One of our titles, One People Many Journeys, captures the universality of the human experience. I absolutely believe that we all share a curiosity about other people that inspires us to travel and seek them out. We may say we are going somewhere to see something, but it's the people we meet—and interact with—who will form the longest and most important memories.
I must admit that my philosophy of travel, of meeting people and making connections, is quite the opposite of the idea of a 'lonely planet'! My wife Maureen and I stumbled upon the name—really—as we were trying to decide on a name for our new publishing business in 1973. I'd been humming a line from the song 'Space Captain,' which had been popularized by the rock-and-roll tour film Mad Dogs and Englishmen. 'Once while traveling across the sky,' I sang, 'this lonely planet caught my eye.' While Maureen rightly pointed out that the lyrics were actually 'lovely planet,' I liked the sound of 'lonely planet' better. Fortunately, it is a name that people remember and it does have a nice ring to it—people wonder what it's all about.
Our first guides were Across Asia on the Cheap and Southeast Asia on a Shoestring. They were for young, adventurous, penniless travelers, which were what Maureen and I were at that time. As we've changed, the books have evolved with us, but it's not a question of abandoning one market segment; rather, we have expanded to take in other segments. Backpackers still form an important category and one that we work very hard to keep happy. Why? They are the travel pioneers, the people who open up new destinations and new markets. Furthermore, the money they spend often is at the ground level, straight into the local population's pocket. Young people starting out on a lifetime of travel experiences may not stay backpackers forever, but they're likely to remain inveterate travelers. So, backpackers may not be our only market segment, but they're certainly a very important one.
Lonely Planet has always pushed the boundaries of travel publishing. We do this in lots of ways, including applying new technology. We assume the demand for travel information will continue, but will people always want it in the form of a book? We have been experimenting with delivering travel information on various other platforms. Our interactive 'Passport To' series for Sony's PlayStation Portable (PSP) is just the latest form. But for me it's the odd/unusual/on-the-edge destinations that represent the most important way we push boundaries, like our forthcoming Afghanistan guide.
An exciting recent title is Blue List: 618 Things to Do and Places to Go. To 'Blue List' something is the travel equivalent of saying, 'You should see my guy; he's the best.' The idea spawned its own website, where travelers can put up their Blue Lists and fellow travelers can rate their favorites. We might even decide a Blue List is so good that we should investigate it further. In the 2007 edition, we included some of the best traveler-submitted Blue Lists. Some of the most interesting travel questions I've been asked are actually represented in some of the selected lists. These include topics like 'how to get "there" without really going there' (Ireland in Boston, China in San Francisco, Greece in Melbourne, etc.); 'best places to people-watch'; 'world senses for smells' (odors you won't soon forget, both good and bad); and 'interesting outdoor toilet experiences.'
Good travel information must be shared, which is why we also have the Thorn Tree forum on our website. Traditionally, in Africa, one pins messages to a thorn tree. There really is such a notice board in the Thorn Tree Café at the Sarova Stanley Hotel in Nairobi, Kenya. The Thorn Tree Café put up a notice board on its thorn tree and it became very popular with travelers. The unique thing about our Thorn Tree 'notice board' forum is simply its extraordinary popularity. We get over a million posts in a year.
Nepal is one of Maureen's and my favorite places to visit. Kathmandu remains a magical place but it's mainly because we like walking. Nepal features some of the best walks on earth—the Annapurna Circuit and the Everest Base Camp trek, for starters. And there's always another walk to do.
Next up, Maureen and I want to visit Mongolia, Yemen, and Patagonia. Why these places? They just happen to have percolated to the top of our wish lists. I guess if we were a hundred years older and had spent all that time traveling intensively we might have exhausted our lists!
I've been asked countless times, 'Where will you never go back to?' No country deserves that kind of bad press. My feeling is that there are lots of places I don't plan to go back to because it's 'Been there, done that.' I'm not going to find anything new by going back and would rather devote the time and energy to going somewhere new. But that doesn't mean I don't like the place.
That said, we have just released Bad Lands, which covers nine countries currently condemned as 'bad.' My 'evil meter' tries to rank how bad they are by their treatment of their own citizens, their support for terrorism, and their threats to other countries. So North Korea gets a pretty 'bad' rating—it starves its own people to death, blows up aircraft, kidnaps people, and threatens other countries with missiles and (maybe) nuclear weapons. But there are always two sides to every story.
We've long had agreements with rival publishers that if something came up that was, for example, purely a safety issue for travelers we would always inform each other. Mark Ellingham of Rough Guides and I sent out a press release earlier this year about our concerns on the climate change/global warming/sustainable travel issue. We felt that coming together and making a joint statement would underline the seriousness of the issue—an issue that overrode business rivalry.
We are currently making staff and author travel 'carbon neutral' by donating to a non-profit called Climate Care. Climate Care helps to repair your impact on the climate by 'offsetting' the greenhouse gas emissions, such as carbon dioxide, from your activities by reducing an equivalent amount of the gas. These reductions are made through projects such as funding sustainable energy projects, or forest restoration.
Growing up, our two children always traveled with us. They were the obvious inspiration behind the title Travel With Children, which Maureen wrote. Having said that, they never missed school and pretty much stuck to the same school—they weren't moved around. Today, they are both with Lonely Planet. Kieran is a computer techie, while Tashi is a commissioning editor. We don't have plans for them to get more involved. If they do, great; if they don't, that's fine, too.
Maureen and I recently put out The Lonely Planet Story. It's part autobiography, part business history, and part travel book. If readers could only take away three bits of advice from the book (that can also apply to branding), it'll have to be the following: Do something you love—if it results in good business, then that's a bonus; be prepared for things to go wrong; and lastly, believe your instincts more than market research.
What would I be doing today if I weren't running Lonely Planet? Who knows? I can't imagine it would be as interesting. I've always liked publishing and media, so it might have been in some other media business. And I've always been interested in travel, so it might have been something else in travel.
I am on the road about half of the year—sometimes with Maureen, sometimes with friends, sometimes with other people on business. All trips have some business element to it. I will always take notes on any place I go to. On the other hand, it never feels like work to me, so maybe I am always on vacation.