Lonely Planet CEO departs; reports of a possible sale

FILE - This March 2, 2017, file photo, shows then Lonely Planet CEO Daniel Houghton at a rooftop bar in in New York. Houghton took over the venerable travel publishing company Lonely Planet at age 24 in 2013. On Tuesday, May 8, 2018, the company said Houghton "has stepped away from Lonely Planet to take on a CEO role at another company." (AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz, File)

The wunderkind CEO of Lonely Planet has departed, the company confirmed Wednesday, amid reports that the travel brand and guidebook publisher is up for sale.

Daniel Houghton "has stepped away from Lonely Planet to take on a CEO role at another company," Lonely Planet spokeswoman Natalie Nicolson confirmed by email. "The rest of the leadership team remains in place and will be continuing with business as usual."

Skift, the travel industry media company, reported Wednesday that Lonely Planet's "parent company NC2 is said to be pursuing a sale." Nicolson and NC2 Media did not respond to a request for details.

Houghton was an unknown 24-year-old when he was named CEO of Lonely Planet in 2013. He restructured the company, expanded its digital presence, grew the print side of the business and established headquarters for Lonely Planet in Franklin, Tennessee.

He was hired by billionaire Brad Kelley, whose NC2 Media company bought Lonely Planet from the BBC in 2013. Houghton was a photojournalist with his own multimedia company when he and Kelley met "randomly," Houghton told The Associated Press in 2017. "I was in the right place at the right time."

Kelley, founder of Commonwealth Brands tobacco company, lives in Tennessee and is the primary shareholder in NC2 Media.

For many years, Lonely Planet was the guidebook brand for budget backpackers, thanks to its founders, Tony and Maureen Wheeler. The Wheelers wrote their first book, "Across Asia on the Cheap," in 1973 after driving from Europe to Afghanistan in a car that cost $150. That self-published book sold 1,500 copies in a week and launched a travel empire that has sold millions of books. The brand also embraced the internet early on with wikis where travelers exchanged advice.

The BBC bought out the Wheelers in a two-part deal in 2007 and 2008 for about 130 million pounds, then sold Lonely Planet to NC2 five years later at an 80-million pound loss. The deal drew criticism in England that the BBC had wasted public money during an economic downturn.

Under Houghton, the brand developed apps and grew on social media while maintaining a robust print portfolio of books and magazines. But Lonely Planet's original unique claims to the budget backpacker corner of the market has diminished over the decades with the overall growth and mainstreaming of the sector, along with the explosion of free online advice. At the same time, Lonely Planet has expanded its recommendations beyond hostels and cheap eats to include more upscale options and broaden its appeal to demographics beyond young backpackers.

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