Lonely Planet CEO on the brand’s storied past, evolving future

Since it was founded in 1973, Lonely Planet has become one of the best-known travel publishers in the world, printing more than 130 million guidebooks in 13 languages. But with a brand’s online presence more important now than ever, how has Lonely Planet managed to stay true to the company’s founding principles while also keeping up with the times?

Last week, we got the chance to ask Daniel Houghton, the 28-year-old Nashville-based CEO of Lonely Planet, that question and some others prior to his SXSW speaking event, titled “Guiding an Iconic Travel Brand in the Digital Age.”

American-Statesman: How does it feel to be speaking at SXSW?

Houghton: It’s an awesome stage for the brand. It’s an incredible audience and gathering to be able to share what we’re up to. I’ve been to SXSW once before, in 2014, just experience it. It’s a really cool privilege to speak.

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Lonely Planet CEO Daniel Houghton pictured at the Four Seasons before his SXSW talk last week. Kristin Finan/American-Statesman

What do you hope to convey at your SXSW talk?

I want to talk about our history, like why are we iconic? There’s a lot of old companies, but we’re kind of an old famous company. A lot of the things we’ve been doing for a really long time are not only still important, but maybe more important than ever, like our editorial principles and the way we gather content around the world. I want to talk about where we came from, what we’re doing now, how we’re trying to craft this content, this brand, with all the different platforms you can distribute on these days. I went to school to be a photojournalist, so that’s always been my passion — content creation. Outside of LP I’m fascinated by different strategies. We’re working hard to distribute across a range of platforms. Stuff changes every day. That’s kind of what the talk is about. What do we keep the same? What do we change? What kinds of products are we building? Travel is a really broad category.

What have been some of your key initiatives as CEO?

Building a set of products that we’re really proud of around just an incredible amount of content that we have that was never utilized enough. Some of that’s because new things have become available. It’s so interesting the way you can interact with people, whether it’s through social media or through a video online. We’ve started adding a lot of video content to our website. Part of it has been getting the platforms we’re already on to a point we’re really proud of, and a lot of it has been asking what new initiatives do we want to partake in, and whether that’s a tool for people who are traveling or more of an inspiration? Maybe I’m not even going anywhere right now but I’d love to be inspired. Travel to us is a really broad category. It’s culture and food and history. We’ve always covered that type of content, but this gives you an opportunity to interact with people on a much more frequent basis than just, “We saved all this money, we’re going on a trip.” We want to touch people much broader than that.

What advice do you have for people who are afraid to travel due to the current political climate?

We’ve always tried to just take an informational, fact-based approach and stay out of the rest of it. We’re really just trying to provide accurate information for people who are traveling. For us, we’ve got 500 titles, we’re covering virtually every place in the world, so maybe we’re more used to this than other people. Obviously the conversation has been really elevated, but we deal with border closings and openings all the time. We try to just think, what would you need to know, if you were going, to be informed? We approach everything from that mindset.

Where are your favorite places to travel?

I just got back from Colombia, I was in Bogota for a couple days. That place is fascinating. I didn’t get to spend enough time there. And I love the outdoors, so I’ve only been to New Zealand once, but I’d kill to go back there.

Why did you want to work for Lonely Planet?

I grew up traveling. I love travel. It’s in our family. Both my parents worked for the airlines their whole careers — that’s how they met, on a trip in Colorado. Going to the airport was a very normal occurrence for me as kid, whether it was to go pick up my mom, who was a flight attendant, or if were going somewhere. We were always traveling as a family, and I really got into photojournalism because I thought, “There’s a way to travel.” It makes sense that I wound up doing something with travel.

Where is the brand headed?

We really want people, whenever they think of travel, we really want Lonely Planet to come to mind. Whether they’ve seen our video content or they follow us on social media or they’re a subscriber to our magazine, we’re trying to build a whole ecosystem around the brand. Travel can be a very broad category. We just want to have a part in all of that.

You became CEO at the age of 24. Did you face any difficulties because of your age?

I don’t really feel like I’ve been treated differently. I can’t speak highly enough for the people in the business. We’ve got a lot of people who came to Lonely Planet very early in their careers, or it was their first job, and they have been here for a long time. We’re not very traditional in terms of structure and levels. Maybe that benefited me out of the gate.

What was the perception of Lonely Planet 20 years ago, and how is that changing?

There was maybe a perception 20 years ago that it was for rugged backpacking types, like I can turn up in Bali with $5 and just wing it. The truth is, you can talk to our founders about that, that was never the intention. I get asked, “What is your demographic?” and it’s a really hard question to answer because it’s incredibly diverse, both around the world and in terms of age brackets. We’ve got people that have been fans of us for 30 years, and those people still use printed products, but the idea that (something is for you) based on your age, I don’t think any of that really exists anymore. We don’t think about our content as for some specific audience. We really think about it for anyone who’s going to be traveling. What do you want to know? What’s the culture like in a place? Here’s the logistical things that are handy, here’s some experiences we think are really unique and off the beaten path.


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