Two young people meet on a London park bench, fall in love and then travel the world. The experience is so eye-opening, they decide to write down everything about it and it is published as Across Asia on the Cheap.
Spurred on by their first book in 1973, Tony and Maureen Wheeler follow it up with Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, which obtains ‘bible’ status in the travel industry and is now in its 13th edition. The Lonely Planet brand that hopes to encapsulate the essence of travel is born.
As the brand prepares to celebrate its 40th anniversary next year, there is much that has changed and some that has not. The Wheelers sold Lonely Planet to BBC Worldwide, which bought 75% in 2007 and the remainder last year. The founders may no longer run the show, but they still consult and occasionally write.
Lonely Planet remains the number one travel guidebook brand in the UK, but not without having reassessed its product strategy at the height of the recession.
“We have really had to change our business in the past few years,” says Shona Gold, Lonely Planet’s sales and marketing director for EMEA. “The recession hit and high street booksellers such as Borders went out of business. Then there were events like swine flu and ash clouds and none of those things help our business. We had to act to secure our longevity.”
Gold says Lonely Planet has shifted its focus from backpackers, who represent between 10% and 20% of the travel market, towards curious, adventurous travellers, who make up about 55% of the market.
“We reinvested in our publishing business. We launched a range of products aimed at different types of travellers. One of the ranges is called Discover, which is much more pictorial and not the old ‘bible’ style of Lonely Planet. It has fewer recommendations but is still about going off the beaten track,” explains Gold.
Such new ranges are part of a move to create more distance between Lonely Planet and its competitors, including Rough Guides, National Geographic, Time Out and magazine brand CondŽ Nast Traveller (see box, below right).
Lonely Planet is also set to launch new-look city and pocket guides, a Not for Parents range aimed at children, as well as a street food book that features recipes complemented by an appropriately themed event.
“Ideas like these will keep the brand special, as opposed to just doing a promotion in a bookstore,” claims Gold.
Combining the recessionary ‘staycation’ trend, where people are holidaying in the UK, with 2012’s focus on Britain through the Olympics and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, Lonely Planet is to launch a domestically oriented series based on its Big Up Britain campaign.
A similar domestic strategy for the US market has propelled the brand to the top of the travel guide market there for two years in a row.
“We like to think we can make Lonely Planet as famous for promoting adventures in your own backyard,” says Gold.
“We’re launching thematic ebooks – Ye Olde Britain, Culture Vulture Britain, Recession Busting Britain and Mini Britain for kids. We are also making a lot of the regional chapters on Britain [into] individual ebooks.”
Repackaging content to maximise its reach has been key to Lonely Planet’s staying power. Gold says: “We’ve stopped thinking about ourselves as print and started thinking about ourselves as publishing and that opens up more opportunities with ebooks and apps.”
The brand’s 900 apps have been downloaded more than a million times, according to Gold, while it also offers 160 ebooks.
However, it is the concept of releasing individual guidebook chapters for paid download that is particularly innovative. About 3,000 chapters have been released so far to a highly receptive audience, claims Gold, who adds that that they may purchase a chapter in addition to a book for easy portability. The chapters also act as samplers to entice new customers.
Lonely Planet may fall just short of Time Out when it comes to word search traffic (see table), but Lonely Planet commercial director for online Belinda Lush says the website experienced 45% year-on-year growth last year and is one of the world’s top 10 travel websites.
“In the past 12 months, we have focused on a clear purpose for the website and this year we want to build more awareness of the site and what it offers,” she says.
“Obviously, we work under the same brand values as the publishing division, but how you do that online differs from how you can do it in print.
“We have really focused on what the website is trying to achieve. We have whittled that down to helping people decide on their journey. They can plan their travel and make it happen [by booking it through the site] – these are the two core elements of the website.”
Unlike the guide books, which are free of commercial tie-ups, the Lonely Planet site generates revenue from advertising. The brand also uses its online inventory to promote purchases of guides and apps around related content.
But Lush stresses that Lonely Planet’s online content follows the same strict editorial guidelines: “We’re very careful not to influence our content with commercial messages. In terms of helping people to decide on a destination, that’s about being the best travel publisher online and giving people lots of great content.
“A lot of this comes from our guides, but we also have specially commissioned articles that are more timely, reacting to current trends.”
Lonely Planet’s ability to do this, aided by its online strategy, has seen it move quickly when it comes to international travel crises.
Lush gives the example of the Icelandic ash cloud that severely disrupted travel in 2010, when Lonely Planet made all its apps free to download to help stranded travellers make the best of their situation.
Gold adds that in the wake of the New Zealand earthquake, a free ebook upgrade has been made available to take in the effects on Christchurch of the disaster.
In the lead-up to Lonely Planet’s 40th anniversary in 2013, Gold reveals that part of her remit is to explore and take advantage of synergies that might exist within BBC Worldwide’s partner brands.
Lush hints at potential partnerships with BBC’s Earth channel: “If it makes sense and adds value to travellers, then we would definitely look at the possibilities.”
Gold adds that greater links to the brand’s heritage will be made in messaging next year in a bid to maintain the brand’s core spirit.
She explains: “As we have increased our target audience, one of our priorities is to identify how to maintain the ‘specialness’ of the brand so that we remain relevant to our core loyalists and don’t let them think we have strayed from our original identity.”
The competitive travel landscape
Time Out enhanced its marketing strategy last year when it launched digital billboards on the London Underground. Commuters on platforms are shown Time Out bar, restaurant and theatre reviews on a large screen in the familiar style of the weekly magazine to reinforce the brand’s standing as the authority on where to go in a large city.
It also entered the gift experience and daily deals markets last year with branded propositions. For example, Time Out’s Smartbox range offers everything from adventure getaways to spa breaks.
Rough Guides launched a video travel channel on YouTube last year and a campaign on London Underground to publicise the brand’s move into city break guide books.
National Geographic branched out from its world of documentary-style, academically focused publishing to launch a more accessible National Geographic Traveller magazine in the UK in December 2010.
Shona Gold, sales and marketing director, EMEA
Belinda Lush, commercial director, online
Marketing Week (MW): Can you explain how Lonely Planet runs its online and publishing business?
Belinda Lush (BL): They run as two separate profit and loss accounts to track both sides of the business and understand what audience we are getting in terms of paid-for content, and then to monetise the online business as a separate proposition.
Shona Gold (SG): The businesses overlap all over the place, but where they’re joined up is in terms of consumer segmentation, what the brand stands for, how we protect and look after it, and how to expand the brands.
MW: Where does the Lonely Planet magazine sit in this structure?
BL: It is run by Immediate Media, which is a separate company. There are Lonely Planet magazines all over the world and the editorial strategies are independent. They license our brand, although we still retain editorial oversight.
SG: And on marketing and promotions, we work with it on things like partnerships and cover-mount promotions.
MW: Lonely Planet books often feature information regarding travellers’ carbon footprints, sustainability and cultural ethics. Would these ever become wider elements of the brand’s messaging?
SG: Since the recession has hit, environmental consciousness has taken more of a back-burner as people are looking more for value for money. We signpost sustainability and respecting cultures in our books and on our website but it isn’t something I would do a marketing campaign about.
BL: The Lonely Planet ethos is to lay out the information and let people make their own decisions. We don’t preach messages.
MW: With the world being almost completely discovered, how do you keep coming up with new travel destinations?
BL: It’s not about finding new places but recognising trends in the travel market. Our annual Best in Travel list is one of our most ferociously consumed pieces of content, as people are waiting for Lonely Planet to say what is the next best place to go. For example, Myanmar is top of people’s agenda as it’s now appropriate for people to go there. We advise travellers when to go where.
MW: Do you have much contact with founders Tony and Maureen Wheeler?
SG: While the company is now owned by BBC Worldwide, it’s still the founders’ passion. Tony still writes for us sometimes and he will do talks and interviews and come into the office every now and then. We love their story and try to keep it very much alive.