When the pandemic took hold in spring 2020, travel publishers had to think, and move, fast. In a world where travel became unsafe, if not outright banned, this segment of the publishing world faced long odds. However, many—including Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Thrillist, and National Geographic—refocused their strategies to keep housebound audiences informed and entertained. But now, as parts of the world reopen to travel, while others are still profoundly struggling with Covid-19, travel brands are poised to make another pivot.
Destination for information
Last spring, Conde Nast Traveler shifted its digital content strategy away from bread-and-butter destination content to travel news. In particular, it dove into how the unfolding Covid-19 pandemic was impacting travel. And, after a precipitous drop off when the world essentially shut down in March, traffic began to rebound in April as homebound readers spent more time on the site, driving up total engaged minutes 10% in 2020.
As lockdowns set in around the world, Conde Nast Traveler focused on creating a deep well of
evergreen content aimed at inspiring grounded readers to daydream about future travel. It highlighted adventures closer to home. It also provided virtual travel experiences to transport and engage housebound audiences.
However, now that actual travel is back on the rise, Conde Nast Traveler is pivoting again. “As regulations ease and attitudes towards travel shift, we’re focusing on content that helps people get back out into the world,” said Jesse Ashlock, Conde Nast Traveler’s Deputy Global Editorial Director.
Traffic to domestic destination-based content and road-trip related content began to climb last summer. Interest in vacation rentals also spiked. Audience time spent with that content rose more than 1,100% between January and October 2020. Ashlock expects those trends to continue through this summer, as people explore the great American outdoors.
Travel + Leisure made a similar pandemic pivot, leaning into the leisure aspect of the brand as the world was shutting down in the spring of 2020. The brand even updated its Twitter bio to reflect its #LeanIntoLeisure strategy.
“We maintained a very flexible approach to our content, particularly in March, April and May 2020, so that we could be nimble and change course depending on what made sense given shifting world events,” said Deanne Kaczerski, T+L’s Digital Content Director.
The brand also shifted it’s commerce-related content from travel gear toward products related to face masks and work-at-home accessories.
Aspiration and inspiration
On Instagram, Travel+Leisure chose to double down on aspiration. The team shared images meant to inspire far-flung daydreams and asked followers to share images of the places they missed most. “We didn’t entirely abandon the aspirational element of travel,” Kaczerski said. The brand continued to highlight dreamy itineraries for cooped up wanderers looking for an escape from daily pandemic life but also began covering more wellness stories.
There are several indications that strategy worked. “Overall, the website experienced tremendous traffic in the last year. People sought out trusted information, expert advice and compelling content to satiate their wanderlust in a very challenged time,” Kaczerski said.
At Thrillist, the gaze shifted toward learning more about the places that captivate travelers.
“Rather than encouraging people to go out, we encouraged people to dig into learning the history of spaces,” said Helen Hollyman, Thrillist’s Editor in Chief.
As the world reopens, Thrillist’s focus is on service journalism that aims to help readers figure out their pandemic travel comfort level. While things are looking up, “it’s still a little bit of a question mark where things will be at the end of 2021,” Hollyman said.
Given the uncertainty of international travel, Thrillist opted to emphasize domestic travel by highlighting adventures that can be had. These include camping, stargazing, and exploring national and state parks.
Advertisers are ready for the change, Hollyman said. “Everyone’s kind of in this space of let’s get back in there,” she said. “People are tired of Netflix, and they’re tired of streaming.”
George Stone, Editor in Chief of National Geographic’s travel coverage, described the pandemic as a bit of a break. It offered a breather, which allowed the publication to shift gears and return to its roots. “In a way, it gave us the opportunity to do better National Geographic storytelling,” he said. “We were stepping away from consumer travel objectives, and that was a relief.”
With consumer travel largely off the table for several months, National Geographic felt free to focus its website on looking at the world through the lenses of science, history, and culture. “We started to dig into the stories of people and places more so than the immediate story of the traveler,” Stone said.
There were also more Covid-19 stories, a reflection of National Geographic’s deep commitment to covering science. “Our traffic really shot up last March,” said Alissa Swango, Managing Editor for National Geographic Digital.
Homeschooling parents drove up demand for science-related kids content like experiments to supplement schoolwork. A popup pandemic newsletter has remained so popular it still hasn’t pivoted. “Our open rates are still very high,” Swango said.
As travel opens up, National Geographic hopes to help usher in a new more thoughtful era of travel. Like other publishers, it plans to focus more on sustainable travel and responsible tourism through its content.
The goal is to “encourage people to get out into the world for a firsthand encounter with the issues,places, communities that bring geographical and cultural context,” Stone said. “We want people to know the world and love the world as conservationists and explorers.”
About the author
Meena Thiruvengadam is an independent journalist and editorial consultant.