Fodors Travel Mequoda Case Study

Venerable guidebook publisher, an early adopter of the Web, continues to refine its Internet strategy

Fodor’s Travel, a division of Random House, Inc., has been recognized as the premier guidebook publisher for more than 70 years. Today, the Fodor’s Travel brand exists firmly in print, online, and on mobile devices.

Fodor’s target audience is what Publisher Tim Jarrell calls “age 25-plus travelers who are interested in attainable luxury.” The huge array of print guidebooks and the Fodors.com website are resources that the Fodor’s audience uses to discover the best places within their budget to stay, eat, shop, and explore.

Fodor’s Travel publishes guidebooks—14 different series that include about 450 separate titles that cover 300 destinations worldwide—and sells more than a million units a year. The company hosts a website, Fodors.com and also provides mobile applications that customers can add to their mobile devices. Product development depends on the product. “We’re certainly defining what it means to be Fodor’s content,” says Jarrell, “Then, we use that as a prism through which we evaluate everything that we do.” For digital content, Fodor’s often works with partners, such as Garmin or Expedia, to develop products.

Fodor’s Travel launched Fodors.com in 1996 “just as the World Wide Web was beginning its dramatic expansion,” according to the publishing company. Shortly thereafter, Fodor’s began to “nuggetize” its text by requiring its editors, writers, and updaters to reformat the entire content of every book into “minimum information units,” where each bit of content the contributors and updaters produced was written and tagged as a stand-alone unit that could be created once and used, repackaged, repurposed, and re-monetized elsewhere—over and over again. “Nuggetizing was critical in allowing us to shoot our content out to the Web, as well as to our licensees,” says Jarrell.

The company posts free content from many of its guidebooks on Fodors.com and supplements that content with general travel advice, the offer of a free weekly email newsletter, and a community for registered users with areas such as discussion forums and user-generated ratings for hotels and restaurants.

“We’re now entering the next phase of our website development,” he adds, “where we believe we need original online content. We realize that the Web can do certain things better than print in terms of providing information, so we are now investing in creating original content for the Web.”

Fodor’s generates revenue from its vast array of travel guidebooks that are sold in brick-and-mortar bookstores, online at either Fodors.com or RandomHouse.com, and through third-party e-retailers such as Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. Fodor’s also licenses content to various partners, both online and offline, and that has become a valuable piece of business for the publishing company.

“Online, I would say that, overwhelmingly, we are ad-driven,” says Jarrell. Fodor’s digital income comes mostly from ad sales but also from content licensing and e-commerce affiliate programs, the relationship with Expedia’s booking engine being the primary example. Fodor’s receives a percentage of all bookings on Expedia that are generated through Fodors.com.

Introduction

In 1936, Eugene Fodor pioneered the concept of the modern guidebook by writing a contemporary guide to Europe that went beyond the customary (at the time) style of simply providing destination facts and figures for travelers. Ever since, Fodor’s Travel publications have distinguished themselves from the offerings of competitors by continuing the founder’s innovative, three-pronged approach:

  1. Each destination guidebook includes an essay that focuses on the local culture and people.
  2. Destination guides include a wealth of practical information, ranging from airline and car-rental details to tipping policies and wedding regulations.
  3. Guides are updated annually so the information remains current. (Some special-interest books are updated biannually.)

In the mid-1990s, noting the public reaction to—and use of—the World Wide Web and recognizing its special fit for the travel industry, Fodor’s became an early adopter in the digital world. Writers and updaters were instructed to rework the entire content of Fodor’s collection of guidebooks into text “nuggets” that could then be repurposed for use on the Web.

Today, the Fodor’s Travel brand exists firmly in print, online, and on mobile devices. Some 450 Fodor’s titles are currently in print. The Fodors.com website is a well-integrated Internet editorial/social hub through which the company effectively builds brand loyalty, with a retail (product-marketing) component for book sales. Licensing agreements with partners and affiliates extend the brand to mobile devices, other print media, and associated websites.

In early 2006, “Fodor’s Travel Publications” changed its company name to “Fodor’s Travel,” because “publications” was considered too narrow for today’s marketplace.

We talked with Tim Jarrell, vice president and publisher at Fodor’s Travel, to discuss the publisher’s overall marketing strategy and how that strategy integrates the company’s print products with its website and mobile device offerings. Fodor’s has been recognized as the premier guidebook publisher for more than 70 years. It began by being innovative, continues to be innovative, and, because of that, remains at the head of the pack.

Core Strategy: Audience and Purpose

Fodor’s Travel is a—if not the—premier publisher of travel guides. For more than 70 years now, travelers have regarded Fodor’s as one of the most reliable travel resources on destinations around the globe—first in print, then online, and most recently via wireless mobile devices. “The drive to innovate remains as fundamental to Fodor’s as the passion for excellence,” the company says on its website, adding, “Fodor’s readers can count on engagingly written, intelligently and accurately reported, and absolutely indispensable travel guidance.”

Fodor’s target audience is what Publisher Tim Jarrell calls “age 25-plus travelers who are interested in attainable luxury.” Jarrell further defines those travelers as people who are willing to spend a little bit extra here and there—not necessarily

for their entire trip, but for things that will enhance the travel experience—whether they have a whole lot of money or just some money in their travel budget. The huge array of print guidebooks and the Fodors.com website are resources that the Fodor’s audience uses to discover the best places within their budget to stay, eat, shop, and explore.

Part of Fodor’s positioning is to encourage readers and site visitors to become Fodor’s correspondents. “We have extended our community through our books by using reader quotes in the text and responding to reader feedback,” Jarrell says. “Whether we receive them by postal mail or email, we pass along reader comments to our updaters who either check out the suggestions in person or directly respond to the reader’s specific question.”

In addition, a letter from the publisher appears on the front page of every book, asking people to “be a Fodor’s correspondent,” tell Fodor’s about their trip, give their opinions, send suggestions about what else to include in particular books, and provide feedback when Fodor’s gets things right and make recommendations when it gets things wrong.

The invitation to participate is also extended to hotels, restaurants, sights, and activities that want to be considered for inclusion in one of the guidebooks.

The requests are then forward to the appropriate updater, who personally checks the place out during his or her next visit to the destination.

To encourage customer loyalty, Fodors.com has active online forums that cover virtually every destination featured in the guidebooks; it also offers a free weekly newsletter. “We encourage registration on our site,” says Jarrell, “so visitors can become part of the Fodors.com community. By registering, they can participate in the forums, subscribe to the newsletter, and rate hotels and restaurants.”

Business Strategy: Products and Branding

Fodor’s Travel publishes books—14 different series that include about 450 separate titles that cover 300 destinations worldwide—and hosts a website, Fodors.com. It also provides mobile applications that customers can add to their Garmin or access over other mobile devices. “We don’t produce DVDs and videos,” says Jarrell. “Right now, we find that the market for those products is rather limited in the travel space. We’re not into producing pretty picture videos on destinations; rather, we provide substance for travelers—concrete, detailed information on destinations.”

Over the last two years, the publisher’s first priority has been to refocus its content in order to differentiate itself from competitive content providers, whether in print or online. To accomplish that and thereby enhance the traveler’s experience, Fodor’s has taken a two-pronged approach:

  1. Provide editorial content that focuses more on experiences and on the uniqueness of the destination.
  2. Upgrade the coverage of hotels and restaurants with more authoritative reviews that reflect our updaters’ insider opinions.

“Because so much more information is available now,” says Jarrell, “we realize that we have to do a better job of providing people with quality information about hotels and restaurants. Five or seven years ago, it might have been enough to simply give a brief review and list service information for our recommended hotels and restaurants. People appreciated that, and it developed a particular brand loyalty. Now, we have to provide more discerning and informative details in our reviews, so we’re doing things such as covering food trends and profiling chefs.”

In the last few years, Fodor’s has invested a lot of money in its flagship “Gold Guide” series (112 titles, covering cities, countries, and regions worldwide) to update both the format and content. “We think it makes the books more competitive,” Jarrell says, “but we also think it’s important for the brand.”

The effort is paying off. Fodor’s Caribbean 2006, one of the first books in the “Gold Guide” series to be completely redesigned for more “browsable and experiential reading,” earned the highest award for a travel guidebook in the 22nd annual Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Competition, a prestigious contest overseen by

the Society of American ravel Writers Foundation and judged by the faculty at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Fodor’s Caribbean 2006 was the Gold Award winner in the guidebook category and designated “Best Travel Guidebook of the Year.”

Product Development

Product development depends on the product. Recently, Fodor’s decided to upgrade the cruise content on its website. “So many people are taking cruises,” says Jarrell, “and that’s not an area of travel for which we were necessarily known.” Publishing a new book on cruising served as the foundation of expanded online coverage of that travel segment.

For digital content, Fodor’s often works with its partners, such as Garmin or Expedia, to develop products. “We’ve developed new digital products that we’re marketing,” says Jarrell. “We’re doing new books for new destinations and on new subjects, and we are expanding our content online, which we are able to monetize.”

To maintain its brand identity when selling multiple products across different platforms, Fodor’s has developed a common color scheme, signature, and style across its major book series, as well as on its website and in licensed content. “While there’s a lot more work that we can do in terms of making sure that we have a consistent identity,” Jarrell admits, “we’re certainly defining what it means to be Fodor’s content. Then, we use that as a prism through which we evaluate everything that we do.”

Website Strategy: Content and Conversion Architecture

On its Fodors.com website, the company posts free content from many of its guidebooks and supplements that content with current travel advice, user-generated ratings of hotels, restaurants, and sights, as well as destination-based discussion forums where travelers, both novice and experienced, exchange travel ideas, impressions, and recommendations. Site visitors are encouraged to register in order to participate in the active message board community, post reviews, and subscribe to a free weekly email newsletter.

Through an affiliation with Expedia, visitors to Fodors.com visitors are offered special deals online and can book airline tickets, hotel reservations, rental cars, cruises, and vacation packages through a direct link to Expedia.com. All transactions are completed on Expedia.com, not on Fodors.com, and Expedia handles all fulfillment, billing, queries, and customer support related to the bookings.

Fodor’s Travel launched Fodors.com in 1996 “just as the World Wide Web was beginning its dramatic expansion,” according to the publishing company. Shortly thereafter, Fodor’s began to “nuggetize” its text by requiring its editors, writers, and updaters to reformat the entire content of every book into “minimum information units,” where each bit of content the contributors and updaters produced was written and tagged as a stand-alone unit that could be created once and used, repackaged, repurposed, and re-monetized elsewhere—over and over again. “Nuggetizing was critical in allowing us to shoot our content out to the Web, as well as to our licensees,” says Jarrell.

The folks at Fodor’s firmly believe that content lives where it needs to live and that people will access the content how they want to access it. “That means that some people will go online and look for travel information, while others will want that content in print,” he explains, “so we don’t necessarily believe that you strengthen book sales by restricting what you put online.”

“We’re now entering the next phase of our website development,” he adds, “where we believe we need original online content. We realize that the Web can do certain things better than print in terms of providing information, so we are now investing in creating original content for the Web.”

Also, Fodor’s has discovered that some content can effectively go from the Web back into the books and is now developing features for the books that started out on the Web. Just recently, for example, Fodor’s posted on its website original content that featured department store Christmas decorations. “We’ve decided that feature will fit perfectly well in our New York City guidebooks,” Jarrell notes.

“The Internet is critical to our media strategy,” says Jarrell. “We understand that, over time, our sales from books will either flatten or grow slowly and online will represent a higher proportion of our revenue mix. While I won’t disclose what the mix is now, I will say that online has doubled over the last two years. Over time, we expect to see double-digit growth in revenues from our online and digital initiatives.”

Email Strategy

To keep in touch with its online audience, Fodor’s sends an email newsletter to site visitors who register on Fodors.com and opt to receive the free weekly bulletin. “We think it’s important to have that email contact to promote both Fodor’s and the content on Fodors.com,” says Jarrell. ” We promote the newsletter and try to encourage subscribers who have not visited the site recently to come back and take a look at what’s new on it.”

The newsletter content includes exclusive travel deals, special offers, and links to current articles and travel news on featured destinations. When people register, Fodor’s collects only the name and email address and uses that information only to send out the newsletter. Fodor’s does not give or sell the names to others and doesn’t use it for any other internal purpose other than to gather aggregated anonymous statistical data or, perhaps, conduct occasional surveys regarding the website content. Fodor’s requests permission before sending the newsletter and offers subscribers the opportunity to opt out at any time.

“Truly, we just use that database just to send the newsletter,” Jarrell adds. “We’re not trying to build a customer database for direct marketing to, say, sell them a different book. In travel, the customer interest is that they’re going to a particular destination at a particular time.

And no database will tell you where or when that will be. So the database is only important to us to maintain the email addresses to in order to get out our newsletter.”

Organizational Strategy: Structure and Revenues

Fodor’s Travel is a division of Random House, Inc., which is a subsidiary of Bertelsmann AG, one of the world’s largest media companies. The company is based in New York City.

Fodor’s Travel has a staff of editors and production people who work on its various products. A global team of 700 freelance contributors writes and updates the content. The contributors are travel writers who are either located in the region or who know the destination like the back of their respective hands. Some of the contributors have contributed to Fodor’s guides for years—even decades.

Four people are dedicated to Fodors.com, but the print editorial staff also contributes original content to the website.

Economic Strategy

Fodor’s generates revenue from its vast array of travel guidebooks that are sold in brick-and-mortar bookstores, online at either Fodors.com or RandomHouse.com, and through third-party e-retailers such as Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com.

Fodor’s also licenses content to various partners, both online and offline, and that has become a valuable piece of business for the publishing company. Beginning way back in early 1998, for example, Fodor’s launched a Destination Guides feature on AOL’s Preview Travel. Today, the company licenses its content for use as special sections or regular columns in print magazines, as content on hotel and other consumer websites, and as uploads on mobile devices, such as through its current agreement with Garmin.

“Online, I would say that, overwhelmingly, we are ad-driven,” says Jarrell. Fodor’s online income accounts for 20 percent of the business and comes mostly from ad sales (banners and badges that link to advertiser websites) but also from content licensing (including hyperlinks to third-party websites for editorial purposes) and e-commerce affiliate programs, the relationship with Expedia’s online booking engine being the primary example.

Reporting Strategy: Key Metrics

To analyze the health of its business, Fodor’s obviously is able to monitor its retail book sales; the company also monitors its market share against its competitors. On the digital side, Fodor’s analyzes Web traffic—unique users, page views per visit, and the number of times a visitor views a particular ad—that is collected by DoubleClick, its advertising partner.

Managing customer acquisition and retention, however, i s achieved by analyzing the email newsletter activity. “We don’t compare the names of newsletter subscribers to those of online retail customers,” says Jarrell, “but we do know that when we do distinct promotions in the newsletter, with links to our website, the newsletter subscribers are more apt to buy books from us. That represents a very small portion of our business, but we have the metrics in place to figure out the impact.”

Conclusion

Fodor’s Travel has always led the pack—initially, by reinventing the 19 th -century Baedeker, the accepted travel guidebook format until Eugene Fodor’s new approach in 1936. More recently, the company recognized the coming online explosion well in advance and recast all its content into minimum information units that could be mixed, matched, swapped, and switched—online and offline—to suit any new purpose or design.

Today, that foresight is paying off. Fodor’s has shown itself to be nimble enough to take advantage of new technology, new platforms, and new delivery channels; yet, the company is neither straying from nor diluting its original mission, purpose, or strength—which is, of course, publishing travel guides. Instead, it partners with other “best-of-breed” companies to deliver up-to-date content to the market in whatever format the customer prefers.

While having dynamic customer interaction but not having a robust customer database for marketing purposes seems like a missed opportunity, travel is an industry where the customer’s interest is in a particular destination at a particular time and, according to Jarrell, that’s something no database can predict.

We cite Fodor’s as an example of a publisher that, early on, saw the synergy that could be realized by effectively blending a powerful Internet hub with a traditional book-selling operation.

Comments
    Business T.

    I think Fodor’s had really got expertise in the developing some great travel techniques and handy applications to get the most of it to their end user’s,since every time i use to browse Foder i never disappoints and got new every time,Fodor’recent developments in Health travels and designing of new portals for various travel needs is really great work,keep on providing us such tips.

    Reply

    Fodor’s used to be a great travel website but several years ago they added ‘Fodorite Lounge’ which is a forum about non travel related stuff and it has became this negative, bullied pulpit, with posters in their senior years that don’t travel.
    Fodor’s is not moderated properly and has driven most of the travelers who want to travel, away to other travel websites.

    Who wants to take advice from someone who just called you vile name and then on another posts, answers your post and you are going to take their travel advice?

    I hope Tim Jarrell, Fodor’s Publisher, is reading this since no one at Random House has a clue to how to rid the bully’s off Fodor’s and to a playground where they belong.

    Sad….Fodor’s used to be great but no more.

    Reply

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