Kara Swisher

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Lonely Planet Names New U.S. Head as Its Digital Strategy Escalates


Lonely Planet, best known as a traditional travel guidebook publisher, is announcing a new U.S. head tomorrow, as it increasingly moves to reposition the company as much more of a “cross-media” platform.

John Boris–set to take over today as new managing director of Lonely Planet Americas, based at its Oakland, Calif., office–comes to the company from Zagat Survey, where he was the SVP of marketing and interactive.

Previous to that, Boris worked at 1-800 Flowers and Fresh Direct.

“I’m thrilled to be joining one of the world’s best-loved travel brands at such an exciting time, with Lonely Planet rapidly evolving as a cross-media travel player,” he said in a press release.

As the paid versus free content online debate gets louder over the next year, how well known brands like Lonely Planet–which has a strong reputation among consumers–handle the fallout will be more and more interesting to watch.

Indeed, in recent months, Lonely Planet has been escalating its digital content efforts, which was the initial promise when BBC Worldwide bought 75 percent of the Melbourne, Australia-based company for about $200 million in late 2007.

But the digitization of Lonely Planet’s business, as with many traditional media publishers like it, has been slow going, with 75 percent of its revenue still in print.

While that business remains profitable, the breakdown between print and digital will be changing sooner than later, since digital is where much of the growth is coming from, said CEO Matt Goldberg to me over a recent dinner in San Francisco.

Goldberg–who came to Lonely Planet early this year from Dow Jones, where he was SVP of digital strategy and operations, including for WSJ.com–noted that Lonely Planet’s digital businesses have doubled their revenues to $20 million this year via premium pricing and advertising.

Besides the obvious use of Twitter and Facebook, Goldberg flagged a number of the more promising and innovative digital initiatives now at work at Lonely Planet, especially in its key U.S. market.

They include:

* Leveraging the 700,000 registered members of Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree community,

* The announcement this week of putting all or part of 600 of its travel guides on the international release of the Amazon (AMZN) Kindle e-reader.

* Work on collaborative trip planning for its “Trippy” gadget, as part of the Google Wave beta launched last week.

* A compass application for Google (GOOG) Android handsets that make use of augmented reality technology to highlight points of interest in cities. As Goldberg described it in an email, travelers will be able to “pan a city destination using the video on their handset and see Lonely Planet recommendations (points of interest from our City Guides) as virtual sticky notes above real live points of interest.”

* Over 500,000 downloads from around 70 premium-priced apps on the iPhone from Apple (AAPL), as well as various location-based guide apps for Nokia (NOK) and BlackBerry from Research in Motion (RIMM).

* Travel music collections featured on Spotify and other online music services.

Goldberg highlighted other interesting ideas, such as an online travel video contest and even a “hack” day in Australia recently, which will be followed by one in the U.S. in the late winter.

While not all of it is going to work, this kind of endless experimentation at Lonely Planet is probably the right way to keep figuring out how to deal with the seismic media shifts that show no sign of abating.

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus