Building The Perfect Guide
One of the great things about working in the travel industry is the enthusiasm travel inspires in so many of us. Chances are that most of us are as passionate about traveling ourselves as the customers we serve.As someone who genuinely loves the travel experience, both the journey and the destination itself, I was incredibly saddened to see this recent article on layoffs at Lonely Planet – a guidebook I've trusted and (like many others) carried with me around the world for decades.
In retrospect, however, despite the love for the brand, the challenges facing Lonely Planet are not so surprising. Like the bookstores that carry them, Lonely Planet (and many other well-known guidebooks, such as Frommer's) has been forced to adapt to new technologies and a new competitive landscape – with mixed results. While LP and other traditional guidebook companies have struggled in the digital space, competitors with deep pockets like TripAdvisor and Yelp - and smart mobile startups like Everplaces have whittled away at Lonely Planet’s audience.
What many of the current “winners” in digital travel content have done is not unusual. They’ve passed the content development baton from professional and semi-professional travel writers – who range from genuinely dedicated to something a little less so (read Do Travel Writers Go To Hell? for an idea) – to a more amateur (but often still dedicated) audience that provides user-generated content on the go. And they’re enabling this change in very interesting ways. Looking for a mobile guide to attractions based on specific interests, like design and architecture, all within an intuitive, Fab-like interface? Everplaces provides that. Traveling off the grid without a mobile or data connection? TripAdvisor and mobile apps like Triposo let you download guides to your phone so you can access them while you’re off the grid.
Do these new digital guides work? Well, to an extent, but they have some serious flaws. Here are two of the most glaring:
- Scale. User-created guides are only good if you have enough volume and content to provide value. Everplaces, while a beautiful and easy-to-use app, is a great example of this. Going to Berlin? Enjoy – they have a wealth of great content. Going to Ecuador? You’re in trouble. The search will give you just a few results in-country – along with results for Machu Picchu in Peru and Antigua in Guatemala, not exactly a quick bus ride away.
- Relevance. Sometimes the wisdom of crowds is the last thing you’re looking for on a vacation. Tastes vary widely; what may be the best trip ever to a 60 year old on a bus tour may be a kitschy nightmare for a 30 year old who prefers backpacking and cultural immersion. For example, TripAdvisor’s downloadable city guides are great for casual travelers, but many of its top attractions based on rankings – “The Irish Dance Party” is #8 in their Dublin guide – aren’t going to appeal to those looking for an authentic experience.
There’s a tremendous opportunity for someone to pull in-house and user-generated content together in the right mix, with the right user experience, and with the right scale, to create a “perfect” digital travel guide for their core audience. Perhaps it’ll be one of the new mobile startups that emerges; perhaps it’ll be a name we already know well. Regardless of who it is, they can learn a lot from Lonely Planet’s successes and failures to date: How knowing your audience and providing consistent excellence is absolutely critical to success, but how essential it is to stay on top of technology and consumer habits to create a resource that’s both accessible and robust as well.