Meet The 28-Year-Old CEO Plow­ing Travel Guide­books Into The Fu­ture


Three years af­ter grad­u­at­ing from West­ern Ken­tucky Univer­sity, Daniel Houghton, 28, took the helm of the now 44-year-old travel brand Lonely Planet in 2013. One of his first tasks? Lay­ing off 75 peo­ple, one-fifth of the com­pany’s em­ploy­ees, many of whom worked on Lonely Planet’s freespir­ited print guide­books (though lay­offs touched ev­ery team). Guide­book sales, in­dus­try-wide, had plum­meted 40% from 2007 through 2012, so Houghton de­cided Lonely Planet had to go dig­i­tal to sur­vive. One year af­ter he took over, dig­i­tal ac­counted for 30% of Lonely Planet’s rev­enue, and print sales also re­bounded, up 27% since 2013. In his first month as CEO, Houghton cir­cum­nav­i­gated the globe three times in two weeks, meet­ing Lonely Planet’s part­ners and staff in of­fices span­ning five con­ti­nents.

“We were founded in 1973, ini­tially just guide­books, to th­ese days vir­tu­ally ev­ery place in the world,” Houghton says. “And over the last 40-some­thing years, that’s evolved to be a real mul­ti­me­dia busi­ness from our pres­ence on the Web, to mag­a­zines, to mo­bile apps, and sort of ev­ery­thing in be­tween.”

Raised by par­ents who worked for the air­lines, Houghton al­ways loved travel and planned to be a pho­to­jour­nal­ist. When he couldn’t get a job af­ter col­lege, he free­lanced as a pho­tog­ra­pher for the As­so­ci­ated Press and McClatchy news­pa­pers be­fore get­ting into com­mer­cial work. But af­ter six months at a mar­ket­ing agency, Houghton quit to form a one-man me­dia com­pany, Houghton Mul­ti­me­dia. His web­site, which chron­i­cled how his client projects came to­gether, made its way in front of reclu­sive to­bacco bil­lion­aire Brad Kel­ley. Af­ter a few meet­ings and a hand­shake deal, to­gether they founded NC2 Me­dia, a small, travel-fo­cused me­dia com­pany that be­came the ac­quir­ing com­pany to buy Lonely Planet from the BBC. The $77 mil­lion deal closed in April 2013, and Houghton be­came CEO at the age of 25.

Look­ing back, Houghton says tak­ing on Lonely Planet was the big­gest risk he’s ever taken, even though he “leapt into it” at the time. “Prob­a­bly in hind­sight, it’s a good thing I didn’t know ex­actly what I was get­ting into with this be­cause there’s in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult pe­ri­ods and you feel a great re­spon­si­bil­ity to work re­ally hard,” he says.

To­day, the 28-year-old over­sees 350 em­ploy­ees and sells prod­ucts in more than 150 com­pa­nies. For Houghton, tak­ing com­mand of a his­tor­i­cal brand has been more chal­leng­ing than build­ing a startup from scratch. “[Lonely Planet] is some­thing that you could never recre­ate,” Houghton says. “You have to be re­spect­ful of its past while try­ing to plow into the fu­ture.”

That fu­ture is filled with new dig­i­tal projects: a com­plete re­design of Lonely Planet’s web­site for the mo­bile era filled with new kinds of con­tent (in­clud­ing an op-ed from Pres­i­dent Obama); a flag­ship “Guides” app (with nearly a mil­lion down­loads in the last year) that of­fers off­line maps, phrase­books, cur­rency con­vert­ers and ad­vice from lo­cals for 100 cities around the world; and part­ner­ships with Scribd and Ama­zon Prime to make Lonely Planet’s guide­books avail­able as eBooks. Part­ner­ship with Ford and Samsung also serve as a new way to pull in rev­enue while cre­at­ing con­tent they might oth­er­wise not have been able to, like tak­ing a Samsung 360 cam­era to Canada to show readers why it’s the best place to go in 2017. To­day, Lonely Planet is the largest player among guide­books, own­ing 25% of the nearly $90 mil­lion guide­book mar­ket, ac­cord­ing to the Nielsen BookS­can Travel Pub­lish­ing Year Book by Stephen Mesquita.

Even as he fo­cuses on scal­ing Lonely Planet’s new dig­i­tal prod­ucts, Houghton still be­lieves in the printed word: “I can’t imag­ine a world that doesn’t have books.”

See the full list of Forbes 30 Un­der 30 in Me­dia here.



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