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So What Do You Do, Kate Sekules, Editor-in-Chief, Culture+Travel?

She made her magazine a destination in itself

By Stephanie Murg - July 30, 2008
Anyone for a game of elephant polo? How about laughter tourism? Culture+Travel, editor-in-chief Kate Sekules likes to surprise her readers: "Our first thought was, 'Don't be dull,'" she writes in her editor's letter of the magazine's recent Asia-focused issue. Sekules and her team's dedication to delighting readers with something unexpected -- whether it's off-the-beaten path travel writing, lush photography, or jaw-dropping design -- has helped Culture+Travel build a cult following as "the magazine for people who love the arts and travel with a passion." For Sekules, who previously served as travel editor at Food & Wine, "It was very important right away to establish a very distinctive position -- a niche -- and I feel we've done that." We spoke with Sekules about her go-to travel destinations, life at Louise Blouin Media, and how a cuddly-looking polar bear ended up on the cover of C+T earlier this year.


Name: Kate Sekules
Title: Editor-in-chief, Culture+Travel
Resume: Travel editor, Food & Wine; Web editing/writing for Concierge.com and ForbesTraveler.com; guidebook author, memoirist, novelist.
Birthday: August 20, 1961
Hometown: London, England
Education: Manchester and Middlesex Universities
Marital status: Married, one daughter
First section of the Sunday Times: Real estate
Favorite television show: Doctor Who; "Historically speaking, Buffy"
Last book read: Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala
Guilty pleasure: Reality TV, as long as it's about dance or models; Sci-fi (see above)


You just returned from Europe, which seems fitting, given that the current issue of Culture+Travel (May/June 2008) is 'The Europe Issue.' Where did you go on this most recent trip and where are some of your favorite places to travel?
This was just Paris to do a story -- and a half. Well, two stories. So that's not very unusual, is it? Personally, I haven't been traveling as much as I have in the past, because I've got a child, so that has really slowed down my peripatetic adventures over the last five years, so I send other people more now. I can tell you things from the front but not from my personal travels, from the Culture+Travel standpoint.

First, London is such an obvious favorite -- I'm from there. I consider that the hub of cultural travel, even though it's completely unaffordable. We had Bangkok in an issue recently, which is not somewhere you'd immediately think of for culture, but a contributor, Lawrence Osborne, who has lived there and is writing a book about it, had a lot to say about just the life there, because culture as we approach it here [at Culture+Travel] is not just capital "C" culture but the culture of a place. So if you're looking at a place, the real life of a place, then really anywhere has culture -- and that's just as much the kind of culture that we're interested in: the soul of a place, the way the real people live, and especially what's changing right now in any particular place. So in that way, just about anywhere becomes interesting. And that's our baseline, I think.

You came from a travel writing background. Describe your professional trajectory. How did you come into your job as travel editor Food & Wine, and did you originally see yourself in the editor-in-chief role at a magazine?
The short answer is no, but the trajectory went something like this. I was actually deputy editor of a travel magazine in England before I left London. It was Departures. I came here [to the United States] and had no green card, so I wrote guidebooks. I did tons of guidebooks. I wrote 12 from scratch and edited and contributed to a lot more -- mostly Fodor's, also some Frommer's, and others. So I did the five-star reviewing for the Mobil guides when they switched -- when Fodor's bought them -- and that was sort of an interesting summer of five-star hotel reviewing. Not such a bad job.

Then I freelanced and got to know editors through that, and then I got a green card and the Food & Wine job came up almost immediately. So I was the travel editor there for five years, then I had a child so I left, and then I did a whole load of invisible stuff online. I was the pre-launch editor for the relaunch of Concierge.com. I did a big project for ForbesTraveler.com. And that pretty much takes us up to here.

You've been editor-in-chief of Culture+Travel for about a year now: how does your editorial vision for the magazine differ from that of the previous editor? Did you come in wanting to make substantial changes?
Editorially speaking, I just thought there wasn't enough travel in it. That was my first thought. And I thought it didn't feel to me very focused. It had a voice, but it was a little bit muted -- well, quite a lot muted. So, I felt there was a lot of space here for something that filled a gap in the market. I mean, I wasn't really thinking of it in terms of gaps in the market. I was thinking of what I'd want to read and what others would be passionate about finding in a magazine.

And what are your larger goals for the magazine?
Where to start… The one thing in this climate and in this publishing company [Louise Blouin Media], which is small and unusual, is that there's a challenge to keep it going. So first and foremost, I want Culture+Travel to survive and thrive. That said, and assuming that we can do that, I like the direction. I feel that we're on the right track, and I think it was very important right away to establish a very distinctive position -- a niche -- and I feel we've done that. We've done a lot of things that are quirky and unusual, and I think that's to make the statement, "This is culture, too," as I was saying before. And we can do more mainstream things. We can include more obvious destinations, like Paris, and we can also do more of the major arts and also more of the classics -- the major destinations for the arts with a capital "A."

You mentioned that Culture+Travel has done some quirky and unusual things under your editorship. Can you give some examples?
In the current issue, the Europe issue, there's an outsider art facility [the Art/Brut Center Gugging] just outside Vienna, which is extraordinary. The work that they produce is amazing, and it somehow failed to cross the radar of many people. It's really an insane asylum, but the director feels that his artists are potentially art stars wherever they go -- not just because it's outsider art, they're just good artists. So he runs it as an art retreat where the people just happen to be crazy.

We did a feature on that ["Mad Skills"] and actually Daphne Merkin wrote it, who writes a lot for the Times, especially the magazines. She said that she was talking to her editor there, and saying that she was about to do this [piece] and they said, "Why didn't you bring that to us?!" So I guess it isn't quite so quirky and out there, but not every travel book would do that story, but I feel that it's perfect for us.

Was there a unique Culture+Travel approach that you brought to that story?
We accompany nearly everything with what we call a compass, which brings everything down to earth. You can go out there and do a very specific story and then you have a compass -- in this case, it's about Vienna, because it's 10 minutes outside Vienna -- and it's got the latest and relevant to our readership openings, hotels, restaurants, shops, museums, and whatever else. Sometimes on the compass we'll have a related story that is a side story, and it's like an extended sidebar, but it sort of fits very nicely in this format.

Another example from this issue -- and here's another example of something that's a bit quirky -- our Madrid story, it's very soccer-oriented, because Euro [the 2008 UEFA European Football Championship] is going on right now and in any case, we're interested in that culture as well. So this story is not about Real Madrid, one of the most famous and successful teams in the world, but the other Madrid team [Atlético Madrid] and their loathing of Real Madrid. We've also got portraits of the fans, and we've got the stadium, and through this I feel we get a really strong sense of what it's like to live there -- one side of the culture. And then we have the compass, with information for visiting, and this one is focused so if you do want to discover more about soccer, we've got places for you to go. And then there's Zaragosa, the water expo which is opening right now in that not very well-known city. So we have an extra story within a story on that.

Has the magazine added more gastronomic pieces (such as the May/June issue's piece on the Barcelona wine conference and the trio of chef profiles)? Has food been a new focus? Are there other areas you seek to boost coverage of?
Yes there are, and yes, food has been not so much a focus but just a "let's not forget," because the magazine has always had a little bit of wine [coverage]. And when I say "always," there were only five issues before me, so there wasn't really that much history to mess with. It wasn't exactly a redesign. It was an evolution.

Wine and food will continue to be a focus, and I want to bring more arts into it. We've started, as you can see with the opera story in this issue. That was the first opera story we've done in two years. I'd like to do more about movies, and again in this issue we have a story about the new Harmony Korine film that was written by one of the actors from the perspective of living in this highland castle where they did the shoot. And then at the end of that, we have "You too, can hire a Scottish castle!" Just to bring it down to earth.

I can't think of an area of culture that I have a blanket ban on -- except for golf.

But I feel that there's a lot of culture within that art form that isn't really covered by -- well, sadly, Premiere is defunct now, I thought that they did a good job of covering the [film] business in a cultured sense. But I think that there's a huge amount of scope for approaching art forms from a different angle from those who cover art forms and approaching travel from a different angle from those who cover travel -- and meeting in the middle.

We haven't really gotten a good theater story yet. Or dance. And more music -- music of all sorts: world music is obvious, and we've done some of that and we'll do more; jazz, haven't done that yet; opera we've started, classical not so much yet. I can't think of an area of culture that I have a blanket ban on -- except for golf.

Culture+Travel is a visually stunning publication. In terms of photography, what kind of lead time do you typically work within, and when in the process of conceiving/developing a story do you commission the photographs?
Let me first make sure to mention Emily Crawford, the genius creative director. I'm so lucky that she was here when I arrived. We have a good rapport and it's very exciting to work with her. Also Cory Jacobs, our contributing photo director, brings a lot to the table. And our beloved and now departed -- stolen by The New Yorker -- former photo editor Natalie Matutschovsky. These people are very important, especially Emily.

There's a whole variety of lead times. We do and can pull things together very fast….An example is the Mali piece ["Mali Maestros"] in the previous issue, March/April. It has photographs by Malick Sidibé. This photographer is a legend but not so well-known, and the photographs are so beautiful. They're about the clubbing culture when it was starting in the '60s, when the country gained independence. So right there you've got a moment of extreme cultural evolution happening, visually, and I wanted to add that to the story about the music. And that's just one example -- that came together in literally three days or less, putting all of the pieces together. It was one conversation at the last minute -- very quick.

And then there are things that we're shooting now for next year, as all magazines do, but now we're beginning to be able to do that, because we've been through one cycle.

I had to ask you about the polar bear cover from the January/February 2008 issue. We seemed to notice a lot of people out and about in the art world (perhaps subconsciously) hugging this issue to their chests. How did you choose the image, and why do you think it resonated so strongly?
There's certainly a story there. That's something else that we're doing and want to do, which is very much a part of everyone's culture, and that's the issue of the environment, and there are various ways to look at that. I was just hearing so much about the polar bears, but I realized that I don't really know what is happening with them, where they live, so we sent -- well, actually, he was going anyway -- Joe Yogerst, a very seasoned travel writer, to Manitoba to this tiny town which survives on the polar bear migration. It's where the ice floes first form, so the bears hang around in this town, and there's a big tourist industry there around that. So this was simultaneously a look at the town and at the front lines of the polar bear situation and global warming.

I found it completely fascinating, and I had seen that the brilliant photographer Jill Greenberg had a recent show called "Ursine" [at ClampArt in New York City] that was actually up at the time when we were putting this issue together. I had just seen the black and Kodiak bears she had photographed. Then I discovered that she had also photographed polar bears, so we found those images and got extremely excited. At that point, that's when we realized that this story would work, because we don't want to do anything when the visuals don't work. It has to be extremely strong visually. We use art photographers.

So Jill Greenberg is a very successful commercial photographer but also an art photographer, and she does not cross the beams -- ever, or at least that's what she said. So I had to beg her. I pointed out to her that we're not really like other magazines, and we have very much an art focus. After my begging for some time and some back and forth, she said yes. So this was from her art show. They weren't shot for us, but they just worked perfectly.

How do you make Culture+Travel's content scan for an online audience? What is the overall strategy?
It's a huge area. As part of Louise Blouin Media, we have two sister magazines, Art+Auction and Modern Painters, and the Web site Artinfo.com. We just have a placeholder [site] at the moment, because the Web is an enormous focus of this place, and we are about to be really getting in there. There's so much going on right now, and our part in it is exciting. Artinfo.com is a really good site, but it's all art, so we're going to be colonizing it with travel. We'll have our own site, which will start being more interactive -- it's really static right now -- and we will start to imbue that whole site with culture and travel, both with the magazine and as a kind of traveling.

It's about making the world a better place -- through the arts, through culture.

When can we expect to see the new Culture+Travel site and what will it involve?
We've got lots of plans, and I should think you'll start to see things online probably starting in the next month or so [August 2008]. And it will be gradual. It's really evolving as we speak. Artinfo.com is thriving, and I think that as soon as Culture+Travel appears there and we start having input, that whole site has so much potential to be appealing to an infinitely larger group.

We're really a cross between culture and travel. That's where we'll be, and I can't think of another site that does that specifically. So we'll link to people and do all sorts of things to become an online presence, and we're really not right now. It's barely started.

Louise Blouin Media experienced several executive departures in 2006-2007. Did you have any apprehensions tied to that going into your EIC role? What's the mood like within the organization these days?
My apprehensions going in were more about "Do I want a job?" because I was quite happy freelancing. I knew a lot about the company, had heard rumors, and had heard from people who were already here about the challenges of working here. They exist. It's an unusual place. But I was just so focused on what we can do here -- on the positive side -- that I didn't let it bother me, and it hasn't been a problem.

There is some refocusing going here on the moment, and I know that [the company] has got a reputation of a big revolving door, and the thing is, it's a very quirky place. It doesn't suit everyone. There are various reasons why people leave, and most people have not left with any bad blood. It just wasn't right for them.

What's your working relationship like with Louise Blouin? She's perceived as being a challenging personality, according to various media reports. Does she get a bad rap?
She does get a bad rap, and I think that it's quieted down some. She is very, very unusual and amazing. She has a foundation [the Louise T. Blouin Foundation] and this annual event called the Global Creative Leadership Summit, the third one of which will be held in New York this fall.

It's very interesting, and really, it's important to me, and to most of here, that the foundation exists and that she has this very passionate side to her of working to improve the world. She really sees everything globally and there's a bigger picture here because of her. Really, it boils down to the fact that she wants to change the world, and that's not the norm for most media companies. For her, it's about making the world a better place -- through the arts, through culture. And that side of her is inspiring.


Stephanie Murg is co-editor of UnBeige.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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