Who buys travel guides? Travel Guide Market Research

Developing a profile of travel guide buyers using UK book publishing industry statistics and intelligence

April 2006    

This article begins by briefly examining the overall UK publishing market. The field is then narrowed down to the UK book publishing market and buyers of consumer books. This data is then applied specifically to the travel guide market in order to develop a more refined understanding of who buy travel guides.

As a supplier of travel stock photography I want to understand the general book market, and especially the travel guide book market. My investigation here draws on the most recent, publicly available market intelligence and industry statistics available at the British Library, including Key Note market reports and reviews, and Mintel reports. There is little data directly concerning travel guide publication and sales, but there is good material on publishing in general and book buying habits which can be applied to the travel guide market and interpreted in this context. In order to make the task manageable I have restricted my investigation to the UK (rather than take on the entire global marketplace). Given widely similar lifestyle aspirations, and with some careful handling, I believe the trends traced and interpretations made here can be extrapolated to travel guide book buying habits in the rest of the English-speaking world and western Europe.

The UK Publishing Market

The UK publishing industry, by the beginning of 2005, was worth just over £18.7bn. Except for a few magazine companies, the industry is largely UK-owned. The industry can be sliced into three major sectors: newspaper publishing, magazine publishing and book publishing. Newspaper publishing at the beginning of 2005 accounted for just under 43% of the industry’s total income, magazine publishing attracted just over 36%, while book publishing, clearly the ‘baby’ of the sector, was drawing about 21% of the market’s total income. This latter fact is not surprising considering that a good chunk of the revenue for newspaper and magazine publishing comes from advertising sales not really available to the book market.

  The Gherkin, London

Stock Travel Photo: The Gherkin
AKA: Swiss Re Building or 30 St Mary Axe
City of London

Note that the continuing drop in newspaper sales in the UK has so far been compensated for by an increase in advertising revenue, which is viable as long as our economy remains buoyant. And although more people buy magazines than newspapers and books and their readership is often a very loyal one their increased sales have been threatened by the ‘magazineification’ of newspapers and a range of editorial type books, including travel guides, by employing busy magazine-style layouts and incorporating more photographs and other illustrations. Book publishing, by comparison, has remained strong with a steady increase in the number of titles coming out and growth of sales each year.

There are some interesting social and technological factors which will probably affect sales within the publishing industry over the next five years. Key Note points out that, ‘By 2010, around 40% of house holders are expected to be single-person households’. Historically, single people have valued and bought a wide variety of published materials, and this would seem to auger well for publishers. That is, if single people can still afford to buy anything after purchasing a house at today’s inflated prices.

Another factor, important especially to book sales, is that there are more people in self-employment in the UK than in any other European country. Given the increasing penetration of broadband internet and businesses’ exploitation of this communication channel, self-employment seems likely to rise (despite the proportionally greater growth in bankruptcies). This is good news for book publishers because the self-employed generally buy more books: for trade/professional and reference use as well as for personal enjoyment and gifts. They are also more likely to be engaging in lifelong learning by studying part-time and in the evenings and buying academic texts and subscribing to journals in support.

Curiously, online books, magazines and newspapers don’t seem to have dented the publishing industry nearly as much as was believed six or seven years ago. The internet has offered lucrative distribution opportunities to some publishers especially big players in the academic, professional and business sectors. In fact the web sites of many newspaper and magazine publishers appear to reinforce brand loyalty. Newspaper sites deliver even more up-to-the-minute information to the office desktop than found in the morning’s paper read on the train, while magazine sites offer additional material and scope for discussion not found in the weekly or monthly fix. Some good, interactive sites now offer book chapter ‘tasters’, and make it easy to buy hard copies online.

In their 2004 market review, Key Note estimated that between 2004 and 2008 the overall UK publishing market would grow by 12.9%, with magazine revenues growing by 17.3%; newspaper by 15.2%; and book publishing by 14.7%.

Book Buyers and the UK Book Publishing Market

Buyers of books can be broken down into three broad types: consumers, private institutions and public institutions. Consumers account for just over 70% of book sales (by value), while private institutions account for just under 20% and public institutions about 10%. Mintel commissioned some interesting consumer research in 1999 through BMRB (British Market Research Bureau), who polled 999 adults over the age of 15. The results were ‘weighted to conform with national demographic profiles’.

Tourist with Franklin D Roosevelt and Churchill  
Stock Travel Photo: Young woman tourist sitting between
Franklin D Roosevelt and Winston Churchill,
Bond Street, Mayfair, London


The 999 consumers were shown a list of book types and asked which, if any, they had bought in the last 12 months. The list had nonfiction categories (such as ‘reference’, ‘cookery / food / wine’, ‘biography / autobiography’, ‘sport’, ‘history / politics’, ‘travel’, etc.), a host of fiction categories (including ‘crime / mystery / thriller’, ‘classics’, ‘historical romance’) and a single ‘children’s’ category.

The most interesting fact from this report in the present context is that 9% of consumers bought a travel book in the previous year. (For comparative interest’s sake, 27% of them had bought a children’s book, 18% a crime/mystery/thriller, 11% a sport book, 10% a history/politics book and 9% an historical romance. 23% of the group bought no book at all.) The ‘travel’ category in book market research traditionally includes maps and atlases along with travel guides, but excludes travel narratives although it is recognized that distinguishing between the two can occasionally be difficult. Unfortunately there are no finer grained statistics for travel book buyers.

Consumer Book Buying and Travel Book Buying

Because there is no data specific to travel guide buyers and their habits publically available, and in order to move forward, I will look at the good information available regarding book buyers generally which distinguishes book buyers by sex, age group, social grade, geography and family life stage and apply to this other information available about travel guide users and buyers. Some of this further information will be market research, some anecdotal material. By this method I hope to develop a clearer idea of travel guide buyers. This is, by necessity, a bit rough and ready, but it does give a clearer idea of the type of person most likely to buy a travel guide and least likely to buy one and allow us to apply some figures to the 9% of the population we know definitely buy guidebooks.


Are guidebook buyers more likely to be male or female? The above BMRB study indicates that 79% of women and 74% of men are book buyers (i.e. buy at least one book per year). The higher number of women buyers though, according to the data, can almost entirely be put down to the greater number of children’s books they buy. As I am ultimately interested in travel guides here, I will again narrow the field and consider only nonfiction titles. In the big selling consumer nonfiction areas, more men (21%) buy reference books than women (15%); more women (15%) buy biographies/autobiographies than men (14%); more men (15%) buy history/political books than women (6%); and more women (16%) buy academic/school books than men (12%). Given these numbers in the big nonfiction buying areas, I strongly suspect that there is little difference between the travel guide buying habits of women and men. This fits well with my personal experience and anecdotal evidence of the buying habits of friends, relatives and acquaintances.


The BMRB survey indicates that 79% of people (of both sexes) between the ages of 15-24 years buy at least one book per year. It runs to 84% for those aged 25-34; 86% aged 35-44; 76% aged 45-54; 77% aged 55-64; and 59% for those aged 65 and over. Those aged 25-34 and especially 35-44 buy markedly more reference and academic/school books than the other groups, which goes some way to explaining the higher sales figures for these groups.

Woman Bungee Jumping Before London Eye  
Stock Travel Photo: Young woman jumping
before the British Airways London Eye,
South Bank, London


Bookseller Publications’ Book Publishing in Britain is rich in detail and ranks travel guide publishers by market share. The study indicates that the four top market share holders in the UK are Lonely Planet (LP), AA Publishing (AA), Rough Guides (RG) and Dorling Kindersley (DK). Together they hold about 65% of the travel guide market. Consider some of the things we know about the target audiences of these key guidebook players from the trade press and online commentators speaking from within the industry. Although LP have been extending their products for some time to those who are not necessarily restricted to a certain budget of style of travel, their main audience continues to be young backpackers and inexpensive to moderate hotel travelers, predominantly of the 15-24 and 25-34 age ranges. The buyers of Rough Guides are even more likely to fall into this age group. Both LP’s and Rough Guide’s offerings, though, will appeal to those in older groups, but buying diminishes with age. AA Publishing’s travel books, I think it is safe to say, appeal to a more mature crowd predominantly those in the 35-44 and 45-54 range. DK’s highly illustrated travel books have wide appeal, but are most likely to appeal to those within the 25-34 and 35-44 age groups.

What follows is a subjective, but I think fair, starring system for weighing sales for each of the top four travel guide publishers (65% of the market) across the age categories. (I have assigned three stars for each guide publisher in their key age ranges identified above, plus assigned one or two stars for each in neighbouring age ranges based on their perceived width of appeal to that age group and with some extra weighting an extra star given to those publishers with greater market share.) This table expresses the weighting:


Age Groups
15 - 24
25 - 34
35 - 44
45 - 54
55 - 64
Star rating:
Top 4

LP ***
RG ***
DK *

LP ***
AA *
RG ***
DK ***
LP **
AA ***
RG *
DK ***
LP *
AA ***
DK *
AA **
DK *

On this basis, the buying of travel guides in the UK by age group is ranked as follows:

   *  *  *  *  *  *  *    15 - 24     (7 stars)
   *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *    25 - 34     (10 stars)
   *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *    35 - 44     (9 stars)
   *  *  *  *  *    45 - 54     (5 stars)
   *  *  *    55 - 64     (3 stars)
   -    65+           (0 stars)

This fits with the figures for buyers of books overall (i.e. across the consumer book market, quoted above) in that both show the two top groups of book buyers to fall within the age groups 25-34 and 35-44. Where they differ is that the top travel guide buyers fall within the younger 25-34 age group while the top overall book buyers fall within the older 35-44 age group.

Your ‘average’ guidebook buyer will be younger than your ‘average’ nonfiction book buyer. That said, both top age groups are pretty solid guidebook buyers. Those in their mid- to late-teens and early 20s also buy a significant, if less, number of travel guides. After the age of 45 there appears a marked and continuing drop-off in guidebook purchasing.

Social Grading

  Bobby Patrolling Birdcage Walk, London

Stock Travel Photo:
Bobby patrolling Birdcage Walk
Westminster, London

Social grading represents community status, occupation and income. In the UK, of those falling within the top grade AB (upper middle to middle class or higher to intermediate managerial, administrative or professional workers), 90% are book buyers. 84% of C1s (lower middle class or supervisory, clerical, junior managerial / administrative / professional workers) buy books; 77% of C2s (skilled working class); 62% of Ds (working class semi and unskilled manual workers); and 55% of Es (lowest level of subsistence, such as state pensioners and casual workers). As one would expect, those with greater incomes and generally higher education buy more books and probably more travel guide books. But we also know gap year and university students and school leavers often on low wages before or at the start of their careers (therefore predominantly C1s and C2s) buy travel guides as essential travel items. The age statistics above confirm this. Guide books, placed alongside other necessities such as backpacks, walking boots, travel clothing, the price of passports and so on, easily appear good value. Social grading would appear to play less a role in demarcating buyers in the travel guide market than in other book markets.


Geographically, the BMRB survey indicates that Londoners buy more books than anyone else in the country. 86% of those in the capital will buy at least one book per year. This figure drops to 73-79% for those in all the other regions of England and Wales and to 66% for those living in Scotland. So, statistically, it is likely Londoners will buy more travel guides. This likelihood is greatly enhanced on consideration of the number of specialist travel book and map shops available in the city, the huge travel sections in mainstream bookshops and book emporia, the range of guides available at outdoor equipment and clothing shops (most densely concentrated around Covent Garden), and the guides promoted within outlets at some of the larger travel agencies (such as STA). Londoners (and visitors) are spoiled for choice. Also, it is often easier for those living in and around London to ‘get away’ via the Eurostar service to the continent (e.g. three hours from Waterloo cafe to Paris cafe) and local airports at Heathrow (largest in the world), Gatwick, Stanstead and Luton so are likely to buy more guides. Based on this anecdotal evidence, it wouldn’t surprise me if Londoners bought twice as many travel guides as those in the rest of the country. There is no hard and fast data for this enthusiasm on my part. I appeal, though, to anyone who has spent half an hour in Stanfords in central London on a Saturday afternoon watching travel guides and materials being sold hand over fist.

Life Stage

General book buying habits also vary fairly dramatically depending on which life stage an individual occupies that is, how an adult individual stands (or not) within a family situation. Adult family members (>15 years old) rate the highest, with 85% of them annually buying books. This group will include young adults still living at home as well as mothers and fathers raising families. 81% of singles and pre-family people are regular book buyers. 76% of empty nesters and those with no family regularly purchase books, dropping to 66% of those post-family and retired.

Photo Library Image: Black Cab and People in Motion, Old Bailey  
Stock Travel Photo: Traditional flats
below Canary Wharf office towers
River Thames, London


I find it interesting that those in society who, on the surface, would seem the busiest working and developing careers, raising families, starting up home businesses, engaging in part-time study and therefore with the least amount of time for reading, are the largest buyers of books. Naturally, individuals with growing families will be buying books for their children as well as their own pleasure. And books are still popular gifts. Also, as I touched on earlier, it is these people who are most likely to invest in reference works and more expensive academic volumes in pursuing their careers.

Busy adult family members especially are also more likely to want to plan their precious leisure and holiday time by referring to travel guides. There is also an increased likelihood that they will buy more than one guide for a single destination (especially if they are ABC1), such as adding a cultural guide or restaurant guide to their choice of basic travel guide. They and empty nesters/no family people will also be buying more business travel books.

It is also interesting to note that ABC1s are tending to have families later in life. As ABC1s buy more books than anyone else, and adult family members in general buy more than anyone else, we can expect those starting families later to buy more books over their lifetimes than previous generations both before starting a family and while raising one auguring well for the travel guide market.


The most likely person in the UK to buy a travel guide will be a busy female or male Londoner between the ages of 25 and 34 with a professional/managerial/administrative type job, balancing raising a family with studying in the evenings at college/university level to further their career. Phew! Busy people. Not far behind them will be those aged 35-44 with good professional backgrounds and mature families of young adults still living at home in higher education. Not too distant from them, as travel guide buyers, will be those young single graduates (<24 years old) who are out on their own and beginning to develop professional/managerial careers (following in their parents’ footsteps or not) and exploring the world during holidays and weekend city breaks with their friends.

Least likely people to be buying travel guides are Scottish pensioners (>65) with working class backgrounds on fixed state incomes.

Of course there are many other permutations of travel guide buyer. I think the marketing intelligence discussed here is highly suggestive and I will leave it to your imagination and interest to explore the market in more depth.


Most people enjoy traveling and expect to travel. As a result travel guides are more popular than ever. Although 9/11, SARS, the 2004 tsunami and middle east tensions have left reduced travel guide sales in their wake for relatively short periods, the vast majority of people do not to stop traveling but shift their travel destination sometimes to places at home (witness the rise of US domestic travel to Hawaii and Alaska, for example), or to different places abroad (such as the recent preference for South America over Middle and Far East). Flexibility seems critical to travel guide publishing and many publishers have been savvy enough to identify these particular shifting trends and deliver the appropriate guidebooks.

To the extent that travel is fashionable, it is also fickle, and requires the same flexibility to address shifting tastes in book and page design, medium, travel style and niche interest.

At present, books are being given a higher profile than ever before in various media. Radio and especially television have become important in promoting books, through discussion and guidance. They profile authors, recommend travel destinations, suggest methods of travel and reasons for travel.

It is a heartening fact that the percentage of adults who buy books, including travel guides, continues to grow. Book publishing is a slowly growing and very mature market, and for these reasons much less affected by economic vagrancy than other markets.


Jim Batty
jimbatty.com image library



Data Sources: This article is based on information distilled from the latest material released for public view at the British Library in London, including a Key Note Market Report on book publishing for 2005, Key Note Market Reviews concerning the publishing industry for 2004 and 2002 (for comparison) and Mintel reports on the book market (June 2003 and May 1999). I have drawn on Bookseller Publications’ Book Publishing in Britain for rankings of travel guide publishers which, although published in 1999, represents the latest research supplying this level of niche detail within the industry.


Jim Batty Image Library

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