Monday, September 17, 2007

Five Questions with Lonely Planet

Recently I mentioned the effort by DK (Penguin) that allows consumers to build their own travel guides using the DK content. Lonely Planet recently launched a program that allows consumers to download (in PDF) only the parts of travel guides they are most interested in. The option to download the entire guide exists, but in many cases a consumer only visits a part of a country and much of a country wide guide is irrelevant. This program solves this issue.

Currently under trial, the content covers guides for Latin and South America and represents 350 chapters from 35 individual guides. The site is impressively easy to use and the prices for the chapter content are reasonably priced. Most chapters cost between $2 and $4 and users gain a discount from the purchase of multiple chapters. Lonely Planet says that the feedback from this trial will be incorporated into the next release that should also include more guide book content. As an additional feature, consumers can also view new guides before they are available in stores.

Commenting on this initiative Product Manager Tom Hall said "Over the years we've received countless letters and emails from travelers telling us they'd like to take just the parts of our book that match their travel. Pick & Mix enables this and is perfect for people traveling to multiple destinations not covered by one or two individual guidebooks, or those looking for very specific information. It’s also handy when plans change or you can’t get to a book store.”
Lonely Planet has long been a leader in the independent travel guide market after their first title Across Asia on the Cheap was written 30 years ago. The guides immediately appealed to travelers who wanted to get off the beaten track and gain the real essence of a location.

The guides and the company - perhaps as a direct result of the characteristics of the target consumers - engender significant loyalty. There are over 400,000 registered members of their travel community (Thorn Tree) who share inside knowledge, read and contribute to blogs and read about reports from authors in the field. Undoubtedly, Lonely Planet will be looking to expand the community and social networking aspects of their interactions with consumers and it will be interesting to see how their feature set develops.

I recently asked Tom Hall five questions about the Lonely Planet strategy and future plans.

  1. Tell us about the thinking behind the build your own model.

    For years travellers have been asking to take just the parts of our books they need. I was one of them. In 2001 (before I worked for Lonely Planet), I took a round-the-world trip to 7 countries across three continents. I couldn’t carry guidebooks for all of them, and ended up scouring Kathmandu trying and failing to find a book on Tanzania. So I arrived in Africa with no information whatsoever, and was incredibly frustrated – the information I really needed was out there, but no one would sell it to me when and where I needed it. Many travellers tell us they tear entire sections from guidebooks, or photocopy pages from other travellers or from the library. The thinking is really just that there seems to be a clear need, and Pick & Mix is a way to meet it.That’s the key point, but here are a couple more. One of our first purchasers was someone in Norway who bought a chapter on Martinique. I like to imagine the person in a snug little cabin with icicles hanging off the roof, downloading a chapter about a balmy tropical island. The point is that Pick & Mix makes us truly global – our content is accessible anywhere with an internet connection, so it’s available to more travellers. It makes possible sales we’d never get otherwise. Another point is sustainability – quite a few people have written to say they appreciate being able to save paper, ink, the energy from shipping, or to go entirely paperless by storing our content on an iPod, memory stick, phone or laptop.

  2. Has demand developed as expected and has there been any impact on sales of the full titles? How do your retailers view the effort?

    We believe Pick & Mix is complementary to our guidebooks, rather than a substitute. So far, results have confirmed that view. We just launched two months ago, though, and obviously it’s something we’re monitoring carefully. Demand to this point has been higher than projected, and even better, the feedback from travellers has been fantastic.

    Retailers face similar challenges to publishers when it comes to digital content, and we're committed to finding ways forward together. We see Pick & Mix as an opportunity to reach out to retail partners with digital content and meet the needs of both new and existing customers in new formats. In the future, this may include retailers offering digital products to customers either in-store or online.

  3. There are similar efforts by other publishers – this is not a new and unique effort. How does your project differ? How are you measuring success?

    Pick & Mix is a simple concept - it offers chapters pulled straight from our guidebooks. It’s easy to use - you go online and find the parts our books you need, download them, and print them if you want – a five-minute process. Also, Pick & Mix covers an entire region, rather than a grab-bag of destinations. This complete coverage makes it useful for many types of trips: a long-term trip to multiple destinations, business trips or short city breaks, even when you’re on the road and plans change.
    We’re measuring success in terms of sales, whether we’re growing our market overall, and direct feedback from travelers.

  4. You have used the PDF format for this initiative. Was there any discussion about allowing a non-proprietary download? Do you envision a situation where a consumer could choose not to use the PDF and receive it in text format? Do you see for example, the ability for users to integrate content into their own self-produced content

    We launched with the PDF format because travellers told us it’s the most useful right now. Our intention is to make Pick & Mix format-agnostic - in the long-term travellers should be able to get whatever content they want (including information from other travellers, like ThornTree or Bluelist), where they want it, in whatever format they want it. Pick & Mix is the first step towards that goal, and we’ll take our lead from travellers on the subsequent steps.

  5. What’s next for Lonely Planet? You appear to have a loyal fan base and cadre of users/consumer who interact with some frequency with LP. Can you tell us a little about your social networking plans?

    Simon Westcott, LP Global Publisher responds: “We have great loyalty and interaction from users of our Thorn Tree community. Every month we break new records for membership and participation. But there's so much more for us to do: group functionality, tagging, more types of user content generation, opening our infrastructure to 3rd-party development, allowing people to create their own trip pages. Watch this space....”

No comments: