Lonely Planet has been a brand of many changing faces over the past few years. It’s undergone an acquisition, launched itself into the digital world and now even publishes its very own magazine.
Stephen Palmer, chief executive for the EMEA region at Lonely Planet, explains how the little blue book that was started by a newlywed couple in the 70s evolved into a highly regarded and successful global brand.
Travelling across the globe to the road less taken was once considered a unique experience – a step into the dark for some. But for Tony and Maureen Wheeler, all they needed was a beat-up old car, a few dollars in the pocket, and a sense of adventure.
The pair met on a park bench in Regent's Park and married a year later. For their honeymoon, they decided to attempt what few people thought possible - crossing Europe and Asia overland, all the way to Australia.
It took them several months and all the money they could earn, beg or borrow, but they made it. It was too amazing an experience to keep to themselves so they decided to write about it, typing and stapling together their very first travel guide, Across Asia on the Cheap which eventually evolved into Lonely Planet, creating the travel guidebook category.
They now employ almost 400 authors to write 110 guidebooks covering 400,000 different points of interest across the globe. The brand doesn’t just look up facts over the internet or conduct phone research, it has writers in over 370 destinations across the world.
Lonely Planet talks to travellers sharing experiences, advice, information and tips to other like-minded travellers in a human and open way.
Stephen Palmer, chief executive for EMEA at Lonely Planet, “Lonely Planet is a well trusted and respected brand. We’ve had to keep up with the changing times though and now we offer our product via mobile, online, magazines and of course the blue guidebooks.
“From when we first started, Lonely Planet was always about travellers sharing their experiences while on a road less travelled.”
In October 2007, the commercial arm of the BBC, BBC Worldwide, acquired a 75 per cent share in the publishing company to take it into the digital world.
Palmer explains, “Fundamentally, we haven’t changed, but we have evolved in terms of how we offer the information.”
He says that one of the biggest challenges the brand now faces is the vast amount of information accessible via the internet, but adds that the brand is also using it to its advantage.
“One of the big changes in the market is the huge amount of content you can find on the internet. However, we are leveraging the internet as a way to keep our guides as up-to-date as possible.”
In April last year, Lonely Planet was forced to fight off “fake” claims when one of its writers, Thomas Kohnstamm, admitted he had not visited any of the countries he wrote about.
The travel publisher said it reviewed the books that Kohnstamm contributed but found no inaccuracies and denied that the author's methods were common in travel writing.
“We have writers out in the field who are updating information on the website as changes happen,” rebuts Palmer. “The actual guidebooks are updated every two years, but it is always a quest to keep the information as accurate and up-to-date as possible.”
Lonely Planet’s web offering now strives to be the best of the brand’s trusted travel content.
“When you have lots of recommendations from other travellers you still need a trusted filter to steer you in the right direction,” enthuses Palmer.
“Users want to ask other travellers for advice and information so our website has become a real community.”
The brand has come a long way from stapling memoirs together. Last year the brand created an Apple iPhone application allowing travellers to access information and engage with other users on the go.
Lonely Planet has also been working with Nokia adding points of interest to the manufacturer’s Nokia Maps platform.
Both projects, according to Palmer, are allowing travellers to stay connected to Lonely Planet’s travel community where ever they are, whether it be on the road less travelled or on a city break.
“It’s a way of making sure we are always up to date. I think most travellers know that things are only accurate at the point of the author researching them. If you think about somewhere like Dubai or Singapore, things are changing literally before your eyes. Our books are simply a guide, not a Bible,” says Palmer.
People are now able to travel more and do it in different ways. The barriers, when it comes to travel, have really been knocked down by the abundance of low-cost airlines such as Easyjet and Ryanair.
Technology has also played a big part in the industry, the way in which we are able to book travel has been democratised by technology.
Travellers can now book their trips online without a travel agent, which has encouraged a lot more people to travel independently in a way that Lonely Planet pioneered over 30 years ago.
Furthermore, social networking sites have also engaged a lot more people. Travel is all about collecting experiences and stories and people want to share these with others which is encouraging more and more people to travel independently.
On a global scale, the brand has to tailor its marketing to individual travel marketers and the different mindsets of people who travel.
Palmer explains, “The way we market, across the globe, is by communicating our core values, which are going out and engaging with the world. For example, travel to Australians in a real right of passage and when people travel from them it’s a very significant experience because they are so far away from the rest of the world. The brand is very familiar in Australia so we aim to promote awareness how Lonely Planet can help them have the trip of a lifetime.
“In the UK, it changes a little because they are frequent travellers. In China it’s a bit more difficult. The Chinese tend to be quite new travellers so travel to them is about going away for the first time which is nerve racking so we promote a bit more hand holding.”
Palmer adds that Lonely Planet focuses most of its marketing efforts on the web, although the brand does rely heavily on word-of-mouth.
Its market share in Australia is 65 per cent, while in the UK Lonely Planet only commands a 25 per cent share.
Palmer says, “We are market leader in the UK, however, it is a much more competitive market. Rough Guides has been a major competitor for us in the UK but there are now a lot of new brands coming in that are becoming more image led.
“There are lots of different types of guidebooks and each one will try and tap into a different core market. We always aim to stay true to our values, which is talking to independent travellers,” he concludes.
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