Lonely Planet: From Guides to Experiences

Anyone else remember when travel guides were those fat, dog-eared paperbacks you stuffed in your suitcase or rucksack. The ones which stayed on your shelf until you realized that looking for hotel recommendations in a five-year old directory was not the smartest idea?

Guide books have been with us since at least the early nineteenth century (Baedeker, anyone?), but Lonely Planet was a pathbreaker among a new breed of modern guides for young and adventurous travelers, created by a young Australian couple, Maureen and Tony Wheeler, in 1973. Flash forward to today, and of course Lonely Planet serves millions of visitors online. That’s expected: but pushing beyond that, the 46 year-old brand is pursuing the mission of becoming the most customer-centric travel platform out there. And what that means is providing not just information, but a travel-based experience.

That clearly resonates with the path a lot of forward thinking brands are taking these days. I asked Luis Cabrera, Lonely Planet’s CEO and President, about the brand’s journey.

First I asked him to talk about the journey from being print-first to the current range of digital offerings. Was it a long process, and do you now regard yourself as digital first?

“The Lonely Planet brand has evolved and expanded in many directions over the 46 years we’ve been working to serve our global and diverse audience,” Cabrera said. “Today, Lonely Planet means different things for different people, and that presents both a great challenge and equally incredible opportunity. With more than 100 million books sold and many more million people using our digital channels each year, we aim to provide inspiring and trustworthy information for every kind of traveler, both through our printed and digital content. Today, we aim to fully embrace digital channels to expand our brand value proposition, and not only to sell more books.”

Are you, then, digital first? “We are by no means neglecting or discarding our print business,” Cabrera told me, “we are simply aiming to transcend the physical constraints of a printed book and help travelers problem-solve ahead of time, and enhance their experiences at any point in their journey in their preferred form.”

Although I expect to learn about destinations from Lonely Planet, one thing I wasn’t aware of until I did some research for this piece is that you now offer a range of travel services; the website is a portal for flight, hotel, and tour bookings, car rental, and even travel insurance. I asked then that happened, and whether it now forms a significant part of the business?

“Our mission is to help you have amazing experiences. [Therefore we] want to sync with your travel needs and remain a trusted travel companion before, during, and after your trips. After significant research and opportunity sizing, we realized that Lonely Planet has a right to play in adjacent spaces beyond content. We will not compete with the large online travel agencies, or become the number one source for UGC and reviews; instead, we will rightfully claim our position as a trusted advisor, and will remain as a reliable and curated source of travel recommendations.”

So what about this concept of a “travel experience”? How does it differ from the traditional role of providing accurate information; and is it something customers are now demanding?

“We realized that we needed to better adapt to the way people travel today. The travel journey is no longer linear or destination driven, it morphs and shifts based on personal context, type of expense —
e.g. macro (airfare) vs. micro (food) —
unexpected changes and new information along the way. Sometimes an Instagram picture triggers an unplanned trip, and we increasingly see people booking an experience even before booking a flight or hotel. Further, we believe that this ‘experience driven’ travel archetype will keep evolving into self-discovery and personal connection journeys.”

Indeed, personal travel seems an ideal space to create customer experiences; after all, if car services and retail brands can do it… “As a travel brand, we will continue fulfilling specific travel interests like adventure-seeking, food, wellness, sustainable travel and families,” said Cabrera, “and we will also continue striving to satisfy the curiosity of specific niche interests like astrotourism and voluntourism, so if you are thinking, or just day-dreaming, on travelling, you will find something unique and, we hope inspiring, at Lonely Planet.”

Which brings us to the question of how the brand is leveraging its online presence to deliver the unique and inspiring. Crucially, it chose to make the always challenging migration away from legacy systems. “To revamp our digital presence, we first decided to stop developing custom software and implement best-in-breed solutions. That change in mindset (to become operators and not software developers) was perhaps one of the biggest challenges we faced early on,” said Cabrera. 

Last year, we wrote about ways in which Acquia, the open source DX vendor, was identifying and addressing the opportunities and challenges of customer experience. Lonely Planet opted for Acquia, and specifically the Acquia Lift solution, which deploys an experience builder, a profile manager, and a content hub, to optimize and personalize the web experience. The content hub part was key.

“With over two million pages of content, finding an enterprise-grade CMS was a critical piece of the puzzle. After evaluating many different alternatives, we found Acquia to be a great fit because it is an open source platform that gives us digital freedom and flexibility to integrate with our existing systems, while allowing us to extend and integrate new systems. With Acquia, we will be able to focus on operating and optimizing our users’ experience while maintaining the freedom to continue integrating new technologies and features. Our goal is to provide each user with the best digital experience we can assemble. We sit on top of one of the largest databases of curated travel content on earth and have access and connections with most of the players in the industry. Shouldn’t we put that to work in favor of our users?”

I asked what Lonely Planet could now do with Acquia which it couldn’t do before. “For example,” said Cabrera, “we have more than two thousand pieces of content related to popular places like Paris, but you are only interested in a handful of those if you are just there for a weekend, and only in a fraction if you are on a budget, or traveling with kids. For years, the approach has been to allow users to filter and narrow down their experience. We believe it doesn’t have to be like that; especially when the user has already explicitly made a search for a specific hotel for two adults and twokids for specific dates. We believe that our site should react to those cues, and proactively present content and offers that are relevant for a family of four traveling to Paris in the summer.”

Cabrera sees personalization as as a necessity when it comes to meeting travelers’ needs. “Having the ability to quickly provide this information is crucial in a time when many users demand instant answers and prefer short lists over long narratives.” This is only the start, he said. “Acquia will allow us to cross-reference users behaviors with multiple sources of data and adopt a richer customer-centric marketing approach. We will achieve this by enabling highly personalized experiences that serve content, functionality and offers that are specifically tailored for each particular user at a specific time. By continuously analyzing our users’ interactions with our content and services, we will be able to develop insights and then create personalized experiences and offers that are highly relevant.”

In my research, I trod lightly on Lonely Planet’s digital properties, but didn’t immediately notice personalized recommendations. “This is a multi-step process,” Cabrera explained. “First, visitors will soon notice a dramatic difference in the loading speed of our pages, and the accuracy of the search results. Soon after, users will be able to navigate more easily and drill down to the content that is of their interest, and will be presented with offers and deals that are relevant to them and not generic in nature. And finally, the site will be able to anticipate and surface up content and features that are uniquely relevant for you. We will then be constantly adjusting our offering and products to reflect this intent.”

What about using Acquia beyond the four corners of lonelyplanet.com?  “We plan on using its capabilities across multiple channels. In the next few months, we will be updating our Guides mobile apps, and we will provide you with access to over 7,700 individual guides (it’s currently about 200). We also plan integrating it into our news, social and newsletter capabilities. We are carefully making this transition without creating any disruption or interrupting our current capabilities.”

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