Lonely Planet, the world's largest travel guidebook publisher, announced last week that it is laying off a number of top editors and publishing staff. The move leaves many wondering about the future of the company, guide books and travel writing itself.
Theo Sathananthan, Lonely Planet's Chief Financial Officer, says that through lay-offs and redeployment, up to 80 out of 400 staff positions worldwide will be "made redundant" across the company's five offices worldwide. About 200 authors and 25 others also freelance for Lonely Planet.
The three largest offices are in Melbourne, London, and Oakland, California.
Although cuts are being made across divisions, the departure of longstanding editorial staff is generating the most attention. "It's like a plane hitting the building," says one long-serving Lonely Planet author, speaking on condition of anonymity. The biggest concern is over the potential loss of institutional knowledge (of destinations, research methods, journalistic skills, etc.) that has built the brand into one of the industry's most respected.
"Editorial integrity and quality content is at the heart of Lonely Planet," reads a message to employees from the executive team.
The company says it will continue to publish guide books, though it is unclear how many. According to its website, Lonely Planet currently sells 500 titles, covering 195 countries. COO Daniel Houghton also speaks of marrying "the world's greatest travel information and guide book company with the limitless potential of 21st century digital technology," for example: apps, social media, cloud-based content and content generated by users and readers.
Some industry experts have their doubts. "No user-generated content … can compete with the context and cumulative knowledge that the Lonely Planet library has," says writer and videographer Robert Reid of Reid on Travel, who was Lonely Planet's spokesperson until earlier this year.
Since its debut in the early 1970s, Lonely Planet has become iconic among backpackers and budget travellers, independent travellers and those seeking the road less taken. It started when a young couple, Tony and Maureen Wheeler, travelled on the cheap through Europe and Asia to Australia. Finding no decent guide book, they wrote one at their dining room table. It sold 1500 copies.
40 years and 120 million books later, Lonely Planet is the world's largest-selling guidebook series, and the only one covering certain far-flung destinations; Reid cites books on remote locations in Africa, the Middle East and South Pacific. An estimated 120 million unique visitors view its website annually.
Despite Lonely Planet's reputation as the backpacker's bible, former backpackers who now can afford pricier options still rely on its careful research, detail and down-to-earth, occasionally snarky writing style. In some countries, listings in Lonely Planet can boost business for attractions, hotels or restaurants.
Lonely Planet's ownership has changed twice in the last several years. In 2007, the Wheelers sold it to BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the UK broadcaster, for $218 million. This March, BBC Worldwide sold it to NC2 of Nashville, Tennessee, for a loss of almost $131m. At the time of the sale, the BBC described NC2 as a "media company primarily engaged in the creation, acquisition, and distribution of quality digital content."
Houghton says that the latest round of management shifts "will enable Lonely Planet to be well positioned for ongoing success and investing in the future in line with our 40 year heritage." Houghton is also NC2's Executive Director.
Meanwhile, Arthur Frommer, the dean of American guidebook publishers, has repurchased the rights to the guidebook series that bears his name, from Google, which acquired them in 2012. With his daughter Pauline, he plans to publish a reported 80 titles by the end of 2014.
Lonely Planet has released this statement about the lay-offs:
"At the end of last week, Lonely Planet began engaging with its global workforce regarding its plan for the future, which includes a restructure of the business.
Since that process began, reports have emerged in the media that Lonely Planet has plans to exit the content business. These reports are untrue and stand in stark contrast to the company's renewed commitment to great content for both print and digital offerings. We are continuing to support our traditional methods of gathering information but recognise that there are complementary alternative sources.
Reports of all Lonely Planet's digital roles being moved to the US are inaccurate. This information is also unfounded and such a move would be counterintuitive. Our digital footprint spans all of our offices and our reorganisation and modernisation efforts will result in additions and deletions of positions in all locations.
Our new content structure will allow us to support all areas of our business including the daily demands of LonelyPlanet.com (our website).
We are attempting to do everything possible to mitigate the disruption to those affected by these changes.
Lonely Planet remains committed to delivering quality content to our travellers, as we have over the last 40 years.
There are currently no plans to reduce our breadth of destination content, or our product offering in digital or print. Reports of large-scale cuts to our guidebook publishing list are unfounded and categorically untrue and Lonely Planet is committed to continuing to publish guidebooks.
None of the changes announced last week will affect our ability to service our customers or impact our strong commercial relationship with our partners.
Daniel Houghton, Lonely Planet's Chief Operating Officer says: "Editorial integrity and quality content is at the heart of Lonely Planet. We are building on the 40-year heritage of a company that is loved and cared for around the world. We have the most incredible opportunity to inspire and help people to travel. It's why we are in business and what makes us tick."
Note: The author of this article has written and contributed to guidebooks and numerous other titles for Lonely Planet.