View from the top: Tony Wheeler, founder, Lonely Planet

Lonely Planet may be a global success story, but its founder still spends half his time in remote corners of the world. Here he talks to Alex Black about the changing nature of travel writing and his plans for the brand.

Tony Wheeler
Tony Wheeler

Tony Wheeler is an unlikely looking multimillionaire. He wanders into the reception area of Lonely Planet's London HQ looking like he is about to go InterRailing. 'G'day,' he says cheerfully. 'I'm Tony.'

Wheeler and his wife Maureen built a global publishing business of such repute that last year BBC Worldwide shelled out a reported £70m for 75 per cent of the business.

What is more, the Lonely Planet (LP) brand has been built mostly by word of mouth and has an unrivalled reputation for giving people reliable information on how to enjoy themselves when thousands of miles from home.

Tony WheelerIt is easy to see why Wheeler is so suited to the travel writing business. He is softly spoken, so one has to pay attention to what he is saying, but he is chatty, has a quick, dry sense of humour and a wide streak of curiosity about the world around him.

In short, you feel he could visit anywhere in the world, and people would talk to him without being suspicious of his motives or trying to rob him.

This attitude shines through in the books and has inspired such loyalty to the brand that an LP guidebook is as essential as a torch to the intrepid traveller.

Backpackers may argue over the merits of an LP book over a Rough Guide..., but LP can claim to be the original.

The Wheelers invented the backpacker guidebook industry by accident. After travelling overland through Asia on their way to Australia in the 1970s, they found people were intrigued to know how they did it.

So they wrote up their notes, cleared a space on the kitchen table for a makeshift production line, and produced Across Asia on the Cheap. The first 1,500 copies were sold in a week.

More than 30 years and 500 titles later, Wheeler says the book's USP was originality.

'We didn't set out to do it,' he says, 'and frankly, if we had we'd have done a better job. But it's easy to be the best if you're the only one around.'

Another trip to Asia was organised, and the couple's first 'planned' book, South-East Asia on a Shoestring, was published in 1975. Now on its 14th edition, the hefty yellow tome is still filling the rucksacks of backpackers to this day. It includes maps, easy-to-follow listings of places to see and at which to stay and eat, and pulls no punches when a place is not up to scratch.

Remarkably, despite heading up a global brand with around 90 million books printed in its name, Wheeler still does pretty much what he has done for the past 30 years: travel to interesting places and write about them.

'A lot of people start a business because they like doing a particular thing, but then they gradually get stuck behind a desk,' he explains. 'I've been lucky to have a great team that allows me to do what I want.'

As well as contributing to the guides, he writes his own books, recently publishing Bad Lands: A Tourist on the Axis of Evil, after trips to off-the-radar destinations such as North Korea and Iraq.

A visit to any of the places he visited would fill most people with dread, but Wheeler seems unfazed, so much so that he is considering a Bad Lands 2. 'It's much easier to find bad places than good ones,' he grins. 'There are lots of naughty countries left for me to do. Zimbabwe, Haiti, the Central African Republic - there's no shortage of contenders.'

Although he has little to do with the marketing of LP, Wheeler is a willing spokesman for the brand, and his enthusiasm, openness and knowledge about travel and travel writing make him ideal for the purpose.

He is canny enough to understand the rules of publicity too. He talks fondly of the furore surrounding the launch of the first British LP in 1994, when towns slated by the writers kicked up an almighty fuss, and put the book in the pages of every newspaper in the country.

That campaign was dreamt up by LP's then UK head of press Jennifer Cox, with whom Wheeler is still friends.

'We never set out to badmouth anyone, but when the first Britain guide came out, Jennifer went through the book, underlined a few things and sent it off to the press.

'It caused outrage. Margate took particular offence at the line "God was so depressed looking at Margate that She created Torremolinos", and the media went for it. After a week, Jennifer rang me at home in Australia and said "you'd better get over here". The number of interviews we did was crazy. One day we started at 8pm and finished at 5am.'

Cox, now a travel writer in her own right and author of Around the World in 80 Dates, remembers doing '73 interviews in three days'.

'I gave a sneak preview to The Sunday Times and that lit the touchpaper,' she recalls. 'The next thing we knew, the story was on the front page of the Margate local paper with a picture of the mayor wearing a tin hat.'

Wheeler, she recalls, 'loved it'.

Indeed, Wheeler's sense of mischief is never far from the surface.

His eyes light up when talking about reports that LP's China guide is banned by Beijing.

'There have been stories about having the book confiscated at the border, so I would like all the journalists covering the Olympics to turn up at the airport with their passport in one hand and our China guide in the other, open at the Tiananmen Square page, and see what happens. We'd sell a lot of books and it would make a good story.'

A sprightly 61-year-old, Wheeler is equally happy to try out new technologies.

He has been closely involved with the development of guides that can be downloaded electronically, and understands how the reader interaction that has always been a feature of LP guides is relevant in the digital age.

'People talk about user-created content, but that's what we've done since day one with the books,' he explains. 'We're carrying that online with (LP travel forum) Thorn Tree.'

He is astute about the changes in the market and the need to adapt the model in order to keep up with people's travel habits.

'People are making more short trips, but are also taking more long trips. They are more inclined to zip away for a few days on a low-cost carrier, but that also means they are less likely to take a guide book, so we have to offer them different ways to use the information.'

The ink is barely dry on the BBC deal, so Wheeler is still unsure of his long term plans, but the recent purchase of a house in London means more time in England than at the Wheelers' current home in Melbourne. 'I hate carting things back and forth,' he grumbles. 'I've had this winter coat for ten years and I've never worn it once in Australia.'

With new guides to oversee, Bad Lands 2 to research and 'plenty of interesting places left to visit', Wheeler's wanderlust is unlikely to run out any time soon.

September 2007: Announces sale of 75 per cent of the business to BBC Worldwide
August 2006: LP prints 80-millionth book
1994: LP publishes first Britain guide, causing a media storm from places with poor reviews
1975: First edition of South-East Asia on a Shoestring
1973: Across Asia on the Cheap published
1972: Founds Lonely Planet with wife Maureen after overland trip through Asia
1971-72: Studied for an MBA at the London Business School
1969-70: Engineer with Rootes Cars

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