- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 12, 2002

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) When Americans cut back on flying last fall, guidebook publisher Lonely Planet took a contrarian approach to avoiding layoffs employees were offered an extended leave that still paid them enough to move comfortably around all but the priciest foreign countries.
"I said, 'I'm outta here.'" recalled Emily Wolman, who hastily planned a three-week trip to Colombia, the country she came to know as an editor of Lonely Planet's South America guide.
About 100 of Lonely Planet's 500 employees took the leave. That helped the publisher exceed its goal of cutting $515,000 in payroll costs but it also led to a shortage of employees and forced Lonely Planet to hire free-lancers to do some of its work, said Eric Kettunen, head of American operations for the Melbourne, Australia-based firm.
Lonely Planet suffered the same drop in business as other travel book publishers. But while the terrorist attacks and lethargic economy crippled sales, guidebook makers say the new year has brought a rebound although sales are still below the footloose days before September 11.
Travel books have been a growing niche in the publishing market in recent years. Guidebook sales grew 23 percent to $222 million from 1997 through 2000, according to the most recent data from Ipsos-NPD BookTrends, a market research firm. The market has expanded to include everyone from backpackers to five-star jetsetters.
But this year, industrywide sales are down a little more than 10 percent to 1.72 million books through mid-February, according to BookScan, which tracks sales at chain stores and wholesale clubs. Publishers put a positive spin on that number, given fears that would-be travelers might keep staying home.
"The general feeling from the retail environment is that business is returning," said Simon Carloss, U.S. marketing director of Rough Guides, a Lonely Planet competitor.
Publishers say the most resilient titles include domestic travel, as well as Central and South America. Anecdotes suggest the "independent travelers" that Lonely Planet caters to post-college, prefamily and without a bulging money belt appear to be leading the rebound.
After sales growth of around 15 percent annually in recent years, Lonely Planet's $3 million in U.S. sales this January and February were on par with 2001, Mr. Kettunen said.
"If you really wanted to travel before, you probably still want to travel," said Karen Jenkins Holt, managing editor of the industry newsletter Book Publishing Report. "But it's absolutely a case of reduced expectations."
Sales tend to bloom in spring as travelers plan their summer trips. Leading publishers including Fodor's, Rough Guide and Avalon all said they are exceeding downgraded sales targets.
Not so fortunate was Globe Pequot Press, the Connecticut-based publisher of "Off The Beaten Path" titles. In late January, citing a decrease in international travel, Pequot laid off 13 employees, or 9 percent of its work force.
Lonely Planet dodged layoffs through its leave program, Mr. Kettunen said.
Managers circulated the offer to an apprehensive staff in mid-November. Employees, including 155 in the company's Oakland office, could take off up to five months before June. They would be paid 15 percent of their salaries and would continue accruing vacation plus, their jobs were guaranteed on return.
Mapmaker Molly Green, 26, jumped at the chance and is now nearing the halfway point of a four-month ramble through Brazil.
"I'll be able to give really constructive feedback on the product from the perspective of a user," Miss Green said during a telephone interview from Porto Seguro.
She conceded, however, that between carnival celebrations and dance classes, work seemed a world away.
"Leaves of absence are hard to get," she said. "I get a month of vacation each year, but if you're a traveler, you want more than that."

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