Truth in consumer travel coverage is a rare commodity in this day and age of influencers, paid content and the pursuit of profit. But one bespoke media company thinks it can succeed solely by sending writers around the world, paying the travel bills along the way.
At a time when consumer travel media outlets are trying to stay profitable through brand extensions, custom content, affiliate advertising and pay-to-play coverage, one middle-aged publication is going back to basics.
Andrew Harper is a mysterious name that has been around the luxury travel world for decades. The pseudonymous critic started the Andrew Harper’s Hideaways newsletter in 1979. Every month a small, but discerning (read rich) subscriber base received a publication filled with unfiltered reviews of high-end hotels.
Sharing the “truth in travel” mantra claimed at the time by Condé Nast Traveler, Harper funded his own excursions and always traveled incognito. To help subsidize the editorial operation, the empire expanded during the 1990s to include a travel agency and a travel directory filled with paid listings of partnering hotels, cruises and tour companies.
In 2006, a small Austin, Texas-based investor group purchased the Andrew Harper brand. Last year, the group sold the profitable travel agency operation and the Andrew Harper Alliance hotel program to Travel Leaders Group. Andrew Harper CEO Crista Bailey said the sale left the company to focus “on its crown jewel, using the extra cash from the sale of the agency to fund the editorial portfolio.”
That portfolio is made up of Andrew Harper’s Hideaway Report, AndrewHarper.com, and The Andrew Harper Collection, a glossy series of guidebooks. As in the past, reporters writing for these outlets travel under cover, and Andrew Harper pays the bills.
But exactly how do those bills get paid? After all, Andrew Harper covers properties that can cost more than $500 a night, and according to Bailey, reporters stay at least two nights at each destination. Even so, the publication doesn’t accept advertising, and does not include paid content. In the past, proceeds from the agency side of the business subsidized the editorial. Now, however, the strategy is growing profits by increasing subscriptions.
John D. Cullen, who is chairman of the board and part of the company’s ownership group, said 90 percent of current revenue comes from membership dues.
“Subscriptions are the revenue driver. Travel Leaders Group pays a modest stipend pay for lead generation. But to be clear, whatever we get from TLG is not funding the brand,” Cullen said. Additionally, partnerships bring in ancillary revenue.
Nancy Novgorod, the former editor-in-chief of Travel + Leisure who is now launching Culturati Travel Design in affiliation with Valerie Wilson Travel, thinks the strategy could work.
“This is a very different animal from Conde Nast Traveler or T+L—a membership model for access to a product that comes at an extremely high price and addresses the interests and needs of a top-tier affluent audience,” Novogrod said.
“Unless they are envisioning making big changes, the cost of producing The Hideaway Report is modest—so I think it can work, particularly with the help of partnerships that increase their reach.”
Bailey’s prime goal, however, is adding members, who pay $395 annually for a print and online subscription, and $250 for solely digital access. There are currently 16,000 members, and the goal is to grow the numbers by “reaching a younger, more digital-savvy audience.”
Andrew Harper’s recent growth figures may bear that out. When Bailey inherited the CEO position 16 months ago, “the membership skewed older. The average age was in the 60s, with 65 percent of members being male and 35 percent female. Seventy percent had an annual household income of $2 million or more,” she said.
However, Bailey says that recently, “We are seeing, in new member growth, they are 50/50 female/male, in the age range of 45-65 and still highly affluent.” In the past year, the number of new members has doubled, with the total member base up 16 percent year over year.
Paywalls and Partnerships
How has the company achieved this? “We have tested multiple channels this past year – digital, social, direct mail, print, radio, partnerships – to uncover product fit with market; effective channels and types of messaging that resonate with a younger, more digitally-savvy audience,” Bailey said.
The testing has pointed the company “in the direction of highly focused acquisition efforts via digital, social, direct mail, partnerships and customized landing pages.” For example, in addition to placing ads in the print version of The Wall Street Journal, Andrew Harper is part of the Wall Street Journal Plus loyalty program.
After speaking with colleagues at The Wall Street Journal and other publications the company also started testing a paywall in April.
Of course, a big part of the value of any media company lies in the data it collects and the demographics of Andrew Harper’s subscription base could leave luxury marketers salivating.
“We are taking this one step at a time – building a data warehouse to strengthen our business. We are collecting data on members in aggregate, understanding their behaviors,” Bailey said.
The initial goal in doing this is “building out a community platform to give members more voice. But as we become more informed, we can leverage and share that data in a smart way and establish ourselves as a thought leader. and look at advertising, sponsorship, events, maybe licensing opportunities.”
“Time will tell, but our ownership group has swum against the tide in every investment we’ve been successful in. It may be contrarian to say, but our strategy is to absolutely go back to basics instead of reinventing the brand. We believe the time has come back to when the basics are going to be very valuable.”
Editor’s Note: On Tuesday, Andrew Harper CEO Crista Bailey announced that while the legal name of the company will continue as Andrew Harper LLC, the consumer-facing brand name will become The Hideaway Report. The AndrewHarper.com website will redirect to hideawayreport.com. In 2019, the company plans to rebrand the guidebook series under The Hideaway Report, while the name of the newsletter may or may not change.
Photo credit: The Whitby Hotel in New York City. The hotel features on Andrew Harper's list of standout properties. Firmdale Hotels