By Martin Kelly, Editor, Travel Trends

JUST before Christmas 2006, Lonely Planet launched Haystack, its very own accommodation database, with 390 properties.

Three months later, Haystack featured more than 1000 hostels, hotels and guesthouses, an impressive first step in a fresh future for the iconic guidebook publisher, which had been struggling to convert its online popularity into revenue.

But Haystack ultimately failed. It burned a lot of cash, failed to gain traction and was quietly closed down little more than a year after starting. Haystack epitomises the struggles of Lonely Planet, which last week sacked more than 50 staff, to tweak its old media business model and make money from the Internet.

Of course, Lonely Planet is not alone in this respect. Most of the world’s leading media brands have tried and so far failed. Why should Lonely Planet be any different?

Well, perhaps because at one time Lonely Planet was different. It was a young brand run by travellers for travellers. It was kind of cool.

In its 1980s/1990s heyday, the world was a much simpler place and so was Lonely Planet’s business – travel guide books, originally for young backpackers but ultimately for everyone, which is maybe where its issues began. Somewhere along the way Lonely Planet lost touch with the zeitgeist and it’s been playing catch up ever since.

The company has done everything possible to offer online services it believes the faithful wants.

Its main site,, has all sorts of travel forums and trip planning tools – everything you would expect. The site still sells accommodation, by the way, though it’s now supplied by Expedia and Hostelworld, plus flights, insurance etc through affiliate arrangements with various suppliers.

Travellers love it. The site is heavily trafficked. But there’s a catch – visitors don’t pay a cent for all of this. The website and all its bells and whistles cost Lonely Planet a lot of money, and for what?

That’s the big question that many hoped would be answered by BBC Worldwide, which bought 75% of the Melbourne-based company in October, 2007.

At the time, Maureen Wheeler, who started the company with her husband Tony, told The Australian: “”We were looking for someone who would help us not just with funds but with skills, someone who’d shown they could make their way in the online digital world because we felt that’s what we were lacking.”

Ian Watson, International Director of BBC Worldwide, had no doubt they were the right partner.

“What we hope to be able to do very quickly is enrich, particularly in the online space, and increase the amount of video and audio content available to inspire travellers,” he said.

Which they appear to have done, but through a separate site – – where many of the links – shop, forums, travel services – lead right back to the main site, which, as you’d expect features advertising, something Watson of the BBC said there was “absolutely no intention” of doing because Lonely Planet is “the most important brand to travellers around the world”.

Maybe, though one site in particular would dispute that, but with no clear direction and contradictions now for several years, the question is – for how long?

Travel Trends: March 3, 2009

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