- The Washington Times - Monday, July 10, 2006

PORTLAND, Ore. — In the candy-hued series of travel guides curated and published by Portland graphic designer Kaie Wellman, there are no dutiful descriptions of natural history museums, no boilerplate on how to get to and from the airport, or where to cash a check.

Instead, Mrs. Wellman’s eat.shop guides — begun in 2003 in her native Portland but now spreading to cities as far afield as Paris — get down to what really matters for a generation weaned on “Sex and the City”: Eating. Then shopping. And then, perhaps, more eating followed by — why not — a smidgen more shopping.

Once, the travel publishing market was dominated by sober guides like Baedeker’s, and the appearance of travel-on-a-shoestring guides like Lonely Planet and Let’s Go in the 1960s and 1970s seemed like a revolution.

But these days, travel guides are under assault from the Internet, where armchair warriors swap tips in an ever-expanding universe of sites. Yesterday, Yahoo Inc. rolled out a Trip Planner feature, an online travel research resource that helps users plan their trips, create their own travel guides and share their travel experiences with friends, family and complete strangers. Even stalwarts like Fodor’s and Frommer’s are trying to reinvent themselves against an onslaught of new series.

To compete, the market is breaking down into more specialized segments.

Perhaps the fastest-growing travel market niche is a clutch of guides like Mrs. Wellman’s aimed at the 20-, 30- and 40-somethings who spend their weekends cooing over the produce at the farmers’ market and browsing for antiques.

In Mrs. Wellman’s guides —110,000 in print, 75 percent of which, she estimates, have been sold — she sticks to small, locally owned stores: a Persian ice cream parlor in Hollywood, a designer toy store in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood or Japanese tapas in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

A Parsons School of Design graduate and a former art director at Motown Records, Mrs. Wellman chooses 45 stores and 45 restaurants for each guide, updating the selection for every edition, photographing the bits of a store’s inventory that catch her eye, or the menu items that interest her, like coconut-curry tomato shooters in Austin, Texas, or black leather driving gloves in Chicago. The books cost $9.95 to $11.95.

“I am not so much interested in whether the place is the hippest in town, or whether everyone in the world has reviewed it, as whether the owner has a strong point of view, presented in a compelling package. I can feel it the moment I walk into a place, how much the owners believe in what they do,” she said, over tea and scones at an out-of-the-way tea emporium in Portland.

The inspiration for the guides came to Mrs. Wellman after she had given birth to her first child and found herself at a crossroads, frustrated after years of doing graphic design with the terms dictated by her clients.

She took a road trip, and at a gift show in San Francisco, wandering disconsolately among aisles of porcelain cherubs, she hatched the plot for the guidebooks.

“I drove home at 85 miles an hour, and told my husband not to talk to me for one hour,” she recalled. After that hour, she emerged with a mock-up of the guidebooks in hand, and asked her husband for his opinion.

“And he said, ‘You’ve had lots of kooky ideas, but this, I think, would work,’” she said.

From its Portland roots, the series expanded up and down the West Coast before venturing east to Brooklyn, and is scheduled to expand to Philadelphia, Washington, Boston, Rhode Island and Paris this fall.

Jen Leo, a travel book editor who runs the travel publishing Web site www.writtenroad.com, said she thinks such books are filling a distinct niche.

“I’d say the market is hungry for something like this,” Mr. Leo said. “Travelers are looking beyond the basic hotel and popular restaurant — they are looking for a different angle on why they tour a city.”

Still, breaking into the market isn’t easy, and it can be expensive. For Mrs. Wellman, it meant asking stores and restaurants to pay for their inclusion into the first edition of the Portland book, a pay-for-play fee that has since been discontinued.

Such books can also give off a distinctly insider, too-cool-for-school vibe. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, for instance, chided Mrs. Wellman for the “picks that are not at the plebeian price point we usually frequent.”

The Business Times of Singapore, though, dubbed the books handy for the fashion conscious, saying of the L.A. guide: “Forget Rodeo Drive. Wellman has scoured Los Angeles for only the cool and eclectic for her book. She is especially interested in the smaller, independently owned shops which carry exquisite, chic and/or fun stuff — in short, all the aesthetic stuff we’d love to have.”

Dannielle Romano, editor at large of DailyCandy.com, a daily e-mail newsletter with cheery tips about what to do, see and buy, said there’s no sign yet of saturation in the category.

“It speaks to the desire for busy people with good taste to have edited information about a certain place,” she said. “There are plenty of travel guides that will tell you what the currency is or what taxi to take. But I want to know that when I go to the Four Seasons in Budapest, a guy named Gregory is the best masseuse and if you ask nicely, he will do a special trick with ice — little things like that.”

Alan Davis, the publisher of the Pulse Guide series, traced the market’s growth to census figures that show Americans are waiting longer to get married. Single travelers are looking for more in a city than traditional, family friendly destinations, he said.

“It’s not just good enough to go out for a nice meal,” Mr. Davis said. “It has to be a total experience — people are collecting experiences.”

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