Sunday, October 07, 2007

Lonely Planet Sale to BBC - an admission of defeat or a perfectly timed sale

Lonely Planet are good at what they do - publish guide books. But have failed at almost every effort to use the Internet as a tool or morph their publishing model beyond static guidebooks. The sale of 75% of the company to BBC enterprises can be seen as a clear admission of this. Founder Tony Wheeler did an interview with Lisa Allen in this week's weekend AFR (subscription only so not available online) where he admitted as much. "We did feel we weren't getting as much out of the digital side of the business as we could" he is quoted as saying. He goes on to claim that they believe they were doing a good job online but admits that "given the size of our brand that our website should be a lot more than it is." I agree completely.

The problem with Lonely Planet online is not the product range it is that they waited too long before getting serious about online. In the last year alone they launched a booking engine (Haystack), a TV/video sharing site (Lonely Planet TV), a classifieds site and cut a number of content distribution deals. Even more recently they announced the launch of Pick & Mix where you can buy individual chapters or build your own guidebook. Other than Pick & Mix each of these was a "me too" product and launched years after other players had established deeper product lines and captured audience attention.

In the case of Pick & Mix I had a chance to speak to Tom Hall the product manager in charge at Lonely Planet. The ultimate vision of Pick & Mix is to give consumer the information they want how they want it - all good Internet stuff. However the product starts out as just the ability to mix and match existing chapters in pdf with limited custom features like names and photos. There is no-auto updating, no online search, no user generated content and it is not available on mobile devices. Tom hopes to build up to those features once they had since the results of the initial launch. Further the system is not yet set up to allow Lonely Planet to see the types of combinations that people have bought to enable them to gain insight into unpredictable destination combinations. Thus as good as the Pick & Mix idea and initial launch is, it highlights the undercurrent of hesitancy and conservatism in Lonely Planet's approach to the Internet.

Tony and the Planet team may have slipped up online but he has been able to spend the last thirty plus years being paid to travel the world and has presumably made enough from the sale to never need work again. Somehow it paid off to miss the Internet revolution.

1 comment:

Jason said...

The sale is mostly an admission of defeat and that the Wheelers don't get the online world.
There's two fundamental problems with the guidebook industry in the Internet age.
First, about 80% of people use search engines to research their destinations before traveling. LP and others have all their content locked up inside of the books, so if someone is looking for info on a remote destination, they're not going to find it on and they're not going to make a cent off of their content.
Second, the job of maintaining every destination on the planet updated is a job too big for the old fashioned model of sending a writer out into the field every few years. This is a job for a social network, a la wikipedia.
BBC seems to be mimicking the model of who have these two issues solved. Other guidebook companies would be wise to read the writing on the wall that the BBC has written for them.