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article - financial times review guide books

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BUSINESS LIFE

Travel guide books arrive at a digital destination FUTURE OF PUBLISHING: Lonely Planet and Rough Guides have retained their core youth market by embracing the internet age, says Nick Edwards.

By NICK EDWARDS

809 words

15 August 2006

Financial Times

London Ed1

Page 8

English

(c) 2006 The Financial Times Limited. All rights reserved

 

Whether on the streets of Bangkok or Barcelona, the image of a young traveller looking for a place to stay or somewhere to eat seems almost incomplete without a well-thumbed copy of a Rough Guide or Lonely Planet book in their hand.

 

Lonely Planet, established in the 1970s by the husband and wife team Tony and Maureen Wheeler, today publish 500 titles in 118 countries, selling 6.5m copies a year in English alone. Rough Guides has followed a similar trajectory over the past 24 years and now has 11 per cent of the UK travel guide market.

 

Both brands have thrived by catering for travellers of all ages and budgets. But the internet poses the threat that, whatever those budgets, they may no longer stretch to guide books.

 

There has been a proliferation of websites offering free travel information - such as Wikitravel.org and TripAdvisor.com - while internet access has become widely available across the globe and portable devices such as laptops, mobile phones and palm pilots are able to access digital content with increasing efficiency.

 

As Tom Hall, information and communications manager at Lonely Planet, points out, travellers do not tend to be technophobic. "This group are not adopters of technology - they have used it their whole life," he says.

 

However, the experience of the two publishers shows how it is possible to stand up to the challenge of the internet by embracing the new technology with smart online strategies.

 

Rough Guides, for example, has made its entire content available online free since 1998. "We felt our competitors watch us closely, and knew it was a potential risk, but the general level of sales hasn't gone down, it's steadily increased," says Jennifer Gold, head of new media at Rough Guides. "We have positioned ourselves to put our travel book content on digital platforms as they are invented."

 

Today, Rough Guides, which is owned by Penguin, a sister company of the Financial Times, offers 33 e-book titles that can be accessed on personal computers, laptops and Palm Pilots. It offers podcasts on specialist subjects such as literary London and Mozart in Prague, as well as podscrolls - condensed travel guides featuring interactive, clickable maps for iPods with colour screens.

 

Similarly, Mr Hall believes digital technology has allowed Lonely Planet to offer travel information in the format people want, "when sometimes the (financial) numbers wouldn't have worked as a book". For example, Lonely Planet offers two-page PDF files for short-break destinations such as Paris or Berlin and guides to events such as the World Cup or the total eclipse visible from Bolivia (which was downloaded more than 65,000 times).

 

Both publishers' websites also feature online community spaces. Rough Guide's IgoUgo.com is a database of users who can register, create a profile, upload photographs and write a travel journal. "We've embraced user-generated content as a compliment to our own travel guide," says Ms Gold.

 

Mr Halls says Lonely Planet's equivalent, Thorn Tree, has spawned offline social interaction as well. "People all over the world meet, have drinks, we've even had a marriage."

 

Ms Gold believes that staying ahead in the digital world is actually driving the sale of more guide books by boosting brand awareness. "Maybe the individual wouldn't have heard of us, but through finding a restaurant or hotel online, they find Rough Guides."

 

There is also a new revenue source in the form of online advertising and sponsorship - for example, links to companies selling products such as travel insurance, air line tickets and car rental services.

 

However, in spite of these benefits, the internet still creates problems for the publishers. "If you have a four-year-old copy of a guide book of the Solomon Islands, people expect the information is going to be a bit sketchy," says Mr Hall. "But if you download information off the web, people expect it to be bang up to date."

 

If situations change, these efforts can therefore be wasted. Lonely Planet, for example, recently produced an 84-page guide to Israel that was put online just before the current Middle East crisis broke out.

 

In the meantime, the industry agrees there remains life in the traditional travel guide. "The book has a certain cachet," says Ms Gold. "Having a shelf full of travel guides is a memento."

 

Simon Wilson, travel buyer at Waterstones, the bookshop, adds that sales of guide books are still on the increase: "People use the internet to plan their trip but will always take a guide book. It captures the excitement of going on a trip."

 

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