Put two serial entrepreneurs in the middle of India for six weeks with no itinerary and what do you get?
A travel magazine, of course.When co-founders Greg Sullivan and Joe Diaz decided to launch Afar in 2009, they knew they wanted to take a different approach to stand out among a sea of travel magazines.
“The two of them recognized that people were really starting to travel in a deeper way,” Afar Editor-In-Chief and Vice President Julia Cosgrove told Magazines & More. “Rather than just focusing on hotels and sheet thread count, it was more about the experience you have — the people you meet and the connections you make.”
Afar’s unique approach to travel has been fundamental to the success of the magazine — it saw a 41.2 percent increase in total circulation in the first half of 2012 — and the extension of the print brand. Among those extensions is Afar.com, which along with other functions serves as a meeting place for travelers to share the experiences they’re having on the road. The site currently boasts 25,000 travel-highlight features.
The publisher also recently launched a mobile app that’s already been downloaded more than 12,000 times. All of these pieces, Cosgrove said, are in tune with the mission of the print magazine.
“The idea is that we live in a very mobile world, and as a sort of globalization has pressed up against most places in the world, travelers are really looking for authentic, meaningful experiences that go beyond the homogenized experiences you get on a tour bus,” Cosgrove said.
A further brand extension is its Learning Afar program. In partnership with Colorado-based Global Explorers, the program sends underprivileged high-school students on trips abroad.
“These are kids that don’t typically get the opportunity to leave a six-block radius,” Cosgrove said. “Our editors get to work with them in a one-day session on how to make magazines.”
Students then get the opportunity to share their version of Afar with their community, she said, including parents, teachers and other students.
“We believe travel is the best form of education.”
Afar counts 157,000 subscribers to the magazine, with total audience reach nearing 800,000. The publication relies on a mix of advertising support and subscriptions, which are pegged at $20 annually.
The various outlets of the magazine have attracted solid and steady advertising support, Cosgrove said, because Afar offers its partners a variety of packages, including the option of sponsoring its immersive travel events, called Afar Experiences. Among recent sponsors was Jaguar, which ran an interactive video program online. Past Afar Experiences included bringing 35 travelers to Egypt for a three-day visit that included meetings with local politicians and trips to Johannesburg and Sydney, Australia.
“Because we are doing so many things we are able to leverage that so our partners are coming on board to try these things with us,” Cosgrove said.
When it comes to readers, Afar appeals to both dreamers and doers.
“I think it’s always a mix,” Cosgrove said. “Based on some reader surveys we did we know there are the avid travelers and the very well-educated and affluent.”
Then, she said, there are the business travelers that spend an average of 60 nights a year in hotels and tack extra days on the end of those trips to explore a destination they may not have otherwise experienced.
“They are incredibly curious about the world and approach it with this thoughtful, open-minded spirit.”
In touch with readers
In addition to reader feedback surveys, Afar engages its audience through social media, including Facebook chats. A recent Facebook event resulted in 190 questions and comments in less than an hour, Cosgrove said.
“Our audience strongly identifies with the mission of what we are doing, so it comes naturally for them to get involved in these types of things,” she said.
That involvement also comes in the form of groups who come together after they read a particular feature or story. A collection of readers in New York, for example, formed a group based on Afar’s “Feast,” which profiles authentic, local dishes from around the world.
“This group of people that loves foods from other countries got together and formed this recurring supper club where they try the dish we’ve recently written about,” she said.
Afar readers, Cosgrove said, follow their passions when they travel, whether it’s volunteering or learning to cook; the magazine indulges readers with features aimed at highlighting those experiences. Case in point: A recent story that covered a group of people who traveled to Naples, Italy, to learn how to make the best pizza.
“Other magazines do a great job with escapist travel, but we are looking for a more personal, meaningful take on travel,” she added.
That approach means longer articles and writers are encouraged to write in their own voices. Cosgrove said it’s not unusual to see 4,500-word articles in Afar.
“Diversity in the voice of the magazine is important because it’s all about celebrating the diversity of the world.”
To that end, Afar’s editors remain focused on the magazine’s core mission, Cosgrove said.
Writing talent comprises both staff and freelance, with Afar Media employing 40 full-time workers in its San Francisco and New York offices.
The magazine itself counts 10 full-time employees between the editorial and art departments. There are also six contributors who write for Afar throughout the year.
“We have a great network of writers around the world, especially for feature stories where the writer has a connection to the place they’re traveling,” she said. “It’s about finding that perfect mix.”
Cosgrove said there is no hierarchy within the staff, and that openness to new ideas and concepts helps make things tick.
“We are young and nimble and willing to try new things,” she said.
In addition to its unique approach to editorial, Cosgrove said Afar attempts to look different from other travel magazines. “We are very focused on photography and design, and that’s just as important as the words in the magazine.”
Among Cosgrove’s favorite features is “Mix,” Afar’s look at similarities and differences around the world through a collage of images. Everything from bridges and breakfasts to toothpastes around the world have served as fodder for Mix.
“It’s this visual hit of how similar we are, and the nuances and differences,” she said.
Cosgrove’s other favorites include “Resident,” a section in which a local in a major city introduces readers to his or her neighborhood, and “Spin the Globe.”
The latter is exactly as it implies, she said, and is the result of Afar editors literally spinning a globe to decide where it will send a staff member — with as little as a day’s advance notice — to write a 1,500-word story about the experience.
“That’s definitely one of my favorites and it’s a dream assignment, Cosgrove said.
A recent Spin the Globe story featured a Kenyan rapper, named “Rabbit.” The video that accompanied the piece spawned more than 1 million hits on YouTube.
“I think our approach has really galvanized readers, advertisers and other travelers around the world,” Cosgrove said. “Once people find us they really love what we are doing.”
Among Afar’s most recent accolades: being named the best travel magazine in America by the Society of American Travel Writers.
The spirit of the magazine’s founders and the entire staff help keep the passion for Afar’s editorial mission alive, Cosgrove said. It’s the same spirit that recently saw a gong placed in the magazine’s San Francisco office, which the staff uses to laud a sale or the completion of an issue.
“After someone bangs the gong we take to the roof and drink beers and celebrate,” Cosgrove said.