Lonely Planet has weathered the death of the guidebook better than any of its peers, and its new leader will need to figure out a way to flourish rather than just survive as it builds on the pieces of its empire.
Lonely Planet CEO Daniel Houghton is leaving his position, just over five years after NC2 Media bought the travel publisher from the BBC, Skift has learned.
In addition to Houghton’s departure, Skift has also learned that parent company NC2 is said to be pursuing a sale of Lonely Planet, which launched in 1972.
“We can confirm that Daniel Houghton has stepped away from his role as CEO of Lonely Planet in order to take on a new CEO role with another digital company,” a Lonely Planet spokesperson told Skift. “We’d like to thank him for everything he did at Lonely Planet over the last five years and it’s a testament to his leadership and dedication that Lonely Planet is in the strong position it is today as one of the world’s leading travel brands. The rest of Lonely Planet’s leadership team remains in place and will be continuing with business as usual.”
The company would not comment on questions related to its sale, or a successor to the 29-year-old Houghton.
The relatively unknown NC2 purchased Lonely Planet from the BBC in 2013 for £51.5 million (about $80 million based on exchange rates at the time). NC2 is controlled by Brad Kelley, a Tennessee-based businessman who is one of the United States’ largest landowners. During the BBC’s stewardship of the publisher it lost over £80 million ($108 million) in value.
Under Houghton’s leadership, Lonely Planet saw strong growth on the print side, according to Stephen Mesquita, travel publishing analyst and author of the Nielsen/NPD BookScan Travel Publishing Year Book 2018. “In 2017, LP’s market share in their major category of World Travel Guides was 39.32 percent in the UK market (vs. 31.34 percent in 2013) and 26.60 percent in the U.S. market (vs. 21.54 percent in 2013),” Mesquita wrote in an email to Skift. “In this period, LP’s UK sales grew by 41 percent (vs +6 percent for the market) and U.S. sales grew by 16 percent (vs -4 percent for the whole market).”
Lonely Planet has tried to adapt to the online age in recent years with mixed results under Houghton’s tenure. It launched a platform for digital videos, alongside partners including GoPro, which has been consistently updated with new content. The company has also revamped its online store to more effectively sell its print products while slimming down its offerings.
Although it reduced the frequency of its print magazines, it did end licensing agreements and brought them all under control of Lonely Planet. Its YouTube channel, however, hasn’t been updated in months. In an extremely crowded market for travel advice, Lonely Planet’s digital transformation has struggled to become essential to travelers when competing with the bevy of digital recommendation sites available to travelers.
It lacks a pure variety of nuanced information about in-destination locations when compared to sites like TripAdvisor, and in a crowded digital video marketplace Lonely Planet has failed to differentiate itself from the glut of content produced by both influencers and established travel brands or destinations themselves.
During a time when Zagat has changed hands once again and new players like the Instagram-centric Infatuation or the content-mill-fueled The Culture Trip have emerged, Lonely Planet has become just another premium brand vying for the dollars of consumers who are more willing than ever to rely on free, crowdsourced information about their vacation destination.
“Lonely Planet means a lot of things to a lot of different people,” Houghton told Skift in March 2017. “Some people may have never bought one our books but watched the TV show. Some people may just subscribe to the magazine and don’t have an awareness of the other platforms. We want to strengthen those from an ecosystem point of view and push really good content. The most important piece has been authenticity; it’s great content that helps you discover incredible places. We’re very proud of that, but also excited to create content to inspire people when you’re not on the road. We all don’t get to travel all the time.”
Subscribe to Skift Pro
Subscribe to Skift Pro to get unlimited access to stories like these ($30/month)Subscribe Now
Photo Credit: Lonely Planet CEO Daniel Houghton speaking at Skift Forum Europe in London on April 4, 2017. Russell Harper / Skift