Like any good trip, Afar Media began with an idea. While traveling together in India (a good place for enlightenment), founders Greg Sullivan and Joe Diaz decided to form a media company built on a shared passion for travel that goes beyond guidebook checklists and tourist haunts. They believed so strongly in the concept, they weren’t going to let a little thing like a historic economic downturn derail them. Thus Afar magazine was born, launched in the summer of 2009.
First came the accolades—attention from the likes of Martha Stewart and high-profile advertisers like Sotheby’s and Crystal Cruises. Then, only a year into publication, Afar snagged the Best Travel Magazine award from the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation, which praised the magazine’s high-quality editorial and design.
But the Great Recession has felled many a fine magazine, making the upstart periodical’s next act—strong, consistent gains in audience and ad sales, as well as brand extensions into events and social media—all the more impressive. Subscriptions for the first half of 2011 were up 55 percent compared to the same period in 2010. The September/October 2011 issue is the largest in the company’s history, with 60.16 ad pages (up from 23 the year before) and a Publisher’s Information Bureau (PIB)-reported revenue gain of 334 percent. Going into its third full year, the company can boast a number of new, first-time advertisers and plans to increase its output from six to seven issues in 2012.
Afar Media achieved all this by launching with a strong, focused mission and building its brand in a way that got audiences and advertisers excited. It also did it by, ironically, not seeing itself as a magazine publisher. “I think, first and foremost, we are not a publishing company. We are a travel brand that has media attached,” says Afar’s executive vice president and publisher, Ellen Asmodeo-Giglio, whose own publishing credentials include helming Travel + Leisure and launching The Wall Street Journal‘s lifestyle magazine WSJ. “We are a media company at the end of the day, but it is definitely broader. [Publishing] just happens to be one of our vehicles and the one which is making the most money right now.”
It’s Not Who You Know …
Though the print magazine has been critical so far to Afar Media’s success, so too has been its unique social media platform and website. Afar.com has transcended the simple offering of magazine content online to become a community-building resource for travelers. Profiled in The New York Times in August, Afar.com is a sophisticated, fluid networking site that uses what the company calls an “implicit social algorithm” to provide highly customized information and social connections for users.
Derek Butcher, Afar’s CTO and Chief Architect, explains the algorithm by contrasting it with social media platforms, such as Facebook, in which a user, rather than the system, facilitates connections. While most social applications work by leveraging existing friends or followers, Afar recognized that, in travel, your friends are not always your best resource.
“They may not travel the same way you do or have not been where you want to go,” Butcher says. “We kind of have this motto: It’s not who you know, it’s who you need to know.”
Based on a quiz taken when a member first registers, and subsequent activity on the site, a proprietary algorithm discerns a user’s “travel personality” and matches him or her with people who have similar travel tastes and knowledge of a particular destination. “So we are building a social graph on the fly, implicitly, based on the context of [a user’s] question and search, and also how they like to travel,” Butcher says.
The result so far has been a highly engaged network of more than 13,000 members.
“They are constantly on [the site],” says Asmodeo-Giglio. “They are answering questions within hours. The questions are so intelligent, and the answers are even more thorough.”
The benefit for users is that they discover off-the-beaten-track experiences, all thanks to connections made online. They create meetups in locations around the world and provide insider tips for travelers looking for a deeper, more culturally focused journey. That the mission of the website dovetails exactly with that of the magazine only adds to the engagement and loyalty of users.
“The magazine inspires you, and the website actually enables you to have those experiences,” says Asmodeo-Giglio. The website is smart enough to pull in relevant content from the magazine based on inquiries about a certain subject. Someone researching Paris will see user-generated content, as well as condensed or long-form versions of published articles about the city; the algorithm directs the amount of content provided based on the nature of the search.
“We’re trying to determine the context,” Butcher says. “Are they more in the inspirational mode, browsing and trying to get ideas for a trip, or are they more in that research and planning, active mode? We try to show different [forms of content] depending on what mode they are in.”
Revenue: In A Good Place
Interactions like these have helped create a loyal audience willing to pay a significant amount for the product—six-issue subscriptions are $20. Advertisers, too, recognize the value of the brand. The company launched with a crop of initial advertisers “committed … from their own personal passion [for the brand] and the obvious beauty [of the magazine],” Asmodeo-Giglio says. “We use great paper stock, and our photography is amazing. The writers that we use are renowned. So I think the quality, combined with the personal approach, really touched a lot of our advertisers and drew them to us in a very deep way.”
The next step was to do research, which revealed that readers took an average of 20 trips in the previous year, half international and half domestic. More than 90 percent hold a passport. Almost half have lived abroad. These numbers, plus getting Audit Bureau of Circulations audited and listed by audience rating firm GfK MRI, got the attention of ad agencies.
“So that’s the second layer,” she says. “And hence the fact that the [September/October issue] … carried almost the same revenue as we generated all last year.”
A Drive to Educate
At the outset, founders Sullivan and Diaz set up the nonprofit Afar Foundation and its educational initiative, Learning Afar. Based on the idea that experiential travel changes people for the better, Learning Afar gives underprivileged high school students the chance to experience other parts of the world.
“We have all these feelings about the importance of travel and its effect on you, but when you have these young kids come back and tell their stories of how it’s affected their lives, it reaffirms what we are about,” Sullivan says.
Around the Next Bend
The company’s plans for growth involve adding more product platforms. This October will see the launch of Afar Experiences, an “immersive travel series” made up of events in exotic locales around the world. The inaugural event will be held in Cairo, where a small group of attendees will see sites important to the recent uprising in that country, dine in the homes of local residents, and meet with prominent artists and intellectuals. (In a recent blog post, Sullivan said the city needs tourism and the recent unrest does not threaten foreign visitors.)
Asmodeo-Giglio says events will be held every six months.
“This was inspired by tech conferences,” she says, “where you get like-minded people together and they actually engage with each other as much as the destination. We are doing deep immersions into destinations, and this one is super-inspiring because of the change that [Egypt is] going through right now.”
Revenue is derived from the charge for the event. In the future, the company may consider partnerships with tour companies offering attendees pre- and post-event packages.
Also launching this fall will be the first of several mobile apps planned to leverage the social functionality of Afar.com. The app, which allows travelers to snap pictures and send “postcards” to Facebook and Afar.com, will most likely be available by November, Butcher says. Additional plans call for apps that will allow users to see tips and suggestions from other users nearby, ask questions on the go and meet up with like-minded fellow travelers.
“We have these four verticals that pertain to travel: inspiration, research/planning, booking and on the ground,” he says. “The mobile [piece] fits into that ‘on the ground’ aspect.”
A Unique Prospect
In all its products, Afar seeks to provide information and experiences that cannot be obtained elsewhere. “The fact is, we don’t have a lot of duplication among the other travel media,” Asmodeo-Giglio says. While other travel publications focus on hotels, spas and attractions—what Sullivan and Diaz characterize as a focus on escapism or sightseeing—Afar looks to “connect our readers to the authentic essence of a place and its people.” The content, as open-ended as many readers’ itineraries, still manages to be specific and useful.
“With the online space in general, you can have a much wider scope of information,” Butcher says. “The problem then becomes: How do you sort through that and find the stuff that is relevant just for you? That is where the social algorithm comes in. You are getting unique, detailed suggestions that would not even be able to fit within an offline guide, and in a typical, online scenario it might get lost in all the noise of everything else that is relevant to that place.”
As for where the company will go next—the possibilities are just as varied. “We look at ourselves as a travel brand,” Asmodeo-Giglio says, “that has a website, foundation, experiences and other events, and how we continue to grow is open.” PE