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Uwern Jong is “Experientialist-in-Chief” of OutThere magazine, a luxury and experiential travel and lifestyle journal rooted in diversity, discovery and discernment. Alongside his co-Founder and Creative Director, Martin Perry, Uwern has for over a decade stewarded OutThere to become a leading, multi-award-winning media brand – read on to find out how.
As well as the magazine, OutThere also provides first-of-its-kind diversity and inclusion-driven content creation and branding services for luxury brands – content that engages the diverse segments of today’s global HNH consumer base – through the magazine’s spin-off agency division, OutThere/Studio. An advocate for greater inclusivity and understanding of intersectionality in luxury travel and publishing, Uwern is an active spokesperson on the subject. He is a founding member of Belmond’s LGBTQ+ advisory board, tourism ambassador for the Tourism Authority of Thailand and board member of the International LGBTQ+ Travel Association. In 2020, Uwern was awarded “Editorial Leader of the Year” by Campaign magazine.
An interview with Uwern…
What is your vision for the business?
Ten years ago, we started a magazine with the dream to fill a big gap in both the luxury and publishing industries. I was fortunate enough to have sold my share of a thriving communications business and Martin was at the top of his game as a Creative in luxury publishing. As someone who is British Asian – and us both being proud members of the LGBTQ+ community – we both recognised the significant, unconscious bias in the media landscape that we both worked in. There was also a large number of affluent, opinion-leading and socially-aware people that were disengaging from luxury media because they felt unspoken to. They were looking for something that they could engage with and be a part of. The world was changing rapidly; and luxury media was still clawing on to the past, so we wanted to do something about it.
‘We’ as a media brand and as humanity, have come far in our over a decade of doing business. Yet, there is still a lot of work to be done when it comes to nurturing greater diversity in our verticals; and that has certainly come to light over the last year. So, my original vision is still very much relevant today – albeit with a wider scope than before. Yes, we’ve achieved our mission to become the world’s leading luxury travel title for the LGBTQ+ community, but I’m even more proud that we are regarded as one of the nation’s foremost travel magazines for all; and to step out of the niche or pigeon-hole that we often get put in. In our ten-year journey, we have picked up a diverse world of allies, readers, fans and followers, many of which we hadn’t originally targeted. They come to us because of our unique brand of inclusive storytelling that resonates with a socially-conscious populous; one that goes far beneath the surface to ensure that the experiences that we feature and promote align with their values and furthermore are relevant, and safe. It seems that we continue to fill the gap for those who love luxury travel and everything around it, but still feel under-represented in the mainstream. But with that, our ‘responsibility’ towards them grows greater. My eyes grow wider (and my jaw slacker) when I encounter the many instances where diversity still isn’t a priority, or where inclusivity is talked about, but not actioned. But with that, my desire to make a difference through OutThere gets stronger.
How have you led the company through the current Covid-19 crisis?
With a spoonful of sugar and a huge dose of positivity. Despite the obvious uncertainties, I’m the eternal optimist, so very early on in 2020, I decided that if it was to be a bad year for business with travel coming to an almighty pause, it was going to be a fabulous year for our brand. We got our house in shape, poured our creativity into OutThere and came up with new ideas, taking the time to understand people’s current needs and stepping outside of the box to rise to the challenges. I’ve networked – albeit virtually – more shamelessly than I ever have. I have made so many new friends as a result, some of which I speak to so regularly now, but have never actually met in person. We marketed ourselves harder – and with a budget freeze – cleverer. We won numerous industry awards. We doubled down on our DEI expertise and trained brands on unconscious bias and sensitivity, so that they’re ready to “build back better” when the time comes. But most importantly, we’ve provided a way of keeping our audience truly engaged with travel, and aid positive mental health. Our #KeepYourMindTravelling campaign is a case in point, now a war-cry of the industry.
And what do you see as the lasting impact of the pandemic on your business?
In the last year, we’ve come to realise just how creative (and resilient) we are, perhaps something we took for granted in the normal course of everyday trading. That spirit endures even as we recover and we’re full of new ideas with each passing week. As a boutique, independent brand, the pandemic has also allowed us to gain a greater share of voice and demonstrate how nimble, smaller media brands can deliver significant value through its intimate knowledge of its audience and its channels. I’ve been overwhelmed by just how wonderful and loyal our community of OutThere travellers are, we’ve certainly forged even deeper and closer relationships with them during this time. Many of them have been with us since day one and have connected so positively with us through our research and campaigns during this time. They have been so supportive as we head towards recovery. As you can see, I’m focussing on the positives of the year the Earth stood still and on the lessons we learnt. Don’t get me wrong, I’m ready to get back to the good times – the world, and the economy needs to – but I think we are emerging stronger and wiser in so many ways, as compared to when we went in. This interlude was perhaps what our business needed to take stock.
The pandemic has also reinforced just how important travel is to people, in the way that it is transformative and boundary pushing. We see a huge pent-up demand among our audience, it’s just a matter of when. I feel it will be very soon.
Where are you headed on your next journey?
My travel ‘wanderlist’ has grown significantly in the last year. I’m a long-hauler, so at the top of my wish-list are far flung lands. My folks retired to Malaysia, so I’m keen to go and see them as soon as I can, but more selfishly, I want to explore the places that I put on hold in 2020, like Bhutan and Botswana. (My list is alphabetical, by the way, so this is only the start!)
This said, in the little respite from lockdown that we had last summer, I took the opportunity to explore the “best the British” luxury-travel – in fine style (thanks to the lovely folk at Bentley) – and (re)discovered some wonderful places and experiences in my own backyard. Suffolk is as magical as Constable painted; the Yorkshire Moors is as beautifully desolate as Bronte wrote in Wuthering Heights; and Scotland has an exciting, Scandi-Gaelic allure. But I also discovered that Bristol has a rich Asian food scene; that Manchester continues to be the beating heart of the North’s LGBTQ+ community; and how Liverpool is doing its best to educate people of its history and role in the horrific transatlantic slave trade. It has left me hungry to do and discover more here in the UK.
What’s next for both you and the company?
We’re ramping up, having had some strong wins at the start of the year thanks to a number of truly visionary travel brands. So that’s keeping us busy. As borders reopen, we’re planning to get our Experientialists out into the world again safely, to enable us to continue our storytelling. As I type this, our Spring 2021 issue – announcing and celebrating the winners of our inaugural #Experientialist Awards – is going to print. We’re also going to be throwing some further weight into our digital in the coming months – launching a new type of podcast; a(nother) new digital and immersive content experience to complement our print; broadening what we call “Project InHere,” our drinks and interiors e-book spin-offs that have proven popular in the last year; and re-evaluating our relationship with social media (and yes, I have been dragged into the world of Clubhouse!)
Hot on the heels of the success of our #Experientialist Awards and its philanthropic elements, we’re working on the second edition of the event, to continue to find ways to give back to our industry and the worthy projects fuelled by tourism worldwide. We’re also going to be pushing ourselves and others much harder on the subject of diversity and inclusion as well. So, it’s going to be a super busy year, but I’m excited to be part of the movement to redefine luxury travel media in the 2020s.
What was your big break; and what inspires you?
My life has been a series of big breaks, so I don’t want to single out anything in particular. I’ve been fortunate to have seen and done so many different things and been to so many different places that inform and inspire my life. I consider it a great honour and fully understand my ‘privilege’ in being able to do so. I feel enriched by the many fantastic, inspirational people that I have met and continue to meet along the way. It is they that have given me those breaks: from the smallest piece of advice, to some lifechanging opportunities. Of course, there’s my business partner Martin, whose creative genius inspires me daily; and it was him who catalysed OutThere’s founding and direction. Plus, the mysterious stranger in crutches, who beat me on our climb to the top of Angkor Wat in Cambodia at 4am one misty morning in 2009. It was she who told me to seize every opportunity and take a chance on my beliefs and desires… a story for another day.
What piece of advice would you give to someone wishing to work in the luxury sector?
Seize every opportunity and take a chance on your beliefs and desires! Really, I would. And be ready for equal measures of grit, hard graft and determination; to be able to access the glamour and glitz. Wear your skin thick, believe in yourself and understand and demonstrate wherever possible, that your difference and diversity is a priceless asset.
What would you be doing in a parallel life?
I’ve thought a lot about this during the last year; and over twelve months in, I still don’t have an answer. I love what I do, so I can’t imagine my life being any other way. Perhaps I could be doing more for humanity; but someone recently reminded me that we are all activists in our own ways and that not all superheroes wear capes. Although, if I were to have one – please let it be cashmere.
What does British luxury mean to you?
I define ‘British’ luxury as exactly that … British. But I mean the Britain that is the wonderful – international, multi-cultural, forward-thinking, anti-prejudiced, difference-welcoming – melting pot that we live in today. A Britain that values its rich heritage, but is not afraid of change, or to call out the inequalities and injustices of the past and present and moreover, do something about and make up for it. A Britain that is super creative, extraordinary, eccentric and surprising … one that bares its beautiful soul once it loosens its stiff upper lip. A Britain that is all colours of the rainbow, so much so that it blows one’s mind. The Britain that I am so proud to call home.
What’s your favourite luxury?
Without a doubt, travel: the opportunity to see our wide and wonderful world and interface with its gorgeous and fascinating people and cultures. And should that come with a Bentley Continental GT; or lie-flat seat or private jet; plus a stunning spa; and a big pour of bubbles or whisky on ice, then that’s a much-welcomed bonus.
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