One thing is certain about travel, it has undergone significant change

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COVID-19-related restrictions and requirements, safety precautions, attractions and businesses adapting to a pandemic world … there’s a lot to know. While there are many, many guidebooks out there for many, many destinations, how are they useful for consumers in a travel industry that’s constantly evolving?

Below, TODAY takes a dive into the guidebook business — how it was impacted by the pandemic, how guidebooks are put together and what you need to know if you’re thinking about taking a summer trip, particularly an international one.

An emphasis on road trips during the pandemic

There has been a noticeable shift in how readers consume travel books since the pandemic began. NPD BookScan, which tracks U.S. sales in the book industry, reported an approximate 25% drop in sales for travel books in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the first quarter of 2020, as Piers Pickard, publisher and vice president of print for Lonely Planet, noted in an email to TODAY.

Those who have shown interest in his brand’s guidebooks, he added, have gravitated toward titles focusing on outdoor experiences closer to home.

“Our bestsellers are no longer guides to Japan, Costa Rica or Italy. Now we’re selling books on national parks, road tripping, hiking and cycling,” he explained.

Rick Steves, the author, TV host and tour operator who specializes in European travel, was honest in assessing how the pandemic affected his guidebook business, which he said enjoyed its best sales year ever in 2019 but has slumped in the past year.

“Nobody wants to buy a guidebook to Barcelona right now. And it’s the road tripping around the United States books that are doing good,” he told TODAY over Zoom.

Keep in mind that the information in guidebooks currently on the market may not be entirely up to date, for obvious reasons. Still, Pickard said a recent guidebook is a worthwhile resource to have.

“The inspirational content within our guidebooks does not age, nor do the deep dives into the history and culture of each place,” said Pickard, who’s based in the U.K. “Guidebooks remain a rich source of travel inspiration and they’re a brilliant tool for sparking wanderlust and helping you plan how to get from A to B via C on that next trip.”

Of course, as Steves pointed out, some flexibility will be required.

“Anybody traveling independently needs a guidebook. If I was going to Europe next month — I could, I’m not going to, but I could — I would use a guidebook. But I would know the guidebook was from before COVID, and it’s the only thing that’s available now,” he said in the late-May interview. “I would be flexible in understanding that things will have changed, and I will just roll with the punches and try to supplement that with online stuff that’s more accurate right now.”

Some background on how Steves puts together his guidebooks: He has a team of co-authors and researchers with whom he works on approximately 50 titles covering Europe. New editions of the top sellers — think big cities like London, Paris and Rome — are released annually, while other books are updated every two or three years.

In the case of the most popular titles, “we aspire to visit every place in every book every year. That’s our goal,” Steves said. “And we don’t phone it in. We don’t do it online. We — and that means me or my co-authors or our researchers — physically go to these towns and check every restaurant, check every hotel, check all the sites, check the train stations, check the bus schedules. And it’s just, that’s our passion. We just love it.”

Rick Steves researches guidebook (Rick Steves)
Rick Steves researches guidebook (Rick Steves)

Similarly, the writers with Lonely Planet fact-check “every single place” mentioned in guidebooks before they are published, according to Pickard.

Pickard said Lonely Planet, a company that covers every continent, typically researches a destination around nine months before its corresponding guidebook is published. Prior to the pandemic, approximately 140 guidebooks (or 35% of the total in the brand’s wide-ranging series) received updates annually.

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