Interviewer: Esther Kezia Thorpe

Uwern Jong: Quite simply, OutThere is the world’s leading luxury and experiential travel magazine for LGBT+ people and their friends. It stems from a love of travel. I’ve been travelling all my life, my dad was an architect. And as a family, we got to travel to some amazing places around the world when he was working, and I wasn’t in school. He also had a couple of hotel projects, so from a very young age, I picked up a keen eye for hospitality and tourism. And he very much wanted me to follow in his footsteps, but architecture just wasn’t for me! I was always keen on tourism.

Time passes, and it does, and sometimes you’ve got to take the long way around to get where you want to get to. In my industry, you call it slow travel. So after working for 10 years in integrated marketing and communications as a young entrepreneur in a creative agency, I was fortunate enough to sell my part of the business, and with the proceeds, take myself off travelling.

I then started to realise that there wasn’t really inclusive travel media or advice for people like me, I didn’t identify or see myself in what was rather – undiverse really -mainstream travel publications, and even the magazines for the LGBT community that I subscribed to, were so focused on how I was supposed to live my life as a stereotypically gay man. And frankly, you know what, I always fancied going over to the other side, too. I spent years talking to the media and pitching ideas and stories and always thought ‘I could do this.’ And Martin Perry, my business partner, who was already working in magazine publishing, presented the idea of creating a luxury travel magazine together.

The idea was to turn the world of LGBT+ publishing on its head, not just talk about LGBT+ travel, but travel for LGBT+ people. We knew there was a difference, the former being all about pride and LGBT culture, and the latter being about unique shared cultural experiences. We sought to create a magazine that was open to all travellers, regardless of their sexual orientation, one rooted in diversity, discernment, and discovery. And most importantly, one that straight people wouldn’t shy away from reading.

So in 2010, we took the plunge, and ten rollercoaster years later, I’m proud that OutThere is a 21st century travel publication, not just a magazine for LGBT+ people, but one of the nation’s foremost travel magazines. One that boasts a huge following of allies and those who still look for diversity in travel, be that people of colour, solo female travellers, or modern families.

And today, I see so many people; editors, media houses, clambering over each other to be ‘woke’, and change the way they do things. And I’m glad to be able to say that not to be woke was never an option for us. We were always woke! It’s ingrained in everything we do at the magazine.

The journey, I think you asked about the journey, it’s essentially a book, a five hour podcast in itself. But I’ll try and summarise! Many people applaud us and our successes, because they see where we’ve got to today. But the journey is exactly that, a journey. You try a lot of things, you meet a lot of people, some that push you into different directions, sometimes good, sometimes not so good. You try to work to an industry standard model, because you think that’s how it works, or how the rest of the industry wants you to work.

But then you realise that you can’t ever be a disruptor if you’re doing the same thing as everyone else, and that sometimes your true path, the path you set out to go on to start with, was the right one. You see what I mean by slow travel, the long way around. You make a lot of mistakes along the way, you learn a lot too. And I wouldn’t change that for the world. But sometimes being true to your original mission can work wonders.

And look, I didn’t get into travel publishing to be commercial or to sell travel. I got into it to tell stories, to inspire. And I found that sometimes commerciality clouds the creativity and to the brand’s detriment. Over the last decade, I’ve learned that whenever you let creativity take the driving seat, you benefit, and sometimes rarely vice versa.

So here we are. Okay, we’re not millionaires, by any means. I wish we were! Perhaps we could be if we were a little bit more cutthroat. But generally we do good business, work the way that we want to, and most importantly, have a hell of a lot of fun doing it. And we’re very, very proud of what we’ve become.

So back in 2010 when you started this, did you start it as a print magazine? Or was it a digital site that started first, which one came first?

Oh, print magazine. Absolutely, print magazine. My heart is in print.

And are you still publishing frequently? How has frequency changed over the years?

Absolutely, quarterly now. We started as annual that grew to biannual. And in 2019, we became quarterly, which for print magazine at a time where supposedly print was dead or dying is amazing for us.

That leads into one of the questions I’ve already got here is that, as you said, print magazines, and travel magazines especially have really really struggled. I think the Sunday Times Traveller shut down literally a few weeks ago. What are you doing differently to grow your readership?

Well, we try to do everything differently. I think that’s the key to innovation! Yes, the print industry has absolutely struggled. I’ll always remember the day that we had to switch paper stock, because our paper supplier that had been making paper for close to 100 years had gone bust. But it all depends how you see print in publishing.

Sadly, not so long ago, publishing got to the stage where it was disposable. And our industry is partly to blame for that. Magazines, and books for that matter that were once prize possessions and consumed earnestly – something you collected that you really wanted – became something you bought for 30p, read on the toilet, or left on the train or the plane after you were done with them.

So we wanted to turn that on its head, to be part of the movement that were committed to making print publications beautiful – coffee table books, collector items – once again. One that curated the best stories, that became keepsakes. So that’s exactly what we did. And we work hard, we work very hard to create as much value as possible in print. It’s all based in creating something different, something that’s not every day, something special.

It’s like the difference between supermarket-bought sushi and one that’s Michelin starred. It’s a strange analogy, I know, it’s a very strange analogy. Well, that’s what came to mind. But what I’m getting at is that we wanted to be the Michelin star restaurant, to create value in what we printed, and to understand our audience and readers implicitly, and to deliver the best product and service.

We’re all about luxury travel, so the method and medium has to be equally as luxurious. From a travel publishing perspective, we suffered in the early part of this decade from an onslaught of competitive content; Tripadvisor being one of the biggest success stories at the start of this decade; influencers, and also sadly, fellow publishers that spent their whole time clickbaiting with irrelevant, free content that eroded the value of storytelling in the industry. And yes, that made it really difficult to achieve share of voice from a reader perspective.

But we persevered. We persevered with strong, well created content, rooted in opinion, beautiful photography. I absolutely hate listicles with a passion, so we banned listicles. No quick wins. And we rode the wave.

Yeah, it was hard, it was difficult to want to create something special, particularly in a media landscape that was all about quick wins. But we rode the wave, and we’re seeing the benefit of doing that, as consumer thinking – at least what I believe consumer thinking – to return to true expertise. The peer to peer and ‘anyone can do it’ market has become totally oversaturated. You don’t really know who to trust anymore.

So we’re seeing it in other parts of the industry too, people wanting to go back to travel agents, for example, to book their travel. David Attenborough, where he belongs as the world’s top influencer and opinion leader, you know what I mean, people are moving back to expertise to very strong opinion.

It really is the age of the expert, especially now more than ever. And when you put the two together, print and travel publishing, becoming print travel publishing, you have this double whammy. But there definitely is room for print in travel, especially in luxury travel.

Yes, I get it, it’s not the heyday of yesteryear, where print was king. And it’s important as ever to drive your online and social to win over today’s audience. But there’s something very, very special about print if you do it right.

You’ve talked a bit about your digital strategy, but I know in a recent piece – because you won Campaign’s Editor of the Year – you said you actually recently had a revamp of your digital strategy. So can you talk a bit about what you did there and what the results were?

Oh, we did, yes. You want to know my secrets now do you?! Okay, listen. So top line, 2018/2019 we embarked on a complete turnaround in digital strategy, a complete turnaround. While luxury print is at the very heart of what we do, we knew that to reach out to today’s audience, to engage, compete, survive even, we needed to create an online experience that was as on brand and as tactile and experiential as its printed counterpart.

Remember, I said that we made a lot of mistakes along the way to where we are, well digital played a big part in that story. And it continues to be an ever moving piece. The challenge with digital is that it’s so dynamic, so changeable, and oftentimes it takes the fun out of creativity because it’s so metric. But we’re constantly learning and I’ll say even the strategy we employed back in 2019 has moved on a little bit.

But before the transition, our website was commercially performing well, I would say that we were using every trick in the book; clickbaiting, that kind of thing, optimising volume, but it just didn’t match up to the values of our beautiful printed coffee table magazine. I felt that our brand was being sidelined to drive short-term impressions, which just wasn’t sustainable.

So we took stock. We embarked on a research project with some 5,000 readers – online readers – to find out what our unique voice online would be. And I made it our mission to drive content quality over quantity. So I banned listicles. I told you, I hate listicles. So I banned that, and any multi-page impression-driving waffle. Overhauled existing stories, making them more evergreen, rather than throw away, built a multi tiered content strategy of short, medium and long reads, understanding that not all our site visitors consume content in the same way.

We commissioned award winning new content within the strategy, wrote our first ever brand manual, all the things that you’re supposed to do as a brand, in terms of protecting your brand identity. But to gain new users, we pushed the boundaries of our analytics and reduced the frequency in which we served content, but increased relevance. So we allow for more visual eye candy, photography and video being key to the travel storytelling.

We started targeting users based on their behaviours and interests. And we ensured that each time they returned, there will be something new to engage with. Essentially, we put the way the site is navigated back into the hands of the user. People call it UX, which is user user experience or user journey. We call it UPX; user preferred experience.

What we wanted to do was to build relationships between different content types and the user. And how we did that was to future proof and optimise the reading experience as well, but also be very conscious that mobile was growing. And we needed to find a way to optimise how we told stories to a mobile audience.

We also created a way to reward our most loyal readers, gamifying their online journey, giving them access to exclusive content. And we serialised our social media using Instagram to deliver bite sized versions of longer reads, for those with shorter attention spans, because there’s a lot of people with shorter attention spans these days.

So with all this in place, we became what I like to call purveyors of travel inspiration. And not just information. They’re two very different things, inspiration and information. We became storytellers, and curators, and not just publishers.

And the results were amazing for us. Unique user growth increased by 37% year on year, pageviews by 43%, and the dwell time – which I got most excited about, you know, everyone wanted these big numbers of how many users you have, I’ve got more interested in how long people were using our site for, because that’s how engaged they were – and it doubled, essentially, from a minute and a half to three minutes. I know that’s still quite low.

Not for a publishing site!

It’s very exciting for me, three minutes! And all this done without compromising any editorial integrity.

But from an advertiser perspective, I’d say it took them a while. It took them a while to get on board, because they are very used to doing things digitally in a particular way. But as soon as they saw conversion metrics being of greater value, and that’s key to all of this, I have this saying that my team hate me for, one of those management sayings, but volume is vanity and value is sanity. We have to create greater value. And the digital advertising world still has a little bit of change needed before we get there fully.

But I think people are waking up and realising that big numbers don’t necessarily count, it’s the value of those numbers.

Do you think your marketing background has helped with your approach to this? Because it feels like a very marketing-driven approach to content in that sense.

Absolutely. I think so. It creeps in, I thought I put that world behind me! But no, I think you have to. You have to think like that, because it is about engagement. And while I try to stay away from the commerciality of it all, like I say, you’ve got to think about that.

Not necessarily thinking of ‘How much money can I make, and how can I optimise this to make as much as possible,’ but ‘How can I really build a loyal and engaged audience?’ And I think by building a loyal and engaged audience, the money comes later. I hope! We’re still waiting.

So talking about the money what does the revenue mix look like, are you mainly ad supported or have you got subscriptions, or newsstand, how does that mix look?

We are mainly ad supported. We have a huge number of subscribers, over over 60% of our readership is subscription, which is very unique. However, a printed magazine is a very expensive thing to print. And the cost of print goes up literally every single time we produce an issue, not to mention the cost of postage. It now costs…beforehand I remember it was under a pound to send magazines back when we first started. It’s now over three. So the subscription revenue becomes more expensive.

And talk about our international readers, which we have a lot of, particularly in America. To get a single copy out to them costs £12 delivery, and the magazine is only £10. So essentially, the cost of sending things out is actually more than the cost of the magazine itself. So you want to buy four issues of the magazine the year and that’s £40, plus £48 of delivery. So actually, a four times a year magazine is £88 to an American reader.

However, I hope they see the value in what we produce, and it’s worth it. And so far, so good.

I’m quite impressed we’ve got this far without mentioning the pandemic word. But how has this impacted you, because you’re centred around luxury travel, and we’ve not been allowed out of our front rooms for what, eight months now. So how has that affected you?

Well 2020 has been quite a year. Challenging is the understated way of saying it. But like every business, and particularly in publishing and in travel, everything has ground to a halt. With content, we’re not short of the ability to create content, not at all. In fact, the internet does wonders for that. Our ability to get even deeper under the skin of things, to meet people, to spend time with people who have time to tell you their stories and create more meaningful content has actually improved at the world slows down.

So we can’t get out there necessarily, and travel so much. But we’ve met so many people along the way that are so willing to report from their corner of the globe. And I’ve also been encouraged by resilience and the willingness of people to help. We really are in this together.

And it’s amazing, we often forget how many lives and so many places across the world that we touch in what we do. So actually, content generation is not an issue. We have more content than we need. But the truth of the matter is that commerciality, that’s where the issue lies.

Life could be better commercially. We set some ambitious goals after a wonderful 2019. And with that, a growth strategy to match. Thankfully COVID struck early in the year before we invested a lot. If it came mid year, it would have been a totally different story. But we are recovering, not to the level we had anticipated, but with all luck by year end, we will still match, or at least be very close to how we performed in 2019.

So it’s been a terrible year for business. But we’re also having a great year for brand. We’ve been building our brand, we’ve innovated and pivoted – word of the year, pivoted – more than ever before. And I feel we’ve emerged stronger as a brand in the six months of lockdown, or eight months now you’re telling me, eight months of lockdown than where we were at in 2019. Because we’ve had time to take stock and do things that are important, and to be strong brand in times of COVID.

We’ve had to put two print issues on hold, not because we were short of content, like I said, but because it didn’t make commercial or logistical sense. Our distributor in the US is struggling and where they sell the most in retail – which is at airports – just weren’t open.

I’m glad to say that we’re back in print though, next month. And it’s with an edition titled ‘The next chapter.’ And from home, we’ve created some innovative products under the title of ‘The Experientialist,’ which you might have seen on our website, which remains even today as our online feel good newspaper to bring the world of experiential through to our readers, experiential travel through to our readers in lockdown.

We wanted to ensure that we can also aid positive mental health; something that people don’t often talk about. As travel media, we can use travel as a force for good to help people who may be finding it difficult and locked down, to feed their wanderlust, to give them hope. And that’s exactly what we did.

So we launched The Experientialist, then we also launched Experientialist Live, which is our online event series for our readers. But more importantly also for the travel industry to keep everyone connected, bringing thought leadership at this time to the forefront.

We’ve also launched our Experientialist Awards. Even though sponsorship pots are shot, we wanted to do it as we felt it was crucial for our brands and to reward and applaud the travel companies who have demonstrated innovation, creativity, resilience, during COVID. And we’re collecting entry donations to donate to a community project that really needs it. We’ve managed to raise £5,000 so far, which is just truly amazing. And we’re also giving away £15,000 worth of advertising packages to winners of each of the 10 categories to give back and to help our clients get back on track.

So we’ve been busy. And it seems to have worked. We’re talking to more potential advertisers than ever before. And our online traffic from a content perspective has doubled in the last few months, doubled. So we just need to get the business model back on track, or evolve for times to come.

So what are your long term ambitions for OutThere, trying to think just past the next six months where nobody knows what we’re going to be doing!

My answer to that is exactly that. At this time, I don’t really have an answer for you, frankly, we are a time where we need to live each day as it comes. Recovery, business continuity is all I can see right now.

We’re making slow strides in the right direction, thankfully. But we are still in the middle of a pandemic, people are saying, ‘new norm,’ ‘post pandemic,’ I hear these words all the time, but sorry, we are still bang smack in the middle of a pandemic.

And I presume you’ve got very little idea of what hotels and travel places are going to look like!

Or publishing, or consumer behaviour, the way people want to consume content, the stories that people want to hear. We’ve got to learn to evolve. So evolution, I think, is where I’m at. Long term ambitions is evolution, and innovation.

We can’t expect things to go back to normal for at least a few years, maybe more. So we’re learning, we’re coming up with ideas on how to work with the pandemic, rather than holding on for some sort of return to normality.

So watch this space, these next few months, years, however long it takes, I hope will challenge us and make us do better. And I’m all for it.

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