8 mins

How to create an iconic travel magazine

Wanderlust editor-in-chief Lyn Hughes looks back on 20 years of publishing the UK's favourite travel magazine – and on what lies ahead

Lyn Hughes (Private Collection)

In November 1993, Lyn Hughes and Paul Morrison produced the very first issue of Wanderlust. It has since gone on to become an icon of the independent publishing industry, the gold standard by which other magazines devoted to adventurous travel are judged. Lyn took time out of her busy schedule to chat to Peter Moore about the challenges of those early days and what the future holds for the magazine – and travel.

When you started Wanderlust  did you think it would be around so long? Was that the vision, for it to be a long term project?

We didn’t really know what to expect. Every other travel magazine that had launched in the preceding years had failed, only ever lasting a few issues. So we knew it would be difficult but we thought we’d give it a go. I guess the dream was that it would be fantastically well-received and we’d end up in the position where we could go off travelling the world while a team back in an office somewhere produced the magazine!

The truth is, we really didn’t know what we were doing! With that in mind we kept it very low key and small. If it didn’t work we’d go back to doing something else.

At what point did you realise ‘Hey, we can make a living out of this!’?

Probably when the magazine was coming up for its first year anniversary. That first year was tough. We lived in product review clothes and paid ourselves peanuts. It was a long, tough haul. So it was really exciting when our first lot of renewals came up. The fact that a couple of thousand people paid £12 for a years’ subscription meant we had to go ahead and produce it. The renewals meant we could keep going. The fact that it was a really high renewal rate showed as well that we were hitting the right note.

How did you let people know about the magazine?

We were very active members of a travel club called Globetrotters, which is still going, so a mailing went out to all the Globetrotter members. We went to an independent travel forum at the Royal Geographical Society and did a mailing to the people who had been at that. We tracked down one of the magazines that had launched and failed and they let us have their subscriber list. 

We then compiled our own list and sent out a dummy copy of the magazine with a survey to each of the names on it. We told them that if they completed the survey they’d get a free first issue. We got a really good response and so each of those people got first issues. 

Meanwhile we’d carried on finding other ways to publicise the magazine as well. As a result, we had 2,000 subscribers for the first issue, which was pretty incredible. It showed there was a gap in the market and that people were willing to send a cheque for £12 – of course, it was all cheques then – which meant, in turn, that we had to do it! It also meant that the printers bill was paid before we’d even printed it, which was great. So the company has always been cash positive since Day One. 

Did you have a background in publishing?

Nothing at all! Paul and I had met working for Mars, the multinational company best known for chocolates. We had very good roles there. I was in management information and got to travel a lot. But neither of us had any publishing experience. 

Eventually we left our jobs at Mars to go travelling, doing freelance work as management consultants for large blue chip companies. But travel was our passion and so we were looking for something that would involve our big passion of travel. We thought about setting up a wildlife travel company – registering a name and everything – but it was during the recession in the early 90s. It was not dissimilar to now except that house prices had really crashed and we needed some capital to start a travel company. 

While we were trying to raise the money we went off travelling to South America. It was on that trip that we had the idea for the magazine. And that actually seemed right, more so than the travel company. It just instantly felt right.

What was it about Wanderlust that resonated with travellers? Why did it succeed where others had failed?

Some of the other magazines that had failed were actually very good. But all they did was produce a beautiful magazine and put it out into the newsagents and then expected it to sell. We realised that you can’t do that. 

There were no other travel magazines at the time. There was the BBC Holiday Magazine and that was all. Most of the magazines that had tried and failed had concentrated on mainstream holidays. They were more like brochures than a magazine. In fact, when we launched, WHSmith’s said: "Why would anybody buy a travel magazine when they can get a brochure for free from a travel agent?"

What was the reaction in the 'trade'?

WHSmiths told us it wouldn’t work.Quite a few people in the travel trade told us that it wouldn’t work. Some travel writers told us it wouldn’t work. They couldn't see the difference between the magazine and a brochure. Even those that could, felt that the newspapers in this country already covered travel so why would anybody buy an actual magazine about it? 

Thankfully, we were quite stubborn. We knew that there must be people like us who would lap it up and would want it. So instead of putting the magazine in WHSmiths, we went after subscribers instead. We also placed copies direct into shops, such as travel bookshops and a few of the outdoor and equipment shops. We’d drive around ourselves in my little Renault Clio and drop off those magazines. 

But the bulk of our sales were subscriptions. It felt right anyway that there were people so passionate about travel that they’d want to subscribe to something that gave them that inspiration and advice.

Over the past 20 years, Wanderlust has gone beyond being just a magazine. The Wanderlust World Guide Awards, for example, is now an important event on the travel industry calendar.

We’ve met some remarkable people through the World Guide Awards. When we launched it I said it was the thing I was most proud of after Wanderlust itself. It's always very humbling to meet the nominees, incredible people who often don't achieve the recognition they deserve anywhere else. One consequence of the awards is that quite a few of the big tour companies have launched their own internal guide awards as well. 

Another nice thing is that many of the guides have told us that it hasn’t just been them who have have felt proud or benefited from the recognition –  many of the people and teams around them have as well.

Is there anything else you are proud of?

It's really heartwarming when we meet people who tell us that Wanderlust has changed their lives. They found a destination that they fell in love with and have since moved there. Or they came across a project or a charity or conservation area that they’ve got involved in. Or they’ve met people some way, through the magazine, either through taking a trip or through coming to a Wanderlust event. We hear it so many times, that Wanderlust has affected their lives.

Strong ethics is very much part of Wanderlust’s DNA. Do you think that it’s important that travel and travellers respect the communities and natural environments that they pass through?

Right from the start, the magazine has been aimed at people who were interested in the planet and therefore care about the planet as well. It was never about going on a holiday and laying on a beach. It's been about authentic experiences and seeing the real place, getting to know the people and understanding the issues affecting their society.

As such, responsible travel underpins everything we write about. It’s been on our contributor guidelines from Day One. Respecting people, communities and nature has always been part and parcel of what we do. I don’t think we need to shove it down people’s throats because the sort of intelligent, curious travellers that we’re aimed at are already in tune with that.

What are the biggest changes you've seen in travel over the past 20 years?

The sort of travel we’ve been writing about over the past 20 years has become much more commonplace. When we launched it was considered pretty unusual to go to some of the places we covered. We had Ecuador on our very first cover and were told "Who on earth would go to Ecuador?" Now it’s not considered unusual now to go somewhere like the Galapagos Islands. In fact, it’s on a lot of people’s wish list.

Travellers have also got access to a lot more information now. When we started there was hardly any, which made fact checking very difficult. Now, because of the internet, information is much easier to get. But that also means there’s an awful lot of misinformation out there. We see so many inaccuracies online... the quality of information is often abysmal. So I feel that Wanderlust is still as valid as ever. We almost need to curate some of those ideas and also be the most accurate source of information.

It's also much easier for travellers to keep in touch. It used to be the case that if you were going off to Ecuador for any length of time you wouldn’t expect to be in touch with family and friends until you got back. These days you’re probably on social media every day and feel bereft if you can’t contact people. 

Has there been a journey over the past 20 years that stands out as a favourite?

There have been so many that it is impossible to pick just one. I’ve been privileged.

Are there any places left on your wish list?

Lots! And it just keeps gets longer. I still haven’t been to Peru, to Machu Picchu, but I’m hoping to remedy that in spring 2014. Then there's Borneo, Ethiopia, Central America... the list is huge and immense.

Are there still great adventures left?

Absolutely. Adventure is always there if you look for it. Personally, I find every trip just as exciting as my first. I always find things I hadn’t thought about before I left, that I hadn’t been aware of. It doesn’t matter how much you research or how much you’ve read, the reality is always very different. I’m a great believer in serendipity, following your nose, even on a pre-organised trip, you can still do so much that you haven’t really planned before hand.

So what does the next 20 years hold?

I don’t know! It’s terrific to see Wanderlust still flourishing in these times when there’s more travel information and sources of information than ever before. There’s a whole proliferation of websites, there’s a whole bunch of competitor magazines, and yet despite that Wanderlust is still going strong. The fact that we’ve still got loyal readers from Issue 1 is very heartening. It would be nice to think that Wanderlust will continue to go on flourishing, to grow and fly the flag for our type of travel and introduce whole new generation of travellers to our type of travel.

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