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Resurrecting a 19th Century Business

Arthur Frommer is sitting on a 21st century gold mine

August 27, 2013 By Denny Hatch
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Travel anywhere—or visit the travel section of a bookstore—and you'll run across the name Arthur Frommer. He is the publisher of guidebooks, travel books and maps.

The very first title was: The G.I.'s Guide to Traveling in Europe by Pfc. Arthur Frommer. Printed in Germany, this 74-page paperback was published January 1, 1955 with a retail price of 50¢. It is now available as a curiosity for $199.99 and up. [See the first image in the media player at right.]

Two years later, Frommer brought out an expanded edition—174 pages—as Europe on 5 Dollars a Day. It took off. It changed how Americans viewed travel and established Arthur Frommer as a major force in travel publishing.

Enter "Frommer" into amazon.com and you'll get 6,049 results. Go to Arthur Frommer's website and you'll have the entire world at your fingertips—where and how to go, where to stay, where to eat and drink, what to see and do.

I would bet this is the world's greatest database of the world for the traveler—continually updated and invaluable.

Arthur Frommer's 11-Month Romance With Google
Google made another foray into producing original content Monday when it announced its plans to buy the Frommer's brand of travel guides from John Wiley & Sons to augment its local and travel search results.

Google will pay about $23 million for the brand, according to a person close to the deal who was not authorized to speak publicly about the terms. The companies declined to comment on the purchase price. It is a small acquisition for Google, but important for several of Google's up-and-coming businesses. —Claire Cain Miller, The New York Times, Aug. 13, 2012

Google quietly pulls plug on Frommer's print travel guidebooks
Google has ceased production
and publication of printed guidebooks bearing the Frommer's brand name, Skift has learned.

The last two Frommer's books to roll off the presses were guides in the all-color Day-by-Day series devoted to Napa and Sonoma and Banff and the Rockies, and went on sale in early February. The last book in the traditional complete guide series was Frommer's Florida. —Jason Clampet, SKIFT, Mar. 21, 2013

Four Months Later, Arthur Frommer Buys Himself Back
This past July, it was announced that Arthur Frommer—at the ripe young age of 83—bought his brand back from Google and will start publishing books again.

For years, I had been carrying Arthur Frommer in my mental inventory of the dead. At 78, I was delighted to discover this fellow geezer is very much alive and once again at the helm of a business he loves.

However, as a traveler, I think his 19th century business model—printing and trying to sell printed travel books—sucks.

Peggy and I travel a fair amount. We have shelves full of travel books going back to an 1895 Baedeker's Lower Egypt, modern day Fodor's and illustrated guide books from all over the world.

However, we refuse to lug a pile books when we travel. They weigh a ton and are chock full of information we do not want or need. What follows is an open letter to Arthur Frommer about a business model I urge him to test. I would love to be his first customer.

_________________________

Dear Mr. Frommer,

Congrats on reacquiring your publishing company form Google. I am thrilled for you.

You have the world's greatest database for world travelers. I would like to buy some of it from you—but only the parts that interest us. Can you help?

The Trip
We have signed up for an 8-day Viking River Cruise on the Danube leaving from Budapest. After Budapest, stops include Vienna, Melk, Passau, Regensburg, the Main-Danube Canal and Nuremberg.

Our hotel is the ship. Most meals are aboard. We have morning excursions with local guides who will hit the main attractions. Afternoons and evenings are free for us to explore on our own.

Here's where you come in.

Under your current business model, we would have to purchase your complete guides to Austria and Germany.

To buy both books at amazon.com would cost me $32.16 for 1,216 pages weighing 2.3 pounds. Well over 1,000 of those pages contain information we have zero interest in.

Things We DO NOT Want to Know About: Getting there and public transportation, hotels, bicycling, excursions into the countryside, nightlife, the gay scene, the bar scene, the best activities for children and much more.

What I Would Like to Pay You For
• A concise history of the countries and each city. Please include a list of intriguing facts, factoids and anecdotes.

•Weather for that time of year.

•The main attractions ranked from the most popular to least with descriptions of each, why they are important and what to look for:
-Museums
-Architecture
-Parks
-Events
-Entertainment
-Restaurants: the six or eight of the best at various prices
-Most interesting local foods to order
-Best shopping highlights

• Transportation: We will be using taxis. What do we need to know about them?

• Basic map of each city with the above highlights pinpointed.

How Will You Know What I Want?
I would like to go to your website and tick boxes in a questionnaire. All this material is in your database. When I click Send, you will know instantly how much information I am buying and the price I must pay.

Delivery: I would like you create a paperback book via Print-on-Demand containing the information above. The genius of Print-on-Demand enables the publisher to make good money printing as little as one book at a time.

Others might want this material online or sent in an e-book format.

However, I would like a printed guide for our specific trip. What's more, I would treasure it as souvenir to go back to again and again over the years with great pleasure.

Pricing: Our Viking trip—round-trip flights, and river passage, bar bills and souvenirs—is pricy. If you can save me the trouble of many hours searching the Web, I will happily pay you a good price. I suggest two editions:

  • Regular. My Trip on the Danube: Text only with charts and map: $49.95.
  • Deluxe: Include color photographs and blank pages in the back for snapshots and postcards: $79.95.

I suggest you test prices.

Other Marketing Opportunities
Remember, all the material is in your computers. This requires an investment in programming. Once the system is in place, everything is on automatic pilot 24/7. Sit back and watch your bank account grow.

• In addition, you could go to the Viking Cruise line and create joint editions with the Viking logo. Show the Viking marketing people the Denny and Peggy Hatch book of the Danube cruise and offer to print additional copies for sale on shipboard. And while you're at it, create books for Viking's Rhone, Rhine, Elbe, Seine and Moscow-St. Petersburg cruises. I think they would (to coin a phrase) sell like hotcakes in the ships' boutiques.

• If you send a top sales person to Viking, you might be able to persuade Viking to send a book-'o-the-cruise as a premium to every couple that signs up. If this book were sent in the welcome package along with the travel documents and luggage tags, prospective travelers would be delighted. Viking has 57 ships. That would mean sales of roughly 130,000 books a year.

• Then go after Cunard, Norwegian, Carnival, Crystal, Sea Cloud, Royal Caribbean, Disney and Celebrity to name a few others.

• You can run the information through Google's Translation Service and market these products in 72 languages—from Afrikaans, Albanian, Arabic, American and Azerbaijani to Turkish, Ukrainian, Urdu, Vietnamese, Welsh and Yiddish.

In short, Mr. Frommer, welcome to becoming a true 21st century publisher!

Takeaways to Consider

  • If you can tweak and test existing products or services and repurpose them for new markets, the cost will be a lost less than a cold new-business start-up. And profitability could come a lot quicker.
  • Jeff Bezos is one of the richest people in America. In my opinion—as founder of amazon.com and inventor of the Kindle—he is a conceptual thinker, à la the late Steve Jobs of Apple. A most fascinating development is Jeff Bezos' purchase of The Washington Post, founded in 1877. With the exception of a website, The Post business model is out of the 19th century. The newspaper division lost $49.3 million in the first six months of 2013. In my opinion, Bezos is one of the few people extant who could bring it to profitability in the 21st century. Below is the lede paragraph of Bezos' Aug. 5 memo to The Washington Post, causing many old-time Post employees to reach for the Valium vial or the Bombay Sapphire gin: There will of course be change at the Post over the coming years. The Internet is transforming almost every element of the news business: shortening news cycles, eroding long-reliable revenue sources, and enabling new kinds of competition, some of which bear little or no news-gathering costs. There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy. We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment.
  • Remember my Takeaway last month describing American Girl—exquisite, upmarket dolls for little girls. It started with dolls and dolls' clothes. The company expanded into dresses for little girls to match their dolls' outfits and adult clothes for mothers to dress like their daughters. The extensions included a magazine and catalog. The company has headquarters in Chicago and stores in major cities. Doll owners can bring their dolls into a "doll hospital" (for repair). While waiting, they can dine, attend parties, shop, play games and much more. Best of all, American Girl enjoys an inexhaustible pipeline of brand new customers—little girls growing up.

 


 
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