Tony Wheeler

Meet the man behind the iconic Lonely Planet guides

HOF Entrepreneurs Tony Wheeler 1920X1080 New

Published: 04/01/2024

When it comes to global travel exploration, one name stands out as a true pioneer – Tony Wheeler. He, along with his wife Maureen, is the mind behind the iconic Lonely Planet guides, which they founded together 50 years ago. They’ve printed millions of books and inspired generations to explore off-the-beaten-track places on a budget.

When asked to look back at his business adventure, Tony describes it as ‘fun all the way’. “I never stopped enjoying it and from all sides. I enjoyed running the business, I enjoyed being a publisher (getting an idea for a book, finding the right authors, putting it together, marketing and selling it) and I enjoyed authoring the books,” he says.

Perhaps this was partly due to the couple creating a familial atmosphere for the writers who worked on the array of guides. He recalls: “Every year in London we have a little gathering of a handful of ‘old hands’, long term Lonely Planet authors, some of them still writing regularly for LP. All of them got (or get) a huge kick out of writing guidebooks, they couldn’t imagine anything they’d rather do. And they have good ‘war stories'.”

Identifying a need

Lonely Planet had a modest start with a single guidebook, Across Asia on the Cheap. When it was published in 1973, few would have predicted that this would burgeon a travel empire, influencing a generation of globetrotters. But the concept worked, and the couple formed a winning team.

What made the business a success was that its founders did what every good entrepreneur should do – identify a need and fulfil it well. Back in the 1970s there were no proper guidebooks for budget travellers, but Tony and Maureen went above and beyond to fill this gap.

Tony advises wannabe entrepreneurs to do the same.“Look for something nobody else is currently doing. And very often it’s going to be something you want, and you think ‘why can’t I find that?’”

He highlights that it’s not vital to get the product or service perfect the first time and advocates a ‘get out there and do it’ mentality. “Look for perfection somewhere down the line. Our early books were definitely amateurish, but they were the best thing on the market. If you had the only book to Country A and people wanted a book on Country A then you can’t lose.” Tony adds:

Look for a gap in the market, but most important do something you believe in, something you enjoy. On one hand if your customers can see that you’re an enthusiast for what you’re doing that’s clearly going to rub off. And if you’re absolutely enjoying what you’re doing it hardly seems like work, even when it’s not going well or you’re not making any money.”
Tony Wheeler

When asked if he’d recommend others working with their partner or spouse, Tony explains: “It worked for us, for other people it may not work. You need to have your own areas and not step on each other’s toes. I was much more the creative side of the business and, despite my London Business School degree, Maureen was much more business-like.”

Proud moments

Tony adds that there were many proud moments:

If I look back at things I’m proud of about Lonely Planet it is that so many people got a great kick out of using the books. So often we’re told about shelves of hard-worn, scribbled-in copies sitting on the shelf. How we provided the inspiration to set off on some great adventure or how we pushed somebody to go a little bit further, opening doors and showing people the possibilities.”
Tony Wheeler

2023 was the company’s 50th birthday and there was an assortment of promotional events around the world. Ex-Lonely Planet staff were invited to join the celebrations.

Tony admits that he couldn’t attend them all. He says: “The London and Melbourne ones took place on the same night so we couldn’t be at both, but in Melbourne there were 170 people there, so many of them saying ‘that was the best job I ever had’. Well, that doesn’t happen if people didn’t get something important out of their time there?”

The business was sold to the BBC’s commercial arm for a total £130m, which acquired 75% of the business in 2007 and the rest in 2011. Some believe Tony had timed this well, as it was sold just before the internet took over the role of guidebooks, but he admits this was never his intention. The BBC sold the company in 2013 to US-based NC2 Media for £50m – a loss of nearly £80m.

Despite his business success and love of travel, Tony has no ambitions to become a serial entrepreneur or to visit all corners of the earth. “I’m not going to start up a new business. I have a small interest in one or two businesses (one of them making and operating drones able to carry big movie cameras).

“I keep travelling. I’ve got assorted Travelers’ Century Club type friends out to visit every country on earth, some of them have put a tick beside every country on the list. I’ve been to a lot of countries, over 150, but I’m not trying to go everywhere,” he says.