Is this goodbye to Lonely Planet? | Bronwen Clune

The Melbourne travel publisher is shedding staff – a sad turn for a company that once provided the must-have, down-to-earth guides for a generation of free-spirited travelers

As news emerged that iconic Melbourne travel publisher Lonely Planet was to shed its editorial staff as part of an overhaul following its sale by the BBC, writers, travelers and daydreamers took to Twitter with the hashtag #lpmemories to share their sense of loss. The stream reads like an obituary to the heyday of travel writing, an honest ode of affection for the largest travel guide publisher in the world.

Travel writer Kate James reminisced:

Swigging champagne in an Orissa jungle hut with Russian backpackers while elephants trumpeted outside. #lpmemories

— Kate James (@katejames) July 20, 2013

She was joined by writer Ryan Ver Berkmoes and others:

Hearing a sudden whoosh/cry aboard the wondrous Alaska Ferry and seeing two orcas swim past the ship in formation #lpmemories

— Ryan Ver Berkmoes (@ryanvb) July 21, 2013

Sharing a meal of dried caribou with a Cree elder in Nothern Canada - talking about the old days and hope for the future #LPMemories

— Scott Kennedy (@Adventureskope) July 20, 2013

Rode auto-rickshaw in Kathmandu to deliver travel guide ms to FedEx, delayed by goat sacrifice on airport runway. #lpmemories @radioceleste

— Sara Benson (@indie_traveler) July 19, 2013

After the most recent announcement, it was clear that something was being lost – for travel writers a way of being, for travelers a way of doing, and for Melbourne the demise of one its most successful and adored home-grown companies.

It was there that the empire was co-founded by Tony and Maureen Wheeler in the 1970s, originally as a travel guide “Across Asia on the cheap”. It grew after the publication of their best-selling guide to India in 1981. Up until 1979, Maureen Wheeler said “all the books were stored in this little tin shed out the back and under the beds and everywhere else. It was a very amateur, home-grown business.”

With around one-third of the mostly editorial staff being made redundant, it was clear that after its sale by BBC Worldwide in March this year, the company was being uprooted and shunted from its home despite earlier assurances this would not happen.

The Age reports morale has been low ever since announcement of the sale to Nashville-based NC2 Media, whose major shareholder is a reclusive Kentucky-born businessman, Brad Kelley, who made a Forbes 400 fortune in discounted cigarettes. Its executive director and Lonely Planet’s chief executive is 24-year old Daniel Houghton, who only recently graduated from university. Through the multiple sales of the company, the company has progressively moved further away from its Melbourne base and the visions of its co-founders.

There have been reports that, with the recent job loss announcements, NC2 has asserted that Lonely Planet “were no longer in the business of content creation" and they would be focusing on a digital strategy, though they have to date denied ceasing book publication altogether. Apart from the usual corporate jargon (“These changes will allow us to liberate the enormous potential the business has moving forward”), it smacks of the end of an era.

The announcement of the “move to digital” is harder to swallow given that Lonely Planet was regarded as an internet pioneer, launching its website in 1995 and establishing the Thorn Tree travel forum, considered a model online community until the BBC became concerned about unmoderated content and shut it down for a time.

It’s a moribund turn for a company that prided itself on being the down-to-earth guide for a generation of free-spirited travelers and vagabonds who set out without much more than a backpack, a Lonely Planet guide, and a lust for adventure.

The words “Lonely Planet” have become synonymous with travel. Its trusted guide to India, as heavy as it was, was practically a requirement for travelers in the 1980s and 1990s. The rich experiences which unfolded from its pages could fill a thousand memoirs of youths yearning for authentic foreign experiences.

Gateway of India at dusk, Mumbai, India
Lonely Planet's guide to India was a must for 1980s and 1990s travelers. Photograph:Richard I'Anson/Getty /Lonely Planet Photograph: Photographer Richard I'Anson //Getty Images/Lonely Planet Image

The books, dog-eared and worn, retired to bookshelves as souvenirs of the travels so many undertook in their 20s. That is not something a digital offering can tangibly replace.

For the Lonely Planet employees, what set it apart from others in the industry was not only their directive to find cheap beds and new friends down alleyways and up mountain paths, it was the company’s family-like culture.

Vivek Wagle, who worked there from 2000-2011, observed that Lonely Planet was a place where people worked for each other rather than the salary, which were low. “Everyone around me was kind, generous, and passionate,” he said.

Writers were invited to "authors' workshops" where they swapped tips on note-taking and shared the sometimes difficult and intense experience of traveling the globe as a guide book writer where the work was “nearly impossible” with long hours, endless writing and tight budgets.

It was not uncommon for the current CEO to attend the workshops and drink with the writers, listening to their gripes and comments. Lonely Planet writer Zora O’Neill, who worked there from 2005-2012, attended one of the workshops with former CEO Judy Slatyer. She remembers thinking that Australians really must have a different culture if CEOs were so open and engaged (never mind drinking!) with their staff.

Of course, the new owners are not entirely to blame for the demise of Lonely Planet. Traditional book publishers, no matter how beloved, are struggling, and the company has itself copped some fair criticisms over time. Smart Company notes that travel-book sales have declined since hitting a peak in 2008, despite world travel outperforming the global economy during that same time.

Travellers have for some while now been turning away from official guidebooks to travel sites such as TripAdvisor and Expedia. But as O’Neill points out : “Any dope on TripAdvisor can say something's "the best," but only Lonely Planet authors have visited 25 hotels and can honestly use the superlative like that.”

Well, they used to be able to anyway.

In the meantime, things just got a little lonelier at Lonely Planet HQ, with job losses of around 100 leaving significant vacant space in its large converted Footscray warehouse. That Lonely Planet’s glory days are a thing of the past may of course be inevitable, but the way that it’s all happened makes it seem all the more sad. May the #lpmemories live on.


Bronwen Clune

The GuardianTramp

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