Lonely Planet’s Website Ranges Far and Wide
There is a lot to see at lonelyplanet.
As global e-commerce manager, Cameron Holland makes sure the lonelyplanet.
- I could imagine that if Lonely Planet was founded today, you might have gone online first, and then thought of the guidebooks second.
- Of course, you also publish guidebooks. How do they mesh with the site?
- It’s becoming increasingly clear that the books and Web are complementing each other. We have just launched a new series of guidebooks, called the Encounter Series, focused on the most traveled cities, which are slim and small enough to fit into your back pocket. People who are going to Paris for a weekend, for example, would take this book rather than a big, fat city guide. For the first time we have not included any hotel reviews in that book. Instead, we refer readers back to our site so they can read the reviews within Haystack and then book them online directly from there.
- It’s the first time we’ve done something like this, and it’s a big step―and probably a bit of a gamble―but we are reasonably confident that with the trends we are noticing, a lot of people -- our travelers especially -- are booking accommodations online anyway. So it’s best to give them the tools that allow them to do that.
- With the website so experimental, how has it gotten where it is today. Did it grow piecemeal?
- Indeed it did, and that’s partly why it looks a little bit cobbled together at the moment. The original idea was the world guide, which is still the most trafficked area of the site. The shop was added in the late 1990s and the forum in 1999. The forum has been extremely popular. We have a highly engaged community, with some people who, over the years, have made over 10,000 posts. A lot of questions from travelers going overseas get realtime answers back from people who have just been there. But that system is siloed―it was built in a different language on a different system.
- When you say siloed, you are saying that the components of the site are running on different servers?
- They are all running on different platforms, even different code bases, to a certain extent. At the moment we’re going through a major infrastructure change to consolidate all our bits and pieces onto one Java-based platform running on a single content management system.
- Is this all Linux?
- Yes, and we’ll stay on Linux: Linux servers running Apache Tomcat.
- The other areas of the site include the Bluelist, which is sort of like Amazon’s Listmania. People write their own lists―the top 10 things to do in Paris when you’re in love; the top 15 beaches in Papua New Guinea―and others add comments and rank them. That’s proved to be a very popular area, even though it’s only about a year and a half old. We’ve just launched a classifieds area. We’ve got an editorial blog on there now, which is a daily listing of travel news and features. We just launched an online accommodation booking service called Haystack [from the expression “needle in a haystack”
―meaning, difficult to find] which is prominently displayed on the front page. We are signing up properties ourselves now, sending authors out to review properties all over the world. We are finding that 50 percent of the properties that we’re signing up haven’t been online or bookable online before―so we’re getting the right places.
s a profit center for you?
- And the shop too?
- Yes. About a year ago, we also started putting advertising on the site for the first time.
- Do you certify them in any way?
- We’ve definitely got strict guidelines about who we let on our site and where their ads are displayed. This was a very big step for us and was long considered. We’ve got a year’s experience now, so we’ve got a good sense of who we’re signing up as advertisers. We’re reasonably happy with how it’s gone and our travelers haven’t posted any negative feedback. They definitely understand that the site needs to pay for itself.
- Where did the podcasts and video come in?
- Video is very new. The lonelyplanet.
tv site is pretty much YouTube for travel. We have our own TV production arm where we’ve already been producing our own videos for television, and we also solicit videos from travelers themselves. We combine the two.
- Who are the other people who work with you?
- There are content people, developers, and production people, along with project managers and business analysts.
- Who tends to drive the design?
- My counterpart, Tonya Bruton, who heads up the content and community parts. Between us and our teams, we develop the strategy, and the site gets built up from that. We prioritize and structure our workforce around those strategies to insure that we can get the most delivered to the market in the quickest possible time.
- As you and your website have grown more prominent, have you had to deal with spam -- people trying to promote themselves through you?
- Yes, that has been a problem in our forums. We’ve very few moderators -- one and a half people. But the community moderates itself extremely well. They tend to pick up very quickly when travel companies go onto that forum to promote themselves. Those posts get deleted very quickly.
ve said that the site has grown ad hoc. Is that a problem?
- The problem that has dogged us for a while is the base infrastructure layer, because we have cobbled together different applications, which are often written in different programming languages and run on different systems, some of them hosted externally. We are mid-way through a project to put it all on a single content management system. That will allow a lot more seamless integration of the different features, leading to a friendlier place to visit.
- What other technologies are you are using?
- We’ve just relaunched our online shop, using Blue Martini. We’re using the Endeca search engine, which is an unbelievably powerful tool. We’re stunned at how quickly we got that search engine replaced and how well it indexed the content. The forum is an open source solution that we’re looking at upgrading. For languages, we are predominantly using a blend of Adobe ColdFusion and Java, but are increasingly moving just to Java.
- Where is the site hosted?
- We house the servers at Fujitsu in Melbourne. We’ve just moved them from the U.
S., which was itself an interesting experience, and we’re now looking at a global mirroring strategy. That’s another project for next year.
- On the site, do you try to distinguish between the contributions of your professional authors and your enthusiastic amateurs?
- Yes. We’ve tried to ensure that we have a balance between the two. Traditionally, being an author-based organization, we’ve given the preference to them. But we’ve incorporated traveler feedback in our guidebooks for the last 30 years. And we credit all those travelers who submit us notes and bits of information in the back of every book. Transferring that online, we can do more than just credit them―we can actually show directly what travelers have written. We’ve just replaced our search engine, and now, the results come up in two different background colors -- green and blue. The green is traveler-generated content and the blue is author- or Lonely Planet-generated content. That’s our first foray into distinguishing between the two types of content without trying to imply that one is more important than the other. Rather, it’s just what’s most relevant to a traveler at that time. And increasingly, we’ll roll out that classification system; even if it’s a simple use of icons to help people looking at the site know exactly where the content has come from.
- Web 2.
0 conventional wisdom has it that the distinction between the professionals and the amateurs is disappearing.
- But we’re noticing a counter-trend. Larry Sanger, a founder of Wikipedia, has been in the press a lot stating that he’s going to set up a site that has an expert base who edits what the users submits. Wikipedia itself started with just a few administrators, and now they’ve got over 2,000 who manage the content submitted into that site every day. All these sites talk about the wonders of user generated content, but at the same time, they understand that it needs to be edited and you can’t always rely on the information that is submitted.
- Is the moral of the story from the travel standpoint that you need an honest broker, or at least a skilled writer? What do authors still have that amateurs don’
- You’ve hit on the key question. The authors really understand travel from a traveler’s perspective. They understand what’s important for travelers and what information travelers require. They aren’t just advising what the best places are, but knowing who are the travelers who are going to those places―and writing reviews that are relevant to that audience. It’s a combination of knowing how to write, what to write, how to get that information in the first place, and how to present it in the right format and the right tone.
- There was recently an article on Slate.
com about by a guy who tried to use Wikitravel as his only travel guide. He concluded that he just couldn’t do it, so he went out and bought a Lonely Planet guide. It was a brilliant demonstration of the limitations of user-generated content. Even though such content is a great thing, which we want to include it on our site as well, you really need both.
- These days, as your own site demonstrates, presentation may not just be text, but pictures, video and audio. Is multimedia supplanting text, particularly for people in their 20s?
- We haven’t had the chance to watch the demographics behind the video because we just launched it. But we did run a competition last year for video, and while young people were in the majority, the age groups varied widely. We’ve been surprised how broad our demographic is. We’re seeing content, particularly in the Bluelist area―which has over 6,000 lists now―submitted by a diverse range of people -- from those just out of high school right through to people over 55. What is most important is the travel experience, first and foremost. People who have done travel, been somewhere and have a story to tell are the people who submit the content, and normally that’s not 18 year olds. The minimum age is really twenty and up.
- I used to think of Lonely Planet books as guidebooks for students.
- We are no longer just for backpackers, but for anyone interested in independent travel. While that might sound like a lot of people, it’s really quite a defined niche -- people who look for the non-standard places to travel, looking for adventure tours or cultural immersion trips, people who want to see different places, and not just the run of the mill locations. That covers all spectrums of the age groups, particularly people who have retired or have no kids at home any more. We’re finding that these people are among the most intrepid travelers of all.
- So what are your demographics?
- It depends on the market. Our main demographic, which is in Europe and the UK, is between 25 and 35. Another 20 percent is the 18-25 year old market. The rest is above 35.
- Did you say that the heart of it is the UK?
- Yes, Europe is roughly 30 percent of our traffic and over half our revenue.
- So what about us in the United States? Are we not independent travelers?
- What we notice about the U.
S. is that we get a lot of traffic -- just under that of the UK. But under 30 percent of Americans actually have passports. Of those that do, the ones that do travel independently are incredibly intrepid. The U. S. seems to be a land of extremes.
- Considering how big the U.
S. is, that’ s quite extraordinary.
- With Europe on England’s doorstep, people can just go to Paris for a weekend. Whereas like Australians going to New Zealand and the South Pacific islands, the US can go to Mexico or Canada, but on the whole, it’s not as easy to jump across a border and get into a whole new culture. So it tends not to be as ingrained into the culture as it is in Europe.
- What about in Japan?
- Japanese visitors to our site are quite good on a per capita basis, considering the majority of the site is in English. We’ve just done a deal in Japan with MSN Travel. We are translating all our content into Japanese and putting it on their site, all of it “Lonely Planet.” It’s at http://
special. msn. co. jp/ travel/ overseas/ lonelyplanet/
- How does the site key into the Lonely Planet specialty of writing about lesser known places, which may not even be online and are therefore hard to research?
- Very much so. Particularly because it is very difficult to get into a lot of those countries and do the research in the first place. For example, we’ve just done a Libya book and an East Timor book. We’ll be increasing our online content on out-of-the-way places over the next few months.
- We’ve actually sent authors to every country in the world. We pretty much cover everywhere in our guidebooks. The really tricky parts are in Africa because of the political crises. For example, we wouldn’t be sending anyone to Sudan in the next while. And similarly with Iraq. But we have just sent authors to Iran, for example, and to Libya and Syria, and we launched a Lebanese book just before the war. Lebanon was just about to take off as a renewed hot destination in that area before they went to war with the Israelis again. We do tend to be on the forefront of trends and get into places where most people would shy away from. In fact, we’ve just done the Afghanistan book, which is starting to have a resurgence for really hard core travelers. Aside from dangerous political situations, there’s nowhere we don’t go.
- Can I go online and book a place to stay in, say, Afghanistan?
- There are definitely places you can book. A lot of them tend to be home stays and that sort of thing. We’ve just researched all the “stans,”
―like Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan, and Turkmenistan, all of which are notoriously difficult to enter. You need to be sponsored to even get into some of the countries. These are the places that are pretty much untouched by tourism, one of the last bastions of the globe where you can go, where there are no souvenir stands. And there are rewards. One of the best drives anywhere in the world is in the mountains of Tajikistan. But to get there is really tricky and there are only home stays. In our guidebook on Central Asia, we tell you what numbers to ring and who to talk to.
- So for some parts of the world, the telephone, not the computer, is the booking tool of choice.
- One of the features of our online booking system is that we don’t shy away from posting phone numbers of hotels when there’s no way you can contact them online. You won’t see that on any other booking service. Others view direct contacts as a form of competition. But because travelers are absolutely foremost in our mind, we give you the option to book either way.
That’s very true. It’s definitely heading that way, particularly with the younger travelers. They are relying much more on the information provided digitally, whether that’s online or on phones or on handheld GPS units. And they are also much more keen to show off and share their travel experiences, whether by video or photos or posting notes on the forum. So much so that we’ve actually fallen a bit behind the curve. So we are just about to embark on a big project to boost our community functionality in a large way in the next few month. We’ll be able to host personal trip diaries, personal websites so families can track where they are going, with more interactive tools that combine all the functionality we have across the site, like forum, videos, photos, and blogs, into one central area. We’re streamlining that whole process to make it much easier to use.