With Lonely Planet being sold by the BBC this week for a shocking £55 million loss, does this put the future of guidebooks into question? This happens in the same week that we hear Frommers guidebooks, born in 1957 with the groundbreaking ‘Europe on 5 dollars a day’, announce the decision that they will publish no more titles.
The story of Tony and Maureen Wheeler and the creation of the Lonely Planet brand in the early 1970’s is an inspiring one.
Travelling overland from the UK to Australia and ending up in Sydney with around 23 cents between them, they pondered selling their typewriter to make ends meet. Tony said, “I bet we could write a book.” And Lonely Planet was born. Since selling 1500 copies of their first book ‘Across Asia on the Cheap’, times have sure changed.
The travel industry is now dominated by digital information such as accommodation and tour booking websites, for example Hostel Bookers, review sites such as Trip Advisor and social networking sites such as TravBuddy – which are ways for people to make friends and share information before they travel.
Once the ultimate Bible for travellers as little as five years ago, you couldn’t walk down the Khao San Road without seeing tons of backpackers with a copy glued to their hand. Hotels would place huge signs outside to attract travellers saying ‘Lonely Planet Recommended’ – knowing that this accreditation could sway a backpackers decision enormously. Knowing people who would literally not stay in a hotel or go on a tour if it had not been recommended by the Lonely Planet – you can imagine the impact that this global institution had on the tourist industry – particularly damaging or advantageous, depending on the review, for small and new businesses.
But is this still the case? Do travellers rely on guidebooks like the Lonely Planet and Rough Guides anymore? Or do they download apps and research online before they go – or even stay connected via WIFI to digital magazines / Twitter / Facebook and wikitravel as they backpack in the actual countries? In South East Asia you can certainly spot the changes – backpackers sit in hostels with ipads and iphones staying connected – and hotels now have signs saying ‘Trip Advisor Best Trip!’ in tribute to the referral power of web 2.0.
Grubby, well thumbed guide books remain on the shelves in the second hand book shops for 200 baht – and I can’t help but think that they just don’t have the same kudos as they once did. After all, as they are only be updated every 2-3 years – how can they stay on the pulse in an ever-changing, dynamic travel industry? How can they possible compete?
David Houghton, the Chairman of NC2, the Nashville company who have just bought the Lonely Planet brand comments: “The challenge before us is to marry the world’s greatest travel information and guidebook company with the limitless potential of 21st century digital technology. If we can do this, we can build a business that, while remaining true to the things that made Lonely Planet great in the past, promises to make it even greater in the future.”
So what do you think? What is the future of Lonely Planet and the travel guidebook in general? Is there still a place for the guidebook when you are planning your trip? Tell us your thoughts…