The travel industry has gone through a digital revolution. How would you define Lonely Planet’s digital strategy?
One fundamental thing for any business is that the whole company focuses on one single strategy and vision. When a business is under pressure sometimes that strategy can start to splinter, so it is really important that wherever you encounter a problem or an opportunity you go back to your strategy so that strategy can hold every time.
With Lonely Planet, we know that our segment of travellers want to be guided to the heart of a place, so we apply that lens to everything we do. For me, that philosophy transcends any channel—digital is just another way in which we fulfil that mission. We constantly reiterate and go back to that, so our strategy fundamentally hasn’t changed, even though the landscape around it has.
The strategy here has been to understand what our consumers need by each channel and then build business models around that. So we have managed to use our brand and its content to create significant audiences; the challenge now is to make sure we deploy the right business model. So we’ve been charging for apps, but on LonelyPlanet.com that paid-content model doesn’t work, so there it’s about driving advertising revenue. On LonelyPlanet.com 40% of our revenue comes from selling paid content, such as PDFs of book chapters, but most of it comes from advertising and leveraging our brand and content in order to have other brands involved.
The printed travel book market has struggled in recent years. Would you say your digital strategy is proactive or reactive?
We moved the LonelyPlanet.com team 15 months ago from Melbourne to London. We looked at our brand, our assets, our content and traffic and the market to proactively say that our brand and content lends itself well to trusted travel advice—and online, we can make things happen for consumers. So it is a very proactive strategy, and we have to have courage in our convictions, but we do have to experiment—we can see how consumers react to products once we put them in an online marketplace, and we can then react to that. That reaction becomes more tactical as you start to build it against our strategy. Our digital strategy itself is very proactive and not driven by anything fundamentally wrong with our book business—which has stayed on its feet itself as we’ve continued to innovate it.
What’s the next step for LonelyPlanet.com?
Ultimately the digital strategy that is emerging right now is that we want to recognise the best travel opportunities in the world and make them bookable. That’s not to say that we will walk away from a flourishing advertising proposition, but it does speak to our ambition to get it into the transactional space; which is born from the fact that for 40 years we have been driving billions of dollars of downstream revenue. We currently use Expedia and Hostel World to fulfil that role, and we can carry on using partners.We don’t have to become an online travel agent, but we can leverage the brand in other ways and we create business models that adapt to where the growth is in the market. Our future vision will be to learn from and experiment with that transactional proposition.
Can you make money giving away content for free?
There is always a balance between monetising content and distributing content for brand awareness, and at the same time keeping an element of scarcity or specialness about it.
Fundamentally, it is about not giving the consumer everything. For digital channels it is about developing the right content and technology platforms to give consumers what’s most relevant; if you book a hotel in Paris, we want to give you the relevant information for you about Paris. That might be in reality a couple of years away in terms of LonelyPlanet.com and what we have got to build, but that would be our intent—to be hyper-relevant in the information we give the consumer in a way that drives their behaviour, so that it fulfils their needs as well as our commercial needs.
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