Travel Bookstore Sales Venture Out of the Clouds

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

Six months after the September 11 terrorist attack, travelers are finally venturing back into the skies. But are they venturing back into the specialty travel bookstores? "Yes," store owners told BTW, but not in the same way. Missing are sales growth numbers, and customer buying habits have changed.

"Sales dropped about 25 percent in September and October, then came back to almost normal levels in November and December," said Katherine Henderson, owner of World Traveller Books & Maps in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. "Sales are close to normal levels, but are not increasing, although there are other factors that have affected our sales, for example, a snowstorm in early January. Chapel Hill is a somewhat insulated community because the staff of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and Research Triangle Park travel frequently."

Rich McFall, owner of the TravelDen in St. Louis, reported that his three-year-old store didn't realize the sales increases he anticipated for his third year in business.

"Our sales went down. What we lost was our expected growth. Our third year was moderately better than the second, but should've been great. It flattened by 10 percent in October and November when it should've been up 25 percent. Before that, we were growing at a 25 percent yearly rate. Fall months are usually slow, but had this happened in March, it would've been catastrophic to our business," explained McFall.

He also told BTW that he has seen a difference in the travel buying market in recent weeks. First-time and conservative travelers, who may plan for that once-a-year-dream trip to Europe, have not returned to the skies. However, the savvy traveler, who travels regularly, never stopped. Indeed, many are no longer traveling to Europe, but, instead, are headed to more off-the-beaten-path destinations.

"There has been an increase in travel to places like the Galapagos Islands in South America, Thailand, and New Zealand. The traditional, mainstream market is way down, but the off-the-beaten path travel has increased," said McFall.

Before 9/11, sales of travel books nationwide had been seeing healthy growth fueled, in part, by a healthy domestic economy, affordable airfares, and, as one publishing executive put it, "the strong commitment of baby boomers to their vacations." The market for guidebooks grew to $222 million in 2000, a 23 percent increase from 1997, according to Ipsos-NPD BookTrends, a market research firm. However, through mid-February industry sales are down over 10 percent, as reported by A.P.

Lee Azus's five-year-old store, Get Lost Travel Books in San Francisco, felt the reduction in growth. "Sales are steady for international destinations, but way down for California book sales," said Azus.

Booksellers in the West and Northwest felt the dip in the sales of travel books long before September 11.

"Customer buying habits before September had decreased. San Francisco was one of the biggest areas for dot-com companies. That crash in 2000 affected a lot of buying habits. Nevertheless, sales were better starting in January. The worse is over, but we were still down double digits in January and February," said Azus.

Travel bookstores in the Seattle area were the hardest hit because of the downturn in the economy due both to the loss of jobs at Boeing and Microsoft and to the crash of dot-com businesses.

"We still remain sluggish, but we are doing far better than in October and November," said Chris Miller, acting manager of Wide World Books & Maps in Seattle. "We had a definite 25 percent drop, which didn't pick up until the Christmas season. People still weren't traveling as much, but they realized that travel books made good gifts."

"Since the New Year, people began looking at all the popular destinations from the past, such as Europe and parts of Asia. But there's less interest in travel to the east coast of Africa and of course, the Middle East," she added. A survey released in mid-March, commissioned by a consortium of airlines and travel agents, found that 80 percent of those surveyed reported that they are now "comfortable" with domestic air travel.

Henderson believes purchasing patterns didn't change long-term, only from September through December. During that period, they sold an exceptional number of globes, atlases, and maps. Now that spring is here, they're selling the usual quantity and type of books and maps on Europe, Australia, Thailand, and other popular destinations.

"The one potentially long-term change is in sales of books about traveling in the Middle East. Although books about the politics and history of the region sold well before Christmas, those have dropped off and sales of travel guides for the area are very low, as one would expect…. Overall sales had been increasing, prior to September," said Henderson.

Lou Anne Kalvinskas, owner of Distant Lands in Pasadena, California, told BTW, "We've tracked the March sales, and we're back where we were last year. We see strong interest in people going back to Europe. Students are now buying their tickets for Europe. Seasonal buying seems to be the same."

Selling other travel-related merchandise not only supported Travel Essentials' travel book business during the decline in the fall, but also initiated a 20 percent increase in sales in February, said Bob Bestor, owner of Travel Essentials in Ashland, Oregon. "We had a down month in October, a flat month in January, and the best holiday season ever. In February, we were up 20 percent because we had other stuff to offer," said Bestor.

To survive the tough times, Henderson's World Traveller Books & Maps developed new promotions and continued their usual marketing efforts. However, Henderson reported that the store "cut back on all nonessential expenditures, and [we] were very conservative with other expenditures. Our vendors were tremendously helpful, working with us to enable us to survive until the busier season [the holiday season through July] began. Sales of globes, atlases, and Central Asia maps helped pull us through," she explained.

As travel returns to relative normalcy, all booksellers contacted by BTW anticipate a busy summer season, which they hope will bring back the missing sales growth and eager travelers. -- Gayle Herbert Robinson