Sitting across from the young and spirited Editor of one of India’s most respected magazines, one would never know that Condé Nast Traveller India’s Divia Thani Daswani is jetlagged after flying into Bombay from Moscow the night before. Back in the office bright, early and fully charged, founding Editor Daswani has been appointed the colossal task of building the Condé Nast Traveler brand in India and hence, has had countless mornings like these. Undaunted by deadlines, redeye flights and questionable hotel rooms, it’s no surprise that in four short years, Daswani has established the travel tome as a respectable industry authority and an exhilarating, unmissable read.
The fact that Daswani has so swiftly and expertly carved a niche for herself and the magazine in such a short span of time is in no small part thanks to her pioneering mother, one of the city’s first female stockbrockers. Standing out in heels and a pantsuit while sitting in a sea of men, Daswani vividly remembers her mother waiting to attend parent-teacher meetings at school during the timeslot reserved for working fathers. What caused embarrassment as a child transformed into inspiration as a young woman, a scene that left an indelible mark on Condé Nast Traveller India’s Editor and helped her thrive in an industry dominated so deeply by men.
In an exclusive interview with Moxie Media, Daswani speaks about her journey to becoming Editor, launching Conde Nast Traveller India’s sleek new website and ever-evolving global trends in travel.
Q: How did you get into publishing? Did you know that you always wanted to do this?
A: I think I knew that I wanted to write and be a writer since I was not even 10 years old. I was a bit of a dork. I was editor of the school magazine, I was editor of the college literary magazine, it was just one of those things where if you told anyone that I went to school with when I was 6 years old that I was an editor, I don’t think any of them would be surprised. I didn’t really see it for myself, I thought I would be a writer but then I got very sidetracked along the way. I wanted to be a genetic engineer, I pursued that for quite a while and dance was always a big passion for me but writing is that one thing that has always been very consistent.
Q: Do you find time for dance now?
A: No, unfortunately I don’t. I barely find the time to read anymore but I still love it and it’s one of those things you know that if you go back to it at any point, even if it’s for an hour, that it’s just going to make you really happy but my big passion – more than anything – has always been reading and writing about a variety of things and I feel so incredibly lucky that my job and my profession and my career have always just been about this. It’s a cliché but they say that if you love what you do, you don’t really feel like you have a job. And I’m quite lucky that most days, not all, I feel like that.
Q: From features editor at Vogue India to editor-in-chief at Condé Nast Traveller India, how has the journey been?
A: I think for me it’s been quite a gradual process. When I started in the industry, I started out as part of the team to launch L’Officiel in the country but I moved into sales because I thought that was a lot more exciting at the time. I became the advertising head of Seventeen. After that I helped the publisher of TimeOut bring TimeOut into India and then I stayed with them for about three years. I really had a chance to explore various different facets of the magazine publishing business.
The one thing that I would say is that as an editor, you are expected to do so many more things and look into so many more things. I write not half as much as I used to and certainly not as much as I would like to and that’s one thing that I really do miss. No one is any longer just an editor-in-chief of a magazine. Today you are a brand custodian or a brand manager or a GM because you are looking at so many different facets, you are looking into brand extensions, you’re looking into the digital presence, you’re looking at events, properties that you’re creating, on-ground activities, all of that. In order for all of this to stay true to the brand and for it to really push the brand forward and not lose its vision or purpose, it has to come from an editorial voice, the soul of it still has to be true, so when that happens it has to come from us, it has to come from the editorial team.
I feel quite lucky that I’m part of the industry at this particular point of time. It’s certainly challenging for a lot of people because publishing is going through so many changes but on the other hand, you come into work knowing that every single day is going to be so different, which is great.
Q: How did you know that this was the right time to launch the website and what were the key areas that you focused on?
A: We launched the website in 2010 when we launched the magazine, it was a simultaneous launch, along with a Blackberry app. It’s only three years down the line and it seems that the whole world has completely changed. When we launched, I primarily looked at the magazine and even within Conde Nast Traveller India, the digital division was a separate division and worked quite independently, but certainly with our inputs. Since then, it’s been completely integrated within the organization.
What’s happened externally, [is that] the magazine has really established itself as a leader in its genre. Today when you think of luxury travel in India, I’m very grateful that we’ve been received the way we have and that its been adopted happily by the audience, which is tremendously satisfying. What we are finding is that everything today has to work in a 360 degree fashion.
Today when people think of where they want to go, they are still inspired by beautiful images in glossy magazines that make them want to go places or the words of an exceptional writer telling you about some aspect of a place or the influence or the impact that it had on him or her. That sort of initial wanderlust, that is something that you can’t replace and thankfully the magazine manages to create that kind of desire in people.
But we also know that today our audience is extremely tech savvy and when they want to do the research – they have looked at a beautiful story, they’ve seen the Greek Islands and now they are dying to go – they are going online to do the research. It makes sense for them, they trust Conde Nast Traveller India, that’s why they have decided to look into the destination in the first place, they want to know where to go clubbing, where to shop, where to eat, what’s the best way to get around, what’s the best time of the year to go. We have all the answers. Now we are just making sure that the way that we present these answers online is a lot more user-friendly.
Today we know people are accessing information on-the-go, so they are looking at it not just on their desktops but on their tablets and mobile. When we cleaned up the design and redesigned the website, it was going to be device responsive and that’s a really big deal for us.
At the end of the day, with a magazine you a limited number of pages, for every story I’m producing there are tons of stories that I don’t have the room for, so the website gives us the opportunity to give you loads more information. One of my favorite things about the new website is the destination guides, ten Indian and ten international cities that are completely updated, and we’ve started something new called the Insider’s Guide.
The thing I love about Condé Nast Traveller is that when I read it, I feel like I’m asking my coolest friend to tell me where to go and what to do, that I was getting really personal advice. We try and get the coolest people we know in these various cities to share their personal secrets.
Q: Is digital a threat to print?
A: Absolutely not. In the west there certainly has been a backlash and print is having a hard time, news magazines and general interest magazines have to work a lot harder to stay topical when live media produces news so much faster and is timely. I think that they have to work in tandem with each other and I think that they do.
If you were to look at the way people process information and the way they want the information on travel for example, you can look at slideshows on your computer screens and mobile phones but the truth is that it does not take away from the glossy magazine experience. When you are up in the air or in a lounge, when it comes to leisure reading or pleasure, in all honesty there is still much to be gained from the magazine experience and I’m still a magazine junkie. I must read ten magazines a week and I have all of them on my iPad but I still flip through them in bed at night because it’s my way of unwinding and relaxing. You can have an app on your phone that gives a magazine experience and you have content that flows through magazine to website to app to social media. The lines are blurring and I don’t think that it’s going to matter that much ten years from now what medium you are using to process the content.
At the end of the day, our job is to give you the best travel content there is in the world. Whether we do that via the website or via the magazine, it’ll cease to matter so long as we are producing the best quality content which I’m convinced we still are and will continue to do that, We need to stop thinking of them as competing channels. We really need to think of them as partners. At the moment, the reader is not seeing the competition.
Q: How has digital changed travel norms and trends globally, and more specifically in India?
A: In India, the change is massive. Digital in the travel space has had a massive impact. The first area that people end up using their credit card online is to book tickets for travel and I think that is an enormous indicator of people’s propensity to look at digital and become comfortable with the digital medium in a big way. In India, we have not yet come to a stage where digital or online bookings have overtaken or replaced the traditional travel agent and we still might be a while away till we get to that because the penetration is not as high in the market but if you look at the segment of the affluent travelers, the number of people who are now using MakeMyTrip or Cleartrip, or the number of people who are using Sky Scanner apps on their phone and flight tracker, you can tell that there has been a considerable shift within this audience. The impact has been incredible at the top end and is making its way down.
So many online travel agents are now advertising on television – there is one brand called Musafir who has signed up Sachin Tendulkar to be a brand ambassador – these are serious mass ways of reaching audiences and converting them to become digital and book online. That’s the number one indicator of how much it’s going to impact things. But I think if you look at people who are using a traditional travel agent to book, everyone is looking online to do the research. I think as Indians we are known to be extremely value-conscious, even the most affluent Indian traveler is still very value conscious and the Internet is the best way to figure out if they are getting a deal or they are getting ripped off.
I was in Moscow last week and it was the same day that Putin was speaking about Crimea. What I do these days is check Twitter to see what the trends are and to see what’s trending that day – when you start to do little things like this, you really get a sense of the pulse of the city. You get a sense of what the people in that city are talking about, what’s exciting to them. Because when you’re looking at it as someone sitting in India or anywhere else in the world, you’re reading what your mainstream media is telling you about a place.
These are little ways that you’ll find to be so enriching and there was no other way to access these things up until now. The potential is enormous. We are sitting on the tip of an iceberg. There are so many ways that this is completely going to change our lives, especially for travelers. It’s a revolution in travel.
Q: What do you think about Kerala tourism’s recent digital push with Kerala Blog Express?
A: Kerala Tourism has always been a leader in India as far as marketing goes and more importantly, keeps evolving. This is a sort of tech-savvy twist on a traditional FAM trip and a very smart way of reaching out to new audiences via a new platform. It will be interesting to follow what comes out of it.
Q: One hotel and/or destination in India that has embraced digital better than the others?
A: Most of our large hotel chains are following best practices from around the world quite successfully, and Twitter is helpful to them in terms of pushing F&B to local audiences but the real fun is in following the airlines. I’m quite excited to see how Air Asia and Indigo – both young airlines with dynamic leaders and an ability to laugh at themselves – go head-to-head on Twitter. Facebook is great for brand-building. The Four Seasons Bangkok just launched an #ILoveBK campaign now that the shutdown has been called off, to try and bring tourists back to the city. These are interesting and exciting ways of creating a buzz and striking a chord. They’re less about direct, in-your-face promotions and still very effective.
For Conde Nast Traveller’s India’s website relaunch, we had a #TravelBucketList contest run, wherein we had 20 celebrities – from Parineeti Chopra to Fatima Bhutto to Richard Quest to Matt Moran – share their bucket lists with our audiences. There was also a great contest with prizes of trips to Switzerland, UK, Australia, France and Oman but really, it was the fun content that drew people in.
Q: Most tourists think of Rajasthan when they think of travelling to India. How does Condé Nast Traveller India educate the reader to explore more in India?
A: Conde Nast Traveller has nine editions across the world. The first, the US, is more than 25 years old. The newest editions—not coincidentally—are India, China, Russia and the Middle East. This is due to the rising wealth of the nations and the propensity of their populations to spend on travel. You’ll see this all around the world: the newly affluent spend their money on conspicuous products—handbags with logos on them, for instance—but with time, as their tastes evolve, they prefer to spend their money and time on having amazing experiences across the world. Like they say, travel is the only thing you spend money on that makes you richer. What is lovely to see in India is that the affluent traveler here doesn’t only want to visit Europe or South America; they’re equally passionate about discovering what lies in our own backyard.
The number of people here who know New York City like the back of their hands but have never visited the Taj Mahal or the Golden Temple or been on a tiger safari in Madhya Pradesh is quite astonishing. A lot of people are making up for this now and are keen to have their kids explore and appreciate India. It’s really very encouraging and satisfying for us to help them do that by providing them with relevant information, news, deals, our curated guides, etc. And while we address mainly an Indian audience, we see interest in Indian destinations from across the world. Our stories on India are regularly syndicated by foreign editions, everywhere from China to the UK. I love receiving a copy of the latest Russian Condé Nast Traveller and finding our Coorg story in there, or a piece about Mumbai’s newest shops.
There is an incredible interest in India, in Asia, at the moment, and we want to use that to our advantage. That’s why we work with only the best travel photographers and fantastic writers, why we invest so much in the website. And of course, at the other end of things, we work closely with the industry too, to help them identify, understand and cater to Condé Nast travellers, whether they’re coming in from Mumbai, Delhi or Ahmedabad, or from Europe, the United States or parts of Asia and the Middle East. There’s a lot we share in common—most of all a passion to discover, learn and experience all they can.
Q: In the digital age, how does one seek genuine feedback about a hotel, F&B property or a destination when everyone around us is a self-proclaimed writer/critic?
A: Self-declarations don’t make one a writer or critic. Understanding the product, service and audience does. I believe that great content speaks for itself. If you appreciate quality, if you follow Condé Nast Traveller’s recommendations and come away satisfied, you will continue to return to us and trust us. The brand has been here much too long and is too well established to be hurt by the fly-by-night variety of critics. It’s interesting that people assume the more information that is out there from multiple sources, the tougher it is for authoritative brands—in reality, it’s better for us. There’s so much unreliable content out there, people look more and more to sources they can really trust.
Q: Are you ever able to unplug when you are travelling? How do you balance travelling for work and personal life?
A: I had a new resolution for 2014: every place I visit for work, I am going to stay at least one extra day to discover it. It’s the most realistic way for me to balance things out and also make the most of these otherwise very hectic trips. I spent a weekend in Delhi for the first time last month— in all the dozens of trips I’ve made there over so many years, I’ve never before managed this! And I loved every minute: visiting the NGMA to see the Subodh Gupta show, wandering around Meherchand and Hauz Khas, following the Condé Nast Traveller India guide to shopping in Shahpur Jat (it was bang on, I am happy to report) and eating at my 2 favorites: Peshawri and Indian Accent. So much about travelling is really just about allowing yourself to breathe differently and re-prioritize. If I am travelling on a personal trip and can sleep in, I turn off the room phone and my cell phone. It’s funny how being able to do that and just read a book or a magazine all morning is such a luxury. It’s really simple and you’re recharged by lunchtime!
Q: Could you tell us about a few apps that make travel and stay seamless and more comfortable, apps that you can’t do without when you are travelling?
A: FlightTracker is my favourite but I also use XE, Cleartrip, Yahoo! Weather and Hotels.com. I also have about five airline apps and ten hotel apps on my iPhone so I can book and check-in online. And I love that the Marriott US hotels now allow online check out as well – it’s a matter of time before it becomes an industry standard. I’m also a big fan of Uber. I was in Hong Kong this weekend and between the Rugby Sevens and the ridiculous hailstorm in the city, it was the only way I could get around!
Q: What advice do you have for women who want to work in the travel industry?
A: Go for it! If I had known how much fun it was, I’d have started ten years ago! It’s life changing and meaningful and still glamorous and fashionable, it’s both incredibly challenging and satisfying. And you have stories that last you forever, experiences that really impact you as a person in a very significant way.