Lonely Planet on track to become 'guardians of the traveller itinerary’
With zero spend on brand awareness Lonely Planet is still a household name in travel but so far its digital efforts have had mixed results. That is about to change, says CEO Luis Cabrera
Lonely Planet is a household name but in the fast-evolving travel landscape that simply doesn’t cut it. The company has recognised this and in recent months has appointed a new CEO and has made some strategic acquisitions such as the one of TRILL Travel. Most recently, it has partnered with Acquia, a company that delivers ‘innovative technology for unique consumer experiences’. In recent press release came the proclamation that Acquia’s open source software has been designed to equip Lonely Planet with the “most seamless and user friendly travel website seen by the industry to date”.
That’s quite a big claim and we put some questions to Luis Cabrera, Lonely Planet’s new CEO, to find out what this means.
EFT: You say your new strategy will take you where no other travel brand can go? That’s quite a big claim.
LC: Yes, but Lonely Planet has a global and diverse audience. Our brand has evolved and expanded in many directions in the last 46 years. Today, the brand means different things for different people, and that presents both a great challenge and equally an incredible opportunity.
As you can imagine, with more than 100 million books sold and many more million people using our digital channels each year, we aim to provide inspiring and trustworthy information for every kind of traveler, regardless of what type of trip they are planning.
We like to think about our target market based on their travel need-state rather than specific demographics. This approach also helps us problem-solve ahead of time and enrich people's travel experience at any point in their journey. And we aim to adjust our offerings and products to reflect this intent frequently.
EFT: Where do you see the opportunities for growth?
LC: We have identified growth opportunities around specific interests like adventure seeking, food, wellness, sustainable travel, and families. Much of our content appeals to those audiences, but we also continue striving to satisfy the curiosity of specific niche interests like astrotourism and voluntourism, so if you are thinking, or just day-dreaming, on traveling, you will find something unique and inspiring at Lonely Planet.
A few months ago, we also performed ethnographic studies to examine and understand the relationship between our brand and travelers. We talked with brand advocates and frequent travelers, occasional travelers, and even with people who recognise the brand but don't use it. The answers were very consistent: Lonely Planet is considered a travel authority and is held in high esteem across the board. We even performed a few quantitative studies to understand the level of awareness of our brand, and we found out that our awareness is pretty close to other travel brands that spend hundreds of millions of dollars on TV ads every year. We spend zero on this.
EFT: What exactly do the latest moves, like the partnership with Acquia, mean for consumers? Is Lonely Planet becoming a full-blown OTA?
LC: On the one hand, users are constantly bombarded in the media with thousands of options and promises of ‘best value’, so do we really need another a metasearch engine? On the other hand, our research suggests that travellers have developed a thick skin while looking for travel advice online, and many end-up relying on word of mouth for genuine recommendations. Finding, sorting and filtering the opinions of like-minded individuals with same travel needs and circumstances is usually a daunting task. And so the question is, why should we make travellers' journeys more difficult?
EFT: Still, the question remains: what are the unmet needs that Lonely Planet can genuinely fulfill?
LC: We have thought long and hard about where we have a right to win. And, today, we firmly believe we can become the guardians and trusted advisors of travellers’ itineraries and simplify the journeys so that they can focus on having amazing experiences. That opens the door for us to explore several adjacent spaces beyond content but at the same time using the content and our brand affinity as our unique competitive advantage. The challenge, however, is to decide where to start and formulate a financially viable strategy.
What is certain is that we will solidify our position as the most trusted travel advisor and will remain a reliable and curated source of travel recommendations. That will be for destinations, activities, hotels, flights, and every related product in between, like financial products and even gear and tech.
EFT: How is the industry responding to this new vision?
LC: Several companies across multiple sectors frequently reach out seeking partnerships or transaction opportunities. That alone confirms that our brand can be utilised in various ways and leveraged for different purposes: to complement an OTA, to inject energy and content of interest to an over-the-top (OTT) video platform, or to be used as a lead generation engine for tours and activities, or even for credit cards and travel insurance.
EFT: How specifically will it differ from the existing website, and when can customers expect to see the new revamped platforms?
LC: This is a multi-step process and visitors and the plan is that it will lead to:
- A dramatic difference in the loading speed of pages and the accuracy of the search results
- The ability for users to navigate more easily and drill down to find content and highly relevant offers and deals
- Anticipating and surfacing content and features that are uniquely relevant.
We will then be continually adjusting our offering and products to reflect this intent.
EFT: How far have you got in the process?
LC: Our digital properties are currently functioning with portions of the new platform and our legacy systems. Performing this change is, needless to say, an extremely complex operation. With over two million pages of content, changing the entire backend without disrupting the current experience is a big challenge that will most likely continue throughout the end of the third quarter of 2019.
However, as soon as we finish the implementation and the migration of one of the largest travel content databases in the world, we will focus on operating a publishing platform, developing new features, and optimising the user experience for conversion. The new platform will allow us to move at a much faster speed, and we will start experiencing a more rapid cadence of changes and improvements.
EFT: The ability to personalise is said to be crucial today but it isn’t easy given new regulations like GDPR. In the light of this, can you explain in a bit more detail how you plan to drive engagement, conversions and loyalty?
LC: It’s certainly true that personalisation is easier said than done. In fact, the research shows that nearly 74% of marketers globally feel like technology has made it harder, not easier. And that's one of the main reasons we carried out earnest due diligence before choosing Acquia, our new content management system (CMS). We believe that this was the right choice.
As a global company, we are very aware and cognisant of GDPR requirements and privacy standards. Users will always be in control of how much data they are sharing with us and we will always anonymise it to create trends and profiles.
EFT: In your opinion, what is the future of personalised content?
LC:The concept of delivering the right content and services to the right customer, at the right time, and via the right channel has been around for a long time. We just haven't been able to activate it fully motion.
For example, we have over 200 pieces of content related to popular places like Paris, but if you have only one weekend and are travelling with kids, you are probably only interested in a handful of those. For years, the approach has been to allow users to filter and narrow down their experience. We believe it doesn't have to be like that; especially when the user has already explicitly searched for a specific hotel for two adults and two kids on a particular date. We believe that our site should react to those cues and proactively surface up content and offers that are relevant for that one family.
But we can go further. When such a family arrives in Paris, if it’s raining, why not suggest alternative activities and build up a list of recommended nearby suitable places to eat.
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