The New York Times rolled out its annual list of Places to Go this morning, allowing 52 destination marketing organizations to declare an early win on their 2015 publicity efforts.
In a travel world packed with annual where to go lists, Places to Go has become the top top destinations list in the United States, due to both the New York Times’ position in media landscape and the resources the brand can muster to produce the enormous package and promote the list.
In the paper, it’s a multiple page spread with images of some destinations and descriptions of each. Online, though, the feature is a much more complex multi-media affair with images and videos and maps. In addition to the list, the Times mixes in features about trends for the coming year and additional content such as a new “36 Hours in Milan,” devoted to this year’s top pick on the Places to Go list.
Prior to the list’s release this morning, Skift spoke to Dan Saltzstein, an editor at the New York Times travel section who has led the Places to Go feature for the last four years.
Skift: You’ve been on a tear in recent years, going from 31 destinations in 2010 to 52 last year. Are we setting a new record in 2015? Any fear of running out of destinations on Earth?
Dan Saltzstein: Well, we did include Space on the 2012 list. Actually, this year we’re again going with 52. It’s a nicely unround number and it means that, in theory, you could go to one place each week of the year. Sounds like a good TV spinoff, actually.
Skift: Are you returning to any destinations you’ve included in the past and, if so, why the revisit?
Saltzstein: A few places have resurfaced, but for different reasons. For example, Sri Lanka was at the top of the 2010 list — back then, it was just emerging from years of strife. Today, it’s a more accessible destination, so the focus is on new (and often luxurious) ways to access less-touristed parts of the country, like Yala National Park and Lake Koggala.
Skift: Can you talk me through the timeline for gathering candidates, arguing about them, whittling them down, and coming up with your favorites?
Saltzstein: We start in mid-October by soliciting a bunch of our regular contributors — many of whom are based overseas, or are peripatetic types — and cull hundreds of pitches. We then have a marathon meeting where we go through them all, evaluating them on merit, but also with an eye toward emerging with a geographic and thematic diversity. We get the list down to 50-something (with the understanding that a few won’t end up on the list for a variety of reasons) and then give it to our Rankatron5000(tm), who takes it home from there.
Just kidding. It’s actually discussion among us editors about what should go where. The trickiest, of course, is the number one destination, which had to hit a sort of sweet spot. It can’t be too obvious or too obscure. I think our last few — Cape Town, Rio, Panama — as well as this year’s number one — Milan — all work well. Milan is hosting the World Expo this year, so that put it up top as a candidate, but it was really the pitches we got that convinced us that, while it may never rival Rome or Florence for romantic appeal, it may just be the most vibrant city in Italy right now.
Skift: Has anything influenced the process this year that wasn’t a consideration in past editions?
Saltzstein: Without a doubt, the online presentation, which has gotten more and more popular over the last few years. It means a few things: We have to get photos for each item on the list (only a handful of which will appear in print). We also shoot videos of a bunch of places on the list, which appear interspersed throughout the interactive feature (my opinion: they are really cool). More attention to social media. And links. Lots of links.
Also, this year we had a late-breaking entrant at number two: Cuba. I think you probably can guess why.
Skift: Is Cuba the new Burma?
Saltzstein: In that every travel writer in the world is pitching it! Seriously, though, they are obviously both complicated places to travel: exciting, beautiful and newly (or soon-to-be) accessible — but with serious ethical concerns underlying that. One big difference, of course: Cuba is a very short flight from the States. The numbers of American travelers there will undoubtedly be enormous, whereas Myanmar will probably remain a niche destination for the foreseeable future.
Skift: Last year your packaging online was a very Snowfall-like experience with giant graphics, rolling screens, and an immersive experience. Are you adding any new bells and whistles?
Saltzstein: As noted, we’re doing a lot of the same stuff we did last year (why mess with success?), with a couple of new features. The whole thing will be more mobile-friendly (besides the lack of videos, you probably won’t see any differences with the desktop version). The list will be collapsible, so if you want to just look at it without scrolling through each item, that will be possible. And our social media efforts have exploded: in addition to the usual Twittering, we’ll be posting photos on our (newish!) Instagram account and Pinterest, and each destination will link off to a Facebook post where readers can discuss, celebrate, and express their outrage.
Skift: Lonely Planet has its banana pancake trail. Do you worry about a Places to Go road that may ruin a destination in the same way that massive airplay ruins a great indie band?
Saltzstein: Ah, the eternal travel-journalism dilemma. I think for every spot that we might “ruin,” there’s another that we’re helping to bring worthy attention — or others getting back on their feet after adversity (like Santiago, our top 2011 pick, which was still recovering from an earthquake).
Skift: Do you already have a sense of which destination or destinations do you think will be most argued about on the Facebook posts? Were you purposely provocative on any choices?
Saltzstein: We don’t choose places just because they are provocative but… yes. I personally love it when we get “what the!” reactions to picks. Last year’s top one was Houston, at number seven, as a food destination (ask satisfied diners at Underbelly and Uchi if that’s true).
This year’s version is Orlando: yes, it’s got Disney World, but where there’s that much tourism, there’s good dining and culture. (Really.) Medellin is another that will probably get some shakes of the head, but it’s not the city it was 10 or 20 years ago, and deserves another look from travelers.