Every day's a holiday

But at Condé Nast Traveller there's no rest. Its editor tells Ciar Byrne why her magazine must steer a course through the changing fortunes of the travel industry
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The Independent Online

Just days before the first issue of Condé Nast Traveller went to press, Diana, Princess of Wales was killed in a car crash in Paris, and editor Sarah Miller was forced to pull a feature about Portofino in Italy, where the princess had spent the summer with Dodi Fayed. Despite this inauspicious start, the fledgling magazine has grown from strength to strength, fuelled by the explosion in low-cost flights that has revolutionised travel, and allowed those with the means to take off whenever and to wherever they choose.

Just days before the first issue of Condé Nast Traveller went to press, Diana, Princess of Wales was killed in a car crash in Paris, and editor Sarah Miller was forced to pull a feature about Portofino in Italy, where the princess had spent the summer with Dodi Fayed. Despite this inauspicious start, the fledgling magazine has grown from strength to strength, fuelled by the explosion in low-cost flights that has revolutionised travel, and allowed those with the means to take off whenever and to wherever they choose.

September 11, foot-and-mouth and Sars intervened, spelling doom for the holiday industry, but, thanks to a rapid change of tack, the circulation of Condé Nast Traveller continued to climb against the odds.

"We were very lucky," admits Miller. "We moved very quickly to readjust. In the light of September 11, we said: 'Maybe we should look more to Europe, closer to home.' People were fearful of taking planes." Those fears have subsided somewhat. "I think the British are the most resilient people. They want to carry on with their life and not let a terrorist stop it."

Condé Nast launched the title in 1997 to do for the European traveller what the US version had done for Americans a decade earlier. "The British market has a much more European sensibility," explains Miller. "Americans tend to travel round America and to the Caribbean, in their backyard. For us, Europe is our backyard." This European bias is evident in recent copies of the magazine, which have featured destinations including Palermo, Ljubljana, Mallorca, Warsaw, Gascony, Germany's North Friesian islands, Venice and Cornwall.

Miller was hired to bring an exacting journalistic sensibility to travel writing - she began her career on Cosmopolitan magazine, and has also worked on the fashion bible Elle and in newspaper features on The Sunday Times and The Daily Telegraph.

"Travel journalists come to you and say: 'I'd like to do something on Spain.' I say: 'No darling, Spain is a country, not an idea. We are journalists here, we're not an encyclopaedia, nor are we a guide book.'"

Today, she presides over a network of global stringers - there are no in-house writers or photographers - and a magazine with an 83,000-strong circulation, mainly from subscriptions. While she admits that her readers are "well-heeled", she stresses that just because the magazine is part of the glossy Condé Nast stable does not mean it features "astronomically expensive" destinations. "Our readers take holidays frequently and people who take holidays frequently are by definition well-heeled. But they also have an attitude of mind that says you can have a stylish holiday and you can use a low-cost flight to get there."

The age of the average reader is about 40, but the magazine caters for a wide range of affluent travellers - from twentysomethings seeking long weekends, to fiftysomething empty-nesters kicking up their heels.

When Condé Nast Traveller came on to the market it was a lonely voice alongside Wanderlust, a travel magazine launched in 1993 to cater for travellers who wanted to escape the mainstream. It has undergone a revamp this month. It quickly sparked a trend - newspapers rushed to bring out colourful new travel sections and two more magazines, Food & Travel and Escape Routes - which has since closed - were launched. In January 2003, The Sunday Times launched its own stand-alone travel magazine, in a glossy format uncannily similar to that of Condé Nast Traveller. "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. They set out to copy us, there's absolutely no doubt about that," says Miller.

What marks Condé Nast Traveller out from many of the newspaper and magazine travel sections is that it does not accept press trips - where groups of journalists are shepherded around a resort by a travel PR. "Our writers travel on their own, they're unaccompanied by a PR and they're certainly not part of a group of English journalists. They are experiencing it as you would if you were doing it for yourself." But this does not mean that Condé Nast is left to foot gigantic bills. "We try to get the cheapest price we possibly can, so I'm not going to send anyone to South Africa over Christmas. We have learnt how to be canny in our commissioning and in our responses to the seasons. For example, we might send someone to the Caribbean in June, which is actually the cheapest time to go, but we'll run it in November or December, which is when the majority of people want to book."

So, what are Miller's tips for planning the perfect holiday? She believes there are three main strategies - value for money ("go where the exchange is in your favour - South Africa is in our favour at the moment"); going out of season to bag a bargain; and choosing a holiday that fits around the family.

And what are the hot destinations of the moment? Australia and New Zealand are "booming", because they are perceived as "far, far away", but also as safe destinations that enjoy lovely weather. China is going to be "huge" in the run up to the Beijing Olympics. And Europe and Britain remain a perennial favourite for family holidays. Despite a recent promotional push, however, people have "failed to bite" the Middle East.

Miller is coy about her own favourite destinations, joking that she has no time to take holidays. The most she will admit to is spend- ing a long weekend in France this summer with friends. "I discovered they had actually booked the house they had rented from our magazine. It was fabulous."

Last week, Miller hosted the seventh annual Condé Nast Traveller readers' travel awards, based on 24,000 responses from readers voting for everything from their preferred business hotel to their favourite island. Two years after the night club bomb, Bali won. "It is absolutely the readers' nominations. I can spot a PR trying to skew the results," she insists.

Writing for Condé Nast Traveller is surely one of the nicest jobs in the world. Contributors include esteemed authors such as William Boyd and the Booker-shortlisted Nicholas Shakespeare, while Ben Schott has just been signed up to write about travel miscellanies.

But Miller, who receives about 50 unsolicited manuscripts a day, is keen to disabuse wannabe travel writers of any romantic notions. "I always say to people who say 'I'd like to be a travel writer', don't. Please just be a good writer and submit great story ideas that will inspire our readers. What I'm interested in is the world - I'm as interested in the effect of new cultural buildings in Bilbao on the local economy as an interview with Michael Palin."

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