Publishers Revamp Travel Coverage as the Ad Category Dries Up Amid Pandemic

As quarantine persists, new experiences go digital

Media organizations are rethinking their travel coverage amid Covid-19. Condé Nast, Travel + Leisure, The New York Times
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Key insight:

With the U.S. under widespread stay-at-home orders, publications that cover travel have had to rethink how to reach those consumers and attract ad dollars even as the category’s marketing budgets are being cut.

Publishers including The New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler (CNT) and Meredith’s Travel + Leisure have all shifted their coverage to focus more on service journalism and keep readers’ minds engaged. While consumers are still interested in the topic, the travel advertising category has taken a dive due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Travel saw the biggest decline in ad spend compared to other categories (including beauty, retail and sports) in March, according to video ad-tech company SpotX. Travel ad spend is also down 90%, from the first week in March compared to the last week in April, SpotX found.

“Travel continues to be the vertical most impacted by the pandemic, as many Americans are either canceling or postponing their getaways,” said Mike Evans, svp, demand facilitation at SpotX. “Digital video ad spend in this category, which includes hotel and lodging brands, airlines and cruise lines, has performed consistently lower than normal and as compared to other verticals.”

Sellers are also bracing for it to continue to be the hardest hit category this year, even over retail and restaurant categories, according to a study by the Interactive Advertising Bureau.

"If you’re a consumer brand, everybody is going to be embracing uncertainty."
—Mike Bloxham, svp, global media and entertainment, Magid

It’s unclear if—or when—ad spends will return to pre-Covid-19 levels, “unless you’re in the kind of business where your revenues are increasing because you’re producing something that is central to dealing with the situation,” said Mike Bloxham, svp of global media and entertainment at Magid. “That’s not many industries. If you’re a consumer brand, everybody is going to be embracing uncertainty.”

Still, publishers are hopeful that travel will resume after the pandemic.

“We’ve got to get through this first, but when we do, I think we’ll see a fairly quick recovery,” said Doug Olson, president of Meredith Magazines. “In the meantime, we can show all these great places to go to when it is safe that are part of our world.”

Even with travel grounded, media organizations noted that their audiences still want to read about new experiences and destinations. These publications are seeing the same kind of traffic uptick around travel that publishers have noticed amid Covid-19.

A piece from Travel + Leisure, for example, spotlighting museums that readers could tour virtually, racked up over 4 million visits and over 1.2 million video views in less than a week, the publisher said. Since its initial publication, the piece has generated over 7 million visits.

And in print, the magazine doesn’t plan to change its print schedule. The first issue that will see an impact from Covid-19 will be July, and the publisher is working with advertisers to shape their messaging to be “sensitive to current conditions,” said Giulio Capua, svp, publisher of the luxury group at Meredith.

“Travel + Leisure has survived many downturns in the business, from the Gulf War in 1990-1991 to 9/11 to the Great Recession,” Capua continued. “We have no doubt that we will survive and emerge stronger, along with our partners.”

The New York Times, also aware of how readers’ content preferences were changing, aggressively covered what the varying rules were regarding travel in March as Covid-19 began to take hold in the U.S.

“There was so much news and so much service we were trying to offer people,” NYT travel editor Amy Virshup said.

three screengrabs of virtual museum tours
Clockwise from L.: New York Times Travel, Travel + Leisure and Condé Nast Traveler have all created virtual travel opportunities for their audiences.
Condé Nast, Travel + Leisure, The New York Times

That coverage evolved over the last two months and led the publication to provide more service journalism for readers. In print, the publisher renamed its travel section At Home, providing coverage around an at-home lifestyle. Online, it tweaked its popular franchise 52 Places to Go to include all the virtual ways readers could visit those destinations. The Times’ suggestions for visiting the No. 1 spot on the list, Washington, D.C., for example, was to peruse the Library of Congress’ online exhibits, take an online walk around the Capitol and virtually maneuver through the Smithsonian’s museums.

The Times’ shift in coverage is in place indefinitely, or at least until there’s a change in the news cycle.

“If we’re all still at home a month from now, we’ll be here. If we’re all still at home three months from now, we’ll all still be here,” Virshup said.

CNT has also adjusted how it is approaching the topic, both in print and online. The brand is altering its publishing schedule, printing more magazines later this year and trying to capture any ad dollars that might become available in the fall. Some CNT advertisers have already changed their commitments to appear later in the year, though a spokesperson declined to give exact revenue figures.

“More and more people are thinking ahead and know they’re going to travel again,” said CNT U.S. editor Jesse Ashlock.

CNT held its first webinar with advertisers earlier this month to talk through potential partnerships. The publisher’s coverage looks different than it did pre-Covid-19, and it is communicating that to advertisers as it monitors how consumers are responding.

The brand created a Covid-19 travel hub and more pieces for readers to scratch the travel itch from home. Depending on the interest from both readers and advertisers, these coverage trends could continue after the Covid-19 lockdowns lift.

“I don’t think anything we’ve initiated will have an expiration date when we reach a resolution,” Ashlock said.

As the hold on the country begins to lift, brands in the travel industry, like any other, will ultimately have to rethink their messaging when it comes to advertising.

“This is going to be one of those events that is so significant that it defines a consumer’s relationship, their view, to the rest of the world,” Bloxham said. “That, in turn, will impact how everybody responds to it.”


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@SaraJerde sara.jerde@adweek.com Sara Jerde is publishing editor at Adweek, where she covers traditional and digital publishers’ business models. She also oversees political coverage ahead of the 2020 election.