Tony and Maureen Wheeler: Building the Lonely Planet brand

Travelling the world to write about it sounds like a dream job, but Tony and Maureen Wheeler insist it is hard work. After printing more than sixty million Lonely Planet Guides, the Wheelers reveal their brand building secrets.

Few serious travellers would set out for an overseas adventure without a Lonely Planet visitor guide. But it’s easy to forget Tony and Maureen Wheeler produced their first title, Across Asia on the Cheap, in 1973.

Originally from London, the couple took time out to travel after studying with the intention of returning home after about a year to ‘settle down’. But their plans changed. After travelling through Asia, the couple arrived in Australia with 27 cents in their pockets and a camera (which they soon sold). People kept asking about their travels: ‘where have you been, how did you get there, how much did it cost?’ So they decided to turn their diaries into their first book, providing practical travel information as well as background on the culture and history of the countries they’d travelled through. They printed an initial 1,500 copies with Tony and Maureen hand-collating, trimming and stapling each one. Retailing for a mere $1.80, it only took a week for Sydney bookshops to sell out. Within three months, 8,000 copies had been sold.

Sales from the first book enabled the couple to set off travelling again. “We left Australia to travel through South-East Asia after we did the first book,” recalls Maureen. After travelling for a year they ended up in Singapore, putting together their second guide, South-East Asia on a Shoestring, in a backstreet hotel in 1975. Since then around half a million copies of the guide have been sold worldwide, and it’s now in its eleventh edition.

“When that was finished we decided to come back to Australia for a while—it just ended up being a long while,” says Maureen of the couple settling here.

The Lonely Planet brand has since become synonymous with travel, with the name inspired by a Joe Cocker and Leon Russell song, Space Captain. The pair sing about a “lovely planet”, but when Tony first listened to the song he heard “lonely planet”, liked it and it stuck.

While they call Australia home, Tony and Maureen are never far from their next trip. The duo handled the business alone for the first seven years of its life, and grew Lonely Planet slowly. Cautious about borrowing money, they grew the business one book at a time. “Every time we sold a book we would travel and do another, and the business grew very slowly,” says Maureen. It was self-funded, each book paying for the next, which she admits was one of the biggest challenges the business faced while trying to grow, along with finding the right people to join the Lonely Planet team.

They started taking on other authors almost immediately, as well as looking for outside markets to export to—their first big pre-order was from a Singaporean bookshop.

“We have certainly become a presence globally in travel,” says Maureen of their almost instant international expansion. The runaway success of their second title played a huge part in allowing them to expand into the UK, US and other parts of Asia. And today, they’re proud to say the Lonely Planet guides are available on every continent in the world.

In fact, only last year the couple were honoured as Export Heroes by the Australian Institute of Export, which Tony says is always satisfying, gaining such recognition. “Of course there’s a great buzz to be doing well in not just your home market but in overseas ones as well.”

By 1980 Tony and Maureen realised they’d need to bring some staff in to help run the business. “We were finding it increasingly hard to travel and run the business,” explains Maureen. So they hired Jim Hart to act as the stay-at-home business manager, and opened their first official office, now based in Melbourne.

Lonely Planet was still a tiny company back then, and the Wheelers couldn’t afford to pay a lot of wages, so Jim took a share of the company. He stayed on for 15 years and Maureen says he played a substantial role in growing the business. By the time he decided to move on, Hart had acquired 30 percent of the business, and wanted to sell. He and the Wheelers struggled to find a suitable buyer, initially, who would meet all their needs. “Nearly all the people we spoke to were venture capitalists, and what they wanted was for us to promise that we’d go public within five years—they wanted an exit strategy,” recalls Maureen.

Then, advertising kingpin John Singleton showed some interest. “Tony and I spoke to him and both liked him very much. He was such a nice person and so easy to get along with. John signed up without an exit strategy and was saying ‘I love it, I want to be a part of it’, and that was it.”

Singleton bought some of Hart’s shares, and the Wheelers bought back the rest. “Then gradually, over time, as we grew to like John and realised he certainly wasn’t interested in changing us or dictating to us in any way, he eventually bought out all of Jim’s shares, which was the 30 percent. He’s been a wonderful partner ever since,” says Maureen.

But by the late nineties Lonely Planet started suffering. “We’d been a small company that didn’t do budgets,” says Maureen. “We just threw money at things and luckily made a lot of money and grew really well, and what we did was good. But there is a period, I think, when a company has to look long and hard at how long it can sustain that sort of small company status, especially at the rate we were growing.

“We went from Tony and I, which was the company for seven years, and then suddenly went to 40 and 80 staff, and before we knew it we were up to 200 staff. It’s a huge amount of growth. We were growing between 15 to 25 percent every year, and the kind of management skills you require at a certain level are quite different.”

So with the help of then CEO, Steve Hibbard, Tony and Maureen started developing a ‘new’ Lonely Planet, by shifting the management team to create a more “professional” business. “In 1998 we started the transition from being a very small company to being a much more national and international, future-thinking company,” says Maureen. However, when the September 11 disaster occurred in 2001, Lonely Planet suffered again. But rather than pack it all in, Hibbard and the Wheelers simply sped up this evolution phase for Lonely Planet.

Maureen admits it was at these times Tony found it easier to stay away travelling, while she handled the heat at home. “People always assume Tony is the real businessperson between us, and in actual fact I’ve proven to be much more the businessperson. Tony is much more the visionary,” Maureen says. “People often say to me, ‘without Tony, Lonely Planet would never have existed, but without you, it wouldn’t have held together’.”

They each bring different skills to the business, she adds, with their roles evolving over time. “There have been times in the business when Tony has been taking more of a lead role, and then there’s times when I’ve taken more of a lead role. You do tend to find your own strengths and weaknesses and it’s great as a couple because you can go with that, but it’s never as clear-cut as that.”

While the Wheelers worked together on many of the earlier Lonely Planet titles, Tony did most of the writing, while Maureen would help edit and make additions to the books. “But it’s not what I am good at particularly. I think I write quite well, but the detail you need to be a travel writer, that’s just not me,” Maureen admits. “It’s much more Tony and he’s good at it, and it’s always been that part of the business that’s appealed to him. Sitting down and doing analysis of where we should be in three years time, or dealing with the people side of things is not something Tony has ever enjoyed.”

And while the couple always travelled together, Maureen began spending more time at home when their children Tashi and Keiran came along. “And that’s when I moved more onto the business side of things as well,” she says. There were times when the family travelled together, and now both children work in the business, Tashi as a commissioning editor, and Keiran as a computer technician.

Today Lonely Planet is the world’s largest independent travel publishing company. With offices also in the US and the UK, Lonely Planet employs more than 400 people across its branches. And there are some 650 Lonely Planet titles with contributions by more than 320 authors from 37 countries (with an average of 45 countries visited per author). From the author on the road to the cartographer behind a desk, the only pre-requisite for working at Lonely Planet is a passion for travel. It’s Lonely Planet’s policy to give in-house staff members the opportunity to work as an author if they make the grade by passing the author writing test. Some “jump the fence” into the new roles, but most go back to their regular work.

Lonely Planet has printed more than 60 million books in total and sells more than 6.5 million books in English each year in 200 countries. The guidebooks also appear in Spanish, Italian, French, Korean, Japanese, German, and most recently in Chinese. Most of the guides are updated on a two-year cycle, with updated information incorporated in reprints through the life of an edition. The most popular titles today are Australia, Thailand, India, New Zealand, Italy, China, Spain, Europe, and South-East Asia.

Tony believes travellers enjoy themselves more when they know about the places they’re visiting, which is why the books have proved so successful. Maureen agrees, saying this is one of the most rewarding aspects of the job: “Seeing people use the books, knowing that we have given people confidence to travel further than they might have without us.” But, overall, she attributes their success to “having a great idea at the right time, and working really hard to make it a reality”.

Tony says while travel-writing might appear to be all fluff and fun, it’s actually “dawn-to-dusk hard work, always on the move, and always checking things”, but it’s clear they love it, which is why the couple admit they’ve never taken a real holiday where they haven’t taken notes and checked out new things.

Maureen says it’s not hard for them to achieve a work–life balance when travel is also your passion. “The business has consumed our lives for the last 35 years, so you don’t stop thinking about it just because you go home. And when you’re travelling, you’re always travelling for some aspect of the business. That’s not a bad thing because we both enjoy travelling, and Tony is a travel writer from every hair on his head to every fingerprint, so he couldn’t stop himself if he tried.

“At the moment we are much freer to travel than we’ve ever been, because we’ve got a fantastic management team headed up by Judy Slatyer, and we’re not as involved in the day-to-day.” But Tony and Maureen are still on the company’s Board, liaise regularly with the management and are involved in all publishing and strategy-based decisions.

Maureen does admit, though, living and working together can be hard for the couple at times. “But we’ve been doing it for so long, we don’t really think about it anymore—it’s just what we do. But we do also get to spend a lot of time apart.”

In 2005, the Wheelers published a book a little closer to home, Once While Travelling: The Lonely Planet Story. It’s a story about their own lives, incorporating equal parts autobiography, corporate history, and travel book. Maureen admits it was Tony’s idea to write the book, mainly because other people were always trying to write the Lonely Planet story. “Tony just wanted to make sure he put it on the record before anybody else did,” says Maureen, “and it was a good process in the end actually, because it revived a lot of things”.

While publishing books is their core business, Tony and Maureen decided they’d need to become part of the digital age to stay competitive, so launched the Lonely Planet website (www.lonelyplanet.com ) to complement the guides. It, too, features the latest independent travel information and advice on countries around the world. Travellers can become registered members and exchange travel advice and opinions with a community of more than 300,000 others, read blogs and reports from authors on the road (including Tony’s own blog), and can book everything from accommodation and airfares, as well as purchase all the Lonely Planet titles.

“I think different people use the different mediums for different purposes, which is why we started diversifying the business,” says Maureen. “It’s also fun to try new things.” Which is why new online initiatives are constantly emerging. With five million visitors to the website each month, the new medium appears to be working, but Lonely Planet hasn’t stopped there. The brand also now includes a television travel series, a Business Solutions division, and Lonely Planet Images, which offers a collection of some 200,000 travel-related images for purchase. There’s even a Lonely Planet Foundation, through which the company donates five percent of net profits to a variety of charities around the world.

It would require a serious grasp of maths to calculate how many frequent flyer points they might have clocked up. “I hate to say it but I have counted, and I think I’m up to around 130 countries,” Tony says of the number of countries he’s visited. “Some of the ‘never dones’ that I really would like to do are Yemen, which has always fascinated me; the Trans-Siberian Express, just an iconic train ride; and Taiwan, because I feel guilty I’ve never visited this Asian country.”

Maureen, however, prefers just to look forward to the next trip. “I have never wanted to count the number of countries I’ve visited, but I most want to visit Mongolia, where I will be in August 2007. I don’t really have a favourite place, the next place I am going to visit is usually my favourite.”

Looking ahead, the Wheelers won’t stop looking for new opportunities. “We’ll continue to explore the digital world and find better ways to get our information to people who love to travel,” says Maureen.

And Tony offers this piece of advice for other budding entrepreneurs: “Do something you like and believe in, and everything else will follow. And if it doesn’t, well, you had fun anyway.”

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  • I\’ve sworn by lonely planet guide books for years & its fascinating to read the history of the pioneers of the backpacking guides. Its great that they are still clocking up the airmiles and are still passionate about travel. I was greatly disheartened to hear of the BBC purchasing a 75% share of the company although i have not yet noticed any difference in the quality of Lonely Planet\’s output. If anything their website has become more comprehensive which is surprising considering all of the cut backs in other departments of the bbc.