Off the beaten path: Afar, a new travel magazine, launches

Anyone prepared to launch a print magazine in 2009 is almost by definition bound to be an adventuresome type. So it makes sense that Afar, one of the relatively few new titles introduced this year, is by, and for, the kind of travelers who aren't content to follow the usual Fodor's recommendations.

Though it's not a huge launch -- its initial circulation will be only 50,000 -- Afar is receiving substantial advertiser support (36 advertisers bought into the premiere issue, on newsstands next week), and it's sure to be closely watched as an indicator of whether independent, niche print publications can still find an audience. I spoke with Afar's co-founder, Greg Sullivan.

DAILYFINANCE: How often do people tell you you're insane for starting a print magazine?

GREG SULLIVAN: Every time I tell them what I'm doing, that's for sure. If they don't say it with their mouth, they say it with their eyes. That's the most scary.
DF: How do you convince them you're not actually nuts?

GS: I don't know that I do. I guess what I say is, sure, magazines are hurting but they're not going away. There are some things that magazines are really good at and one of them is what we're after with Afar. We're really trying to inspire and model a certain kind of travel that's really about experiencing a place and getting to know its people and its culture -- getting the essence of the place. A magazine happens to be a really good medium for that because it can do it with narrative stories and essays and photos.

It's tough to start up in this kind of environment, but it's also kind of positive. I've never tried to start a business in one of those hot industries where everyone's going after the same thing. What makes people succeed in those businesses seems kind of fluky, like who happened to have the right party. I think when you're in an industry like this where it's not hot, where there's no one else starting, there's some advantages and I think if we execute well we'll make a place in the market. But I can also look at myself some days and say, What am I doing?

DF: Afar is about "experiential travel." What does that mean? Isn't travel pretty much experiential by nature?

GS: What we're talking about is travel as a way to get below the surface, to get to the essence of place, experience the people, understand their perspectives and culture. Maybe it's easier to understand what it's not. It's not a vacation to escape to a spa, a resort, an experience that could be had anywhere. Some people will go to a spa or a beach resort that could've been five minutes from their house but they'll go across the world for it. They don't come out with anything more than they came in with. What we're talking about is really broadening yourself. Another thing it's opposed to is what I call sightseeing travel, where you're outside looking in. Sure, you're going around looking at a place but usually through your viewfinder.

DF: You've made a lot of money as an entrepreneur, most recently with a chain of car dealerships, but you're a publishing newbie. Did you take some kind of crash course to learn about the business?

GS: First of all, this is my fourth industry. Before that I was a lawyer and investment banker, so I'm kind of used to going into businesses and not knowing anything about them, so for whatever reason that doesn't bother me.

When I got back from India, where I came up with the idea for Afar with my partner, Joe Diaz, the first thing we did was we went out and bought about 10 how-to-start-a-magazine books and culled through them. We happened to really like one of them by this guy Jim Kobak. It was really written from the business perspective of starting a magazine. So we met with him a few times, and with a few other people. There's a lot of consultants in this business. Then last summer I finally met John Sheehy out here in the Bay Area. He had been involved in starting several magazines, from Health to Dwell -- a real industry expert. He really made the big difference. We started getting great traction with him and and put together a great business plan. He also introduced us to our editor, Susan West, who also was part of the team that started Health. So we just started associating with some real professionals and they increased our education a lot.

I kind of like that combination where you have the pros and somebody that's new that gives a fresh perspective. You need somebody who won't think of all the reasons something won't work but thinks of the reasons something can work.

DF: What's the last place you traveled experientially?

GS: I just got back from England. I was at the TED global conference, and at the end of that I went to a music festival called WOMAD -- World of Music, Arts and Dance. And there we stayed in teepees and went to this great festival with basically local people from west of Wiltshire in England, and of course the musicians are from all over the world. It was a great event and I met some really cool people.

DF: One of your earlier ventures was arcade games. You manufactured the world's most popular basketball free-throw game. How's your free-throw shooting these days?

It's gotten a little rusty. Those games aren't good, by the way, for getting you better at shooting a real basketball, because in those games it usually works out best to go off the backboard, and you don't do that when you shoot a real basketball.

DF: Good to know.
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