Rio De janeiro / flickr user roger4336

Yelp’s Nice, But Keep Your Travel Guides

Smartphone apps are great, but travelers still need paper books

Earlier this month, travelers got the sad but not too surprising news that Lonely Planet is slashing jobs and redoing their entire business model. The iconic travel guide brand has had three owners over the past decade, and their digital strategists struggled to keep up with a travel planning world that increasingly centers around smartphones and tablets.

Lonely Planet isn’t the only boldface travel brand going through big changes. Google famously purchased the Zagat and Frommer brands in 2012 and 2011. Then, eight months after purchasing, Google sold the Frommer brand back to its founder, Arthur Frommer. Why? The search giant was after the information the brands collected — not the messy, money-losing business of printing books. In fact, Google kept all of Frommer’s hard won data even after selling the brand back.

But, money-losing as print travel guides may be, we need ‘em.

Google Local — They love that sweet Zagat data

The Smartphone Ascendency

So much of travel comes down to convenience and (of course) portability. iPhones and Androids change the nature of the travel guide game. We can download our print travel guides onto Kindle or Nook clients, we can use apps like Foursquare, Tripadvisor, and Yelp, and we can use auxillary apps like Groupon or Menupages to find something cool on the ground wherever we happen to find ourselves. Then, of course, there is brute Googling on the ground to find that hard-to-locate Burmese restaurant our co-worker raved about.

In some cases, this is wonderful. When I travel for business in major cities, I can find Foursquare locations of venues my friends visited. Is this a hint that I’d like them? It’s likely. Being in a strange town and turning on Yelp and being able to instantly find all the breakfast spots nearby is a damn near life changer. But…

The Crowd Is Full of Idiots

Apologies for the bluntness. That said, the crowd is full of idiots. Relying on crowdsourced reviews from Foursquare, Tripadvisor, Yelp, or any other site means relying on the judgement of amateurs who may be biased or unable to convey accurate reviews of a venue. Ever read bad journalism and cringe? The crowdsourced internet is full of badly written reviews working from awful data sets.

One case in point: the Yelp reviews for New York theme bar Hogs & Heifers. Hogs & Heifers is a dive bar in the otherwise posh Meatpacking District where bras hang from the ceiling and intentionally rude waitresses use bullhorns to berate customers. It’s a shtick that has worked well over the years. But Yelp’s crowdsourced reviews? It’s filled with dozens of angry entries from walk-in patrons who were unaware of the bar’s theme and shtick. If the purpose of travel guides is to inform travelers of what to expect and to inform judgment, Yelp failed miserably.

Professional travel writers aren’t perfect. But they are on the road regularly and have an experience in judgment, even if it’s from sheer number of hours spent traveling and reviewing, that the general public lacks.

Smartphones Are Perfect — Except When They Aren’t

Androids and iPhones have changed the rhythm of everyday life. Imagine navigating new cities without a mapping app or not being able to instantly send pictures to friends. But, for travelers, smartphones have some significant structural flaws.

The most important one is the power issue. Mobile devices have a nasty tendency of powering down; print books lack that bigtime functionality flaw. There’s no guarantee of easily being able to charge smartphones; there’s also nothing worse than having to wait around for an hour while a phone charges.

More important, for international travelers, is the cost of data. Relying on apps can be golden for domestic travel. However, international travel means dealing with data fees that can run into the thousands of dollars for folks who aren’t paying attention. Local prepaid SIM cards are one solution, but aren’t easily available in many markets due to local regulations — and are incompatible with many American smartphones too. Verizon users here in the States can’t even swap out their SIM cards thanks to the use of CDMA, and then there’s the fact that many phone apps are unusable in rural regions where there’s no reception. For users of smaller carriers such as Virgin, this can be an issue even in major metropolitan areas in the United States.

No bars? Congrats; your smartphone won’t be able to tell you who has the best dinner in the next town.

Travel Publishers: You Messed Up

Smartphones might not be perfect, but travel publishers have failed in porting their products to digital. While there might be exceptions such as the wonderful Not For Tourists guides, no one has come out with compelling print rivals to Yelp or Foursquare. More important, a combination of broke travel publishers and overly cautious digital strategy has led to a broken digital travel guide system. Instead of creating rich digital travel guides that link to the best travel data of the internet, or taking advantage of the awesome native mapping and GPS capabilities of smartphones and tablets, we’ve got reams of shovelware.

The digital products of most major travel guide houses are either desktop-optimized websites, crippled cheap apps with minimal content, or shovelware PDF, Kindle or Nook ports that don’t take advantage of the inborn advantages of Android, iOS, or HTML5. Rough Guides has taken good steps in this regard thanks to full-featured travel apps, but the other big players? Not so much. Google and Apple’s app stores are full of limited functionality apps from Fodor’s, Lonely Planet, Time Out, and others that are only good at providing offline maps of downtowns, and don’t we already have Google Maps offline saving for that?

Kindle and Nook’s formats were designed with novels and pop-non fiction in mind. They’re wonderful for reading narrative books. But they’re awful for reading travel guides and reference books in general.

Instead of offering interactive maps, real hypertext capability, custom itinerary construction, real-time integration, a (gasp!) developer API, or any of the exciting content possibilities phones and tablets offer for the traditional travel guide format, we have… print travel guides ported into bits and bites. It’s not awful, it’s just really imperfect.

The New Travel Guide Normal

When Google acquired Frommer’s and Zagat, they were after the juicy data points collected in years and years of offline information gathering. Google has been making an aggressive push to turn their Google Local and Google+ brands into mobile content monoliths, and their travel guide blitz was part and parcel of that.

It won’t stun any of you to argue that the fate of print travel guides — like that of the print industry as a whole — is tied to digital.But where this sea change creates exciting new opportunities to create industry-defining products and change the way we travel, print travel publishers see only gloom and panic.

Traveling with Foursquare, Tripadvisor, and Yelp are imperfect solutions. If those services find ways of effectively curating expert opinions and offering offline usage for rural/international users, they may supplant print travel guides yet. But in the meantime, it pays to be a Luddite. Don’t give up on print travel guides yet, and if you’re an entrepreneur looking to create a new digital travel product, give me a call.