New Delhi: Early last year, Shipra Singh, proprietor of the Prem Sagar Guest House in Connaught Place, started receiving guests who seemed to recognize her at first glance. “Are you Mrs Singh?” they would ask instantly, and for the first couple of weeks, she wondered how they had performed this neat trick.
Then one of her guests, a foreign tourist, gave the game away by showing her the latest edition of the Lonely Planet India guidebook, which had listed Prem Sagar as a recommended mid-range hotel. “Mrs Singh, the courteous owner, keeps this place shipshape, making it a reliable choice,” the entry declared soberly. “The rooms aren’t flash, but they’re clean, with TV, fridge and wardrobe.”
“We didn’t even know anybody from Lonely Planet had been here”, Singh says. As is their custom, “they just came quietly, stayed for a while, and then went away”.
The Lonely Planet guidebooks, published since 1973, have for years now been the lifeline of independent travellers on a budget. Their accommodation listings, in particular, have acquired such authority that many budget and mid-range hotels, in India and elsewhere, use “Listed in Lonely Planet ” to vouch for their quality. It is a significant thing to boast about; Lonely Planet sells at least six million guidebooks each year.
The Indian edition of Lonely Planet was first printed in 1981 and is now published every two years, to manage the voluminous amounts of new research and information that enter each iteration of the book. “Our authors visit every place they recommend in the guide, including revisiting places already included,” says Sam Trafford, the commissioning editor of the most recent guide to India. “Our readers also let us know very quickly if a hotel has gone downhill, so the author can investigate.”
The 12th edition of Lonely Planet India was released in late 2007, and in it, “the author of the Delhi chapter gave the sleeping section an overhaul and found many new hotels to add, so we could give travellers just arriving in India the best start to their trip”, Trafford says. “Something like 28 hotels out of 73 were brand new.”
For Prem Sagar, one of those 28 new hotels, life changed nearly immediately as it experienced a surge in popularity. “The number of people coming increased by 20% or 30%,” Singh says. Even during the lean season, when business traditionally flags, the foreign tourists kept coming, their hands inevitably clutching copies of Lonely Planet India. Singh found herself turning people away, regretfully, allowing other hotels in the neighbourhood to mop up the excess.
Until 2007, Prem Sagar was also largely the haunt of travelling businessmen looking for reasonably priced accommodation in New Delhi. That mix changed in 2008, after the publication of the guidebook and after Prem Sagar built itself a website. “We get so many more foreign tourists now, people who read the book and then look us up online,” Singh says.
For two other new budget-hotel entries in Lonely Planet India, Bless Inn and Hotel Kelson, located in New Delhi’s Paharganj area, business spiked by 10% immediately after the guidebook was published. “But the difference was, we were catering largely to foreign tourists even before,” says Vishal Narang, the director of both hotels. “So even though we had more customers, it was still essentially the same clientele.”
Prem Sagar opened in 1979, just before Singh got married. “I was an only child, and our house was too big for just us,” she says. “Somebody suggested that we turn it into a guesthouse, (and) an agent started sending us guests, and it went from there.” Not surprisingly, Prem Sagar, located as it is on the prime inner circle of Connaught Place, in the heart of New Delhi, prospered.
Of the seven original rooms in the house, Singh converted four into guest quarters; now, after 30 years of incremental expansion and remodelling, Prem Sagar has eight rooms on two levels, and the family stays on the third floor. When it opened, these rooms were priced at Rs250-300 per night, and in the three decades since, the prices have multiplied to Rs3,000-3,500.
“After Lonely Planet, the responsibility to maintain these rooms goes up even further,” Singh says. Its standards of cleanliness are much higher, she adds, so she pays particular attention to, for instance, the towels and the sheets on the bed. She knows that guests of a hotel recommended by Lonely Planet, if disappointed, can leave scathing reviews on its online forum. “Even if there is one negative report, the reputation definitely goes down,” she says. “And then the time may come when Lonely Planet no longer even lists the name.”
The reviews on the Lonely Planet online forum, Thorntree, are, in fact, as influential as Singh believes. “The fact is that...consumers will look for what other people have to say in addition to the opinion of travel thought leaders like Lonely Planet,” says Ram Badrinathan, general manager, Asia Pacific, of PhoCusWright, a travel industry research firm. “Lonely Planet’s editorially driven strategy is at the other end of the spectrum and is also beneficial, but it cannot drive the wisdom-of-crowds paradigm.”
Some hotels are blasé about their Lonely Planet cameos. The 26-room Wongdhen House hotel, located in Delhi’s Tibetan-dominated Majnu-ka-Tilla area, earned its listing a couple of editions ago. “But I don’t remember any dramatic increase in numbers,” says Pema, one of Wongdhen House’s managers, who goes by one name only. “Even before that, we’d been getting mostly a foreign tourist crowd, backpackers from Europe and America.”
Surprisingly, a Lonely Planet mention isn’t always welcome. Vinita Nath’s parents own Lutyens Bungalow, a sprawling guesthouse on New Delhi’s exclusive Prithviraj Road. The hotel, Nath says, is happy enough relying on a small but dependable base of recurring customers. When Lonely Planet India’s 2007 edition came out, naming Lutyen’s Bungalow as a good mid-range hotel, “the phone didn’t stop ringing all day”, Nath remembers. “We were completely fed up. Maybe many people just wanted to see what a house on Prithviraj Road looks like.”
The Lonely Planet listing, Nath observes, also got its prices wrong, quoting rates from a few years ago (this is not an uncommon occurrence, because of the guidebook’s lengthy research and publication cycle). “So we didn’t get any business because the people who called were looking for much cheaper prices,” she says. “We wrote to Lonely Planet, asking them to change it.” But, Nath admits with a laugh, “we certainly did like the fact that we got a mention”.