Did Lonely Planet Miss the Boat?
June 9, 2014Amanda Miller
As someone who likes to go off the beaten path while traveling, I've been a fan of the Lonely Planet brand for a long time. However, like the rest of the publishing community, Lonely Planet guidebooks have struggled as people increasingly shift away from buying 'physical' books. With the addition of the recent global economic recession, the company struggled even further and was sold at a loss in 2013. Lonely Planet's new owners are developing new ways to leverage the brand, the first of which are the Lonely Planet "Hubs" that offer travel gear. Unfortunately, the product portfolio is uninspiring and doesn't capture the fun, scrappy and innovative products I would expect from the brand. As a company that's trying to diversify its product portfolio and solidify its position as an innovative travel company that's more than just guidebooks, this was a missed opportunity.
As someone who likes to go off the beaten path while traveling, I’ve been a fan of the Lonely Planet brand for a long time. Their guidebooks usually have a nice mix of scrappy DIY travel suggestions, cheeky humor and enough info to point a traveler in the right direction in an unfamiliar place.
However, like the rest of the publishing community, Lonely Planet guidebooks have struggled as people increasingly shift away from buying ‘physical’ books. The company has made some reasonable adjustments over the years – e.g. creating their ThornTree online travel forum and providing PDF and e-book versions of their traditionally hard-copy guidebooks – but it hasn’t been enough to stop the financial bleed. With the addition of the recent global economic recession, the company struggled even further and was sold at a loss by BBC Worldwide to the American billionaire Brad Kelley in 2013. It’s now being run by Kelley’s NC2 Media (NC2 is the delightfully ridiculous digital spelling of the Latin phrase “in situ,” which means ‘in position’ in reference to the context in which an event takes place or where an object is found).
Although NC2 Media is in the process of developing new ways to digitally leverage the brand, some of the seeds that were previously planted by BBC Worldwide to diversify the company are starting to roll out globally: Lonely Planet “Hubs” – which are small concept stores within a bookstore – and freestanding Lonely Planet retail stores.
The Lonely Planet Hub, which sells travel guides, travel books, and a small selection of travel accessories, has appeared in a few bookstores worldwide, including the George Street Dymocks in Sydney and Watermark Books in London’s Kings Cross. The retail concepts stores are also currently in three airport locations worldwide: Sydney, Australia, Malaysia and Manchester, England.
Both the retail stores and hubs offer the classic benefits of a traditional bookstore: the chance to explore, browse and discover new publications. In this case, it’s also a way to further dimensionalize the Lonely Planet brand beyond the guidebooks that are synonymous with the name. For example, they’ve recently published books on volunteering internationally, cooking books with ‘authentic’ recipes from around the world, photo books that can inspire your next travel adventure, and analysis and insights about cultures worldwide. Some fun books I recently came across when I visited the store include:
- The World’s Best Street Food: Where To Find It and How to Make It
- Lonely Planet’s 1000 Ultimate Experiences
- Volunteer: A Traveler’s Guide To Making A Difference Around The World
- Happy: Secrets To Happiness From the Cultures Of The World
‘The Lonely Planet Book of Everything: A Visual Guide To Travel the World’ is also quite entertaining. It has travel tips ranging from how to open a coconut, to how to enter a mosque, to how to deliver a baby in an emergency (!)
As a frequent traveler and “gear head”, I was most looking forward though to seeing what kinds of on-brand travel accessories and gear the Lonely Planet store would offer. In addition to an extensive collection of travel picture books, reference and guide books (featuring Lonely Planet publications, of course), the gift items, travel products and accessories which they currently sell are, to my disappointment, what you would find in a typical travel or hiking store (e.g. the standard inflatable airplane neck pillows, easily available luggage locks, Nalgene water bottles, and lightweight backpacks — all which you could get at REI, etc.). Some, although not all, of the travel gear and accessories are branded Lonely Planet.
As a company that’s trying to diversify its product portfolio and solidify its position as an innovative travel company that’s more than just guidebooks, this was a missed opportunity. The product portfolio is uninspiring and doesn’t capture the fun, scrappy and innovative products I would expect from the brand. As a company with global reach and the ability to pool technology, design and innovative product ideas from around the world, Lonely Planet has the unique opportunity to draw from its customer base and on-the-ground contacts around the world. As travel experts and cultural aggregators, they could do a better job of integrating their fan base into the stores and leveraging the international travel community. Why not introduce new and innovative products drawn from their worldwide travel network? Or feature killer new products recommended by their readers? Even leverage the brand’s reputation by partnering with innovative design companies and developing cool new products in-house?
We’ll see if the company changes their product mix as the roll out continues, but at the least if you happen to see one of the stores or hubs I recommend checking it out.