Once While Travelling

31 March 2009

From humble roots, Lonely Planet has become one of the world’s leading niche publishers. Phin Foster meets Tony Wheeler, one half of the company’s founding couple, to discuss its early days, its 2007 sale to the BBC and what the future holds for a man who has never wandered far from his travelling roots.

On 4 July 1972, a long-haired London Business School graduate and his 21-year-old bride left the UK for Asia in a £65 Morris Minivan.

While one hears countless stories with similarly inauspicious beginnings, this is not a cautionary tale for the ‘gap-year generation’. The first leg of their journey may have ended in Sydney a year later with just 27 cents in their pockets, but it went on to encompass a global super-brand, over 500 employees and a reported £40m in the bank.

The story of Lonely Planet is a remarkable one and is inseparable from that of its founders, Tony and Maureen Wheeler. The couple sold a 75% share in the company to BBC Worldwide in 2007.

By that point, what had begun in 1973 with a run of 1,500 copies of Across Asia on the Cheap, bound and stapled at their kitchen table, had mushroomed into a publishing powerhouse churning out over 500 titles, with annual sales of more than seven million copies, a TV production division, website and digital photo library.

"Some people still believe it’s a bunch of hippies working around a kitchen table."

I meet Tony Wheeler at Lonely Planet’s London offices. The genial, self-deprecating and remarkably sprightly 62-year-old is a man seemingly completely at ease in his own skin. One suspects that much of the 26-year-old hippy remains, undimmed by financial successes and the pressures of overseeing a global empire for the best part of three decades.

While he and Maureen are no longer involved in the day-to-day running of the firm, they retain a 25% share and know that it will never be possible to fully sever the apron strings. "We often compare the situation to having kids," Wheeler chuckles, "you spend years being driven crazy by them, worrying where they are and what they are doing at all times of the day and night. Then, the minute they leave home, the worrying stops.

"For the rest of your life, however, if they ever ring up in need of help, you’ll drop everything. Even if we sold that remaining stock it would be impossible to ever stop caring. It’s in my blood."

That feeling is understandable. Having gone from a stage of literally selling books out of the boot of his car, the company doubled in size with the publication of its first guide to India in 1981, expanded radically during the 1990s and was later pulled back from the brink in the tumultuous post-9/11 years.

Throughout these times, the Wheelers mixed a laid back, laissez-faire dynamic with a canny ability to acknowledge when it was time to cede aspects of control for the betterment of the business.

"There was a period during the 1990s when we seemed incapable of doing any wrong," Wheeler recalls. "The sales chart was constantly pointing upwards and the list of books grew. Every time I looked out of my office there were new people and banks of computers coming in.

"That probably lasted for five or six years, but it was a trap to fall into. No graph continues going in the same direction forever and we never planned for anything. The idea of budgeting was non-existent. By the time we realised we were in trouble, quite a few expensive mistakes had been made."

But the publishing house – "now being run as a proper business for the first time" – did survive the difficult early years of the millennium and adapted well to the demands of new media. For the Wheelers, however, the time had come to seek external help.

"Maureen and I both felt we could no longer provide as much fresh input as we ought," Wheeler explains. "The perspective of the business was changing. Books were becoming a less important percentage of the whole and that’s where our passion and expertise lie. We didn’t have the requisite expertise or the passion for these new opportunities, so it was time to move on."

The Lonely story

Having built a company so much in their own image, they would not have been prepared to strike a deal with just anyone. BBC Worldwide’s approach came out of the blue, but the Wheelers could quickly see that it made for a good fit.

"People are honoured to work for the BBC in the same way they felt proud to be affiliated with Lonely Planet," he says. "The people we’ve left behind still feel that they have a valuable role to play and there remains great deal of joint enthusiasm. We’re entering extremely choppy waters, both globally and in terms of the travel market, but Lonely Planet will be stronger for the BBC’s involvement."

While this has helped Wheeler sleep slightly more soundly during the economic crisis, it has also allowed him time to pursue other pursuits. He finally published Once While Travelling: the Lonely Planet Story last year – "the first chapter has been on my computer for well over a decade" – a mix of business history, travelogue and autobiography.

It is a narrative in which Wheeler portrays himself as a heady mix of naive optimist, timely chancer and utter workaholic. I put it to him that despite his MBA and the fact that Maureen left school at 16, she comes across as the business brain behind the operation. "She’s certainly the more businesslike," he acknowledges. "In the early years, when it was a real hand-to-mouth existence, she was hedging her bets while I was always sure we would succeed. Since then, I’m the one more likely to take off on the next trip and she’s been left dealing with the day-to-day business. She’s been far more grounded in the minutiae of it all. I’ve sometimes used travel as a means of escaping all that."

When looking back on his days at London Business School, Wheeler admits that he would have liked to have paid more attention in certain areas – "if I’d been a bit more focused in accountancy it might’ve saved me shoving paperwork into the back of the car" – but, despite his self-portrayal as man who almost unwittingly stumbled upon success, he admits that the experience stood him in good stead.

In fact, London Business School often welcomes him back as a returning conqueror and, the morning of our meeting, he has been on campus talking to the latest intake of budding business leaders.

"They like me because these schools tend to produce people not doing particularly interesting things," he says. "The typical path is into banking, management consultancy and that side of things. Entrepreneurship is rarer, although becoming less so. I still hold a great degree of affection for the place. It has become international in scope, while institutions such as Harvard Business School lose some of their cache through stressing a narrower focus. London has an extremely diverse range of students and I’m always extremely impressed when I drop in."

The feeling happens to be mutual and it would not be a surprise to see the Lonely Planet case study on the syllabus for all aspiring and adventurous entrepreneurs.

In 2004, Lonely Planet was ranked the fifth most powerful brand in Asia Pacific, behind multinational powerhouses Samsung, Sony, LG and Toyota, and has retained a top ten ranking ever since. Its values have remained consistent since its inception over 35 years ago and pay testament to the Wheelers’ sense of purpose rather than to any work undertaken by consultants, marketers or think-tanks.

"Some people out there might not like to hear that I’ve no problem with hotel rooms that come complete with a private swimming pool."

"We didn’t really start thinking about the importance of brand until the late 1990s," admits Wheeler. "In some ways we were too precious about it and perhaps we still are. We started articulating our values quite late in the day but, when I look back at the early books, I can see that the right things were being said even back then. A lot of emphasis was placed upon being culturally sensitive and informing the reader. Trust was a vital component from the beginning. The first book requested feedback and responses started flooding in immediately. People could see the work and energy that had gone into compiling the guide and it was something they wanted to be a part of."

This sense of community has survived and evolved ever since, as demonstrated by the success of Lonely Planet’s online Thorn Tree travel forum. Wheeler feels that empowering the readership with a sense of brand ownership has been fundamental to its success and a great deal of effort has been invested in keeping the tone of the books consistent, despite the fact that Lonely Planet has long moved on from merely catering to backpackers.

But myths have built up around the brand that leave some readers with a skewed sense of reality and even Wheeler seems slightly wistful for a time before the company became big business. "Some people still believe it’s a bunch of hippies working around a kitchen table," he chuckles.

"That time when you did know all of your employees and could shut down the office for lunchtime and head to the pub are long gone. Suddenly, you’re at a stage where there are 100 people working for you and the names don’t come so easily. Then it’s 500 employees, technical guys looking after the computers, several lawyers on staff. The dynamic shifts markedly and you simply can’t keep on doing things the same way."

The pressure on the couple to personify the brand must have also felt like an added burden at times. In Once While Travelling, Wheeler recounts an insightful story about the family’s move to Paris in 1996. Having found the perfect flat in the 16th arrondissement, he is given a sharp reminder of the responsibilities that come with being Lonely Planet’s founding father: "Our French office unanimously said we couldn't live in the 16th, that it was bourgeois. They said if anybody found out, Lonely Planet’s reputation would be ruined."

Wheeler chuckles upon being reminded of their concern. "Some people out there might not like to hear that I’ve no problem with hotel rooms that come complete with a private swimming pool," he says. "I’m still asked whether I stay in places that cost a dollar a night. I do sometimes still feel inclined to walk the walk, turning up in a new place and deciding to see what the bus system is like when I could easily afford a taxi. More often than not I’ll arrive at my hotel two hours later sorely regretting the decision."

Finding the right path

Another burden that comes with being the public face of such a treasured brand was played out in the family’s private life. While Maureen cut down on the travelling to look after the couple’s two children, Tony acknowledges that his ‘terminal wanderlust’ put pressure on the relationship. Maureen writes movingly in the book about her resentment of Tony using travel as a form of escape from the pressures at home.

"Maureen has certainly felt that our lives were subsumed by Lonely Planet in the past," he acknowledges. "Anytime you invest time, energy and passion into one sphere of your life, other corners suffer. But working together made things easier in some ways. One of us was almost always there and the kids were never pulled from school."

The children have since flown the nest and Wheeler still finds it hard to stay in one place for long, writing freelance travel pieces for an array of publications and toying with the idea a follow up to his 2007 tour of the most repressed and dangerous regimes in the world, Bad Lands: A Tourist on the Axis of Evil. He and Maureen are also deeply involved in philanthropic efforts, having founded the Planet Wheeler Foundation last year. This is a continuation of the work they undertook as owners of Lonely Planet, the sale to BBC Worldwide having forced a change to the way their charitable efforts are structured. It currently funds over 70 schemes across 25 countries, with particular focus on the Mekong Delta, East Africa, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.

"I'm a writer, a philanthropist, an entrepreneur, but I still haven’t fully come to realise what it is I am."

"We’re undertaking very similar projects to those we were doing under the Lonely Planet banner," Wheeler explains, "but it’s on a far larger scale. We used to give back a percentage of our profits into charitable schemes, but we’re now in a position to put in as much as we like. We’re not believers in dynastic wealth and neither of us are particularly profligate spenders. It was something that people at the company really bought into; they enjoyed contributing to the fund and many even took time off to work for it. That would have been impossible under the new ownership."

Having been his own boss since 1973, where does Tony Wheeler go next? Despite the MBA, the cache of having developed one of the strongest brands in Australia’s history and millions in the bank, one gets the impression he won’t be embarking on another bout of empire building anytime soon. Perhaps it is time to resume that freewheeling journey the small business of growing a global publishing company so rudely interrupted all those years ago.

"How would I describe myself?" he muses. "I’m a writer, a philanthropist, an entrepreneur, but I still haven’t fully come to realise what it is I am. It’s been over a year since the deal went through and I still feel as though I haven’t fully caught up with things. I suppose that’s the next step."

If that leg of that journey is anywhere near as exciting as the previous instalments, it is certainly a voyage worth making.