Having launched, edited and then sold AI Business, George Kipouros made the transition from technology to travel in December 2020 as Editor and CEO of long-running travel title Wanderlust. Here, he tells us why there can be a cost to staying true to your sustainable principles and how the title is embarking on new storytelling adventures in the Metaverse.
What made you want to work in publishing?
I’ve always valued the credibility of print publications – something not easily found in the sea of online noise. It will sound clichéd, but I also love the look and feel of a high-end publication - a magazine that is so good, content and looks-wise, that you want to keep it in your coffee-table or your bookcase.
I have seen several titles cease publication in the last decade, some very loved ones indeed, with quite a few in travel (Lonely Planet’s magazine being one example). I’ve often read that the online world has been responsible for the demise of many a print publication – but interestingly we do see quite a few traditionally-print titles thrive online. Hence, I am genuinely excited about the challenge of transforming a traditional 30-year-old, print-first travel magazine into a global pioneer in digital travel inspiration and information.
How has your career history, particularly your time at AI Business, impacted the way you run Wanderlust?
When I started AI Business in 2014, alongside my dear friend Dan Pitchford, we were the first online news outlet dedicated to AI (Artificial Intelligence). I managed the editorial and content side of the business, focusing on engaging top talent among a limited pool of writers and journalists in the AI space. Dan looked after the commercial development. We started with building a community of loyal readers as we helped them navigate the world of AI – calling out companies that weren’t actually delivering on their promises, while also helping rate the best ones in the market. We moved on to launching the first industry awards on AI (the AIconics), events and exhibitions, a book publishing division, a training academy and a consulting arm. Within five years, we were making £7 million in annual profit, with operations in London, New York and San Francisco. Our business was sold to Informa Plc. Our online news website was a pivotal revenue driver alongside our events and exhibitions.
Being a pioneer in what you do is key to commercial success. Wanderlust was pioneering in many ways before me joining: the first travel publication to focus on sustainability in tourism, nearly 25 years ago, and the first publication to introduce places like Cuba, Namibia, Laos, and Myanmar as cover-worthy destinations to UK readers. My priority at Wanderlust is to make us a global innovator in the way we deliver content digitally and in the way we inspire and inform our readers’ travels through new technologies including AR/VR. Editorially, I am very eager to help readers see destinations in new light – for example, we recently published a Saudi Arabia cover, introducing our readers to the timeless treasures of the region of AlUla.
Being authentic is also very important. Wanderlust has a unique voice in the travel world - one that doesn’t blindly follow trends, irrespective of the associated commercial cost. For example, we’re very critical of the Airbnbification of city centres – even though many of our readers will book their accommodation through the online platform. We call out hotels and resorts for ‘greenwashing’ – no, flying over hundreds of bottles of Evian water from France all the way to a remote Maldivian resort isn’t the pinnacle of sustainability, and we will call brands out clearly when we need to.
Wanderlust’s tagline is “taking the road less travelled” – could you tell us what this means to you?
When joining the organisation in December 2020, the first thing I did was work with the team to refresh our tagline (previously ‘Travel Well’). I wanted something that demonstrates our unique proposition among travel magazines out there: a magazine that doesn’t focus on the bucket-list-friendly likes of Barcelona, Berlin and New York City but introduces incredible, new corners of our planet to readers of every age group. It is also about spreading the volume of visitors to multiple locations around the world, across all seasons rather than a single season, with respect to the local environment and community fabric. The new tagline represents 30 years of editorial authenticity – Wanderlust is after all the oldest travel magazine still in circulation in the UK and Europe!
Conversations around sustainability have been dominating the travel industry – what are Wanderlust doing with this in mind?
Much like Lyn and Paul, the founders of Wanderlust, I am very passionate about sustainability in travel – and it starts with not promoting saturated destinations like Venice and Amsterdam, or mega-cruises and Airbnbs. This does come at a commercial cost to the business of course – our sales team have declined advertising with themes that we feel don’t match our approach to travel.
To note, sustainability in tourism isn’t only about caring for the natural environment, it is also very much about the impact of the tourism industry on humans. Personally, I am very keen to support indigenous tourism initiatives from around the world as a means to safeguard the incredible heritage and traditions of communities that may have otherwise been at risk.
What magazine do you stockpile?
I was a subscriber of Wanderlust for 15 years before joining the organisation, and I think there are very few past copies that I don’t still hold in my bookcase – treating them as handy manuals whenever I am planning my future travels! In my younger days, I would also keep copies of USA’s Travel & Leisure, although my interest faded out as the magazine moved editorially towards lifestyle.
You are Editor-In-Chief and CEO, what is it like straddling those two roles?
It’s about taking a holistic approach to driving change at our organisation. After 30 years of formulaic growth, we needed a good editorial refresh, a new look at our overall brand strategy and a very significant drive into the digital world. The changes that I am spearheading span across all sides of the business, although my absolute priority is renewing excitement on our editorial content and significantly expanding our reader base, both in print and online. That said, I’m certainly no pioneer in this sense – as we’re seeing this duality of Editor and CEO in many organisations around the world, including the likes of Time Magazine.
What’s on your radar? (Anything industry related that is of excitement or concern)
As an organisation, we’re investing heavily in the Metaverse! Wanderlust became the first travel media brand globally to launch a Metaverse campaign proposition this past March: we presented our first MetaTravel activation to a global audience at The Ritz in London in partnership with ProColombia. It is incredible how close the technology has come to making Metaverse users feel like they’re actually in the destination that they’re immersing themselves in! The Metaverse is still in development, and its potential is far from exploited, but we’re thrilled to be inspiring a whole new generation of travellers through VR/AR, while keeping true to our tradition of authentic, energising storytelling.