Under New Leadership, Time Out Embarks on a Global Expansion
A Q&A with Christine Petersen, newly anointed CEO of Time Out Digital, on the company's ambitious next chapter.
Over Christine Petersen’s ten-year run at TripAdvisor as CMO and then head of the company’s business-facing operations, she helped grow the platform from a fledgling Massachusetts-based startup to the world’s largest and best known travel site, attracting millions of visitors each month across dozens of international markets.
Now, she’s attempting to bring a considerably more mature media brand to similar heights.
In January, about a year after naming her non-executive director of the board, London-based Time Out group tapped Petersen as its interim CEO of Time Out Digital, a position made permanent in April.
In taking on the new role, Petersen joins a company in a period of dramatic expansion. What was for years a pair of weekly free magazines in London and New York is now a truly global syndicate, operating 40 print editions and over 100 websites in local markets from Barcelona to Kuala Lumpur. A week ago, the company launched its seventh U.S. magazine, in San Francisco, following similar print expansions to Austin, Los Angeles, Miami, and Chicago within the past two years.
Folio: sat down with Petersen for more on Time Out’s ascendancy, and what lies ahead for the 49-year-old company.
Folio: What attracted you to Time Out?
Christine Petersen: A couple of things. I love the brand. I’m dating myself, but I’ve probably been using the product since the ’80s when I was a college student and going to London for a weekend. Everyone said, “Oh, New York is the only other city where they could do this.”
It’s also just a great opportunity. I was at TripAdvisor in the early days. I was one of the first 20-or-so employees. I see a similar opportunity in where we can take Time Out. It’s a different model, obviously, but I think we have just as much authority and ability to direct our readers — whether they be digital or print or people who interact with our live events — to really tell people where to go and what to do.
Plus I got to work with old friends of mine. Julio Bruno, the CEO of Time Out Group, and I worked together at TripAdvisor, and there are no shortage of other people in the company who came with me, came after me, or came before me. So it’s a nice little alumni reunion.
Folio: They said it could only be done in London or New York, and now here we are with our seventh Time Out title in the U.S. alone.
Petersen: It’s really exciting. We’re in 108 cities around the world, but not “in them” in the way I want to be in them. We’d love to be in more, with print and live events, etc. I think it’s the beginning of a big global expansion. We’ve expanded in Asia. We’ve acquired our Australian licensing partner. We’ve added Hong Kong. So it’s all over the world, in addition to the U.S.
Folio: What are some of the ways you identify which new markets are right for expanding the Time Out footprint?
Petersen: It’s a combination of art and science. Our whole mission is to enable people to make the most of the world’s best cities. So we look at population, we look at inbound visitors. Time Out, although very much a local proposition, has an enormous travel audience. We look at the arts and culture index, if you will, of the city. Museums, the restaurant scene, that sort of thing.
Sometimes it’s also a matter of looking to build our advertising proposition nationally. For example, we’ll know we need to add more cities in a country to achieve a national footprint. So it’s a combination of a lot of things.
Folio: How do you balance that hyper-local focus in each market with a uniform kind of Time Out identity across the entire portfolio?
Petersen: It’s something that we’re actively working on right now. We appointed Joel Meares to global editor in chief. It’s the first time in a long time that we’ve had a single person overseeing editorial globally. So that’s something we are looking at going forward — having more consistency on global basis.
I think that’s important for readers as they travel from city to city, understanding what they can expect from Time Out. They may be familiar with it in their own city, but maybe they want to go pick it up in Bangkok or in Hong Kong.
But also, from an advertising standpoint, we want our advertisers to know what they can rely on us for. I can’t comment on specific campaigns, but for example, we have recently done something between Europe and America with an airline.
Folio: That’s not something that really would’ve made sense in the past, when it was just Time Out London or just Time Out New York?
Petersen: Yeah, exactly. We’re looking not just at national advertisers, but international advertisers, as well.
Folio: What’s the process like once you’ve identified that market to which you’d like to expand?
Petersen: We’re in 108 cities, but you’ll find that the bulk of those are digital-only cities. So the expansion plan involves looking at those cities and saying alright, where do we want a print magazine? Where do we want to put our video content efforts? Where do we want to have live events?
Folio: Do you find that brand awareness is a challenge when breaking into a new market?
Petersen: The phenomenal thing about being in a business that’s been around for 50 years is that we have a strong brand footprint. People who live in great cities and who travel, the kind of demographic we attract — young, higher income, higher education — they typically have been to a London or a New York, so they’re aware of the brand already.
Building brand awareness is not on my top list of problems to solve. I need to grow brand affinity and make it easy for people to use my brand, but not necessarily build brand awareness.
Folio: We’ve talked about market expansion. What about readers? Is there a certain type of reader you’re looking to appeal more to?
Petersen: Our audience is pretty millennial, maybe going a little bit older, but it’s definitely an audience that wants to go out. What we’ve found, from surveying our audience, is that 95% of people actually do something when they pick up our magazine or go online or look at our app. So our job now is to make it easy for people to do those things.
I hired Severine Philardeau, who is based in our London office. She came most recently from VoucherCodes, the UK business of RetailMeNot. She’s got a strong commerce background and her focus is making it easier for people to do something — book a ticket, share something, save it to their calendar, book a hotel.
Folio: Is e-commerce going to be a major focus going forward?
Petersen: It is. In 2016, our e-commerce revenue was up 45 percent, and transactions were up 21 percent, which means people are actually spending more and buying bigger ticket items. It’s not just restaurant reservations, but theater tickets and hotels.
Folio: What’s driven that growth on the revenue side?
Petersen: A lot of it has been what we’ve been doing in content. We’ve been focusing our efforts on how we build the right content to support the transactions. It might be an article, it might be a review, it might be a live event. Rather than just write reviews of burgers, for example, we put on the Battle of the Burger. Rather than write about cocktail places, we put on the Bar Awards. It’s really about the content that surrounds it, whether its in print, in digital, video, an event. It’s all about content enabling commerce.
Folio: What about new digital platforms?
Petersen: One of the things we’ve done is getting on Amazon Alexa. So you can ask Alexa, for example, “What’s going on in New York today?” And it’ll give you three suggestions from Time Out. It’s content that’s produced for our city sites and then repurposed for the Alexa platform. I’m really excited about voice recognition and AI for getting our content out the door.
And then there are our markets. We’ve got the Lisbon market, a kind of food hall. And we’re launching another one in Miami sometime during the first half of 2018. It’s another great way of bringing the Time Out experience together.
Folio: Where do you envision the print magazines fitting into things going forward?
Petersen: I think the future is less about the actual platform and more about the content, no matter where you look. We’re not walking away from print. Print will still be important. I would expect that digital will grow tremendously, specifically mobile and video. Our focus will be bringing our content to life much more on those platforms.