By Martin Kelly, Editor, TRAVELtech

PUBLISHER Lonely Planet has finally applied its globally famous brand to a bookable travel product with the launch of Haystack, its own accommodation database.

The Haystack booking engine has even made it onto the front page of the Lonely Planet site – something the company once said would never happen.

“Travel services is a value add and there’s no chance of us putting a booking engine on the front page of the site – we’ll keep that for content,” a senior Lonely Planet executive told TRAVELtech less than two years ago.

“At the end of the day our core business is content and guide books, a business that’s been 30 years in the making.

“It’s not about making a buck – it’s about providing services our customers are interested in.”

But clearly the company is now looking for alternative revenue sources with insider talk suggesting its core guide book business is flagging as travelers turn to the internet, where the expectation is that content should be free of charge.

As a result, Lonely Planet makes little revenue from its website, despite attracting five million visitors a month, although it is now offering advertising to outsiders.

Another is issue is credibility, which Lonely Planet no longer “owns” with the rise of countless travel user review sites, many of which also offer booking tools.

Hence the need for Lonely Planet to change tack and behave more like a travel business than a publisher above commercial concerns.

Yet Lonely Planet has had a toe in the water, employing a hands-off approach to distribution for the past couple of years.

It has acted as a platform for numerous product aggregators selling everything from flights to tours through its “travel services” division.

Providers include Kayak, Global Travel market, bezurk, hostelworld.com, trainticket.com.au, activitybreaks.com, worldnomads.com, viator.com, godo.com, ekit.com and altrek.com.

Lonely Planet receives separately negotiated commissions for bookings and purchases through these sites.

But now the company has decided to get its hands dirty and moved to develop its own branded product with Haystack, for which it receives a 10% commission on every reservation.

The bookings system features web 2.0 features (users can also add their own reviews) has been developed by UK company Softwire.

Haystack started just before Christmas with 390 properties – it now has more than 1000.

The sales pitch is: “All Haystack properties are handpicked by Lonely Planet authors then reviewed and recommended to join Haystack.

“Once a property joins, they provide us with great rates and live availability so you can be sure that what you are seeing is the best available price on that day.”

These words certainly provide a contrast to the hard-hitting content of the publisher’s famous guide book.

It will be interesting to see how the publisher handles potential conflicts of interest over time.

For now, this is how Lonely Planet answers the question: “Are Lonely Planet reviews still independent?”

“It’s simple; our authors are independent, dedicated travelers.

“Our authors do not accept kickbacks, payment or favours in return for positive reviews.

“Authors select and review properties for our website independently, then we approach those properties to become bookable on Haystack – not the other way around!”

Funny, because approaching suppliers is something all major accommodation sites do.

They have a "sales team" that pushes the benefits of distributing through their database.

What makes Lonely Planet different? Time will tell.

TRAVELtech
February 8, 2007

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