Daniel Houghton became the CEO of the popular travel publishing company, Lonely Planet, at just 24. The company wasn’t adapting to modern times and its future looked bleak. They needed someone young, someone who knew how to transition Loney Planet into the digital age, and someone who understood both media and technology. That’s when Houghton was tapped to lead the company. Under his leadership, the company modernized and developed a new generation of readers, and now has over 16.2 million followers on social media. Recently, Houghton stepped down as CEO and wrote the book Wherever You Go, which has just been released. I had the chance to sit down with him and ask about his time at Lonely Planet, his new book, and his future.
You became the CEO of Lonely Planet, one of the largest travel companies in the world, at just 24 years old. What was that like?
Well… the company didn’t exactly come with its own guidebook (laughs). It was really rough in the beginning. I come from a media background, but I had never had such responsibility before. It’s a huge company, but luckily, they have such a great team and it really became a group effort. But yeah.. there was a very steep learning curve for sure.
Did you enjoy your time there?
Oh, of course! I mean, it’s such an amazing company, it has a huge dedicated fanbase around the world, and travel is something I’m so passionate about. We hired people who loved the brand and loved travel, not people who were chasing money, and that made the entire company glow with such incredible energy.
You ended up stepping down from Lonely Planet, moved out to a farm in Tennessee and wrote a book. Explain how that happened.
Running a major company like Lonely Planet takes a lot out of you. It was an intense amount of travel and an intense amount of responsibility. We have a huge team that’s spread out all over the world. I spent about 200-250 days per year on the road, which I absolutely loved and it was amazing, but it also has a way of wearing you out. By the end, after the company had made such growth, I felt that I had left my mark. I had made some really good things happen and it just felt like it was the right time to start a new journey.
And unfortunately, then my dad got really sick, which I talk about in the forward of my book. So, I really wanted to be able to be close to my family. The farm thing came from me always wanting to live on a farm. I love woodworking, I love dogs, I love being outside, really, I just like a lot of old man things I guess! But yeah, with my dad being sick, I wanted some time off. I wanted to be with my family as much as I could. So now we all live in the same area and I can see them as much I want.
How about the book? How did those pieces come together?
Well, my background is actually in journalism. And throughout my time at Lonely Planet, I really discovered that travel can change the world, and I wanted to share that with other people. As you can imagine, as the CEO, I never really had time to write for the book as I was busy doing management stuff. But my desire to write was always there.
My book Wherever You Go is a mix of my time at Lonely Planet and all the travel and adventure that came with that, as well as interviews with people in the travel industry. I purposefully chose a wide range of people with totally different backgrounds, connected solely by the fact that travel is a huge part of their life.
And I have to say, what came from the interviews was just serendipitous. Richard Branson ended up telling me about all the times he’s almost died from his daring travels. Phil Rosenthal (creator of Everybody Loves Raymond and star of his own travel show Somebody Feed Phil) told me about these people he met on a train some 25 years ago, and ended up becoming lifelong friends with them. And of course, Linda Lloyed, one of the world’s longest-serving flight attendants, ended up telling me about the time she served Elvis on her plane. Halfway through our conversation, she was just like, “Oh, also I should probably tell you about the time Elvis bought out the entire first-class cabin on a flight…” You can’t make these things up! To me, the interviews in the book are the most special parts, showing how different people from different walks of life all engage with the world around them through travel.
If someone was to ask you to sum up what makes travel so special, what would you say? Why do you think it’s so important for everyone?
I think that what happens to each of us when we go out and see the world, whether it’s a state you’ve never been to, or halfway around the world, the experiences you have during those journeys will change you. Meeting new people, seeing them smile at you, realizing that humans are humans all over the world…it touches us to our deepest core.
Travel opens your mind, even if you’re not an open-minded person before you go. You start to understand other people, you see what their life is like, and when you go back home, you see things differently.
Finally, I have to ask, what’s next? You’re going on 30 and have already been the CEO of a company and are now an author… Where do you go from here?
Wow… that’s actually a great question. I’m developing a new company, which is a lot of fun. I can’t say too much about it yet, but I’m very excited about it. I’ve also been trying to spend as much time as possible with my family, I’m doing a lot of relaxing, and I’m taking lots of real vacations. It’s so amazing to visit places now knowing that I can actually go explore, and not be stuck in a meeting somewhere!
Daniel Houghton’s new book ‘Wherever You Go’ is on sale now, and can be found here and wherever books are sold.