From groovy guidebooks to budget brands: who is winning in travel?

As with most industries in 2017, the travel sector is undergoing its own rapid evolution, one that has been so volatile as to result in market predictions having reached no real consensus on what the future holds. In the last few decades, travel has transformed continually, propelled by reducing costs and boosted by increasing globalisation.

The internet revolutionised the world of travel, granting access to billions of people who could easily plan holidays to anywhere in the world, using effective and free recommendations and advice left by voyagers who had gone before. In so doing, the internet’s tentacles strangled another portion of the burgeoning travel trade. Since the 1970s, when ease of access thrusted thousands of pioneers across the globe, keen to record their every move, this sector ballooned into a multi-million dollar industry: published travel guides.

In this modern era, however, with competitors constantly undercutting each other and a changing marketplace, things are as unpredictable as ever. So, who or what is dominating travel and are the once mighty guide books which peppered our rucksacks from Rio to Russia truly dead?

Only one way to find out. And so, once more into the mine for our trusty data diggers, pick axes in hand, to reveal the tantalising trends of travel.

The internet strikes back

Ticket in hand, rucksack packed, let’s begin. With the rise of the digital sphere, the traditional titans of travel, the books and brands like Thomas Cook and Fodor, have been thrown into disarray by the disruptors of exploration, the online websites and apps who use innovative technology to make travel either an easier process or a more daring one.

Starcount’s data technology revealed flow charts that highlighted the unusual shift that fans of travel brands appear to be making. From the start of 2014, the data shows a relatively fluctuating market, with fans moving between a range of online travel disruptors, like TripAdvisor, and the traditional travel agents and published guides.

Whilst there is some even exchange, what does emerge is a heavy flow from most brands towards TripAdvisor, a sign that whilst many are happy to use the traditional methods of travel booking and advice, they are also looking for a gateway to new options, as well as tips to confirm what the traditional players may have advised them to do. Enter TripAdvisor, a one stop info-hub for all things travel – not necessarily a place to book, but certainly a platform for making sure that when you do book, you do it right.

Changing patterns in the way different people travel, combined with better technology and cheaper airfares, mean that once traditional customer bases are distorting.

The main thing to take away from TripAdvisor is that its power lies in its ability to provide the user with the tools to create their own trip for free. No longer does one need to pay a hefty fee for a travel agent, who has all the information, to provide you with the best places to go, things to do and where to stay. With a platform like TripAdvisor, which allows users to upload reviews, tips and data, travellers can get all the information they need, before cutting out the middleman and booking whatever is needed directly.

This trend has obviously had an impact on of our traditional competitors, like Voyage Prive, a luxury travel agent, who has very little incoming flow and is losing out to TripAdvisor, where customers might be getting tips and then booking directly through the sites of their planned destinations. Our other traditional travel agent, Thomas Cook, has a steady mix of incoming and outgoing, a sign that, while it has lost some of the market to the online players, it can still rely on its core customers, who are searching for simple, budget holidays abroad.

A new hope

Turn to 2016, and once more things are changing. The data laid out in this flow chart shows travel guide books making a comeback, with significant flows heading away from travel agents and online platforms, moving towards the likes of Lonely Planet and Rough Guides.

A bit of digging gives this story a bit more colour: in 2015, sales of travel books made an about turn, retreating from the plummeting figures and rising to nearly 5% in the UK, on sales in the previous year. Why, you ask? A variety of reasons. For one, many of the disruptors failed. The new apps with their range of trendy uses, envisaged as the travel agents in your phone, didn’t sky rocket as predicted, possibly because of factors such as lack of internet access/speed whilst travelling or an impression that the apps couldn’t always give the big picture, unlike vast searches across the web.

But it’s the transformation undergone by guide books that reveals the greatest story. Lonely Planet, having seen the power of TripAdvisor, began spearheading both digital and print in 2015, spreading their content across a range of mediums and creating greater access to their knowledge. Spurred on by improving technology, easier communication for their researchers and cheaper photography, they evolved their print, creating a range of guides that catered not just to places, but to the people visiting them, providing short, sharp guides for the in-and-out visitor and long, detailed ones, on the same location, for the extensive explorer.

Furthermore, with the proliferation of advice on online platforms, it was easy for travellers to get bogged down searching the web for specifics, whilst that essential trait of the guide book, the ability to flick and browse, became valued once more.

The one exception to this whole trend was Fodors. This well-established player, once undeniably top dog of the industry, lacks any significant flow towards it in our chart. This is likely down to a variety of factors: as the grandfather of the industry, their books have traditionally been aimed at older generations, those who once dominated the do-it-yourself travel scene. However, as this generation gets older and less able to take off for an adventure, they have been swiftly replaced by a new, younger market.

In Lonely Planet’s case, by digitalising, they tapped into the younger travellers, those who would have been the first to use online platforms and apps to help plan their adventures. After pulling this segment in through digital mediums, they have then diverted their attention to their print, garnering the young and trendy image that many now associate with Lonely Planet. Ditto for Rough Guides. So, with the younger generations beginning to dominate the travel scene, their influence can clearly be seen through Starcount’s insights and is the most likely reason for Fodor’s lack of incoming flow.

Return of the guidebook

But our journey continues. Once more, 2017 has thrown all we’ve discussed into disarray. Where to next? Well, the online platforms have made a comeback, but not at the expense of the guide books.

This applies especially to Fodors, where we can see a significant flow heading their way, most notably from TripAdvisor. The reason? Their recent success is most likely due to their acquisition by a US company called Internet Brands, who specialise in integrating online consumer media.

Fodors has followed in Lonely Planet’s footsteps, throwing its weight into digitalisating its content, with some help from both a new owner and a new publisher, who have helped them revamp their print to target new audiences. With a new digital footprint, the flow from TripAdvisor is probably down to people exploring recommendations left by other travellers on the site, and then confirming their results on Fodor’s interactive platform. Lonely Planet, though losing some momentum to Fodors, has still maintained a steady incoming flow, losing some movement to Rough Guides, which have carefully cultivated a young and trendy look, even more so than Lonely Planet, as they hope to tap into more frugal explorers looking for the roads less travelled.

Thomas Cook is the brand that has lost its dominance, especially when you take a glance back at our first chart. The slice of the travel pie for budget travel agents has been dwindling recently. Possibly it’s down to a change of heart in their target market: the less adventuresome holiday seekers, looking more for the opportunity to relax on a foreign beach (as opposed to trekking through a jungle or exploring historical monuments) are travelling abroad less and less, for reasons including rising prices overseas, security concerns, anti-tourism protests in Europe, and the impending consequences of Brexit.

The end game of all this is that with British holiday makers either planning their own ‘staycations’ (holidays in the UK) or utilising domestic travel agents for local holidays, the international caterers like Thomas Cook are facing a diminishing market. Not so for the young looking to plan their own adventures who rely on online travel blogs, digital platforms and the evolving guide books, which have gradually woken up and realised there is a new customer in town, but one looking for something completely different.

The industry awakens

But what does this all really mean? And what can brands do to change their fortunes? We saw that digitalising formed a successful strategy for brands like Lonely Planet and Fodors. But in such a dynamic and competitive market, that simply won’t be enough.

One of the major lessons that we can see taking place throughout the 4 years that this study covers, is that the walls that once separated competitors into different styles within the industry have fallen. Previously, the battle was set around travel agent vs. travel agent, guidebook vs. guidebook and so on. However, with the proliferation of digital platforms and online information, traditional travel agents are directly competing with digital travel agents, guidebooks (and their online platforms), self-help sites like Skyscanner and TripAdvisor, and disruptors like AirBnB, who are gradually widening beyond their original scope of accommodation.

With so much competition, brands can no longer rely on a single dedicated customer segment. Changing patterns in the way different people travel, combined with better technology and cheaper airfares, mean that once traditional, defined customer bases are gradually distorting. Alongside this, brands can no longer rely on demographics as a capable market definer either: where previously, a traditional backpacker would have been in the range of 18 to 30 years old, the proliferation of information and the physical ease of access to many places mean that older generations are picking up their rucksacks.

So, with an increase in competition and a diversification of target markets, brands must seek other ways to get ahead. If Thomas Cook continues to rely on its rapidly dwindling market of traditional beach goers, they will surely go extinct. But by assessing the emotional needs and mindsets of different types of travellers through composite data sources, and overlaying this with segmented profiles based on these emotional analytics, they could diversify their travel offerings and cater to a whole new range of customers, all of whom are looking for something different.

No matter their current predicament, Thomas Cook hold the advantage here: as one of the older players on the travel scene, they hold vast amounts of data from all their years doing what they do best, a similar situation to the balance of competition between the high street banks and the new challengers. Lonely Planet and Rough Guides may have the tech, but they lack decades of valuable data. Even Fodors, as old as they are, can’t compete in the same way because buying a physical book never resulted in detailed data.

Platforms like Airbnb, TripAdvisor and Skyscanner are quickly catching up though. Used by millions of people every day, their data deposits will be fast growing. But again, it’s what they can do with that data, as well as understanding how they can utilise other sources to enrich their treasure trove, that will propel them forward.

Finally, if they can diversify that knowledge with behavioural analysis and convert it into strategy, they will be able to offer the holy grail: to know what a traveller wants, and offer it to them, before they’ve even hit the search button. Check mate.

As we’ve seen, this is a complex and dynamic industry, and one that experiences more turbulence than a Vietnamese ferry. If we use the past as a reference, it seems likely we can expect things to change pretty quickly, but the next few years will be crucial in defining who leads for decades to come. So, now that’s cleared up, the only question left: Cardiff or Cambodia?

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