Teresa Stack explains why The Nation’s travel programme is one of the most unique and important brand extensions in media

It had its beginnings on a cruise ship, has criss-crossed the globe and, over the last seven years, has covered topics like apartheid, the Vietnam War and Native American issues. And while Covid-19 has stopped The Nation magazine’s educational travel programme, Nation Travels, in its tracks, this most popular of brand extensions is set to start rolling again as soon as possible.

“We are optimistic about starting up trips later in the year and are going to have advanced sanitary protocols,” says Teresa Stack, director of Nation Travels, which specialises in bespoke tours to countries with an interesting political history to help fund journalism. “At this point our plan is to require people who go on the trip to be vaccinated. We surveyed readers and they are very anxious and excited to get back.”

Teresa Stack

That The Nation’s trips remain in such high demand during a time when travel has become risky and complicated speaks volumes of the trust the magazine has built up with the public since the programme was launched in 2014.

In that period the 156-year old publication – the leading source of progressive politics and culture in America – has taken thousands behind the headlines in countries like Iran, Vietnam and South Africa by organising meetings with local entrepreneurs, urban planners, musicians, artists and retired diplomats.

Travellers are also encouraged to help communities by contributing to local organisations and charities. It’s the sort of immersive travel experience that’s not only generated additional revenue (the price of trips range from around $4,000 to $8,000 and 100 per cent of the profits goes to funding journalism) but has also boosted The Nation’s readership.

“Finding alternative revenue sources to fund journalism has become harder for all magazines, but for journals of opinion and political journals like ours it’s always been a challenge,” says Stack. “With the travel programme, our markup is relatively small, but because we are bringing between 300 and 400 people a year on these trips it has been a significant help funding journalism.

“We also get people on the trips who are outside The Nation’s regular orbit – sometimes they are subscribers, sometimes they become subscribers and sometimes they become donors after the trip.”

Cruise control

The Nation’s brand extension journey started in 1998 when it launched annual weeklong seminar cruises featuring writers, editors and people associated with the magazine as speakers. While the cruises to the Caribbean, Alaska, New England and Canada were very popular, luring between 150 to 600 people, it became clear there was a big demand for a land-based programme.

“People asked why can’t you do this on land, because not everybody likes cruises and there are a few environmental compromises – although we did work with the cruise line we thought were more responsible with the environment and labour,” says Stack. “The destination for a land-based programme that kept coming up was Cuba. People who read The Nation have a deep interest in Cuba because of its history, the embargo and the fact that you really aren’t allowed to go there unless it’s under very specific circumstances.

“We thought – travel is not our expertise so if we are going to do this we are going to do places that have a real political interest and are not part of your general travel catalogue. Cuba was a natural choice.”

In 2014, The Nation applied for and was granted a special people-to-people license to host educational trips to Cuba, well before the Obama administration relaxed US travel restrictions to the island. The itinerary was an instant hit, with trips selling out at a rapid rate. Since the first excursion to Cuba, The Nation has visited the island almost 20 times with close to 1,000 people.

The success of the Cuba trips prompted The Nation to branch out and set up a comprehensive travel programme. Their next destinations, Iran, proved tricky with organisers having to convince local authorities it would be less of a political trip and more of a cultural one. That was followed by tours of Russia, Colombia, Vietnam, India, Jordan and South Africa. At the moment Nation Travels organises tours to almost 20 destinations.

“The places we picked didn’t have to have an immediate political situation, but The Nation had a history of covering the area,” says Stack. “We would create an archive pack for our travellers of past Nation coverage of the area going back to 1865 when the magazine was founded. We would have an archivist go through and collect contemporaneous reporting that we give to our travellers before each trip.

“Countries like Colombia and Vietnam are not necessarily hotspots now but have ongoing, interesting situations that they are trying to make better.”

Lending a helping hand

When international destinations became too unpredictable to visit, The Nation – which was founded by abolitionists – looked closer to home, launching a civil rights tour of the American south in 2018. The next year a trip called Native American Voices – featuring conversations with tribal leaders in the Dakotas, Colorado, and New Mexico – was created.

A crucial part of any trip, whether it’s in America or overseas, is helping local communities. “We bring supplies to community centres in Cuba that supports both children and seniors so our travellers have a list of things they can bring with them,” says Stack.

“During our first trip to Vietnam we met with an organisation in the countryside that provided work for second and third generation people who were affected by chemical warfare. The group contributed money so they could get a new building.

“Most recently on our Native American Voices programme, The Nation group came together and funded the creation of a foster home on the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota.”

When putting together each itinerary, the editorial department at The Nation plays a vital role, with editors and writers suggesting the best organisations to speak to and which local experts to use as guides.

“We work with a travel company called Distant Horizons and we start out by talking to the editors about what’s going on in each country and what we should cover – like something going on with workers’ rights, water or memory and reconciliation work,” says Stack. “The staff will say – there is this great organisation who works with ex Vietnam veterans, maybe you can meet with them.

“Our guides are also extremely important and one of the reason why we have something different to offer from a travel agency. The Nation has contacts with experts who have done deep reporting, so, through that, we try and find the right guide. It’s often a journalist or an academic, someone who just knows the area really well.”

Increasingly, The Nation is also looking at the environmental impact of travel, partnering with a group called Carbon Fund to calculate the carbon costs of individual trips.

“It’s based on who’s attending, where we are going, how they got there and the kind of travel we do,” explains Stack. “We purchase offsets equal to our estimates of the emissions generated by the trip.”

The road ahead

While Covid-19 has thrown the Nation Travels schedule into disarray, a lot of work has gone on behind the scenes to hit the ground running whenever travel restrictions are lifted. Stack believes the pandemic will continue to cast a big shadow over the programme for years to come, though.

“Every trip we do over the next couple of years is going to have component of how an area has been affected by the virus,” she says. “There are such disparate results of how the virus affected different countries. Why, for instance, did Vietnam do really well?

“Also, the people we tend to meet with are the most vulnerable – the poor and disenfranchised, so there is going to be a lot to learn. Maybe we one day do a trip that specifically looks at the virus, although I don’t think we would be able to the China trip we would want to do.

“What’s clear is that everything is resetting because of the pandemic. Pre-Covid I would have said there would be a lot of publishers experimenting with travel programmes . We’ll have to see if that remains the case in the coming years.”

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