Byravee Iyer
Mar 12, 2013

Digital likely to become focal point for Lonely Planet after its sale

SINGAPORE - With the BBC exploring strategic options for Lonely Planet, including a potential sale to US billionaire Brad Kelley, questions are being raised over the future of travel guidebooks.

Lonely Planet is focusing its attention on digital strategies
Lonely Planet is focusing its attention on digital strategies

The BBC recently valued Lonely Planet at US$135 million, far below the total of $210 million it paid  for it (a 75 per cent stake in the publication for $143 million in 2007, followed by an additional $67 million investment in February 2011).

Citing Nielsen BookScan, US-based travel site, which first broke the news of the sale, said that in 2007, US sales from the top five travel publishers (Frommer’s, Dorling Kindersley, Lonely Planet, Fodor’s and Avalon’s Moon/Rick Steves) represented 80 per cent of the market and were worth more than $125 million. In 2012, that number dropped by almost 40 per cent to $78 million. The US is Lonely Planet’s biggest market with 5.5 million unique users.

In UK, the combined sales of the seven largest publishers fell 46 per cent between 2005 and 2012. Similarly, in Australia, Lonely Planet’s headquarters, where it dominates 60 per cent of the market, sales slipped 14 per cent between 2010 and 2011 and another 21 per cent between 2011 and 2012.

“We have been exploring strategic options for Lonely Planet for some time now, but no deal has been done and we are not going to comment on speculation about its future,” said a spokesperson from BBC Worldwide in an email to Campaign Asia-Pacific. The spokesperson added that Lonely Planet is the most successful guidebook publisher in the world, with a volume market share of 23.1 per cent, up 2 per cent since 2009.  

“The reality is that the original budget-conscious backpacker target, like the travel industry, has now grown into a more mainstream, affluent and most importantly social tribe of travellers who are less likely to base decisions on a printed magazine,” said Marie Gruy, managing partner at PHD Singapore. Gruy used to work with BBC Worldwide.

She added that in 2008, BBC’s licencing strategy team worked hard to find ways to leverage the Lonely Planet license while staying true to the founders' original vision. “However given the brand’s roots in publishing, the launch of Lonely Planet magazine was inevitable.”

Guidebooks like Lonely Planet don’t carry advertising and hence do not release information about ad revenue. Print titles are being hurt by readers’ shift to the internet, where information is available on a timelier basis, and digital versions are mostly free. 

Lonely Planet has been quite active on the internet. It has a couple of applications on the ipad. There have been reports of using augmented reality. The brand has already beefed up its presence online to create a rich multimedia platform. According to its spokesperson, its website, which does sell ads, received more than half a billion page views in 2012 and grew 35.8 per cent to reach a monthly average of 11.3 million unique users. She declined to comment on ad sales. As of 2012, Lonely Planet had 2.7 million unique users in Asia-Pacific and 12.8 million page views.

A survey by revealed that Lonely Planet is the most prominent guidebook on social media, with just over one million Twitter followers and a similar number of Facebook followers. Frommers and Fodors follow. Lonely Planet even launched a ‘Thanks a Million campaign’ to celebrate the milestone.

According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, digital circulation of magazines in Asia will grow from $24 million in 2012 to $145 million in 2016, with Australia, Hong Kong and Japan contributing most of the total.

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