April 2018, San Francisco
Lonely Planet: 'nobody has bought our opinion'
Recently named one of the world's most innovative companies, Pamela Whitby caught up with the 45-year-old company's chief executive to hear about its latest digital moves
Who in travel hasn’t heard of Lonely Planet?
As CEO Daniel Houghton puts it: “Lonely Planet is a company that means a lot of things to a lot of people and has been around for a really long time.”
For 45 years, the firm that BBC WorldWide sold to US-based NC2 media in 2013 for $77m, has, says Houghton, helped people to have amazing experiences”. Experiences made possible because “nobody has bought our opinion,” he adds.
Editorial independence has always been a cornerstone of the Lonely Planet brand, and remains so today, despite its shift into digital gear. “At our core, we’re a content company,” says Houghton, the Nashville-based 29-year-old photographer who joined the company five years ago with no business background. Although he modestly claims to have stepped into the shoes of chief executive “by accident”, under his watch the company has been recently named one of Fast Company’s Top 10 most innovative companies in travel. In 2017 he was also named one of Forbes magazine's 30 under 30.
Although in the past decade the company may for a time have “lost its way a bit”, Houghton argues that Lonely Planet has had a long history of being an “innovative first mover”. In the 1970s, books were a guaranteed way to ensure that its travel content was distributed properly. And, it seems this is still working. According to Houghton, Lonely Planet has a 31.5% share of the guidebook market, and sales continue to grow year on year, which “still baffles people”.
With the arrival of travel magazines, television and the Internet as platforms to deliver content, Lonely Planet was, however, always quick to move with the times. In fact, it was one of the first 25 companies to launch a website in the mid-1990s, which is “really crazy to think about now that everybody has one,” Houghton says. In addition, it was a launch partner with Apple, for both the iPad and iPhone, when the app stores first opened.
Trying things on new platforms that other groups have not yet moved on “is kind of built into our DNA,” comments Houghton.
For a commercially driven travel firm, that is absolutely not trying to be an meta or an OTA, it has continued to sign important affiliate deals and counts Booking.com, Skyscanner and Toronto-based G Adventures as among its partners.
So, what Houghton refers to as the “re-birthing of our digital portfolio”, is well underway.
Among the advances made during his five years in office include:
- Mobile apps and a video platform. One highlight was the launch of Lonely Planet’s five-star Guides app, which was one of the top 10 most downloaded in the travel category, and was editors’ choice in all the app stores. Already there have been 2 million downloads of the 200 available city guides. Last year, also saw the launch of travel-sharing app, Trips, and the launch of a video platform.
- The relaunch of the Lonely Planet e-commerce shop: This was part of a back-end overhaul of its ERP systems. Although for the moment, the shop is only selling Lonely Planet products, there are plans for bigger things but right now Houghton can’t say more than that.
- Family and food focus: Lonely Planet now has 65 titles under its kids’ brand, which first launched in 2011. And in 2017 moved into another growing market, food, to serve the growing demand for a lifestyle of travel at home as well as while on the road.
- Partnerships with Google and Amazon. Late last year, the travel firm also became one of the first travel brands on Google Home, which allows searchers to say: ‘Ok Google, just ask Lonely Planet’. And last month, it went live on Amazon Alexa’s voice platform.
Says Houghton: “If you are not early, then you have no chance of catching up a couple of years down the road, when it’s the platform that everybody has to be on.”
But competition is fierce. Lonely Planet is not the only company that started life as a book publisher taking digital action. Last month too, one of its main competitors - Rough Guide – signed a data-sharing strategic partnership deal with Lastminute.com to share data.
Loud and clear
“It [voice] is going to be more important than where you come up in a standard search result. It will be as important as having a website was when everybody started talking about this back in the year 2000. I don’t know the exact stats but there is a faster rate of adoption than for messaging and email. It’s an insane set of stats, and will be interesting to see who competes,” he says.
Voice is going to be more important than where you come up in a standard search result
But beware the stats, which are sometimes misquoted and unverified. For example, comScore is regularly misattributed as finding that 50% of all searches will come from voice by 2050. According to ComScore, this is not the case, and that the stat was, in fact, first attributed to Andrew Ng, Baidu’s chief scientist in a speech by Mary Meeker, a partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.
Still, while predictions on the likely growth of voice search may sound ambitious, a survey of 39 SEO experts published last year, believes it should be third top of the list of priorities for business executives. What is more, it cannot be ignored that heavyweights like Amazon, Google and Apple are on such a major marketing mission to get their gadgets into every home.
So, while Houghton sees it as still “incredibly early days”, he believes “it is going to happen”. As a first mover, Lonely Planet is already seeing some take up. “We’ve got people asking us through those platforms [Google Home and Alexa] to ‘tell us about that place’. From there you can have a whole conversation, it goes to the content and then emails you – it’s pretty neat,” he says.
And if it’s built the right way, he adds, “’voice’ will be something you don’t have to teach anybody to use”. Presumably, this is good for a company like Lonely Planet whose demographic “is anybody who wants to travel”.
Certainly, more people than ever before are travelling. According to a report by Euromonitor in late 2017, travel and tourism continues to outperform the global economy, with arrivals set to grow by 3.7% and inbound travel at 4.1% over 2017, compared to world GDP at 3.5%. If you believe the stats, international tourist arrivals, currently at around the 1-billion mark, are forecast to reach 1.8 billion by 2030, according to the UN World Travel Organisation.
“One of our jobs is to help people realise they can get out there and make those trips happen,” says Houghton.
Travel may no longer be as unattainable as it used to be, but when you’re forking out large sums, it can still be a scary experience, and a huge outlay. “People don’t want to get it wrong. Nobody wants to have bad meal, have a bad experience or to get lost. So it’s a kind of high-pressure thing,” Houghton says.
It is for this reason exactly that JetBlue’s Heggie believes that adoption of voice in travel, as was the case with mobile and ecommerce, will be slower than elsewhere, because of the high value nature of purchases.
Houghton believes that this is where the editorially independent content that Lonely Planet delivers really helps people overcome those fears. “Not many companies at all that do that in the travel space, and certainly not like we do, on global scale,” he says.
With fake reviews and bogus profiles a growing and still unsolved problem for the hyper-competitive travel industry, building trust is going to be hugely important. And on this score, Lonely Planet might still have an edge.
The era of personalisation, as EyeforTravel heard in Miami last week, is upon us, and this is another area of focus for Lonely Planet.
“We have started aggressively to role out some personalisation features on dot.com,” he says, but admits that it is still early days.
Users can go to the website, sign in and start booking. “So if, for example, you have friends all the time that come to Nashville, then you can send a list of Lonely Planet curated with personal comments,” says Houghton (see an example of his list of Nashville recommendations here).
So in the travel category, Lonely Planet continues to strive to be all things to all people. And for the moment, that seems to be working.
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