Can writing about the world's worst beaches make a splash in the ultra-competitive travel industry?
Bob Guccione Jr., thinks it can, partly because of what he sees as the oceans of bad travel writing out there. The Spin founder told CBS News, "I realized most travel media did not follow the principles of real journalism. There's never any criticism; never any humor. It's very flat; very rote."
No surprise, then, that Guccione's new venture, Wonderlust, takes the opposite tack. Its articles tell you, among other things, how to get the most out of your cooking school vacation (including actually remembering what you've learned); what to look for in a private island; the proper way to do Arctic travel; and how to pack if you're going to Mars. There's also a video of a shark-fearing journalist swimming with sharks, and a review of a spa so great it could "revive the brand of the entire state of Ohio."
It reads like a combination of Travel & Leisure and Vice (Tagline for one recurring feature: You don't know we were there until we're gone.) Wonderlust won't tell you about hotel sheets' thread count. "I have no idea what that means," Guccione said. "I don't know a single traveler who's ever gone to a place, come back and raved about the sheets."
Instead, he promises to send funny, sharp correspondents to places you might want to go. Also on the menu are what the publisher said will be unflinching reviews, a contrast to the all-too-common, if tacit, practice in travel writing of trading flattering coverage for a paid junket.
At first blush, Wonderlust is funny and engaging. But will it last?
One might wonder why anyone would want to start a media business today when magazines and newspapers shut down, news websites lay off hundreds as they pivot to video and online startups seemingly unable to exist without billionaire backing.
Guccione is no neophyte, of course. In launching Spin in 1985, the influential music magazine that had a successful 27-year run in print and continues online, and Gear, which shuttered after four years, and briefly ran Discover. But Wonderlust represents his first crack at running an online-only product, while the "quality and niche" segment he's looking to mine is a competitive one in travel publishing.
Wonderlust's target reader is somewhere between his late 30s and 70s, has some money to spend, and is looking for unsual, or even bespoke, experiences to spend it on. That particular niche, Guccione hopes, will attract both high-end audiences (who will pay for Wonderlust's eventual subscription newsletters and shop in the online store) and quality advertisers, who will pay for access to these high-net-worth individuals. For the first six weeks, the only ads on the site are from American Express, the website's launch sponsor. Wonderlust also plans to run its own tours once the website gains more of a following.
Working in Guccione's favor is that more consumers are shifting their spending away from things and toward experiences, in accordance with recent research showing that it is the latter, not material goods, that people find most satisfying. Another tailwind is that a growing number of Americans are interested in traveling, including to distant shores. Some 40 percent now have passports, double the rate 10 years ago, according to State Department data.
In other ways, too, Guccione sees Americans as increasingly refined travelers, eager for something new and out of the ordinary.
"Flash back 10 years and the wine list was red or white. The cheese plate was a piece of cheese," he said. "There has been a fantastic acceleration of sophistication. People are amateur wine experts. They care, they study, they try lots of foods."
The U.S. hotel industry alone spent about $2 billion on advertising in 2015, according to a report from travel industry research group Phocuswright, and most of that money is being spent online. At least for now, though, the most affluent readers aren't reading online -- they're still reading print magazines, research shows.
Of course, some would say that's because there's a dearth of good content online. And that's exactly the nut Guccione wants to crack.
"You can read about the entirety of the world on Yelp, but it's never going to be dimensional," he said. "You can't Instagram the world. Not everything's pretty, but some of what makes experiences fantastic is that it's not always pretty."