Beyond the Fairy-Tale: How to Tell Real Stories for Real Travelers

In 2011, as U.S. citizens and travelers were fleeing the protests in the streets of Cairo, Joe Diaz and Greg Sullivan were en route to Egypt. President Hosni Mubarak had stepped down and news stations around the world were showing live footage of buildings on fire, violent clashes and riots.


Joe Diaz, co-founder of AFAR Media and former teacher and real estate investor.

Diaz, one of the founders of AFAR Media, got on a plane with a single thought, “What could we do to support the people of Egypt and tourism there?” He was running to a place while everyone else was running away from it.

It was as far from a fairy tale as he could get. It was real, gritty and a story that needed to be told.

According to Diaz, it was a pivotal moment for him and for AFAR. He met chefs, revolutionaries, comedians, activists, politicians, and journalists. AFAR Magazine had launched two years earlier and here he was in Cairo living the mission of AFAR – to travel the world to connect with its people, experience their cultures, and understand their perspectives.

“The power of human connection is what helps us understand a place and what continues to bring people back,” says Diaz.

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 9.06.56 AMHis experience in Egypt is what he wanted his readers and travelers to have— “a real experience, a deeper, richer, more fulfilling travel experience.” That’s what he and the AFAR team seek to do in their print and digital stories, in their custom content for partner travel brands and advertisers, and what they do in their once-a-year guided trips to out-of-the-way destinations.

People aren’t traveling for the fantasy anymore, says Diaz. “More and more people, especially younger generations, are traveling to find meaning.” They want more than selfies and souvenirs. “We’re focused on getting people beneath the surface of a place and connecting them with the in-the-know locals … Travelers want to see the world as it is in all its beautiful colors.”

Diaz and Sullivan realized that someone needed to tell stories differently and do business differently. That’s exactly the same advice they give to travel marketers and advertisers.

It started with their first issue of AFAR Magazine in 2009. One of the most memorable and inspiring stories for Diaz was Tim Cahill’s essay about the kindness of strangers.

“Ninety-nine percent of the people are there to help you not hurt you,” Diaz says. “Strangers can help make a trip for you. If you have this mindset, it changes the way you see the world—and opens up the world in interesting ways.”

It’s the mindset Diaz and Sullivan had when they boarded the plane for Cairo.

From AFAR Magazine

From AFAR Magazine

And when editors assigned Ryan Knighton, a blind writer, to cover Cairo just two months after the Revolution. Talk about putting your faith in people and getting out of your comfort zone.

People have evolved in how they travel and why they travel. Brands need to adapt and evolve. It starts with the mindset.

According to Diaz, that’s where they started – with the traveler.

“We looked at the experience that starts with you, the traveler, and what you’re seeking,” Diaz says. Travelers are looking for real information from real locals not just glossy stock photos of white sand beaches or infinity pools. They want inspiration as well as planning tools before, during and after their trip.

“It’s not just amazing imagery,” he adds. “It’s what they can do with that.”

And, he adds later in the conversation, “if the travelers can access the information and the guides on the go.”

That’s been at the heart of AFAR’s strategy for print and especially for digital. “It has to be useful for the traveler,” he says.

And, “it’s gotta be really good, no matter if it’s paid or editorial,” he adds. This applies to their digital partnerships. AFAR has worked with the Westin team to create and curate content- not just on the AFAR site but also on site.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s on our site or their site or somewhere else,” he says. People want to partner with AFAR because we have a soul. And because they’re creating stories that are real and resonate with people.

It’s working. AFAR has seen tremendous revenue growth and won countless awards. They’ve tapped into what millennials are looking for and what was missing in the travel industry – stories that delved deeper, were real and inspired people to connect through travel.

Don’t take our word. Read it for yourself.

Then join Diaz at DigMe Summit June 10-11 in New York City to learn about digital media planning and native advertising.

Joe Diaz is the co-founder and chief product officer of AFAR Media. He was formerly a Teach for America teacher, as well as a real estate investor. He also was a National Geography winner in fifth grade. He’s since expanded his knowledge of geography with his travels through AFAR.

  • Laurie JM Farr

    A great read!