Harvard students blend wanderlust and wit into successful travel guides.
Penny-pinching, backpack-toting American students are a familiar sight in many countries, a phenomenon due in no small part to the wildly successful Let’s Go series of travel guides begun in 1960 by a Harvard freshman in his dorm room. Written by students for students (and many others), the irreverent guidebooks and accompanying online content now provide concise advice on more than 70 cities and countries on six continents, offering guidance not just on cheap hotels and restaurants but also on ways for travelers to help host countries with volunteer work.
Let’s Go, which claims several million readers, has prospered in a tough business by having a distinct point of view, says this year’s editorial director, sophomore Claire McLaughlin, and avoiding “brochure-ese.”
“Sometimes, when you read a travel guide, it tells you what the place is like but it doesn’t really tell you if you want to go there,” says McLaughlin. “Our main thing is we want to produce funny, honest and opinionated reviews.”
The Let’s Go series began shortly after Arthur Frommer published his then-revolutionary “Europe on 5 Dollars a Day,” and the still-competing guides take decidedly different approaches. Here’s Frommer on the Roman Colosseum: “Now a mere shell, the Colosseum still remains ancient Rome’s greatest architectural legacy. Vespasian ordered the construction of the elliptical bowl, called the Amphitheatrum Flavium, in A.D. 72.”
From Let’s Go: “You certainly don’t have to pay to see the Colosseum—you’ll glimpse it on magnets, postcards and every vista throughout the city. Still, paying for a walk through the interior is worth it to truly appreciate the structure for what it was: an ancient (and gorier) equivalent to Fenway Park.” Fenway is a baseball park in Boston, Massachusetts.
McLaughlin says readers tend to get hooked on Let’s Go’s unique style.
Let’s Go writer-researchers, who receive round-trip airfare and a daily stipend while researching destinations during their summer breaks, are paid between $10 and $15 per page. Let’s Go managers, who work about 20 hours a week throughout the school year and full-time in the summer, choose their successors each year from a staff of about 200 students. Reviewers remain anonymous. “We don’t blow our cover, because people are going to treat you differently if they know you’re writing a review,” McLaughlin notes.
Like other book publishers, Let’s Go has adapted to the Internet and now offers online versions of its content in a variety of formats that include videos, blogs, e-newsletters, downloadable PDFs, e-books and free iPhone and Android apps. Smartphone versions of the guides cost between 99 cents and $2.99.
“People still like books—our sales come mostly in books through retailers like Barnes & Noble and Amazon,” says Harvard senior Luis Duarte, product manager for Let’s Go. “Our strategy is to continue creating content for those people but to enhance that with online content, finding a nice middle ground that also includes things like e-books and mobile apps.”
Let’s Go partners with many companies, using a publisher to produce the guides, selling banner ads on its Web site and sharing in revenue from items like tour bookings. Indian visitors account for about 3 percent of the audience at www.letsgo.com, according to Duarte. A private company, Let’s Go is part of Harvard Student Agencies, which provides services such as laundry and tutoring to students.
Steve Fox is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Ventura, California.