Ranging Far Afield with Afar Media
"Values were at the heart of what we wanted to do next."
An Interview with Greg Sullivan, CEO, Editorial Director and Editor-in-Chief and Joe Diaz, Co-founder and VP of Sales and Brand Development, AFAR Media
AFAR is "...the best thing that's happened to travel publishing in years." according to Jim Byers, Travel Editor at Toronto's thestar.com. Media accolades have been given from The New York Times, Advertising Age, MIN, Fox News, Martha Stewart's show, the Travel Channel, AOL, and the list goes on. [95 at last count http://bit.ly/guhtC8] In 2010, after publishing just nine issues, The Society of American Travel Writers named AFAR the Best Travel Magazine in North America. Having met Greg and Joe when their idea was still that, an idea, I wanted to ask a few questions about the launch that weren't answered in all their media interviews.
Q. Define the experiential traveler.
A: The physical part of experiential travel is not as important as the mental. This brand started with a mindset, a psychographic. How other people see the world is what matters. You can be 8 or 88 years old. You can be in Delhi or Tennessee. Most AFAR readers are travelers who get a charge reading us even when they are not traveling. We hope to feed this mindset. One of the things we are about is possibilities, even though you are not able to travel, we can take you there.
One of the groups that we speak to that is not as explicit is the business community. It's tough for us as business people to say what can I do to take my skill set to the next level? For example, when you travel for business, take an extra two days to understand the culture. We encourage business people to do that. We give a stipend to our employees to travel this way and do something they have never done before or travel somewhere they have never been.
Q. What makes experiential travel so appealing?
A: No one is talking about travel like AFAR; we peel back the layers and see the world through a local set of eyes.
What's been going on in the world is globalization. We are all connected economically and environmentally. Further, the boom in the early 2000's followed by the recession moved people to take pause and ask what gives my life meaning. Travel is an education and it is evolutionary; once you get away from the tour bus and sit at the kitchen table, you are in the driver seat of your experience. You continue to want to experience travel. This is not a trend. It's a permanent shift in how people are thinking about their lives; it's about values.
Q. Why does AFAR not include content about the U.S.?
A: While planning to launch, one way we to chose to position AFAR differently from other travel publications was to focus solely on international destinations. The magazine's content includes culture, geopolitics, active and eco-travel, and personal transformation. We explore small slices of life and illuminate complex issues through individuals' stories. The content strategy will make a slight shift in 2011 and we may publish some U.S. content in the publication.
Q. What is the business model for AFAR?
A: Forty percent of revenue is generated from paid subscriptions. [One year/6 issues for $20] In launch year 2009 we reached 50,000 paid subscriptions and have since doubled that to 100,000. Our goal for 2011 is 125,000 rising to 300,000 in a couple of years.
Sixty percent of revenue comes from print advertising. In the future, our website is going to be a large driver for advertising revenue as technology is an important part of their daily lives. The experiential traveler is the sweet spot for marketers. This type of travel is self-selecting. We see a lot of viral buzz momentum associated with AFAR.
AFAR Connect is a global social network of travelers and related resources. The basic AFAR reader travels 13x a year and 97 percent have passports. There is not a part of the world we can't cover. This brand can be the great enabler of ideas, connections, people you can meet. We want to cast a fairly wide net - the platform that enables readers to travel this way. It's a very rich experience. AFAR Connect can be an incredible resource that could grow into millions of users.
Q. You also started a philanthropic foundation. How is that related to the brand?
A: AFAR Foundation helps underserved students see and experience the world. The foundation is not just about kids; it's about opening their eyes. Our principals are:
- Help underserved students experience cultural diversity and gain understanding through travel.
- Prepare students to become responsible global citizens.
- Give back to all communities visited through service and exchange activities.
With Global Explorers as a partner, the foundation launched Learning AFAR. Last year we sent 24 students from NYC and Oakland, CA traveled to Costa Rica after completing a rigorous prep curriculum. We hope to help 75 to 100 kids in 2011. The Pearson Group, Austrian Airlines and the U.S. State Department are working with us on this initiative.
Q. Any plans yet for a digital edition or an app?
A: Right now, the priority is to stay focused on the platforms we have launched. We will continue to grow the magazine's paid circulation, get the buzz with our social community, and expand the number of kids that benefit from our foundation.
Q. There appear to be connections between AFAR Magazine and DWELL magazine. Are they a partner in some manner?
A: Joe and I were big fans of DWELL before we got into the business. They gave us a head start in terms of knowledge and resources. We were neophytes in this business. They were gracious and helpful. We shared office space, sales people, etc. We can't thank them enough.
It was mutually beneficial for them; DWELL was looking at how to bat down the hatches during the recession so we shared fixed costs. There is no ownership overlap. We still share some things with them, less as we have grown. No physical space, but we do still share some personnel.
Q. Why the change in AFAR's top management 18 months after launch?
A: We are growing a company based on a vision that was never small. We will not be shy about making changes. That is what you have to do to be successful. You bring people in for some things. You must be willing and able to make changes when you feel it is appropriate.
Q. You both have had much success in business. Why another business? Why commit $10million to launch another company in a competitive field that was experiencing decline, in the worst economic climate in 50 years?
A: In the past we sold products and built brands. With this publishing endeavor, we are feeding the mind and the soul. It is the most rewarding business that I have ever been in and an exciting and an awesome responsibility.
Q. What keeps you up at night?
A: This is a tough business. We struggle with knowing what to change and what not to change. That's a daily thing, reflecting. What can make this more relevant? As AFAR becomes more known, how do we retain what's at the heart of the brand and appeal to a larger group?
But we have an incredible opportunity to create a great dialogue. We can talk about something dear to us and the ability to do this on a large scale is a great thing to be a part of.
AFAR Media is two years old and the launch "stage" is considered to be four to five years. So while they can't count themselves as one of the 20 percent new titles that survived launch yet, they certainly have a solid start. Why?
- AFAR's co-founders launched with a strong vision and a finely tuned concept.
- The concept brings strong value proposition to readers and they communicate this clearly in their marketing messages.
- The concept benefited from "timing".
- There is a business plan that was well funded [note, not over-funded] and prudent with partnering.
- The team hired to launch had prior launch experience.
- The execution was and continues to be outstanding; the design and quality of writing make the journey more rewarding.
Greg Sullivan has worked as a corporate securities attorney and investment banker. He has since launched a very successful venture and grew another small business to $750 million in annual revenue. Greg co-founded AFAR Media with Joe Diaz in 2009.
Joe Diaz, who has a teaching degree from Duke, served with Teach for America for three years, earned a Master's Degree and then launched a successful real estate firm.
Lou Ann Sabatier has 35 years of experience in the publishing industry. Ms. Sabatier has been deeply involved in all aspects of publishing; including strategic planning,business development, business and financial management, audience development, advertising sales, digital media and operations management. Currently Ms. Sabatier is Principal at Sabatier Consulting and Communications Director of 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative.