Let’s Go May Scale Back

Travel guide company could publish fewer titles, cut back on student jobs

Let’s Go publications will likely make significant cuts in its job offerings next summer, as declining sales have pushed the company to consider updating fewer of its books annually.

For decades, one of the student-produced brand’s proudest selling points has been that, unlike its major competitors, Let’s Go updates its guides annually.

But under the new plan, almost half of Let’s Go’s 40-plus titles will be updated less frequently—with some remaining on the shelf as-is for the next two or three years, said an official at Let’s Go who asked not to be named.

Last summer, Let’s Go updated 30 books and employed about 230 students from across the University to edit and research the books, said Bob Rombauer, general manager of Harvard Student Agencies, which oversees Let’s Go.

For the last month, Let’s Go’s leadership has been discussing the proposal to cut publications with St. Martin’s Press, its publisher. A final decision will not be made for at least two months, said Tom M. Mercer ’01, Let’s Go’s project director at St. Martin’s.

“We don’t have an absolute plan for what our titles are going to be next year,” Mercer said.

But the Let’s Go official said there would “likely” be a decrease in the number of published titles, and therefore a drop in employment at Let’s Go.

The travel guide sends students to destinations around the world—from Australia to Alaska, China to Costa Rica. There they pass through a whirlwind of hotels, restaurants and bars, recording everything from changes in hostel rates to hangouts for cute locals.

The student researchers, hired every spring, e-mail copy to Let’s Go’s headquarters in Cambridge, where editors then turn the writing into fresh books ready for publication in the fall.

Emma R. F. Nothmann ’04, Let’s Go’s outgoing publishing director, would not comment on internal company discussions, but she said that Let’s Go is not in financial peril.

“Like any other company, we change every year, we keep ourselves fresh,” said Nothmann, who is also a Crimson editor. “We’re totally committed to providing the student body with these opportunities.”

The potential strategy change began as a business decision in 2001, when sales first began to decline, Rombauer said.

At the time, a market study confirmed the brand’s suspicions that customers would not mind if some of the guides were published less than annually, he said. Let’s Go then moved to publish only a portion of its guides annually, taking out guides like Costa Rica and Vietnam from the annual rotation.

The new proposal would expand the number of guides updated every other year—called “editions”—while some titles might be publish even less frequently.

One likely candidate for less frequent updates is the China guide, said the Let’s Go official.

Although Let’s Go would not comment on its exact sales numbers, Mercer said the drop in 2001 was “precipitous”—in-step with market-wide trends after the Sept. 11 attacks.

But Let’s Go’s troubles began in the 1990s, when Lonely Planet guides crashed bookshelves, stealing Let’s Go’s crown as the top-selling budget brand, according to industry experts.

“For many, many years Let’s Go Europe was our number-one seller out of everything in our store,” said Pat Carrier, co-owner of the Globe Corner Bookstores. “They owned the budget traveler niche. Twenty years ago, anyone who thought of themselves as a budget traveler—even if they were 60 years old—bought a Let’s Go.”

That is no longer the case, Carrier said. Today, travelers have hundreds of titles to wade through, from guides that specialize in British wit to books that target mountain bikers.

In this sea of new choices, old brands like Let’s Go can start to look tired, said Michael Spring, publisher of Frommer’s guidebooks.

“I think they’ve got an uphill battle,” Spring said. “It’s awfully hard, it’s almost impossible, once you get a sense of being passé, of coming back. There’s a high mortality rate among travel guides, and Let’s Go may be suffering just from overexposure.”

Others in the industry have more faith in the brand.

“Let’s Go provides information for student travelers that I think nobody else provides,” said Rick Steves, whose moniker headlines a popular series of travel guides. “For that, young travelers should be thankful. If they want a better guidebook, they can research and write it themselves.”

—Staff writer Elizabeth W. Green can be reached at egreen@fas.harvard.edu.