Lonely Planet: still thriving after all these years

Pamela Whitby caught up with Lonely Planet’s chief executive who has recently been named as one of Forbes’ 30-under-30 in the media category

Inquisitive, ambitious and tall, is how Daniel Houghton Lonely Planet’s 27-year-old chief executive, describes himself. Ambitious he would have to be to successfully engineer the digital turnaround of one of travel’s most well known brands, under the scrutiny of new owners.

Houghton, a Western Kentucky University graduate, joined Lonely Planet in 2013 after BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the corporation, sold the travel guide business to US media firm NC2 at a loss of close to £80 million. Getting the business profitably back on track was a big ask, and involved a sharp refocus on its core business – content.

Today, however, Lonely Planet, which operates in 14 languages, is back on track and is reaching a much wider audience across a range of media and platforms. The recent the relaunch of its brand website has seen the number of visits and users soar with social referrals up by 30% in 2014-15. That trend has continued and in the year to October 2016 the firm’s global audience in social channels rose by 116.93%. At the same time, its global market for guidebooks grew by 10%, bucking the trend towards declining guidebook sales elsewhere

Clearly the content still stacks up, and as a reward for his efforts Houghton has recently been named as one of brightest young innovators in the media category of Forbes’ 30-under-30 awards.

Daniel Houghton, CEO, Lonely Planet
Photo credit: Olivier Hess

Ahead of our San Francisco Summit, where Houghton will join a keynote panel on April 24th, EyeforTravel heard where Lonely Planet fits into the new travel landscape and what “new things they are trying”.

EFT: You joined the business back in 2013 Lonely Planet wasn’t in the best digital shape. What skills were needed to engineer its turnaround?

DH: It’s been a mix of recognition of what has made Lonely Planet successful in the past, coupled with an acknowledgement that we need to innovate and adapt moving forward. Lonely Planet had so many great pieces already in place, such as the best travel experts on the planet, passionate staff and a history of trustworthy travel content. It also has a long history of innovating on new platforms – yes, back in the day we were involved in CD Roms, Palm Pilots and more! So with a bit of patience, and some serious hard work, we’ve been able to identify the opportunities for Lonely Planet to grow both digitally and in print without losing the principles that ensures that Lonely Planet remains the world’s best loved travel brand.

EFT: In the past, a certain type of person – arguably the more intrepid, adventurous, risk-taking traveller - would have chosen Lonely Planet as its travel guide.  Has the shift to digital killed the ‘surprise’ aspect of travel?

DH: I don’t think that digital products or the presence of the internet has taken away the surprise aspect of travelling. Even in today's world, where we can watch HD 360 videos through VR headsets, it’s still different from being there in person and experiencing the sights, sounds, smells, people and atmosphere of a place. I don't ever see that changing.

EFT: But the traveller has changed right?

DH: Perhaps, but Lonely Planet was built on the belief that we should put travellers at the heart of everything we do and that remains the case. The definition of that traveller might have changed, but we continue to interact with people on the ground to understand their needs, as well as employing and working with real travellers to produce our content. We’ve said for decades that ‘we know because we go’ and that certainly hasn’t changed. Today, we simply offer a larger range of ways for people to experience the world; through multiple guidebook series, magazines, apps, online and gift books. We also recognise that there are many people in the world don’t ever have an opportunity to travel so we want to reach those people too, to help them learn about the world and inspire them along the way.

EFT: One of the things you have insisted on since joining is that the brand has remained true to its core values. Has there been any need to add to this?

DH: All businesses must change and adapt constantly to survive and thrive. In our case, the business was built on the trust of our content, because we go to the places we write about. That’s what always set us apart. That’s just as important today as our content appears on more and more platforms and in different ways. I think the opportunity to add more inspirational photography, video and mobile experiences to what we offer continues to show the importance of Lonely Planet’s core values.

Trust in the content is what has always set us apart

EFT:  A content business you may be but you are now offering everything from flights to tours and activities on the lonelyplanet.com website. Why was this necessary?

DH: Our company is a content business which provides travellers with everything they need to plan the perfect trip. We work with numerous partners to help travellers go straight from our advice and inspiration to making it happen. Fundamentally, we want to help more people travel, more often, and to more places, while having incredible experiences along the way, because travel can make life better. Content remains at the heart of this - by having our network of experts out on the road, we understand both the destinations and travellers better than anyone else. This helps us inform, inspire and help travellers get out there and explore the world.

EFT: Speaking of content: user-generated (UGC) or curated and on which platforms – what’s the right mix?

DH: When Lonely Planet was founded, the aim was to solve the problem of there being a lack of information available to travellers; today it is quite the opposite. There is so much information available to people, that our role is to provide trusted, expert content that cuts through the noise. Of course, there’s a balance to be struck and we recognise the need for a mix of voices. We want to hear from travellers and have always encouraged feedback and conversation from the early days of readers’ letters, which became the basis of our Thorn Tree forum [where since 1996 independent travellers have shared advice]. So, yes UGC is definitely helpful. The same applies to platforms; whether it be print or video, magazine, online or mobile - it is about using the right tool for the job; in this case the right medium for the information and its use. We have set ourselves up in a way to enable us to deliver appropriate information across a range of channels and needs.

…there’s a balance to be struck and we recognise the need for a mix of voices.

EFT: This is a highly competitive industry. What qualities will travel firms to be in it for the long haul?

DH: It’s still very early days for the Internet, and how global information and connectivity / communication is shaping the way different industries operate. Many of the largest companies in the travel tech industry emerged with the Internet and exist because they spotted an opportunity to improve the consumer experience. We’ve been around since 1973 and had incredible opportunities along the way to innovate and be at the forefront of what's new. If anything, things are moving faster and faster and success will be limited to those willing to embrace the new habits of consumers. Just as everything has shifted from desktop to mobile to things like voice assistants, it is important for companies to keep abreast of developments and embrace new opportunities. Luckily, this is in Lonely Planet’s blood. We’ve been experimenting with different platforms for years and I believe if it makes sense from a traveller and content perspective, we’ll trial it. We were one of the first travel brands on Twitter - and millions of followers later, I’m all for trying new things.

As long as partnerships make sense for the consumer, I’m all for them…I’m all for trying new things

EFT: Many would argue that today partnerships are the key to success. What is your view?

DH: Partnerships are a fantastic way to grow and develop and, yes, there are companies out there who are able to add to our offering. Our relationship with Snapchat, for example, has been a great way to bring our content to new audiences in different ways by embracing new behaviours. We also are able to offer brands an association with Lonely Planet that helps position them in the travel space, while bringing value to the traveller. For example, our recent partnership with Samsung, enabled the tech giant to showcase the usability of their products for travellers, while we were able to add 360-video shot on Samsung devices to our content offering for the destination of Canada. As long as partnerships make sense for the consumer, I’m all for them.

EFT: What are your priorities for investment in 2017?

DH.  Expansion of our mobile products continues. Our flagship app, Guides launched in 2016 and has received fantastic user feedback and industry recognition, such as editor’s choice in Apple’s app store. We are working to expand our app portfolio but also growing our mobile product list to include things like chat bots and Google Home integrations so you can talk to Lonely Planet and have a conversation with us right from your living room. Recently, we’ve also launched a series of 360-videos as part of our Best in Travel 2017 [which happens to be sponsored by Samsung] annual list. We have spent a number of years investing in the internal infrastructure to enable our network of experts to deliver content for multiple channels. In 2017 we will continue to invest in bringing that to the consumer. Going forward you can expect to see Lonely Planet expanding into other mediums from magazines to mobile, video and more.

Image Credit: SocialTimes

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