When Greg Sullivan and Joe Diaz decided to launch a travel magazine, people thought the idea was crazy. It was 2009 and the Great Recession was forcing the demise of once-popular titles like Vibe, Domino, Gourmet, and even Teen, which had been read by girls since 1954. In fact, dozens of print publications were being shuttered due to declining subscription numbers and dwindling ad sales.
Sullivan and Diaz were Avid travelers and had started other successful businesses—from real estate investment to arcade games and used cars—but the pair had no experience in publishing. What they lacked in industry knowledge, however, they made up for in passion for their subject:
"When Joe and I travel, we see the country through the eyes of its locals," says Sullivan. "Most travel magazines focus on the escape with guides and checklists. No one was talking about our kind of travel—experiential travel—and we knew we could be its voice. People were telling us to start a blog, but we needed a magazine that would lend itself to stories and photos."
"We were fresh-faced," admits Diaz, "but we really believed it was a good business opportunity."
Learning about the industry from seven books they bought on Amazon.com, the pair developed a business plan and an editorial blueprint for the travel magazine they named AFAR. Sullivan, who serves as the CEO and editorial director, and Diaz, chief product officer, reached out for guidance from industry professionals, and got input from insiders such as Fast Company's own Bill Shapiro, then editor of Life.com, and James B. Kobak, author of How to Start a Magazine: And Publish It Profitably.
"All along they were saying, ‘This is really cool; we’re not sure how you’re going to make it but we want to help,’" says Sullivan.
Advertisers were also confused. "Our way of traveling is getting beneath the surface and connecting to a destination by finding the most interesting people," says Diaz. "When I was explaining the concept, some people looked at me like I had two heads. Hotels didn’t want that conversation; they try to keep guests in the hotel."
But brands such as apparel site Max Mara and Emirates Airline found the theme to be a fit and ad pages were filled. The first issue of AFAR hit newsstands in August 2009 and the determination of its founders found signs of success right away. That month the New York Post reviewed the top five travel titles and AFAR was rated number one, with four stars.
Focusing on capturing the attention of readers, AFAR slowly grew its circulation and its story during the first couple of years, and today Sullivan and Diaz’s "crazy idea" is a thriving platform. The magazine launched with a circulation of 50,000 and currently has a circulation of 250,000—a 400% increase in less than five years—and AFAR was named 2013’s "Hottest Travel Magazine" by AdWeek. Today AFAR Media includes AFAR.com, a digital travel guide; AFAR Experiences, an immersive travel event series; AFAR Collection, a curated group of hotels that cater to the experiential traveler; and Learning AFAR, a nonprofit foundation that sends inner-city high school students trips.
Sullivan and Diaz credit their success to inexperience in the industry, passion, and unwavering belief. "We launched AFAR for the traveler and didn’t start thinking about the business of travel until later," says Sullivan. "Big publishers have been around the block, and they know where bills are paid. If we had been in the industry before, it might have changed how we started. We focused on what readers want, which we later learned is totally unusual."
While Sullivan and Diaz were advised to start with a blog, the pair didn’t work on the magazine’s online site until year two. Diaz says the company took a long-term approach to its digital presence. "Our competitors are fixated on getting traffic," he says. "That’s important but we wanted to make the product right first. It had to execute the mission of AFAR."
AFAR.com was designed to inspire, enable, and guide richer experiences through technology, helping the discerning traveler plan their adventures, says Diaz. "You can save content to your phone and organize lists with mapping, sharing, and saving capabilities," he says. "We’ve created the go-to guide in your pocket."
Sullivan anticipates that AFAR.com will ultimately become the biggest part of the company. "Its success couldn’t have been built without the credibility we generated through the magazine," he says.
While growing the platform has been slow, digital revenue is increasing at a fast clip. In 2009, print advertising made up 90% of the company’s revenue. In 2014, 50% of revenue is from print advertising, with a 10-fold growth in total revenue from 2010 to 2014.
"We’ve seen a big explosion in digital advertising and content licensing," says Diaz. "The way we’re building our products and the quality of our content, it will soon make up the biggest piece of our business."
While Sullivan says AFAR was a "Joe and Greg passion project," it turns out the pair was ahead of a trend. To better understand travelers, they consulted with Stanley Plog, a travel research specialist who had followed the industry for more than 50 years.
"In the early ‘60s, the more adventurous travelers were going to Hawaii and Rome," says Sullivan. "Today, it’s not where you travel; it’s what you do."
For example, when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned from power in 2011, Sullivan and Diaz decided it was time to visit Cairo to experience what was happening.
"When we landed, no one was in the airport," says Diaz. "We tend to run to a place when others are running away." But the pair found an incredible celebratory spirit. "It was like 50 World Cups," says Diaz. "We met judges, architects, and ministers, and were connecting with interesting people."
AFAR Experiences—an immersive travel offering for readers—was born from that trip.
While seeing new places is fun, Sullivan and Diaz believe travel changes people and can ultimately change the world. "Travel can create an incredible personal transformational growth," says Diaz. "When you see world in a different way, it fosters perspective and a knowledge you wouldn’t normally have. Our responsibility at AFAR is to elevate and push that conversation."
Learning AFAR, a nonprofit foundation Sullivan and Diaz launched before the magazine, helps kids have those life-changing experiences. To date, 270 inner-city youth have been sent on trips around the world, and the students who participated have a 100% high school graduation rate. In May of 2014, the foundation received an anonymous donation of $400,000 from a reader that will send 400 students on trips over the next three and a half years.
"That sums up the power of this kind of travel," says Sullivan. "We believe travel starts the second you walk out your front door; it’s a mindset."
Diaz says you don’t have to go far to experience the world: "When you hop into a taxi, you have a decision: do you pull out your phone and check your email, or do you look where the taxi driver is from and start a conversation?" he says.
"What you do will affect your life. When you connect with people, your life will be taken in interesting ways. It’s hard to drop bombs on people you know. We believe we’re making the world a better place."