When Daniel Houghton became CEO of the world’s largest travel-guide publisher Lonely Planet four years ago, it was a venerable company almost twice his age. He was just 25, Lonely Planet was in its forties and experiencing something of a mid-life crisis.
Sales of guidebooks were declining rapidly due to the growth of digital alternatives such as TripAdvisor and Yelp. The Guardian wrote that revenues in the industry had fallen by 40 per cent in the United States and the UK between 2005 and 2012. Things looked bad for Lonely Planet.
But then it was purchased, not by a nostalgic traveller but by American billionaire tobacco tycoon Brad Kelley. He’d spotted Houghton soon after he set up a small marketing agency and they founded a travel-focused media company together, which bought Lonely Planet from BBC Worldwide. As Houghton took on the top job, his first steps were far from easy.
Some difficult choices were necessary to pursue a strategy that now sees big investments in digital multimedia, while valuing the paper side of the business and preserving what makes Lonely Planet guides so successful – the special chemistry that makes the reader feel as if a knowledgeable friend is advising them on which restaurant has the best noodles in Shanghai… or the best beach in Thailand… or the best place to stay in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil.
At the end of 2016, Lonely Planet announced a 6.7 per cent increase in sales and a remarkable 63 per cent increase in net profits. A huge portion of this revenue comes from digital products, proving that the decision to put a digital native at the head of a traditional paper-based company has paid dividends.
At an age when his peers are generally establishing themselves in their chosen careers, Houghton – who luckily comes from a family with a background in aviation – travelled round the world three times in two weeks after taking the job so he could meet the many Lonely Planet employees scattered around the globe.
Today, he may have slowed down a little, but he still embodies a philosophy of life on the move that Lonely Planet has promoted for almost the past half-century.
We spoke with him about his work, how his life has changed and his strategies for the future.
At your age, graduates with an entrepreneurial bent usually opt to create a start-up, to build a business from scratch. You decided to take up the reins of a well-established company. What’s the difference between these two approaches and why did you prefer the latter?
Something you create yourself is so different from stepping into something that has 40-plus years of history. I was fortunate enough to be in a position where I had the opportunity to work for a company that I already loved. It’s a privilege to come to work every day with the intention of continuing and building on something I have huge admiration for. There is a lot to be learnt from start-ups and established businesses alike; as soon as you stop trying to learn from your peers and colleagues, you start running into problems. The best businesses make decisions with their eyes open to everything going on around them. That’s certainly what I try to do, anyway.
How did you fit in as CEO in a company with a history much older than you? I imagine you were one of the youngest employees on the payroll?
Luckily, Lonely Planet’s never been a company that sees age as an indicator of success. We have so many fantastic people in the business, with such a range of backgrounds; I don’t really feel like I’ve been treated differently. I can’t speak highly enough of the team here. I’m very proud to be a part of it. There are a lot of people who came to Lonely Planet very early in their careers, for some, even their first job, and they’ve been here for a long time. We’re not very traditional in terms of structure and I think that’s a good thing.
The core business of the company you lead is founded on paper guidebooks. All over the world, paper-related businesses are experiencing difficulties. Do you think there’s still a future for hard-copy guidebooks?
Absolutely! I’m not sure many believed me when I first came to Lonely Planet, that we would continue to innovate and drive our printed products forward, but I meant it. We now print more books than ever, and continue to invest and grow that part of the business. We invest in content – we still send our expert writers on the road to everywhere we cover – but we use this content in different ways and through different technologies. Books, mobile apps, online pages, videos and social media are all different ways for travellers to access our content and there’s space in the market for all types of products, but they have to be tailored to each individual technology.
Last year Google launched Trips, an app dedicated to travellers, and there are many clever start-ups on the market. People use Yelp or TripAdvisor for recommendations of hotels and restaurants. What’s your strategy to compete in the digital market without losing Lonely Planet's ethos?
We talk about this all the time at Lonely Planet. We have to remain true to our brand and to what we have offered the traveller for the past 44 years if we want to continue being seen as a traveller’s trusted source of advice while also competing against new arrivals. This means putting the traveller first, always broadening our horizons to embrace new technologies, trends and destinations. What this means in practice is that we remain committed to our core principles and offerings, but we also adapt how we deliver that offer to the consumer.
As you move further into digital products, do you fear that your company could itself be disrupted? How do you plan to prevent that?
I’m confident that Lonely Planet has a part to play in the travel industry for many years to come, as our trusted on-the-ground experts’ research remains invaluable in a world of content overload. A big part of the way that we work – ensuring that we are relevant and providing travellers with what they need – is to listen to the travellers themselves. I’m proud of our community and the teams of people we have at Lonely Planet who talk to travellers every day. Keeping an ear to the ground is just as important as keeping an eye on the competition.
With a lot of digital guidebooks, one often gets a sense that they’re not quite ready – that the paper guidebook is still easier to use. Is the next big thing in digital guidebooks still in the future? What’s your strategy here?
There’s a lot to be said for the printed guidebook still being one of the best ways to interact with travel content, but there are many factors at play here; for some it’s personal preference, for others the type of destination you are visiting. This is something we consider at Lonely Planet, as some places lend themselves particularly well to digital travel content – cities such as New York and London, that have the availability of charging stations, Wi-Fi, etc – so we’ve created a suite of mobile products which lend themselves better to the destination and the technology available. For other destinations, such as the Namib Desert, for example, a good old-fashioned book is just the job. It’s about understanding the needs of the traveller first and creating the product second.
How has your lifestyle changed as a CEO as you’ve grown into the job? Do you still travel as much as when you started?
I grew up travelling because my parents worked for airlines, so it didn’t feel totally different for me. Yes, the number of flights I take per year has dramatically increased, but I enjoy visiting different parts of the world and meeting people from all around the business. So I see it as a great thing, not a hardship at all!