Weeks after the UK sunk into lockdown, in spring 2020, the English edition of the Lonely Planet magazine closed. The Sunday Times Travel Magazine was to follow. The tourism industry was being pummelled by the pandemic. That year, UK residents made 23.8m visits abroad, 74 per cent fewer than 2019, according to the Office for National Statistics.
The team behind Wanderlust, owned by Think Publishing, were assessing their options. The February issue had plugged ‘50 New Trips for 2020’, from Namibia to Nicaragua. It was 180-odd pages. Months later, the magazine fell in frequency from once a month (ten a year) to once every two months and shrunk in size by more than 40 per cent. “I could see Wanderlust getting thinner and thinner,” says George Kipouros, now CEO of Wanderlust Travel Media, a company he set up when he bought the magazine that December. (Think Publishing retained a stake.) “For Lonely Planet to go was a real shocker. I thought, ‘I can’t let Wanderlust go down the same route.’”
Kipouros had spent several years running AI Business, a content hub and events company tracking news in artificial intelligence. He co-founded it in 2014, and, within five years, the business was making $7 million in annual profit. In 2019, he sold it to Informa Plc. “When I left, it allowed me to take stock of what I wanted to do,” says Kipouros. “Travel has always been my passion and my background was in media and events. What better way to use that than to take a much-loved brand and elevate it? Covid presented an opportunity.”
The departure lounge
Wanderlust, which turns 30 this year, was started by Lyn Hughes and her late husband, Paul Morrison. The couple had taken a break from their careers as management consultants. They came up with their dream publication on a flight to Ecuador, scrawling ideas on a sick bag. While no longer editor-in-chief (Kipouros has that role), Hughes is still part of the senior team. “Lyn sits at the heart of what we do,” says Kipouros. “It is testament to her vision that this brand has survived independently for so long.”
Independence is important. “Our competition – Condé Nast Traveller and National Geographic Traveller – are American brands. Wanderlust is British and it’s independent – it’s never been part of a massive conglomerate.” This allows Wanderlust to reposition faster – and the new approach, led by Kipouros, seems to be working. Last year, Wanderlust won PPA Special Interest Brand of the Year, while Kipouros was nominated as Editor of the Year at the PPA Independent Publisher Awards.
Wanderlust now publishes double issues all year round, but the standard issue has returned to a healthier 200 pages. Kipouros has upped the paper grade from 60gsm matt to 70gsm star gloss, with gold foil on the masthead. “The investment has been in making it look and feel like an upmarket publication,” he says. The whole magazine is also now 100 per cent PEFC-certified, as well as 100 per cent recyclable. “Sustainability costs. But we can’t just say we support it. We’ve got to invest in it. Our readers care and we care.” Kipouros estimates production is now 5-7 per cent more expensive.
The payoff has been worth it. “We’ve seen sales of the physical magazine go through the roof,” he says. “When I took Wanderlust on, the circulation was about 15,000 copies. We’re just about to get our ABC certificate and it’s going to be in excess of 70,000 copies.” (A half are free, distributed to airports, hotels and universities.)
Readers may be shoppers in Wanderlust’s new outlets, which have expanded from WH Smith to Waitrose and Marks & Spencer. “During Covid, that was a big shift,” says Kipouros. While the travel industry shrunk during the pandemic, readers’ appetite increased. “We saw fantastic traction with readers. People were consuming travel media because that was the only way they could escape.” Digital did especially well, with the website hitting 1.6 million unique page views one month. The number has settled at 1.25 million.
A new map
The tagline has also had a refresh. Out went ‘Travel well’. In came ‘Taking the road less travelled’. “Wanderlust introduced me to many destinations and many experiences I never knew existed,” says Kipouros, who subscribed to the magazine for fifteen years before taking it on. “It was always the magazine that would surprise me. I want it to do that for our readers.”
This means a refusal to follow trends, a refusal to focus on popular destinations and a refusal to take brief hops. “We don’t do short breaks in Barcelona,” says Kipouros. “We will never put New York on the cover. Travel is about immersing yourself in a place.” The Wanderlust reader wants something different, he adds, while acknowledging that, as a business, this comes with a risk. “When I see our competing titles put Rome or New York on the cover, I know they will sell well because people want to go there. But I think there is something to be said for being bold and telling readers, ‘Don’t tick off someone else’s bucket list. Create your own.’”
The same goes for online, where Wanderlust must avoid chasing traffic through search by posting city guides stuffed with key sights. “There is content on Barcelona and New York on our website,” says Kipouros, “but it’s a different take or it’s what to do around those cities.” One piece suggests kayaking in Manhattan. The big drivers to the website are more unusual destinations. “If you want to find out how to travel round the Falkland Islands or Saint Helena, we will probably be one of the few outlets with so much information.”
Wanderlust also avoids overly popular destinations because promoting them clashes with the brand idea of sustainability. It’s the reason it avoids cruises – unless they’re expedition trips in the Arctic or Antarctica. “We stay clear of covering large-scale cruise travel because we don’t think it’s sustainable to dump 5,000 people in Barcelona for a day,” says Kipouros, who upholds the same values for advertising and partnerships. “I turned down an advert for a major Italian city last year because the way they’ve gone about developing and promoting tourism isn’t right.”
Kipouros also refuses to cover long-haul flights for very short stays. “You have to consider the impact,” he says. “We say to people, ‘Travel slower, stay longer, make sure your trip has a purpose. It’s not about just taking a photo in front of a monument. It’s about understanding where you are.’”
Like increased production values, being particular about content and advertisers has a cost, but it is one worth paying. Cost crops up again when Kipouros talks about writers. Wanderlust offsets all their travel through sustainable forestry and carbon capture projects, budgeting for $25,000 a year. It is also willing to pay writers more to attract them. Kipouros wants at least 15 to 20 per cent of content produced by writers from a BAME background. “When I joined, it was not diverse. We’ve got to help people, even if it means paying them a bit more as an incentive.”
The golden ticket
For Kipouros, the future involves a different world – the metaverse. “The metaverse is such a fluid, developing concept that, in many ways, it still doesn’t properly exist,” he admits, “but we’re talking about technology that allows you to immerse yourself in an environment.” Wanderlust has been working with several tech providers, throwing its biggest investment into content creation – preparing video that is 4k (or above) and 360 degrees, and making sure the platform is compatible with mobile, desktop and most headsets. Last March, it hosted an event for industry figures at the Ritz, swishing people off to Colombia through virtual reality headsets, in partnership with ProColombia, the Colombian government agency for tourism.
We might have to wait a little while for the metaverse in full, but Kipouros insists that “very soon, we will be able to have a much more complete experience. That’s one of the exciting things about technology – you never know when the breakthrough is going to come.” Meanwhile, he wants to use the technology behind it to inspire people online even without headsets. The experience will differ from standard videos or 360 tours because the user’s profile, led by their interests, will determine the story.
Back to the future
Where does this leave print? “My belief is that there is a future for magazines,” says Kipouros. “I really think that a high-quality bookazine-like publication will always have a place on people’s coffee tables… It has a credibility you won’t find in the sea of online noise.”
The main hurdle on the horizon for that high-quality publication – Wanderlust costs £5.95 an issue and covers trips costing many, many times that – could be the cost of living. Kipouros remains cautiously optimistic. “It's becoming a bit harder with new subscriber acquisitions. But when it comes to our readers, I don’t think they will reduce their travel budget. I think the pandemic has highlighted the importance to them that travel has.”
Revenue has remained strong, coming mostly from commercial partnerships online, from videos to social media campaigns. When Kipouros joined, about 70 per cent of revenue came from print. Now, more than 80 per cent comes from digital.
Kipouros is trying to hold all these elements together as he grows the brand further. Wanderlust is now sold in 70 markets worldwide, including Barnes & Noble in the US, accounting for 20,000 copies, to Chile and Japan. “I would like Wanderlust to be a globally recognised, globally respected authority in the same way Lonely Planet magazine once was,” he says. “We have a unique position in the market. Now we have to build on it.”
This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list to receive the magazine, please register here.