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Fri, Mar 22, 2002 - Page 21 News List

Travel writers told to pack their bags


To avoid chopping jobs last fall, guidebook maker Lonely Planet offered its 500 workers a chance to wander the world on reduced-pay leave.

Now, thanks to slumps in travel and the economy, the publisher is laying off 15 percent of it work force for good.

While the company's London office will absorb a handful of the 75 cuts, most will come from Lonely Planet's US operation, which employs 150 editors, mapmakers and designers at a former fruit-packing warehouse in Oakland.

On Tuesday, 11 mapmakers cleared out their desks, Lonely Planet co-founder Tony Wheeler said. Others will leave as the company consolidates production work at its Melbourne, Australia, headquarters -- a restructuring that will take several months.

Wheeler said travel jitters after September's terrorist attacks, a global economic slowdown and the high cost of doing business in the San Francisco Bay area led to the cuts.

The layoffs come as publishers across the niche market have insisted that a robust spring sales season, when travelers begin outlining their summer sojourns, is helping stabilize business. Wheeler, for example, said sales have rebounded to last year's levels after a severe decline ended in December.

Industry analysts said last fall's losses were too much for small publishers such as Lonely Planet to absorb.

"There's a lot of competition out there for those guides," said Stephanie Oda, a co-publisher of Subtext, a newsletter that focuses on book publishing.

Lonely Planet's extended leave program was designed to forestall cuts at a company that has expanded rapidly while enjoying annual sales growth of around 20 percent. The company beat its goal of saving more than US$515,000 in payroll costs when about 100 employees took the offer of 15 percent pay to take up to five months off, but it wasn't enough.

Now, some employees who were assured their jobs would be waiting upon their return may get fired while still on the road. "It's something we're trying to sort out how to handle," Wheeler said.

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