Legos and Commies: Highlights from the 2013 New York Times Travel Show

North Korea T-shirt from URI Tours. New York Times Travel show, January 2013.

Among the seminars, glossy handouts, and costumed exhibitors of the 2013 New York Times Travel Show, I found a bundle of information that is telling of our times, as well as a few other things that caught my attention. I’ll start with the seminars:

In an era when mp3s are killing off CDs, ebooks and ezines are making a move to eliminate print media…or are they? It may be natural that one of the most famous newspapers on the planet chose to sponsor a seminar titled “Why print still matters.” But host Adam Pitluk, the editorial director of American Airlines inflight magazines, explained how American Airlines is growing and expanding its inflight literature in its own way. And he wasn’t referring to the usual travel fluff. He explained how American’s inflights “fill up the void left behind” by other print magazines. For instance, American Way has run pieces during Black History Month that dealt with racial inequality, not something you’d expect from an inflight. “Travel journalism is still journalism,” he said.

Besides Pitluk’s benefits of editorial risks paying off in handsome rewards, the inflight is a logical stronghold of print media. A magazine can be read for the entirety of the flight, there’s no need to shut it off during takeoff and landing, it can’t run out of battery life, and you don’t have to pay through the nose for internet access to read it at 30,000 feet. And since they are conveniently stored in the pocket of the seat, the inflight magazines have a captive audience, especially during longer flights.

I’ve said it before, but I don’t see websites ousting print any time soon. (And I’m not just saying this because I had pieces in Gastronomica and The San Francisco Chronicle last year.) Each medium has its usefulness and its strengths. And now on to the web’s strengths: to explain more about how online media can spread virally, Grant Martin, editor-in-chief of Gadling.com, held a seminar titled “Secrets of the World’s Top Travel Blog,” in which he gave his definition of what makes something viral. Like me, Martin has an engineering degree yet finds himself writing about travel, and perhaps that technical background helped him articulate and simplify the requirements of what makes a travel article or blog viral: it has to be relatable, shareable, useful, and funny.

Which brings us to “Web publishing 101: how to make money and edit a terrific web site,” hosted by Max Hartshorne, editor of GoNomad.com. While Hartsthorne emphasized skills like SEO, the use of ad affiliates, and blogging about people that you think might help you (is that what I’m doing now?), he also passionately instructed the audience on several offline endeavors, like wearing your logo on a T-shirt and getting great looking business cards (and always bring a lot of cards to networking events so you don’t run out and look like a minor leaguer).

One of the most anticipated seminars was the “Outlook for Travel to Cuba.” Unfortunately, it was surprisingly disorganized, with rambling speakers and a running of a promotion video without the sound turned on (the tech guy suddenly AWOL), with one speaker lamely saying, “Well, you can get an idea about the video by watching the pictures on the screen.” The seminar seemed to want to be an hour-long infomercial about the island. It skipped mention of Cuba’s restrictions on freedom of speech (Hmmm, freedom of speech issues…the silent video seems to provide an appropriate metaphor) and instead mentioned the abundance of 5-star hotels that are used by the three companies that are legally allowed to bring Americans into Cuba for tourism. Despite the glitches in the presentation, the fact that there was such a seminar has thankfully increased awareness about travel to Cuba, the forbidden fruit for American tourists. What’s next, a tour of North Korea?

North Korea T-shirts at URI Tours' table at the New York Times Travel show, January 2013.
Why, yes. Decked out in army-green t-shirts, the young, hip staff of URI Tours was handing out brochures for their tour products, including the “Pyongyang Golf Tour” and the “Kim Il Sung Birthday Tour.” For $2,600 (double occupancy), the latter package promises tourists the opportunity to “participate in parades, festivities, and public dances with locals.” Keep in mind that tourists will have minders with them for the entirety of their 5-day stay (that’s the DPRK’s mandate, not the company’s), and I’m skeptical that contact with locals would be as liberal as the brochure makes it sound. But the question is: in the company of foreign tourists, will the North Koreans cut loose and dance Gangnam style?

Legoland Florida's table at the New York Times Travel show, 2013.
Legoland has a new outpost in Florida, and their booth came complete with maps and a Lego alligator. The booth agent informed me that she has seen an increase in grown-up traffic to Legoland ever since the park created a Star Wars installation out of legos, with one section for each of the six movies.

Not all tables were advertising locations. Dodging glossy handouts advertising miscellaneous spas and luxury hotels, I probed the many pockets of Scottevest’s travel clothing line, made famous by Rolf Potts’ six-week, twelve-country journey a few years back in which he brought no suitcases with him. His Scottevest clothing provided all the pockets for storing his stuff. I also came across a table of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, whose mission is to increase the number of passenger trains and routes across America. If you look at an old Amtrak route map from the 1960s, you will see that America was covered by much more passenger rail service than today. NARP aims to take back what the car-centric cabals of this country have taken away from us, and bring us back to the first-world level of train coverage. David and Goliath.

Cumbia band from Panama. Performing at the New York Times Travel show, January 2013.
On the Caribbean stage, a four-piece Panamanian folk band jammed out churning cumbia, a type of music I’ve heard many times on CD and in the buses around the rural areas of Panama. But, oddly enough, this was the first time I actually saw a band play it live. Live Panamanian cumbia has been a bit of an elusive, Snuffleupagus-like creature for me. When I would seek out such bands in Panama over the years, I would hear such excuses as “The band cancelled tonight” or “The band is still playing a gig at another town, and I don’t know if they’ll make it today” or “We sell the drums at our store, but there is nowhere in town where you can watch a band play live.” Yet at the Times’ Travel Show, I ended up watching a cumbia performance in my hometown of New York. Thanks, globalization!

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About OmnivorousTraveler

Darrin DuFord is a travel writer, mapgazer, and jungle rodent connoisseur. His writing has won numerous awards and has appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, BBC Travel, Gastronomica, Roads & Kingdoms, Narratively, and Perceptive Travel, among other publications. He is the author of Breakfast for Alligators: Quests, Showdowns and Revelations in the Americas (released in July 2016) and Is There a Hole in the Boat? Tales of Travel in Panama without a Car, silver medalist in the 2007 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards.
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4 Responses to Legos and Commies: Highlights from the 2013 New York Times Travel Show

  1. nice wrap up of some of the cool stuff at this year’s show. Tweet worthy!

  2. BJ Roche says:

    Great post, I wish I could get to this show and I never do. I really like in-flight magazines because they seem to be the last of the general interest publication, and there’s a lot of content to choose from. I just flew out west on Delta and back on American, and I clipped a couple of articles out of the magazines. I was struck by the quality of the story ideas and the writing. Not just fluff. So glad they’re doing okay.
    I’ll also put in a good word for a print brochure, which may be retro, but which I like to have when I’m traveling. On this recent trip I found myself using the brochures to then access the web and mapquest on my Ipad. Keep travelling!

    • Thanks for stopping by, BJ. I also look forward to reading the inflights, especially the ones that have bilingual Spanish/English pages. They’re great for building up my Spanish skills while enjoying a decent article.

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