Interview: Erik Torkells

Erik Torkells, editor of Budget Travel magazine, has been around the world and back. He talks to PRWeek about the magazine's reaction to a rising Euro, interaction with PR folks, travel media trends, and his exciting adventures on the job.

Erik Torkells, editor of Budget Travel magazine, has been around the world and back. He talks to PRWeek about the magazine's reaction to a rising Euro, interaction with PR folks, travel media trends, and his exciting adventures on the job.

Tell me a little bit about how you became the editor of Budget Travel and your role in the position?
I was an editor at Fortune, doing back-of-the-book lifestyle stuff. I was looking for a new gig, and this came up. The [two outlets] sound really different, but we're all telling people how to spend their money, just [at] different price points. That was about 4.5 years ago. We have a new magazine called Girlfriend Getaways that comes out twice a year. We have our thriving Web site, like every magazine, and we do the same books. So my role is really to oversee the brand of Budget Travel.

You've had a bunch of TV appearances. Would you consider yourself the face of the brand? Yes.

How do you balance your editorial duties and being a public figure for the magazine?
[My duties] are all wrapped up together. We've been fortunate enough to have a lot of audience growth in the past couple of years, and we've been bucking the industry trend, to tell you the truth. That's why we do the TV, the news seminars, conferences, things like that. In my heart of hearts I believe we're the only travel magazine that 95% of people can actually use.

Who would you consider your biggest competitor?
The other three main travel magazines: Conde Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, and National Geographic Traveler. But when you think about travel planning, it opens up to certainly a host of new Web sites, [such as] Trip Advisor. We all want to be their go-to resource.

How would you describe your readers?
Like every editor, I prefer psychographics to demographics. This reader wants to bargain no matter who they are. Some of us love to travel. Not all of us love to plan travel. This reader loves travel and loves to plan, and that's the difference. They like finding the right hotel, getting the best deal, finding the right airport, finding the best fare.

Do they skew older or younger?
The median age is around 47. I think we're 65% female at this point. The median household income is $88,000, which is extraordinarily high for a budget magazine. If you compare that to non-travel magazines - look at GQ, Vogue - it'll blow your mind. The readers, they're not poor.

Why is that?
Believe me, everybody likes a deal. Honestly, we've opened the magazine to be less cheap than it was, and I think at this point we're comfortable with hotels up into the $200 range. It's not hostels and bus trips, and I think readers respond to that. They're going to go to Provence once in their life. They want to do it right.

When did this shift occur?
I think the perception has been that all people wanted to do was save money, and I think it's more that you know you have to spend money when you travel. You kind of even want to. This is your reward. Sometimes spending a little more money is an insurance that you're going to have a better experience. I think a lot of us, particularly when we travel, are willing to spend a little more money if we think…we get two weeks of vacation a year, that's pathetic.

Well I'm sure you don't lack for exciting adventures.
You would think, but, when I go on a trip, it's hard to have a vacation. I'm always like, I should check out this hotel; I should pop in and look. It kind of ruins the travel.

What do you love most about travel reporting and editing?
It's always changing. The world is endlessly interesting. We did a story on Paris three years ago, but we can do another [with a different angle].

People love this magazine. They loved it before I came, so I'm not taking too much credit, but we get these letters: ‘I never thought I could go to Bali.' I didn't get into this business to help people; I'm not going to pretend like I did, but it's really fulfilling. All of a sudden, we all have to plan our own travel. Twenty years ago, you called a travel agent. We have so much more work now, and we can help people. That's cool.

How do you find new ideas?
The number one thing for us is news, and I don't mean a hotel that's opened, so therefore we write about it. I would include a legitimate trend as news. We've all heard about how English food has gotten good; it's a travel magazine cliché at this point. Pubs in London were all of a sudden serving good food. I think a lot of people didn't realize that the next wave of that was that the pubs outside of London, still in England, were also starting to serve good [local, sustainable, organic] food. So we built a feature around sending a writer to England for a week, and he did what we called a gastro pub crawl. It's a great story because there's kind of like a sense of news to it, and you couldn't have done that story maybe ten years ago. I would say every travel editor is looking at that.

Where are you finding these ideas?
We are reading. We are listening. Sometimes we're getting them from PR folks. We try to start figuring out what travelers need. [For example], we do a section called, ‘How to travel now.' I was flying to San Francisco, and the thought of not having lunch is one of the scariest things in my life. I was like, what am I going to do? I haven't packed a lunch in three years. I [thought], ‘This is a good story, isn't it?'

We're going to ask the executive chef at Witchcraft, how do you make a sandwich you still want to eat four hours later? Don't put the tomatoes next to the cheese. Don't use mayonnaise. Use fennel instead of lettuce. I thought, this is a really useful story even though it's not what you'd think of as the traditional travel story. So [it's about] just trying to solve people's problems.

Right now, everyone is freaked out about the plummeting value of the dollar, so we're doing a story on ten ways to save money in Europe (strategy based, not just like, stay at an affordable place).

How has the weakening dollar affected your options for coverage? It sounds like it's actually providing you with story ideas.
One, it gives us a great story to write about. If people are aware of it, we can help them feel more comfortable about it. The potential negative is, all of a sudden, we run our prices in US dollars, so you see the prices start to go up. That makes the readers very nervous. I've got to be mindful of that and find creative ways people can save money. It hasn't stopped us from covering anything. I mean, people [still] want to go to the UK.

Under the circumstances, does being a budget magazine give you an edge?
Some people will never want a magazine with the word budget in the name. I do think that certainly, for them, it's more of an issue that, all of a sudden, the hotels they're covering aren't $500 a night: they're $800 a night, and that gets really expensive.

So, for us, it is an opportunity, but I hate to think of something that's going to make someone's life hard as an opportunity. I think with the rising value of the Euro – and my gut is it's going to go up a lot more – people will need to be smart about renting and swapping vacation packages.

How are you leveraging the new and social media space?
We've always been the most reader-friendly magazine out there, in terms of print. We've got true stories, trip codes… I've always felt like we are sort of a community already, so that's great.

It looks like we're heading toward some sort of journaling capability online, where readers will be able to share the details of their trips, and we're devoting an entire issue to readers and reader content. I can't think of another magazine that would do that kind of thing.

Where does the travel magazine industry fall in the slumping newspaper/magazine arena?
I think travel magazines have never been particularly strong on newsstand. We're all much more subscription based. We've grown like crazy, but it makes sense we would because there are more people out there who want our advice than who want to know where the next Ritz Carlton is opening.

How do you interact with PR people?
They're e-mailing constantly. People don't call as much anymore, which is fine. When I interact with PR people it's because I'm contacting them. For me, the most useful thing a PR person can do is be there when we have the questions and trust us to figure out the story. Give us the news, and we'll figure out the story. But we'll need you to help us gather the resources or information or whatever to make the story happen.

[Also,] pitch the section, not the magazine. Everyone thinks that all we care about is how to do x place cheaply, and honestly that's not a story for us. You can't just flatter the magazine. That's my number one thing. There are people who e-mail me so often, I don't even open my e-mails anymore. Fifty percent of the e-mails I get a day, probably more, are press releases from PR folks, and it's overwhelming. One thing I would never do is put “press release” in the subject-line. And people still fax. What is up with that?

Do you reveal your identity as a travel editor? How do people treat you?
No, I would never do that because they'll make me take a tour and send me free deserts. One thing I love about travel and New York is anonymity. If someone knew I was a travel magazine editor, it would ruin it for me. We tell writers not to tell them, unless they have to, to get interviews.

What's the coolest place you've ever gone on assignment?
The Atacama desert in Chile [was] coolest because of its flamingoes, geysers, and volcanoes. It was intrinsically cool, but it was also the first time I really went anywhere way outside my comfort zone. It made me realize how easy travel is. It's not that big of a deal. If there's somewhere you want to go, just go. Someone's been there before you.

Name: Erik Torkells

Title: Editor

Outlet: Budget Travel

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