection to a place—they don't want a canned experience—and they want to get behind the scenes. Those who have done it understand that it's a phenomenal way to get insight into another culture.”