Photo: The Travelling Bum
I GREW UP traveling off Lonely Planet’s fat blue books. So much so that I was oblivious for years to the fact that other people made travel guides too. The LP books were pretty much everything I could imagine wanting from a travel guide. Except for one time in Sudan, where the book was out of date enough that the country had actually changed currency in the interim. Other than that, they were great. Generally indestructable, but if they did break, you would mostly just lose the cover and end up with a block of tightly bound white pages. And even the lost cover still worked as an impromptu chopping board in a pinch.
I was surprised to learn that back in 1973 LP started with one couple, Maureen and Tony Wheeler, and an idea to write a guide to crossing Asia on a shoestring. After that came Southeast Asia, and then the world. It’s come miles since then, eventually selling a majority share to the BBC and — from my point of view — drifting away from the community it once was. The Thorn Tree Forum was shut down for a time, ostensibly to clean out illegal comments relating to paedophilia, but emerged much more closely policed. Particularly in the case of discussions on sensitive places, like traveling to Israel/Palestine. LP’s Blogsherpa program — through which travel bloggers were able to syndicate content to the site — was also discontinued.
And so, come 2013 and possibly facing a case of buyer’s remorse, the BBC has sold one of the most iconic brands in backpacking to reclusive Kentucky billionaire and former cigarette baron Brad Kelley. The man has no public email, is rarely seen, and hasn’t really indicated one way or another what he will do with the company. He is also apparently one of the US’s largest landowners and conservationists, and has investments in a small travel project called OutWild TV, which might just possibly be tied in somehow.
The actual Kelley company that the announcements peg as having bought LP is NC2 Media, whose website tells me little more than that they have lots of journalists and creatives. And enjoy an aesthetic love affair with black and white. So what it means is all a bit confused, really. Which is no reason not to speculate on what will become of the iconic guide. About which my immediate gut reaction revolves around two fairly obvious issues: LP’s possible continued focus on being digital, and the relationship with its community as a source of travel advice.
Digital to a point, surely?
The BBC’s big strategy with LP when they originally bought it was to try and rework it to focus more on its digital aspects. Publishing travel content online at Lonely Planet, syndicating some of it across to BBC’s other websites — that kind of thing. Which, in a world where the competition is increasingly in the online space and not in traditional book publishing, makes sense. Even if the BBC might not have done it right, there’s probably far more money to be made in digital content in the long term than there is in making heavy paper slabs that go in the backpacks of travelers to all corners of the globe.
So yeah, from a business perspective, online is great.
But as the representative guy with the backpack, I still want that paper book. Because lots of the most interesting places travelers continue to go to are — almost by definition — the ones where the beer is cheap and the internet access is shitty. I don’t think it’s being a Luddite to point out that digital is all well and good for pre-trip research and getting amped about heading off to explore Whereverstan, but that when the cathartic moment comes where you log off your home PC for the last time, take the SIM card out of your phone, pick up your backpack, and head out, a book is entirely more useful than the most interactive and intelligent of online travel information services. And it’s probably going to remain that way for a while.
So — and it’s more of a gentle concern than anything — I’d really dig it if you guys at NC2 Media could keep the book in mind when you roll out the grand strategy for LP. Do the online stuff, make the cool websites, the epic videos, or whatever else it is you have planned — but leave us the solid blue book of wisdom. Because it doesn’t need charging and you can scribble notes all over it with whatever writing implement is handy at the bar/tour/strange place you finally meet the interesting people in.
The book, whatever else is built on top of it, is the LP brand, the real-world, dirty-backpack asset of the company, and the thing people rely on when there’s no electricity for miles. Don’t forget that in the enthusiasm for Travel 2.0.
Don’t forget the community.
In part, Lonely Planet was great because it engaged so thoroughly with its community long before most people thought of doing so. The mechanisms for giving feedback on details in the books meant they stayed pretty damn up to date. Except for Sudan, but I forgave them for that. Then there were places like the Thorn Tree, which were one of the few safe corners of the internet that you could ask about transport in Hargeisa, or getting into Abkhazia, and find somebody who had actually been to those places.
That was irreplaceable, yet BBC appears to have pretty much killed the Thorn Tree. Yes, there were some creepy people in the corner of that giant virtual bar, but that should have been a challenge for moderators to meet, not an excuse for killing the whole exchange. And there’s a danger, if the idea is to treat LP in future as more like a publisher and less like the center of a traveler community, that that sharing of information, which LP facilitated online, will wane further.
Cool original content from your in-house staff will always be interesting, but they will never have the expansive range the Thorn Tree did. There will always be a value to connecting those-about-to-leave with those-just-returned. It’s something not many travel companies facilitate very well, and something LP had become less good at doing over the last few years, thanks to the Thorn Tree closure.
Don’t forget that Lonely Planet, unlike whoever else was publishing guides, was also the hub of a community. Was able to get travelers engaging with each other, and then step aside and let those conversations run. That was useful, and it’d be great if it could come back again.
So, Lonely Planet, I’m happy for you. I wasn’t a huge fan of your first marriage, and still think your second husband looks a little odd, but I think I’m probably just being overcautious. If he lets you shine in all the ways you did before, and you guys manage to build on that, I’ll be a very happy camper. Probably literally.