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May 2019, London
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Lonely Planet banks on influencers for the next leg of the journey
As a fan of Lonely Planet guide books, Pamela Whitby is curious to see what this latest acquisition means for a household name in travel
Since Luis Cabrera joined Lonely Planet in February 2019 as president and CEO it has been all go. Just a week into the post, and this household name in travel announced the acquisition of ArrivalGuides, which provides B2B content, marketing and booking services to the likes of Hilton, Eurowings and Rentalcars.
Less than two months later and Cabrera, an e-commerce entrepreneur who was previously a partner at BCG Digital Ventures, a subsidiary of Boston Consulting Group, has announced the acquisition of TRILL Travel. According to the press release earlier this week, the move will make Lonely Planet “the first global brand to convert influencers’ digital content into bookable experiences”.
Appetite for content
Rumour had it that last year, shortly after the abrupt resignation of then CEO Daniel Houghton, NC2 Media, the firm which had snapped up Lonely Planet for a song from BBC Worldwide in 2013, was looking for a sale. But that never materialised. It seems that Brad Kelly, the billionaire major shareholder in the Tennessee-based firm, was not quite ready to throw in the towel. After all, Culture Trip, a content-led startup, had just secured $80-million in funding to launch an OTA, proving that there was still significant appetite for content-led platforms.
This latest move into the influencer space is another attempt to gain traction and, perhaps, an acknowledgement that book sales, brand clout and affiliate sales are not enough to achieve the valuations that NC2 Media might be hoping for!
This is something that Rough Guides, another household name in travel booking publishing, has already recognised. In an interview earlier this year with CEO Rene Frey, who will be speaking at the EyeforTravel Digital Strategy Summit in May, he said that despite being a huge fan of books, they must be secondary to the digital business. In Rough Guides’ case they are looking to evolve into a trip-planning platform with instant booking that helps people plan and book trips with local experts on a global scale. Having said that, Frey still sees books as “a hugely important acquisition channel”.
Our ambition is to build the largest network of expert travelers in the world
While Cabrera declined to comment this week on how the famous guidebooks would fit into Lonely Planet’s strategy going forward, he did say: “Our ambition is to build the largest network of expert travelers in the world.”
Within the next few months, the plan is to revamp the Lonely Planet Pathfinders programme, which is essentially a community of ‘bloggers, photographers, videographers and social media wizards with a passion for adventure’. And, it seems, the idea is that they will fit neatly in with TRILL travel’s ‘tastemakers’, a bunch of Instagrammers who are looking to ‘travel, share and earn’.
Of course, this influencer content is curated. “All of the current TRILL influencers are approved prior to participating on the platform. Each influencer is categorised as an expert in a specific field such as wellness, adventure, foodie and many others,” says Cabrera. Lonely Planet Pathfinders are curated too. However, to attract and incentivise influencers, Lonely Planet will adopt TRILL´s revenue share model, which automatically pays out commissions for confirmed bookings tied to each individual post.
But not everybody buys into the influencer marketing hype. The naysayers argue that it just isn’t credible, that it is nothing more than advertising, and why, after all, should you trust somebody whose job it is to earn money by saying how great a hotel or restaurant is?
So much for “nobody has bought our opinion”, the strategy that Daniel Houghton outlined in an interview with EyeforTravel shortly before his resignation last year.
This latest venture certainly marks a shift, in how the brand has positioned itself over the years. While there are certainly many different tastemakers on the TRILL platform, this one from Tezza, who has over 650,000 followers, is, indeed, a far cry from the sort of travel experiences that Tony and Maureen Wheeler were promoting when they launched Lonely Planet back in 1972!
Still the world has changed, and in the face of fierce competition, Lonely Planet is moving with the times. It recognises that book sales and affiliate deals are not enough. And while brand kudos may still count for something, it is no guarantee survival in this brave new digital world.
Join us at the EyeforTravel Digital Strategy Summit (May 21-22) to find out more about how the travel landscape is evolving from brands that include Rough Guides, Accor, Zoku, Finnair and a whole lot more