Interview with Kathy McCabe, whose travel and culture newsletter can help make your dreams of la dolce vita come true

A $79 subscription to Dream of Italy is a small price to pay to make sure your next trip (likely to cost thousands of dollars) is picture perfect. And that’s a strong motivation to subscribe, just as it is with any newsletter that provides expert advice and product or service reviews.

How much does dinner for two cost at a fine restaurant? If your subscription to a restaurant review newsletter saved you one poor restaurant chose, wouldn’t that justify its annual fee?

All the more so for a newsletter that provides valuable but little-known insider information and guarantees to save your hundreds or even thousands of dollars on your next vacation.

That’s the promise Kathy McCabe makes with Dream of Italy, a newsletter she publishes based on her personal and extensive travel experiences. She dispenses her knowledge and shares the Dream both in hard copy and online.

In this exclusive Mequoda interview, Ms. McCabe explains how she produces Dream of Italy and what she has learned from her adventures as a publisher.

MEQUODA By way of background, what did you do before

KMcC My undergraduate degree is from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. My major was European Studies. I recently earned a Masters in Non-Fiction Writing from Johns Hopkins University. I have been working in journalism for over a decade. My first job was at ABC News in New York. My last job before starting Dream of Italy was at Travel.

If my business was strictly about online content, I would do it differently—maybe emphasize the free content a bit more. I’m still playing with what works. 

—Kathy McCabe

MEQUODA What best describes your position with Was it your creation?

KMcC I’m the founder, editor, publisher and for most part, webmaster. I have some contract employees, including the incredible designer who created the Web site and the amazing designer who lays out the print newsletter. I also work with some freelance writers.

MEQUODA How did you come to start

KMcC I love travel and my favorite destination is Italy. I’m completely passionate about it. Dream of Italy is a subscription travel newsletter, available by snail mail and by Internet download, for travelers who share my passion for Italy and who visit the country regularly or have been once and plan to return.

Aimed at the 3- to 5-star market, the newsletter covers hotels, restaurants, museums, villa rentals, shopping, cruises, exhibits, cooking schools — everything and anything Italian. I saw the market out there — millions of Americans visit Italy each year — and wanted to start my newsletter before someone else did.


MEQUODA So Dream of Italy is essentially a print newsletter, delivered by snail mail, right? And you also put PDF files of the issues on the website?

KMcC Actually, Dream of Italy is delivered by both snail mail and online. I would say the split is 60/40. Online subscribers access the PDF version of the newsletter using a username and password. Snail mail subscribers may also access back issues online.

MEQUODA How long has your site been active and what is your subscription fee structure? What is included with a subscription?

KMcC The site/newsletter has been published since September 2002. A snail mail subscription is $79 a year (10 issues) and online only is $69. Subscribers not only get access to/delivery of a year of issues, but get online access to two previous years of issues. That’s a lot of information. Right now, we’re also giving away a free guidebook to each new subscriber. So it is really a valuable package.

MEQUODA Now to the technical details. To build your site, what tools did you use, and how long did it take?

KMcC I had a designer and a technical person build the site. The design didn’t take long at all, the technical part took longer. I conceived of the idea in June of 2002, launched the site in September 2002, but I don’t think my e-commerce system was functioning until November of 2002. I have a web publishing background, so I update the site myself using Dreamweaver.

MEQUODA Can members subscribe online through a secure server, and is the process built into your site or outsourced? If outsourced, what has your experience been with outsourcing?

KMcC Yes, subscribers can use a credit card online through a secure server. The only problem with outsourcing is that the membership functions and payment functions are not automatically linked. I must manually check on payment and then confirm that the user is signed up. I am looking for new software to eliminate that step.

MEQUODA What software programs or functions handle usernames and passwords, and is access immediate or do you provide access later via e-mail?

KMcC Well, this is a bit of a long story and I am in the process of changing the software that handles the membership aspects of the site. I started with an off-the-shelf program a technical guy I know put together. I have to approve membership as soon as I receive notification of payment — i.e., the credit card and membership aspects are not linked.

So the access is not immediate and I believe it needs to be, so I will be buying new software this summer! I’m looking into options right now.

MEQUODA How easy, time-consuming, etc. is the process of adding new content?

KMcC The newsletter comes out 10 times a year so PDFs (for paid subscribers only) are uploaded 10 times a year. I also write and send out a free e-mail update to paid and non-paid people once a month. I am responsible for all of the content, either as editor or more frequently as writer.

Of course, it is time consuming. I travel to Italy to research articles, need to follow-up and gather more information to finalize the pieces, fact check, set up interviews, etc. The creation of the content is time-consuming, but the posting is not.

MEQUODA Has your site changed significantly since you launched it?

KMcC Well, I would say the first major change that I made was to make the first page a selling tool rather than clutter it with too many choices for visitors. Readers had too many choices — read a few articles, explore links, find out about subscribing.

If my business was strictly about online content, I would do it differently – maybe emphasize the free content a bit more. I’m still playing with what works.

MEQUODA What’s the single greatest tool that helps you get your new content out every month?

KMcC Good question. I would say that having a designer to lay out the newsletter in Quark is the biggest help. It would be too time consuming for me to do. Online-only publishers wouldn’t need this.

MEQUODA Marketing and promotion seem to be a great challenge for most subscription website publishers. How have you approached this task, and what kind of results have you experienced?

KMcC I have done some limited advertising — online and off — with moderate success. I did a postcard campaign last December which was pretty effective. I have found press coverage to the best marketing and constantly strive to make more time to attempt to get Dream of Italy covered in newspapers, magazines and on television, etc.

MEQUODA I notice you have some advertising on your site. How do you attract advertisers and is ad revenue a significant source of income for you at this point?

KMcC I make some money from advertising, but could probably run the business without it. Initially, I snail mailed introductory packets to Italy-related travel businesses and that’s how I got my advertisers. While I don’t offer a large audience, I have a very specialized one.

MEQUODA How do you find new subscribers, or how do they find you? What’s the process like for increasing sales and memberships?

KMcC They find me in a variety of ways. I would say the single best way to find news subscribers is to have your site/newsletter covered in the press. Dream of Italy was recommended in an article in the April 2004 issue of National Geographic Traveler and that really bumped up sales. I am trying to take my own advice and work on getting more press coverage.

MEQUODA For Mequoda members who are devising premium content strategies for their online properties, any advice you would offer?

KMcC I have found special reports to be effective. I did one last year on villa rentals and used it as a giveaway for people who signed up for a subscription. I just did one on Puglia and am planning one on Chianti. These are also regular issues, but they are produced in such a way that they are also special reports I can use as premiums or sell by themselves.

MEQUODA What’s your best advice to Mequoda members who are seeking to develop additional revenue streams outside of advertising for their online business?

KMcC I think there is a lot of potential out there. I’m working on a book idea right now and debating between selling it to a publisher and self-publishing. I’m also looking at running a yearly tour or two to Italy. My advice is don’t rush! Make sure that your initial product is good and stable before you expand.

MEQUODA What has been your greatest challenge to date, doing business online?

KMcC Technical problems.

MEQUODA What tips would you pass on to aspiring publishers who want to start a subscription-based website?

KMcC Maybe assume that everything is going to take twice as much money and twice as much time than you first expect. This might not be the case but I recommend planning for this.

I would also say that you need to find a common ground between “going for it” and “making sure you have a worthwhile product.” Could you be or are you considered an expert in the area? If so, you probably have something people want to buy.

MEQUODA What’s the best or smartest thing you’ve done? What’s the worst?

KMcC I found some good people to work with and I have always reminded myself that building a business takes time. I’m still trying to figure out the worst — the great thing is that even the mistakes are huge learning opportunities.

MEQUODA What subscription-based websites do you subscribe to and/or recommend?

KMcC I subscriber to Freelance Success, Wall Street Journal and Mediabistro. I also subscribe to newsletters such as Paris Notes, which has a website that is similar to my newsletter.

MEQUODA Which of the above is “doing it right” (marketing their product, building a subscriber base, providing value, etc.)?

KMcC I think they are all good. The first three I mention have new content every day, which keeps readers coming back.


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