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You many not be able to get much more old-school media than National Geographic, but the brand has innovated in ways that make it less vulnerable to the ebb and flow of advertising dollars than many of its younger peers.

The National Geographic Society will announce tomorrow the launch of National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World, a curated collection of 24 boutique hotel properties on six continents.

It joins a suite of travel products from the brand that includes Expeditions, Adventures, and National Geographic Traveler magazine, among other offerings.

With the exception of the media properties, the brand’s existing products are aimed mainly at experiential group travel, rather than independent ones. “The travel business is thriving,” says Lynn Cutter, Executive Vice President, Travel and Licensing, for National Geographic. “We’ve seen a big growth in independent travel, so along with Unique Lodges we’re launching Private Expeditions, independent getaways that in many cases include these lodges.”

“We are aiming to be the go-to place for authentic, meaningful, and engaging travel experiences: from dreaming to planning to going to sharing the experience,” says Cutter.

The two dozen invited hotels meet a criteria that takes into account sustainability, guest experience, and the quality of the property. The portfolio includes properties such as Fogo Island Inn in Newfoundland, Canada, Grootbos Private Nature Reserve in South Africa, and The Ranch at Rock Creek in Montana. Hotels at launch were visited by representatives of National Geographic, and also met a criteria determined by the brand’s sustainable tourism expert Costas Christ.

As part of the launch and continued support for the collection, National Geographic will engage in advertising, digital marketing, and social media efforts, as well as share best practices among the properties.

“We were the first property that they contacted to see where the interest levels were,” says Hans Pfister, President and co-owner of Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality, which operates Lapa Rios Eco Lodge in Costa Rica. “My response was, ‘Where have you been all these years? We have been waiting for you all along.'”

National Geographic’s goal for 2015 is to expand the collection to 50 properties, but Cutter says “our long-term goal is to have as many properties as can meet the criteria.”

National Geographic is playing up the experiential and sustainability angles of the collection as its distinguishing characteristics. “This is perfect alignment with the values of Fogo Island Inn. It is an organization that shares our belief that travelers are increasingly looking beyond the superfluous to the essential — to investing in and creating meaningful experiences in nature and culture,” says Zita Cobb, Innkeeper and President of the Shorefast Foundation, which founded the Fogo Island Inn.

Filling a Hole?

Although the National Geographic Society is most recognizable for its media brands, selling travel products has been a key part of its business since 1999. “It’s not something new at all,” says Cutter. “We’ve had a very strong commitment in this area and it’s been a growing business for us for years — long before the print/digital issues became as significant as they are today.”

National Geographic is entering a field with a wide range of competitors that have their own collections of properties targeted at specific audiences. From traditional hotel marketing operations such as Leading Hotels of the World or Relais & Châteaux, to collections from Jetsetter or AFAR magazine, creating curated lists of unique properties allows a travel brand to market to a specific audience, and stand out from the comprehensive listings on an Expedia or Priceline. The standards of these organizations and brands range from a 850-point system at LHW to making sure the TripAdvisor rating is higher than 4.5 stars at Jetsetter.

“To our knowledge, we’re the first collection by a globally recognized and independent educational organization with an extensive on-site vetting process and a global media organization behind it,” says Cutter.

Unique Lodges includes a tie-in to the brand’s new Private Expeditions product that allows users to book custom itineraries through an agreement with Virtuoso travel agents. The new Expeditions product builds on the existing tour brand, but branches out into private rather than group travel. Private Expeditions will launch with 13 itineraries that include stays in some Unique Lodges properties and National Geographic’s network of guides and experts.

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Tags: eco-friendly, marketing, national geographic, Virtuoso

Photo credit: Fogo Island Inn in Newfoundland, Canada is one of the 24 properties in National Geographic's new Unique Lodges of the World collection. Photo courtesy Fogo Island Inn / National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World

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