When Lonely Planet announced last week that registered users on its Thorn Tree message board had hit the 100,000 mark, it underscored the publisher's unusual position: running a popular multimedia business in an uncertain era for the travel and travel-book industries.
LP has traditionally been more frugal with its online content than competitors like Rough Guides. But what seemed like tentativeness a few months ago has begun to look like a well-planned strategy.
Rather than give away all of its content, the publisher has saved much of it for CitySync, a program that bundles LP information into content for handheld devices. The publisher currently sells downloadable guides to more than 20 cities. In so doing, it has tried to extract revenue in an area most publishers have given up on. (The publisher reports sizable numbers but declined to provide specifics.)
Meanwhile, it has used the Web for a subtler and, in some ways, more ambitious purpose: creating a community that firms up brand loyalty, that cliché so important to travel publishers.
The site has Web-only content reminiscent of the rich days of 1999, ranging from stories like "France: Pot Smokers in Heavy Merde" to travel advisories, and it seems to get richer by the month. Thorn Tree, unlike many of the publisher sites populated by hardcore fans, teems in nearly every area and has become a vital stop for Internet café-hoppers. And the site is not without its editorial chops—it now employs Don George, the former travel editor at Salon.com, and won two Webbys last month.
In achieving Web success, though, LP has risked tripping itself. One of the most popular features on the site is a feedback button that allows readers to send both LP editors and other travelers dispatches from the road. These can make even a year-old book seem painfully out-of-date. And, of course, usefulness doesn't always make for good business. The site gets little actual revenue (it wouldn't say how much) by selling LP products and explains that it makes up for it with intangibles. "We want to convert readers to a lifetime value. If you're meeting the customers' needs now, they will stay with you," said Peter Wheelan, director of global marketing and business development, who is also interim general manager for the Australian firm's U.S. office.
That said, the company has had to make do with limited resources . There are only about five people working on the site full-time in this country. LP has had to make other sacrifices, such as all but dropping its CitySync guides in CD-ROM. And the site is in leadership transition—Eric Kettunen, who oversaw it, recently departed the company, leaving it temporarily in the hands of Wheelan.
Still, the publisher is hoping for more growth, and is experimenting with a TV show and some other as-yet-undisclosed products. "As with any company, we've tightened up on a variety of fronts," Wheelan said, "But we look at our business in a holistic way. We know there are different components and we know we won't get the same return on our investment in every sector."