Lonely Planet’s 25-Year-Old CEO, the Reclusive Billionaire Who Hired Him, and the Writer Who Told His Story

By Charles Bethea May 22nd, 2014

One of our goals for The Freelancer is to highlight exceptional freelance reporting. Writer Redux will be a continuing series that lets skilled freelancers dish on the editorial process for a recent longform feature. Charles Bethea, a freelance reporter from Atlanta, is our guinea pig.

Bethea, who has contributed to publications like the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and The New Yorker, wrote a piece for Outside titled “Young Man in a Hurry” about how an unknown 25-year-old became the CEO of Lonely Planet and is trying to reinvent the company. The article appeared in Outside’s April issue. Now, Bethea gives us a detailed dive into pitching the topic, shaping the story, doing shots with the young CEO in New Zealand, and the “journalistic coup” of getting 118 words from the private billionaire who bought Lonely Planet and put an inexperienced kid in charge.

Last August, while eating dinner on a beach in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, I got into a conversation with a writer who’d worked as a Lonely Planet author for years, but quit when the gig became less lucrative. Six months earlier, she told me, a little known billionaire had bought the storied guidebook company and put a kid in charge. A kid, I asked? “Yeah, he’s like 22,” she said. Turns out Daniel Houghton was 24 at the time, but she guessed his email address, which I tried later that night, after a few drinks.

“Mr. Houghton,” I began—assuming formality remained the right tack with a stranger seven years my junior—”I hope this finds you well. I’m a young journalist”—I wanted him to feel we were of the same generation, roughly—”in Atlanta”—where he also grew up—”and a contributor to OutsideBackpackerMen’s Journal, the Wall Street Journal and others. I’m also a longtime fan”—true—”and user of Lonely Planet. I’m fascinated by your plans for the brand and would relish the opportunity to talk with you a bit about them for a publication like Outside. I imagine that a resulting story, perhaps a profile of you, could be good for LP’s business moving forward.”

He wrote back the same day, without formality. He was on a plane, returning from a two-month trip around the world. Would I email him more details? I told him I thought this was a pivotal time for the biggest travel guidebook brand in the world, and perhaps there would be some benefit to him and LP in letting a writer take a close look at the company in transition. He seemed to agree.

Our first phone call confirmed he was indeed a young man: He said “awesome” and “cool” a lot. He was very enthusiastic. And refreshingly—to someone who has interviewed many celebrities—he didn’t come across as pretentious or self-involved. I felt like I’d found both a great story and the ideal subject: uncorrupted by power or ego or money, as of yet, and willing to open up.

I’d already been in touch with Abe Streep—my terrific editor at Outside, where I worked six years ago—and he was enthusiastic. He wanted more than the teaser pitch I’d sent him from Mexico, though. That had begun: “Have you guys considered profiling Daniel Houghton, the 24-year-old CEO of Lonely Planet—plucked from obscurity just a few months ago—who is changing the way the iconic guidebook company operates? He’s currently firing many longtime contributors as he pursues a (to many) dubious content strategy that will rely largely on free, user-generated information.” Using the phone call and emails with Houghton, intel from a few LP writers I’d found, and some Internet research, I cobbled together a page-and-a-half pitch Abe took to an Outside story meeting.

Three weeks later, I got the green light for a 4,500-word profile, which would pay a few bucks a word. Abe told me I needed to answer three questions: How the hell did he get this job? Who is Brad Kelley, really? And what’s the future of guidebooks?

I knew from talking with Houghton the first question could be answered, and it would be a scoop. But what about the other two? Kelley, worth an estimated $1.9 billion, was roundly described as a “recluse.” He’d only given one brief interview in the previous decade. And that was conducted by email. Getting to him would be tough. And the future of guidebooks? I felt that Houghton would give me a clue, if he had one. I just needed to spend some time with him, so I pushed for a trip around the world with the kid mogul. Two months later, he agreed to go to New Zealand with me (Papua New Guinea was also floated) just before Christmas. Jackpot.

I tried to do most of the reporting before traveling halfway around the world, partly because Outside wanted a draft by early January, but also, of course, so I could have an educated conversation with Houghton when we finally met.

One of my first interviews was with his parents, who lived just a half hour from me. We met in their living room for two hours, and they were kind, generous, and well-informed sources. They narrated their precocious son’s early life for me, and also suggested a few high school and college friends worth talking to. They all described a young man with an almost monastic commitment to photography. One also said he did pretty well with the ladies, but that didn’t make the cut.

On the business side, I asked the writer I’d met in Mexico if she’d suggest a few other current and former LP staffers who might give me company background. Each one suggested other LP staffers to talk to. In the end, I interviewed around fifteen writers, editors, and corporate managers about the company’s past and where they thought it was going. Many felt uneasy describing how the new boss made them feel: generally some combination of strange and skeptical. So it took some convincing to get on-record quotations. Other good ones (“I figured there had to be more to the story than ‘reclusive billionaire hired this 24-year-old with no known experience to run the joint.’ But I think it’s as silly and fucked up as it sounds.”) could only be used if left unattributed.

The tougher interviews to secure were with LP’s co-founder, Tony Wheeler, and the “reclusive” billionaire and new owner of the company, Kelley. In both cases, I knew Houghton’s help would be key. These guys almost certainly wouldn’t do an interview unless he asked them.

In October, well before our trip to New Zealand, Houghton and I met at his offices in Franklin, Tennessee. We had a number of similar interests—hip-hop, skiing, Ping-Pong—and quickly developed a good rapport. That time spent talking both formally and informally—over a few beers and barbecue—went a long way towards earning his trust. And that trust led him to push on my behalf for the interviews with Wheeler and Kelley.

In the end, both of those had to be conducted by email. Wheeler was generous with his answers, while Kelley—who, again, had sworn off giving interviews for years—was a bit more parsimonious; the billionaire sent me 118 words. Still, those brief answers to my questions, opaque as most were, amounted to a journalistic coup.

When it came time for the trip to New Zealand’s South Island, I felt informed. There I’d follow Houghton around the South Island as he, in turn, followed around a writer and photographer on assignment for LP’s magazine in the UK, taking pictures and video. I suspected the five days we spent in New Zealand would amount to just a 800-word section in the resulting story, but it would provide some vital present-tense action. He told me he was up for bungee-jumping, and I thought that act—a sudden jump off a ledge of sorts—might be an apt metaphor for his undertaking. In the end, we didn’t bungee (fine by me). But there was plenty of opportunity to see Houghton navigate the physical challenges of the island by foot, helicopter, zip-line, and shot glass. I filled two small notebooks with notes. The many pages dedicated to a single night’s bar crawl—Houghton’s appetite for clubbing surprised me—amounted to just a paragraph in the story, sadly.

There were many moments spent with Houghton—drinking wine and talking about his childhood one night on a Queenstown beach, listening to bluegrass and eating pork in Tennessee—that could have offered further insight into the young man. But they fell by the wayside: Word counts rule.

I ended up leading my first draft with an anecdote from an infamous former LP writer named Thomas Kohnstamm, who wrote a memoir called Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? He’d told me about the hard-drinking, drug-selling, and promiscuity that marked his time writing about Brazil a decade ago. I thought a particular story—about selling ecstasy, since his LP money wasn’t enough to live on, while cobbling together information about a country far too large to see in its entirety before his deadline—was both compelling as a vignette and also illustrative of the haphazard and inefficient ways guidebooks used to be made. But, in the end, Abe cut it. It was too long, for one thing, and too detached from Houghton. We needed to lead with the kid in action. So that’s what we did.

Abe moved around some text within the body of the story, and pushed me to reach out to more people in the travel industry for comment about the goings on at LP, which I did. I had to cut a good bit I’d learned about Kelley and a section on the history of the guidebook, because they slowed the piece down and veered from the central story of Houghton’s rise and plans.

I was pleased my concluding section from the first draft remained largely intact through all three drafts: I ended with a kid, younger than Houghton, whom he met while we hiked New Zealand’s famed Routeburn Track. One evening, they had a conversation about a Twitter-like app the kid was working on, which impressed Houghton. I thought it was a nice moment between two precocious young men hoping to change the world. One had been given an opportunity to do so. The other hadn’t, yet.

Certainly, there are haters out there—many of them grumpy or jealous LP staffers, past or present—who’ve already written Houghton’s professional epitaph. But, as I suggest in the story, it’s too early to say for certain whether hiring Houghton was the right move by Kelley. I’d encourage observers to give Houghton’s efforts and investments a few years to play out, and for his sometimes vaguely articulated goals to cohere. My hunch is that he and his company will continue to surprise skeptics in a good way.

Image via Andrew Hetherington / Outside Magazine

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