Four years ago, when Spin magazine founder Bob Guccione Jr. began thinking about creating an online publication devoted to international getaways, he had no idea that Donald Trump would be elected president or that more and more Americans would consider leaving the country.
“I hadn’t thought of that, but it’s probably a boon to us,” Guccione told The Daily Beast as his new travel journalism site, Wonderlust, prepared to go live in the wee hours of Tuesday morning. “We should probably do a column for those of you about to leave—the best lifestyles available. You can come back after he’s impeached. It’s a matter of any day now. Someone’s gonna remove that guy.”
The 61-year-old Guccione—scion of a once-mighty pornography empire, Penthouse, ruled by his late father until, like all the world’s empires, it inevitably withered—saw a market opening to shake up a glossy newsbiz sector that, in his view, had become too comfortable, too predictable and, frankly, too wishy-washy.
“The travel media at the moment is very plain, it’s very generic, it’s very bland,” Guccione said. “I don’t really wish to disrespect the market leaders—Conde Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure—but they’re so successful and so fat that they don’t even bother competing. They comingle, they chat, they share ideas. They don’t need to fight.”
Guccione continued: “Anytime you have a stagnant medium, there’s a real opportunity for someone to come in and disrupt that with a wider spectrum of journalism and reporting, and it’s definitely an undefended market. There’s no sentry at the gate.”
Perhaps bolstering Guccione’s point that traditional travel journalism is averse to mixing it up, a spokesperson for Conde Nast Traveler emailed, “We’re going to pass on commenting,” and a spokesperson for Travel & Leisure likewise declined to comment.
Thus Guccione—who has raised through private investors a startup fund, a sum he won’t disclose, and has put his own money into the enterprise—insists that there’s business potential in a travel site that focuses less on consumer-friendly service journalism (although Wonderlust, he said, will have that) and more on storytelling, the human condition, and the endless variety of world cultures.
“When I started Spin it wasn’t just a music magazine,” he said. “We didn’t just follow fashions and trends. We focused on the idea that the reader had a wide spectrum of interests, a wide mental capacity to understand different things and to care about different things. So with travel, it’s a similar passion.”
Guccione continued: “Paradoxically , the world has become so small, it is all mapped, it is all accessible, it is all reachable. But the tagline we have for the site—playing on the Disney ride—is ‘It’s a big world, after all.’
“What I’m saying is that despite the instant accessibility of anyplace on the planet, especially on the Internet, you shouldn’t forget that it is a very big world full of uncountable cultures and uncountable issues and pleasures and problems and excitement. The rich experiences worth talking about and experiencing are infinite.”
Guccione—who is nothing if not a good salesman—added that he also wants his travel site to have a sense of humor.
“There’s no humor in travel reporting,” he argued. “When was the last time you laughed at a travel story? You’re not allowed to be funny. Whenever I’ve written a travel piece, editors have always thrown the humor out.”
Going for laughs, and possibly groans, the launch of Wonderlust includes a feature on “The World’s Worst Beaches” (such as this one in Pattya, Thailand: “what makes this beach particularly repugnant are the cheaper than dirt facilities and preponderance of dirty old men tourists and the prostitutes that drew them there in the first place”) and a compendium of some of the wackiest and most offensive remarks made by one of the world’s more famous voyagers, Britain’s Prince Philip:
* ‘ “If you stay here much longer, you’ll all be slitty-eyed.” Yes, he actually said this a group of British students in China, 1986.”
*“ ‘You look like you’re ready for bed.’ To the President of Nigeria, who was dressed in national robes, 2003”
*“ ‘Do you still throw spears at each other?’ To a highly successful, highly horrified Aboriginal entrepreneur, Australia, 2002. (The businessman replied, ‘No, we don't do that anymore.’)”
* “ ‘You managed not to get eaten then?’ To a British student just returned from trekking in Papua New Guinea, 1998”
* “ ‘I would like to go to Russia very much, although the bastards murdered half my family.’ 1967”
Guccione, meanwhile, has contributed his own travel piece about his favorite restaurant in Italy, La Frateria in the Tuscan town of Cetona, which does double duty as a drug rehabilitation center.
And, as someone who visited the Balkans during and just after the genocidal blood-letting of the 1990s, Guccione said he’s eager to publish travel reporting under fire.
“Some of the greatest travel writing comes from war, because the human condition is laid bare in a warzone,” he said. “It is stripped down to very binary reactions. There’s no artifice. Everybody’s sensibilities are heightened. The journalist’s observational powers are heightened, and underneath that is the need to stay vigilant for your own safety.”
But there are limits. Despite the libidinous aspect of its title and Guccione’s particular birthright, Wonderlust won’t be running a guide anytime soon to the planet’s best pleasure houses.
“No, we’re not interested in writing about brothels,” he said. “We are definitely going to assign, and have assigned, and have in-house, a number of edgy stories…We’re also doing investigative journalism, but I cannot for obvious reasons tip my hand as to what it is.”
Given that Guccione has snagged for the launch of Wonderlust a six-week exclusive corporate sponsorship by the American Express Platinum Card, edginess goes only so far.
“This isn’t Gear, this isn’t Spin,” Guccione said, mentioning two of the magazines he started in the 1980s and 1990s. “This is not Vice. It’s not meant to be those things, and I say that with the utmost respect for the incarnation of Spin that exists today”—which, after Guccione and his fellow investors sold the gritty rock music mag to the publishers of Vibe for a reported $43.3 million in 1997, morphed into a totally digital enterprise. Gear—a cheeky blend of gadgetry, sex, and near-naked celebrities—shuttered after five years in 2003.
Wonderlust, by contrast, “is aiming at older millenials, definitely Generation X and Boomers,” Guccione said—that is, folks who are likely as not to have an American Express Platinum Card in their wallet.
“American Express certainly recognized that our editorial direction was going to appeal to those people,” said Guccione, adding that executives at the charge card behemoth quickly signed on after he pitched the site to them a month ago.
In the meantime, he has hired a handful of editors, who, like the rural Pennsylvania-based Guccione, work remotely from their homes. And he has assembled a stable of freelancers that includes celebrity chef Mario Batali, Guccione’s longtime companion, playwright Liza Lentini, and prominent magazine writer (and former girlfriend) Celia Farber, among others.
Once a week, Guccione treks to New York to meet with his editors in a back room of the Marlton Hotel, the onetime haunt of Jack Kerouac and Lenny Bruce; at some point he hopes to establish an advertising sales office in Manhattan.
“We’re not jaded. We’re going into this excited,” Guccione said. “To me, ‘Wonderlust’ is a great word,” he added, noting that it is also the name of a Michael Kors fragrance and an advertising agency, but he has trademarked it for media enterprises. “‘Wanderlust’ with an ‘a’ sounded too worn, really, but ‘wonder’ is timeless. Wonder is central to the human spirit.”