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California Dreamin’ – Struggling to Bring Travel Publishing Back to Normal

Sept. 11 Brings Challenges to Avalon Travel Publishing; New Trends in Guidebooks
It's been a tough time for travel book publishers, but Avalon Travel Publishing is up to the challenge. The company, part of the Avalon Publishing Group that recently gained independence after the PGW/Advanced Marketing deal, is a fusion of former independents John Muir, Moon, and Foghorn.

"This is the biggest challenge we've ever faced in the travel book industry," says Donna Galassi, Associate Publisher at Avalon, referring to the company's 6% sales drop in 2001. "The 9/11 disaster brought on a very dramatic drop in sales, not just here in the West or in the U.S., but globally. So continued recovery is very much on our minds, and the good news today is that sales of travel guides are absolutely improving. We're not 100% back, but we're getting there. There are a lot of travel bargains out there to be taken advantage of, so that's helping."

Beyond the sales challenges, Avalon is aware of changes in the travel climate, and will make editorial changes accordingly. "Number one has to be security issues, which have suddenly become high priority and need to be incorporated into our books. Ric Steves was in Italy on September 11th, and his site immediately became a forum for travelers to share thoughts about the effects of the disaster. The fact that he was overseas at the time gave him a unique perspective."

Being located on San Francisco Bay and in the heart of California tourism has also helped shape the company perspective. "California is certainly a great place to sell travel. A lot of specialty interest travel books can make it here. I think it has to do with the weather, the go-for-it attitude of the people, and the array of quick trips available. We also have a very strong network of independent bookstores, which really helps keep the books moving off the shelves. Galassi says their editorial staff has a renewed geographic scrutiny, asking themselves: How do we position our series to fit travelers' needs?

The latest is the launch of a new city map guide series, called Moon Metro. The first featured city is one dear to the Avalon group's heart -- Moon Metro: San Francisco is due this April -- NYC, Washington, and Paris will soon follow. "These are very different map guides," says Galassi. "They have attached, fold-out maps, all color-coded, and including a lot of text and description. 'A data base in your pocket,' we like to say."

The Avalon team had spent a lot of time studying e-publishing and its implications for travel publishing, and although the e-book project has stalled out, what they learned about how people use online content has shaped new ways of presenting print content. "We wanted something that was so intuitive that it almost seemed like it was online. I think we've come as close as we can get to being interactive in a print format."

Galassi feels Avalon will be ready to move forward in travel e-publishing when the time comes, but she doesn't think the technology or the market is quite there yet. "E-book reading devices haven't gotten sophisticated enough yet. They'll need to have very detailed maps and be completely searchable."

"Our goal right now is to get our combined companies all under one banner, focus on our strengths, and continue branding our identities," says Galassi. Public radio & television patrons are exposed to Moon Handbooks and tuning in to Rick Steves' new travel series, Rick Steves' Europe. On the Web, Road Trip USA and The Practical Nomad are popular and useful resources. One southern California publisher is moving boldly forward into the realm of multi-media travel guides. TravelBrains, of Lake Forest, California, have produced The Napa Valley Expedition Guide, the first of its kind for touring the wine country. Including a self-guided audio tour (CD or tape), an 88-page guidebook, and a multimedia computer CD-ROM, the unique combination brings the Napa Valley and its wines into one easy to use product.

With over 250 wineries in Napa Valley, it can be a challenging task to figure out what to see and do on a tour of this world-famous wine region. The Napa Valley Expedition Guide is written and narrated by Antonia Allegra, author of the best selling Napa Valley: The Ultimate Winery Guide (Chronicle 1997). The self-guided audio tour takes you on an insider's tour of eleven award-winning wineries and five historic locations that are essential to understanding the wines and history of Napa Valley. The guidebook itself is laid out specifically to correspond with the audio tour, and is filled with maps, illustrations, photographs, and loads of Napa Valley trivia.

The bonus CD-ROM goes into even more about Napa Valley wines and wineries, with animated movies about, the wine making process, and. An interactive map lets you take virtual trips to the wineries on the tour, as well as prime picnic spots. Here's how it works: Start with the multimedia CD-ROM at home. Animated movies explain everything from soils, grape varieties, and how wines are made, to how Napa Valley rose to greatness among the wine producing regions of the world. An interactive touring module lets you take a virtual tour by clicking on 360-degree photographs of wineries and picnic spots. Next, put the audio tour in your car stereo and drive to Napa Valley, where the self-guided tour takes you to sixteen essential locations. Listen to Antonia as you view corresponding images in the guidebook.

"My brother and I started TravelBrains in January 2000 with one goal in mind - to create informative self-guided tours that are capable of taking advantage of all the new wearable technology that is coming our way," says co-founder and president Paul Davis. "We strongly believe that in three to five years tourists will be wearing small portable computer devices and low profile head gear that immerses them in a multimedia enhanced travel experience. Imagine standing in front of the Coliseum in Rome while your eyeglasses project an image of the Coliseum at its peak and a famous historian explains the history of the Roman Empire. Taking a practical approach, we are creating products that begin to make that connection between the old run-of-the-mill tape tours and guidebooks and the future multimedia-rich products."

"As society achieves higher levels of education and wealth, more and more people are showing up at historical and cultural destinations. They are also spending nearly twice as much as your average tourist, simply because they want to learn more and are paying for products that help them achieve this."

TravelBrains previous titles are guides to Civil War battlefield sites, and Davis says they started with Civil War battlefields for two reasons. "First, we thought it would be an ideal travel destination to test the concept of learning travel adventures, and secondly, if the concept proved successful, we could duplicate the product concept at other major battlefields quickly. But as you can imagine, the world is full of potential destinations for these products."

Napa Valley was attractive to Davis for a number of reasons: 5 million people visit there every year; there are currently no other self-guided audio tours; and if the product proves successful, the concept can be quickly expanded to other wine country regions. The company is also planning to launch a National Park guide next year, probably beginning with Yellowstone.

"At the heart of all of our products is a self-guided audio tour written and narrated by an expert who knows the destination like the back of his or her hand," says Davis. "With the success we achieved with our first product, it has been easier and easier to attract top name talent to create new guides (former Chief Historian of the National Park Service Ed Bearss is narrating the Vicksburg tour to be released in May). "We found Antonia Allegra through a search on top selling authors of books on Napa Valley. We spoke with several candidates and found her to have the right combination of knowledge and voice quality."

TravelBrains is the kind of publisher one might expect to rise up in California: young, visionary, and innovative. They will definitely be one to watch, as travel habits change and technology improves. Davis is aware of his obstacles, and is busy adapting.

"We are a small company with limited resources, so we are always trying to improve our marketing and distribution. In Napa Valley we are just starting to set up those relationships, focusing on key tourist contact points: visitor centers, wineries, hotels, etc. Initially we threw everything at product development, and now we are spending more effort on reaching customers."