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.”
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28-YEAR-OLD LONELY PLANET CEO DANIEL HOUGHTON