AFAR Media’s Trajectory: Self-Funded, Bi-Coastal, Profitable

In 2009, AFAR Media was launched with a focus on travel and a combined $20 million investment from Joe Diaz, Greg Sullivan and Ernie Garcia. This summer, at the five-year anniversary mark and with the August/September issue having just hit newsstands, AFAR has arrived at profitability.

Branded content currently accounts for a third of AFAR’s revenues. In the latest print issue, starting on page 19, there is for example “Artisans Inspired.” Part of a year-long partnership with The Ritz-Carlton, the three-page feature is anchored around quotes from surfer Lon Klein, New York Botanical Gardens curator Karen Daubmann and international travel excursions leader Sean Nelson.

“This is a multi-dimensional, multi-platform branded content program that lives in print, mobile and on desktop,” says Diaz during a recent telephone conversation with FishbowlNY. “How we try to approach branded content is – it’s really all about what is the core idea. What are the hooks, what are the elements that are going to get people excited.”

“We don’t care if it’s paid [content] or if it’s editorial,” he adds. “Our philosophy is that the content always has to be good. And we’re not shy about making sure everybody knows that this is paid for. The whole idea of the campaign is that artisans inspire and let’s help bring those rich values and characters to life, through the eyes of the people on the ground.”

One of AFAR’s earliest branded content initiatives involved Jaguar. For that one, the magazine gave writer Nick Fauchald and photographer William Hereford the keys to a Jaguar XFR and sent the pair on a last-minute, two-day road trip.

“That campaign [“Destination Undisclosed”] was tied to our “Spin the Globe” series,” Diaz explains. “We have a globe in the San Francisco office. We put all the countries on it that are safe to travel to; basically everything except war-torn places.”

“We don’t actually tell the writer where they’re going until the day before they’re scheduled to depart,” he continues. “The idea here is to let spontaneity be their guide. We’ve had some really great writers participate. For example, Susan Orlean went to Copenhagen and another writer, Ryan Knighton, went to Cairo.”

“Knighton is completely blind. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Cairo, and it’s not an easy place for a visually impaired person to get around,” says Diaz (pictured). “So we called Knighton, said, ‘What should we do?’ He called his wife, and she said he should go. He wound up writing one our most powerful “Spin the Globe” pieces.”

VP/chief product officer Diaz and CEO Sullivan came to AFAR Media in 2009 with no previous publishing experience. However, both are constant travelers; based on that combined experience, they felt there was an opportunity to “elevate” the conversation surrounding meaningful international travel.

“In print, we give a lot of real estate to images,” Diaz notes. “I feel that this allows the magazine to breathe and readers to really kind of immerse into it. Some of the words that I use to describe this approach are that it’s clean, it’s fresh, it’s warm.”

AFAR recently hired a new creative director, Elizabeth Spiridakis Olson, previously with Bon Appetit. And for all those worried about the state of print, Diaz has some reassuring words.

“We’ve been really successful on the print side of the business,” he says. “Print has done the strongest for us this year. We mail the magazine to a list of travel agents that we feel are some of the top agents in the industry. We also do a little bit of distribution in hotels. But the bulk of our print circulation comes from subscriptions.”

A friend of Diaz’s recently texted to let him know that a store in the Denver airport had erected a huge display promoting AFAR magazine, which retails for $5.99. The best thing about that, says Diaz, is that in this case the company had not paid for the display.

A few years ago, AFAR had a German-language print edition but currently publishes in English only. At one end of the digital channels spectrum, there is AFAR Collection, where hotels and resorts pay a fee to be listed to an invite-only reader audience, and AFAR Experiences, which sends readers on far-flung trips. At the other is Learning AFAR, through which 200+ low-income students get to take part annually in cross-cultural, international exchanges.

Diaz says the average AFAR reader takes 20 trips a year (equally divided between business and leisure) and stays in hotels over 60 nights a year. Diaz himself commutes every weekend between the New York and San Francisco offices. When we spoke, he told us that it was the first time in three years that he was going to be in one place – New York – for several weeks. In both cities, he is able to walk to work.

Meanwhile, each employee at AFAR gets a $2,000 yearly travel stipend from the company. “The only rules really,” says Diaz, “are that they can’t go to a place they been before, and that the destination should be international.”