The Wall Street Journal
April 26, 2011
Tony Wheeler, co-founder of Lonely Planet, sits in the lobby of an austere five-star hotel here. Soft-spoken and down-to-earth, the 64-year-old wears a gray dress shirt with dark-blue trousers. He has trimmed gray hair and silver glasses, but his amiable face still hints of the youthful, long-haired traveler featured in photos from the 1970s.
Mr. Wheeler doesn’t need to stay in budget hostels anymore. When traveling to big cities, he checks into luxury hotels. And why not? He founded Lonely Planet travel guides with his wife, Maureen, nearly four decades ago. Since its launch in 1973, Lonely Planet has sold more than 100 million guidebooks to far-off lands, from Antarctica to Zambia and everywhere in between. And this past February the Wheelers sold their remaining 25% stake in the company to BBC Worldwide for £42.1 million (about $69.5 million) after selling 75% in 2007 to the same buyer for £88.1 million. The Wheelers don’t have official roles in the company but will continue as de facto ambassadors for Lonely Planet.
What began as a skimpy hand-stapled book written on a kitchen table has grown into a travel-guide empire that includes books, a magazine, a website, television programs and an expanding stable of digital guides. A new China office last year began producing content specifically for Chinese travelers. And Lonely Planet recently announced plans to open an India office to similarly cater to Indian travelers.
Mr. Wheeler and his wife now travel about a third of the year and divide the rest of their time between homes in London and Australia. But Mr. Wheeler still resists bags with wheels in favor of a backpack because, he says, it “feels like you’re traveling somewhere.”
Although affluent travelers tote Lonely Planet books, too, the guide is still known as a backpacker’s bible. And while Mr. Wheeler no longer seeks out budget accommodations for himself—”it would be artificial for me to do that now,” he says—in some places they are all there is. On recent trips to Laos, Malawi and Tanzania, he stayed in hotels charging less than $10 a night. “When you’re young,” he added, “there’s a huge benefit when you travel that way. You’re closer to the ground and you interact with people more and you experience things.”
Mr. Wheeler mentions that in 2005 he decided to travel to a conference in Macau by land from Singapore. The circuitous three-week journey took him through Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and China via train and bus. “There was a truck at one stage,” he recalls. “And a few motorcycles, now that I think about it. Yeah, it was good fun.”
That trip harks back to the journey that sparked Lonely Planet and took the Wheelers overland from England to Australia in six months. In 1970, Mr. Wheeler had met 20-year-old Maureen, newly arrived from Belfast, on a London park bench. In 1972, after Mr. Wheeler graduated from London Business School, the couple set off on a trip that took them through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal and southeast Asia. (They drove a beat-up Mini, which they sold in Afghanistan for a profit of £5.)
When they arrived in Melbourne they were left with 27 cents in their pockets. They hadn’t intended to write a guidebook, but ended up penning an account of their travels on their kitchen table in Australia and stapling the pages together. In 1973 1,500 copies of the 96-page guide sold out in two weeks. “I look back at all our first dozen books,” says Mr. Wheeler. “Some of them were not very good. But they were going into a market with no competition. There was nothing about what we’d done.”
In 1975 the couple traveled across southeast Asia for a year to write a more comprehensive guidebook. The result was “Southeast Asia on a Shoestring,” which remains one of Lonely Planet’s best-selling books. Since then, much has changed in the world of travel, and Lonely Planet’s core business—the guidebook—has been aggressively challenged, especially in the last decade, by countless free websites. “We haven’t seen book sales drop precipitously; what they haven’t done is continue to climb,” Mr. Wheeler says. Beginning in the ’90s, “we were spending a lot of money on the Internet and not necessarily making money out of it,” he admits. “Then suddenly the iPhone comes along and we’re selling heaps of things.” More than seven million Lonely Planet iPhone applications, including city guides, have been downloaded since 2008.
Lonely Planet has invested heavily in digital technology and is working on becoming a multimedia brand. An online traveler forum on the company’s website called Thorn Tree claims 700,000 registered users; new executives were recently hired to head digital, wireless and television units; and e-books for the iPad and Kindle have been published, among other initiatives. Lonely Planet has also launched glossy magazines and adventure-travel TV shows that air on channels such as Discovery and National Geographic.
Even so, Mr. Wheeler says books won’t disappear. “It’s got a convenience factor that the Internet doesn’t have.” And, he confesses, “I’ve been messing with the iPhone version of our city guides and I really don’t like them as much as the book.”
In contrast to the laidback ’70s, today the competition to be a Lonely Planet writer is stiff, often requiring academic expertise in a country and fluency in uncommon languages, such as Farsi. “In the early days it was very slipshod,” Mr. Wheeler remembers. “Someone would turn up and say, ‘You haven’t done a book on this place. I live there; I can write it.’ We’d say, ‘Oh yeah, go for it.'”
As a result, there were some memorable glitches. For example, the writer for a Caribbean guidebook took the advance and disappeared without ever writing a thing; and the writer for a USA guidebook kept making excuses for missing deadlines when he was actually sitting at home having a nervous breakdown. “But far more often, things worked out fine despite our lack of controls.” Mr. Wheeler adds, “Now writers are very carefully chosen.”
Mr. Wheeler is also well aware of growing environmental concerns about travel, from airplane carbon emissions to overcommercialization. “I worry about it. I feel guilty about it. In the UK there is a movement that says flying is a sin.” But he emphasizes that “there are a lot of reasons why travel is a good thing. Look at all the countries where tourism is a large part of the economy.” Mr. Wheeler cites Nepal, a country that he has visited a dozen times because he is fond of hiking. “If you pulled tourism out it would have a disastrous effect for a place like Nepal. There are a lot of other places in a similar situation.”
Stringent security at airports today drives travelers crazy, and Mr. Wheeler is no exception. “The line to get to the X-ray machine—anyone could design this better,” he says. But the extra hassle certainly doesn’t stop him from traveling; in 2010 he visited 22 countries. “It’s a nuisance, but you put up with it. If you go, you go.”