Guidebook publisher Rough Guides, owned by Penguin, is giving a sneak peek at its fully revamped website.
The new Rough Guides site features responsive design (for better adaptability to tablets). It also tries to be a platform for travel inspiration and advice in its own right, rather than primarily an online shop for selling printed guide books.
For instance, custom maps are now embedded with rich images with music, video, sound, text, thanks to software from ThingLink.
On the glitzier side, you can sign-up for travel-related music playlists on Spotify. There's also an effort to make the website something readers return to daily, with a stream of content -- interviews, competitions, debates -- called RoughStuff.
The site pushes oversize, lush photography in a way that's reminiscent of cult favorite Wander, which is Tumblr meets Pinterest for travel, and The Atlantic's page-view-generating monster franchise In Focus.
Compare it with the old site, which is still here as of this writing.
UPDATE: The official switchover happens January 22. See the comment from a Rough Guides spokesperson, at the end of this post.
It's an interesting move that comes against a backdrop of Google buying Frommers and de-emphasizing the Frommers website and unprofitable Lonely Planet struggling with user-generated content and fending off rumors of its imminent sale by BBC Worldwide.
Some industry participants have pitied Rough Guides. On the one hand, they're considered by many to be the best travel books in the business. On the other, their digital efforts to date have been hapless, and traffic patterns and digital e-book sales have been miniscule relative to competitor guidebook and non-traditional travel sites.
Part of the problem might be the parent company, Penguin, which is broadly seen as being slow to adapt to the technological changes sweeping the industry.
The new site helps Rough Guides cement its branding as having expert, authenticated opinions, and adapts to the Web's love of the visual over the written, and it takes advantage of some of the Web's ways of transmitting information that aren't available in print.
But where will the money come from?
It's somewhat stunning that there are no new monetization efforts with the new site besides "Which Rough Guide is right for me?" — an interactive tool to help users pick the best digital or print content.
The site redesign doesn't reveal any clues as to how Penguin/Rough Guides plans to solve the essential problem facing guidebook publishers, which is that their market has split in two: high-end print editions for connoisseurs that generate huge margins along with customized advice services aimed at big-spending customers, and quick downloads for mass-market mini-guides and interactive apps.
In comparable markets of music and camera, the mid-market product has suffered the most: paperbacks, CDs, compact cameras. The analogy for guidebook publishers is that the mid-market product of paperback guidebooks and ad-based websites are being overtaken by competitor products at the extremes of high-end and low-end.
Unconventional partnerships with distributors like Travelzoo, with cross-branded sales of vacation packages, or tour sellers like Viator, could bring in new streams of revenue. Website partnerships with multi-modal transport services like Rome2Rio or with user-referral generators like Huffington Post or Gogobot might have helped.
Guidebook writers might hate such talk of partnerships, which they may worry will impinge on their ability to call things as they like or to tout local services. But they'll like it more if it allows them to keep receiving royalties.
But! Solving the monetization problem isn't a job for the digital team, though. And the digital team has followed all the latest best practices in launching its new product. It's a slick new site.
UPDATE, Noon, ET
A spokesperson from the Rough Guides has provided an official statement:
Rough Guides are delighted to announce their website has been given a total revamp and launches on Tuesday 22nd January.
The site aims to be the following:
· Inspirational and visual, a place where readers can dream about and plan their travels
· A place for Rough Guides to engage with their readers, and for readers to engage with each other, via the community forum, blogs, personal profiles, topical features and updates
· A much improved brand experience and shop front for our products. The site will inspire and encourage readers to take a Rough Guide with them on their travels
· Flexible, easy to build on and update, so content can be kept fresh, exciting and current
There is virtually no advertising on the site other than a few links to brand partners, Hostel Bookers. For now, the focus is very much on building brand presence and consumer engagement.
This is just the start; there will be 40 destinations initially with new features, new functionality, and new destinations being added regularly.