ƒ Curious Travelers Television: The History of Globe Trekker: Mother of all Modern Travel Programs

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The History of Globe Trekker: Mother of all Modern Travel Programs

The History of Globe Trekker/Pilot Guides, according to Curious Travelers (and correct me if I am wrong, some information is insider info, most is second hand and from research)

If the grandfather of all travel programs was Lowell Thomas, the honor of the father of the modern travel program, called travelogues at the time ( a word Mr. Thomas coined), the mother of the modern travel program is Pilot Guides, started in 1994 by Ian Cross. The first program on Rio de Janeiro was presented by a then twenty late something Ian Wright. The series was called The Lonely Planet and based on the popular guidebooks.

With over one hundred episodes, Pilot Guide is now the most popular travel program on American television and in the world. It is reported to have over 30 million viewers and is available in over forty countries, mostly through it's distribution by Discovery International, It is particularly popular in Asia, where Ian Wright has achieved celebrity status and recognized on the street. Ironically in London he is a relatively unknown, often confused with a famous soccer player of the same name.

Based in two adjoining townhouses in London, with a sales office in Los Angeles, Pilot Guides is put together with a team of only twelve and produces three series: the longest running travel program on television Globe Trekker (as it is know in the US) on PBS/WETA , Adventures in Golf hosted by the founder himself Ian Cross and Food Planet. They also produce a series of short extras on shopping, food, festivals to round out their forty five to fifty minute programs. Many of the shorts are recycled footage, re-edited footage of existing programs and some is new footage with new presenters, possibly under consideration for presenters in the longer series.

It started out as "Lonely Planet" and was to my knowledge the first travel series produced in association with a guidebook company, the second guidebook based program being Roughguides, which aired for eight years back in the 90's. The original production were partly or wholly financed under a licensing agreement with Channel 4 in England. I don't know the details of the agreement with Lonely Planet but several years ago they managed to retain all the rights to the programs and rebrand them as Globe Trekker/Pilot Guides.

My guess is that Lonely Planet didn't realize how popular the programs would be. Much of it's incredible success is due to the impressive hosting in particular by Ian Wright, Megan McCormick and Justine Shapiro, the programs most popular of its eleven presenters. As a branding and marketing tool for Lonely Planet Guidebooks the program was a Godsend. The loss of the programs must have been a blow to its marketing efforts. Since then Lonely Planet Guidebooks has formed a division Lonely Planet TV and produced several episodes of a travel program Six Degrees but it has yet to make it into the American television market and its popularity pales in comparison with Pilot Guides, which has a monster following.

Another theory regarding Lonely Planet's loss of the series involves a conflict between the content of the series and the guidebook's brand evolution. Originally Lonely Planet was a guidebook that was read by alternative travelers, mostly young, say 22-25, on a budget, seeking out of the way destinations "The Road Less Traveled", staying at youth hostels and campgrounds, eating at roadside restaurants, etc. Lonely Planet began in the early 1970's after founders Tony and Maureen Wheeler completed an overland journey from London through Asia and on to Australia. That trip resulted in the first ever Lonely Planet guidebook - Across Asia on the Cheap - and laid the foundations of the world's leading independent travel publisher.

With a more educated youthful population, the generation of the 1960's, a rise in disposable income , and most importantly, the introduction of the wide body aircraft and cheap flights such as the long defunct Laker Airlines, The Lonely Planet catered to this new type of traveler. (Actually "Let's Go", started by a group of students at Harvard University, in 1960 was the first guidebook to cater to this new travel market but it wasn't until the 1990's, when it was distributed by St. Martin's Press that the guidebook had a considerable readership.) In the beginning The Lonely Planet also benefited for the invention and widespread use of the Xerox machine, which allowed individuals to create inexpensive, albeit a limited number, of copies of their publications and test the market. It was as if they had control of the means of production - access to the printing press.

Lonely Planet however faced competition from other guidebooks in the 1980's such as Rough Guides, started in 1982 by Mark Ellingham out of England, a student scheme like Let's Go, that became a publishing phenomenon. More traditional and general guidebooks such as Frommer's (started in the early 1950's) and Fodor's (started in 1936) included information for budget travelers and eventually devoted entire editions catering to this market of alternative travelers.

As a reaction to the clutter in the marketplace of alternative travel guidebooks several years ago the Lonely Planet included information for more upscale travelers as well as the budget travelers. Now there are listings in Lonely Planet for five star hotels and restaurants along with the youth hostels and cheap restaurants. Nothing wrong with that but the Lonely Planet TV shows produced by Pilot Guides were and are still based on the budget guidebook at the time. They can't change it's format and presenters. I suppose the Lonely Planet guidebook company decided it would be better to produce their own travel programs, programs that better represent the guidebook as it now is.