A few years ago, I interviewed travel legend Pauline Frommer, picking her brain for great travel tips. Since that time, the guidebook company that bears her family name changed hands before ending up back in the family. Additionally, the guidebook industry itself has changed a lot (competitor Lonely Planet was also sold). With all that change, I thought it would be a good time to sit back down with Pauline and talk about what’s next for the guidebook industry, Frommer’s, and whether she is a window or aisle.
Nomadic Matt: Since the last time we spoke, there have been many changes at Frommer’s. Can you give readers a quick synopsis of what happened?
Pauline Frommer: Yes, in April 2013 my father and I acquired the rights to the Frommer’s trademark back. That means Frommer’s is now a family-run business once again! We’re thrilled at this turn of events.
(Matt says: The more detailed version of what happened is that Frommer’s used to be owned by the publishing company Wiley but a couple of years ago Wiley sold it to Google. Google took all the content and was going to basically shutter the entire company but suddenly sold the rights back to Arthur Frommer, who, along with Pauline, is reviving the brand. Why Google bought a guidebook company for online content that becomes quickly dated and then sold the rights back is still a mystery to me.)
Now that you have your company back, what are you doing to restructure and promote the brand?
Well, we took a hard look at what consumers wanted and tried to create a new series of books that would answer those needs. The Frommer’s EasyGuides are much more portable than the old Frommer’s guides, they’re more affordable (in fact, they’re the least expensive guidebooks on the market currently), and they get straight to the heart of the matter. We’re concentrating, in this series, on expertly curated information. Our authors, of which I’m one (I wrote the EasyGuide to New York City), have been asked to seek out the hotels that would only exist in the destination in question (and will greatly improve the vacation of the reader); recommend restaurants that either boast extremely talented local chefs or are wonderfully traditional, speaking to the zeitgeist of the culture; and concentrate on the most authentic and/or exciting shops, attractions, and nightlife experiences.
We recognize that there are many sources of travel information out there. These guides are for those who appreciate the wheat being separated from the chaff by expert, local journalists.
Are you going to have fewer destination titles?
Not long ago, Frommer’s accounted for one out of every four guidebooks sold in the United States. We hope to regain that status. In the fall, we’ll be reintroducing some of the larger, full-color Frommer’s guides and bringing out more EasyGuides and Day by Day guides.
Can you give us some more insight into the EasyGuides and Day by Day guides? What do they do? What makes them unique?
The Day by Day Guides are an innovative “itinerary”-based approach to travel guidebooks. Along with concise info on all the usual guidebook categories (hotels, restaurants, shops, nightlife, attractions), the authors create detailed itineraries of all sorts for these books. They range from how to see the classic sights of the destination in one, two, or three days, to itineraries for travelers with different interests (art lovers, say, or those who really want to explore the current culture, or families traveling with children, or those who want to concentrate on outdoor adventures — there are a lot of categories). The itineraries are supported by detailed maps and lots of photos, so that travelers can use the guides as they tour about the destination.
Will you be shifting your digital strategy at all?
We’ve hired Jason Cochran, one of the most talented editor/writers working today, to be the editor-in-chief of Frommers.com. He’s working on a number of initiatives and strategic partnerships, and you’ll see many changes in the coming months. And you may have noticed that the look of the website is now much sleeker. We also have partnered with Momondo, so that our users can have access to their superb air search engine (Momondo searches for, but does not sell, travel products). When paired with the destination content on our website, those who come to Frommers.com will find that planning their travel will be much more seamless.
Is there a Frommer’s app in the future? Or digital guides to use on smartphones?
There were both these products before, and we’re weeks away from introducing the new iterations of both apps and e-books.
Has it been sort of liberating to have your family’s company back? Being in control of it again must be a good feeling.
It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to hire so many talented writers, editors, cartographers, and graphic designers to work on the books and web content. We’ve also heard from many of our readers, folks who depend on Frommer’s and who are pleased to hear it’s a family-run business once again. So while it’s a great feeling to have the brand back, it’s a task that comes with a lot of responsibility, both to our readers and our employees, and one we take that quite seriously.
What does the future hold for Frommer’s?
Like all those in publishing, we’ll be concentrating on finding ways to use our content in the smartest and most innovative ways possible. So you can take that to mean more, and more varied, digital products.
There’s a lot of change going on in the guidebook industry at the moment. Do you think that represents a good opportunity for Frommer’s to redefine itself and grow?
As a young G.I., drafted during the Korean War but sent to Europe, my father created a guidebook (Europe on $5 a Day) that revolutionized the way people traveled, allowing those on limited budgets to have the courage to go out and see the world. In the 50-plus years since then, Frommer’s has remained a leading brand in the industry — no small feat. We’re hoping to take this trusted name, and the integrity it represents, into the future, helping the next generation of travelers. That will definitely involve change and growth, but we want to stay true to our roots, which means opinionated, impartial, fun-to-read travel journalism.
In our last interview, we gave some travel tips. What are some trends in travel consumers should pay attention to?
Pricing creep is a big, bad trend. With airline mergers and the ever-increasing number of fees at hotels and airlines, travelers have to do more research nowadays to travel affordably. That includes following the airline you want to fly on Twitter (so you can take advantage of 2-3-hour flash sales, which often are the best sales out there), booking at the right time (six weeks in advance is the best time for domestic airfares according to a number of studies), and traveling off-season when you can.
“Sharing” is an excellent, newish trend. It encompasses a number of fields from car rentals from locals (that are seriously cheaper than standard car rentals) to meal sharing (a number of websites have popped up offering meals in locals’ homes) to sites such as Global Freeloaders and Couchsurfing that allow you to stay at the home of friendly locals for free.
A final trend (and there are many) seems to be in destinations. More Americans, shell-shocked by the cost of getting to Europe, are heading to Central America on vacation. Both the airfares and the costs on the ground are lower, and those who go find countries with a wealth of cultural riches. (The trend toward South America has been more muted thanks to painfully high visa fees in such countries as Argentina and Brazil).
Where do you go when you plan your trip ? What are your go-to websites/companies?
You know I gotta say Frommers.com. We have an incredible wealth of information on the site and I’m very proud of it. It ranges from great reviews for destinations across the globe to terrific airfare search to tips on all sorts of travel issues. When I tear myself away from there, I’ll look at Amtrak.com (as I do like train travel and do it when its feasible), BreezeNet.com for car rentals, Landlopers.com for the latest travel headlines, and, for the most up-to-date and detailed travel safety information, the website of the British equivalent of our State Department (https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice).
Lastly, and I think this is the most burning question of them all: window or aisle? And why?
Aisle. I like to roam free.