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Travel Guide Publishing: The Move to Digital

|Nov 5|magazine17 min read

Throughout my last vacation, a wonderful four-week European whirlwind, I hauled around Lonely Planet’s latest ‘Western Europe’ guidebook – the printed version. Picture the amount of destinations included in this area of the world – the UK, Spain, France, Germany, Switzerland, The Netherlands, etc. – and you’ll understand how large this made the book. That monster weighed in at 0.97 kilograms, or just over two pounds, of ink and paper and easily took up a quarter of the space allowance in my carry-on backpack.

Much as I love printed travel books with my handwritten notes in the corner of many pages) I do understand the publishing industry’s move into the digital space. (Of course I do – Business Review Australia is 100% online-based.) Not only does the digital format save space – an iPad is 9.4 mm thick and the new iPhone 5 is almost 2 mm thinner – it also increases a guide’s relevancy. Suddenly, searching for a groovy restaurant or directions to a top attraction is a couple button clicks away, and you won’t have to worry about its doors closing before publication.

“People want content on whatever device they pick up. It’s really as simple as that. They want it geo-tagged and they want it really up to date,” Lonely Planet’s online platform manager, Darragh Kennedy, recently told Computerworld Australia about the travel company’s move into the digital space.

“Previously you made a book and then you digitised it,” Kennedy said. Today, writers input their content into a CMS system from the road and the company distributes it ‘across several channels at once.’

 “You create a book from it, you create an app, you put it on the website [and] you sell it to a partner,” said Kennedy.

Lonely Planet isn’t alone in this move – earlier this year, Google-owned Frommer’s partnered with e-reading app Inkling to launch seven new titles for the iPad (which includes a digital note-taking feature - no more messy handwriting in the margins!), and student budget-friendly guides by Let’s Go Publications announced in October their plans for a website and line of mobile apps covering 25 cities.

Also following suit is UK-based Hg2, a publisher of glossy guidebooks aimed for the modern ‘hedonist’. We chatted with Hg2’s publisher and founder, Tremayne Carew Pole, about his company’s response to this digital trend and how it’s going to impact the travel sector, from the companies who supply guides to the travellers who consume their information.

From your perspective, Tremayne, how has the move from printed to digital travel guides affected the companies who supply them? 

"I think the move is generally a good one – printed travel guides have a notoriously short shelf life. However, moving to an online and digital model allows publishers to constantly keep the content up-to-date and fresh – that is, if they have the right relationship and structure with their writers. This will give customers a much better user experience and for publishers, it will reduce the amount of money we need to spend on printing, warehousing and distributing books. I see it as a win/win situation for the publisher and the consumer."

In what ways has this affected the way people plan trips and travel today?

"The world now has a sense of immediacy; people are used to [finding] information now and not tomorrow when they can find the time to visit a bookshop, flick through the selection of guides and then search through a book for what they need. If you want to know where to go for lunch, you pull out your phone, check a couple of reviews and phone for a reservation. I believe much more is left to the last minute and a traveller is in need of a really functional guide on the ground, one that they can interact with and gives them the perfect trip."

Will there always be a market for printed guides, or are we facing an all-digital future?

"There will always be a market for printed guides; however, they will become boutique products. I don’t believe many of the current brands will survive – the market has been in trouble for the last five years and revenues are dropping by 20 per cent year-on-year. Those that do survive will be guides with a niche offering, beautiful images or some of the household names – I would expect the likes of Lonely Planet to survive, albeit in a much more concise and rationalised format."

In response to these changes, I understand Hg2 (A Hedonist’s Guide to...) is becoming more than a travel guide company; essentially, you're becoming a travel lifestyle destination. Can you expand a bit more on some of your new projects?

"It has always been our aim to be more than a travel guide; more of a lifestyle portal. We want to add in products and content sources that are selected, like our venues, for their style, take on the world and the product they can deliver. We want users to get more of a sense of a city than from just reading reviews, so we [feature] interviews, reading lists, music playlists, and are introducing hand-picked videos highlighting the city, as well as a curated list of bloggers that we love so that our users can find out more about what we're doing.

"I think it's about being open and trying to give users the site and experience that I really want to find from a website. It's not an artificial financial construct – it's a passion that has become a successful business. In 2013, the site will see the launch of several booking experiences that will give our readers a better all-round experience."

You’re also due to introduce new tablet and smartphone apps next January. What will your new apps allow users to do?

"Our new apps will be great – users can purchase all our cities individually; search through images, or filter search parameters; and create itineraries. In later iterations, they will be able to book restaurants and hotels directly from the app and also be able to download offline maps.

"Launching on all major platforms by January 2013 is going to be quite a challenge, but we hope they will really drive the business forward."

Sounds like my bag will be considerably lighter on my next excursion.