I read recently that the BBC is now running a Lonely Planet Travel pod on its pages outside the UK. (So unfortunately I can't take a look at it as I am in the UK at the moment.)

I've blogged quite recently about the new Lonely Planet travel magazine which I think is an unfair competitor to Wanderlust (an excellent independent travel magazine which I write for quite a bit).

Why is this unfair? Because LP is now majority-owned by the BBC.

Following on from the new LP Travel magazine (which is written almost 100% by BBC writers and presenters) here's another example of how that playing field just isn't level anymore. Any brand would kill for a tie-up with the BBC on the BBC's homepage. The value in brand terms is huge. And this will translate to more hits for the LP website, more ad revenue and more book sales for LP.

You can't blame LP for wanting to make the most of the fact that its now owned by the BBC (or to be more accurate the commerical arm of the Beeb - BBC Worldwide) and with the clout of one of the world's most influential and wealthy media brands behind it the future for LP looks rosy.

I hadn't thought too much when the deal was announced about the impact on the LP brand of being owned by the BBC, but selling out to a big corporation says heaps about a brand and its future. I can see that Tony Wheeler (LP's founder) quite possibly felt that selling to a cultural corporation like the BBC rather than to a full-on multi-national commercial publisher was a good compromise... and smart too - moving the brand on from being a traditional paper and print publisher to a forward looking media organisation.

But I think it's all wrong. He'd have been better off selling to a fully commercial publisher (or media organisation) rather than one that's subsidised by the UK taxpayer. (Non UK readers - every tax payer in the UK pays an annual TV licence that costs around £130). Whilst some would argue that BBC Worldwide is a separate entity, the reality is that you can't work out where the taxpayer funded elements of the BBC start and where the commerically funded ones take over. And the benefits of association with the BBC brand are - whilst difficult to measure - most probably huge 

I'm worried that LP
is going to turn into some awful travel publishing megabrand that's everywhere. (take Jamie bleedin
Oliver - lovely guy but do we REALLY need a Jamie magazine? For
heaven's sake!) Watch this space for LP branded TV shows, LP branded clothes and gear, LP branded areas in tour operators and a plethora or LP branded websites, blog hosting services ane more... not to mention LP guide content being sold to third party tour operators, airlines and so on to use as destination content on their websites.

This would all be well and good - innovation is a great thing and LP is doing some smart things - if the taint of taxpayer money supporting the company was not there.

But it is and always will be and there is no way of countering the accusation successfully.

Will LP become the Tescos or the McDonalds of the travel publishing world? Hugely successful but resented by many for its reach.

If it does it will be a far cry indeed from the company's worthy beginnings - Tony Wheeler and his wife sitting down at a kitchen table to self-publish a guidebook for backpackers to India.

5 thoughts on “Lonely Planet – the Tesco of the travel publishing world?

  1. Hi there again :-)

    Just a couple of things.

    Lonely Planet has been making TV programmes for years - well before it was bought by BBC WW or even being looked at by BBC WW.

    Lonely Planet has also been selling it's content to third party operators for years, especially airlines - again well before BBC WW were involved.

    Lonely Planet has published several magazines around the world at some point or another - well before it was bought by BBC WW.

    Lonely Planet has produced quite a few co-branded websites with foreign partners and in partnership with travel organisations all over the world - well before it was bought by BBC WW

    I guess I'm labouring my point - but you see what I'm saying.

    ... and as far as merchandising goes... there have been t-shirts, mugs, stickers, notebooks - a whole host of LP branded kit over the years - well before... oh you get my point!

    And finally, because I'm a stickler for these things. 'every tax payer in the UK' does not pay towards the licence fee - every_household_that owns a device capable of receiving a tv signal pays for a tv licence - which is slightly different - even though it would be wonderful if every tax payer in the UK paid the BBC 125GBP a year - what a rise in money they'd see!

    However, every tax payer in the UK does support the BBC World Service - which is funded directly from the Foreign Office and not from the Licence Fee.

    That said, I can see what you're saying and agree on many points - and I can tell you that this thinking is at the core of what LP is doing - but you have to remember that LP has been a commercial company for a very long time - it's been in the game of making cash for quite a while - and just because BBC WW have bought it out - it doesn't mean that it's suddenly going to change it's 'values' as a brand - that remember - is why BBC WW bought it - what would be the point in buying a brand and then de-valuing it?

    All my thoughts by the way, and not those of my employer... Lonely Planet.

  2. I agree absolutely with your point re the mag being unfair competition to Wanderlust, but I think as #1 says, a lot of the other branding stuff has been out there for a while.

  3. Jeremy - Tesco began as an East End market stall, McDonalds as a small family-run burger joint, so to imply that Lonely Planet's origins are somehow more humble & noble is incorrect.

    The only LP book I've read is the Vietnam guide (I live in VN) and it contains so many inaccuracies, hidden jokes by malicious contributors (a fishing village near Vung Tau listed as "Ben Da" for example), and misleading advice (claiming that the Vietnamese will be impressed by business cards with 'John Smith - Backpacker' on them, for god's sake) that it is impossible to take seriously. So in my opinion, tying up with an organisation like the BBC should improve the guides' quality & accuracy, which is currently way behind that of the Rough Guides.

  4. Good post. And snap (again):


    Well, sort of. For a whole bunch of reasons, explained in the link above and the one I wrote last year, I think the BBC/LP tieup is wrong. For me it comes down to: what does Britain have a BBC for? Not for steamrollering through an already vibrant, competitive market, that's for sure.

    I hadn't considered it as much from the LP perspective, and you also make some good points I hadn't considered. I appreciate where Matthew is coming from. LP are a great company; it's just my opinion that where it sits in the market right now gives is a massive unfair advantage.

  5. @Matthew - thanks for your comments - good points.
    I think Donald sums the debate up really well... although I came at it looking from the LP perspective it's more about the BBC one. What does Britain have a BBC for?
    But I do think that people will be levelling this accusation at LP forever now... and it's going to be really difficult to counter.
    And re the licence fee... I personally DON'T think it would be a good thing if (as I suggest by mistake) that every tax payer paid the licence fee. The BBC has quite enough cash swilling around in its coffers already!
    @ Tim - yes fair point... I guess all companies have to start somewhere relatively small and obscure. But I do see LP as more 'noble' than Tesco and McDonalds. I've used LP and RG guides all over the place and to be honest sometimes one brand is better than the other and sometimes it's the other way round. Although they are published under one brand all guides are to a significant degree dependent on the quality, experience and dedication of the person writing them.

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