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On Holiday With: Toby Skinner, N magazine

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We’re marking the summer holidays this week with a series of interviews with the people behind travel magazines. We start today with Toby Skinner, editor of Norwegian Airways’ award-winning inflight magazine N.

Where are you today?
At the Ink offices in West Hampstead (exciting, I know).

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What was the first magazine you remember enjoying?

Apart from Panini sticker books and comics, I’m slightly ashamed to say that as a mid-90s teen I loved Loaded. I was the most gauche, least laddish teen imaginable, yet I was fascinated by the terrible puns, the loose women and the stories about the entire office taking acid. I remember former editor Martin Daubney speaking when I was studying journalism at City University – he came onto the stage, opened a can of Red Stripe and burped, before going on to boast about page three girls doing obscene things in clubs. It’s interesting to note that he’s now reformed, and is actually campaigning against pornography. Times have changed (for the better).

Tell us about your first holiday.
It wasn’t the first, but my most vivid early holiday memory was being forced to learn to ski in Aviemore, Scotland. It was sleeting and blowing a gale so hard that we could barely go downhill. To top it off, I was the only kid in the class who hadn’t seen the Sound of Music and couldn’t join in the Do-Re-Mi singalong. So instead I sat at the top of the hill and sobbed.

A more positive one was going to California, aged seven. I remember going on the Jaws ride at Universal Studios and to this gadget shop called Sharper Image, and thinking it all seemed so far ahead of the UK, like this weird, cool version of the future. Even queuing three hours to go on Splash Mountain at Disneyland was thrilling. LA is still fascinating today, but it feels like the rest of the world caught up.

Are you a beach holiday or city break person?
I like a good city break, but beach holiday would win. I don’t have a problem doing nothing, and secretly like getting a tan.

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What is your magazine’s approach to travel?
It’s about finding an interesting, surprising story that sheds light on a place rather than doing straight travel guides or explicitly selling a place. Our take is that a David Attenborough documentary makes you want to go to the Galapagos Islands more than a tourist promo does. It helps, of course, if it’s all beautifully packaged.

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Our approach is also about being honest – some of the stories I’ve been least proud of have been where we’ve stretched too hard and just sounded a bit disingenuous. Magaluf may have a Nikki Beach but, no, it’s not the new Miami. Similarly, sometimes we editors fall for PR gimmicks and don’t ask the questions we’d ask in real life (like, do I really want a ramen burger?).

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Which holiday/trip from your magazine would you most like to experience?

I sound horribly smug, but it’s one I went on and have banged on about ever since: Svalbard, the archipelago near the North Pole north of Norway. We took the whole team (editorial and sales) up there for a week, and it blew us away.

It’s not only a staggering place – stark glacial landscapes, polar bears, abandoned Russian mining towns, a vague hint of danger – but also surprisingly civilised. It’s relatively easy to get to (hint: fly Norwegian Air Shuttle), with boutique hotels, genuinely good quality restaurants and smart, interesting people. Having said I like beaches, I’ve become obsessed by going north, especially northern Norway. At the moment, I’m itching to go to the Faroe Islands and Greenland.

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Which magazine(s) should people be taking away with them this summer?

For a thoughtful indie magazine that actually has substance as well as style, I like Boat magazine, which focuses on a different city every issue. When they did an Athens issue, some of the copies came wrapped in paper from the local fish market – but it’s not just about gimmicks, there are really good stories in there.

How does being an inflight magazine – by definition, a fleeting experience – affect your approach to content?
I think it means it has to be better, because a lot of people assume that a piece of branded content isn’t going to be worth their while, so you have to make something that’s more engaging, more beautiful and more relevant.

n3111I think the days of inflight magazines being glorified brochures full of soft puff-pieces are well and truly gone. Just at Ink, we’re doing some really interesting stuff every month – Excelente, for Iberia, just did this brilliant story about a group of Canary Islanders who formed a community in Louisiana 200 years ago; and Fah Thai, a really beautiful and creative magazine for Bangkok Airways, have recently done pieces on Cambodian brutalist architecture and Hong Kong’s neon craftsmen. Some of the most interesting travel journalism in the world is ending up on planes.

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Was it difficult to persuade your client to agree to the more conceptual elements of N Magazine?

Luckily, not really. We’re fortunate that the Norwegian brand is about innovating, being forward-thinking and even a bit cheeky. So the cheeky stuff – reindeers in hotel beds, Moomins on lilos, The Scream on a life support machine – sort of makes sense.

n2014For me, the key to the whole thing has been that we’ve tried to have fun with this magazine, whether that means taking the whole team to the North Pole or doing an illustration of the Queen taking a bath on Tito’s train.

n1651Norwegian have been great clients who’ve let us be a bit creative – hopefully they’ve seen that you actually get more value from that than from a magazine that’s all smiling couples, cocktails and sunsets. Hopefully we’re giving people something to read and enjoy, but still making them excited about getting on a plane and seeing the world.

Where will you be taking a break this year?
I quite want to go and do a Santorini story – but one that’s about the people there, and not just spas and infinity pools.

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