Tony Wheeler and his wife Maureen arrived in Australia in 1973 with just 27 cents and an old camera. They published a guidebook which became the foundation of the world’s best known travel brand: Lonely Planet.
After more than 30 years at the helm, the Wheelers have sold Lonely Planet to the BBC for a tidy sum and are now looking for their next project. “I don’t need to do anything,” Wheeler says. “I could just go home and put my feet up and watch television. But I always say to Maureen I’ll know things have really got bad when she finds me in front of Mad Men.”
Q: Do you consider yourself an entrepreneur?
A: Yeah, there’s no question that it was a very entrepreneurial business. It was something that hadn’t been done before. I’m very proud that we’re a company that introduced places to people. Their knowledge is driven by what they’ve read in our book. The fact that if you want a book about some place, the one you find comes from Australia—I’m very proud of that.
Q: How did you get your company to a point where you felt able to let go?
A: In a way, it’s because we hadn’t succession planned. We never saw it as a family dynasty to be handed on to the next generation. But we also didn’t want to carry on until we dropped dead in the office. We decided there was going to be a change and it was just a matter of when. There were a lot of people with their hands up to buy if we ever sold. But I’ve always been impressed by the BBC.
Q: Do you still have any involvement with Lonely Planet?
A: From early on, as soon as I found someone who did something better than me I didn’t do it. I can read a balance sheet, but I don’t want to, I’d rather have an accountant do that. So business-wise, we’d stepped back quite a while ago. We had a CEO, and then a publisher, so that wasn’t a wrench. The things that I really enjoyed doing, I’m still doing. They still ask my opinion on things.
Q: How did you maintain quality across the Lonely Planet brand?
A: If you get it wrong, people tell you. It’s a really good sign if your customers feel that kind of involvement with you. They take it personally when it isn’t as good as it should be. And I’m a fierce critic. I always use our books when I travel.
Q: Where do you see the travel book industry going?
A: Everyone says print is dying. My answer is ‘Print isn’t dying, it just isn’t always on paper anymore’. We’re reading as many words as ever before, it’s just we read some of them on paper and some on phones or computers. They’re coming at you from all sorts of different directions. We’ll still be sending people out there to research, but the information we bring back won’t necessarily go on the same platform. A few years ago, people were only thinking about the laptop. They hadn’t seen the whole smartphone thing coming, but that’s been the real revolution. Who knows what will come next? There’ll be something else we hadn’t foreseen.
Q: How did you manage working alongside your wife?
A: We didn’t step on each other’s toes too much. I was the creative side of the business; I had an aptitude, eye and enthusiasm for it. Maureen’s always been much more down to earth. If someone had to be fired, she fired them because I couldn’t stand doing it. At the beginning, all of our ‘board meetings’ were held in the middle of the night when one of us couldn’t sleep. We’d wake the other one up to say ‘we’ve got to discuss this right now’!
Q: Do you think you’ll ever sate that travel bug?
A: No. The first time you do something is always the most interesting. I can always find destinations I’ve not been to before. Not all of them work out but some of them you just think ‘Wow, that was a really good trip!’ I’ve got an assortment of friends who are the same way, and they’re all slightly eccentric in some way. I think eccentricity is a really good trait.
Q: Do you fly business class? Is it a necessity or a luxury?
A: Yeah. They say once you turn left you never turn right again. In one respect it’s a luxury, because it’s really absurdly expensive. You can’t logically justify the cost at all. But on the other hand, I can afford it, so I’d rather spend money on that than a lot of other things. It does just make my life much, much easier.
Q: Do you have a favourite airline?
A: I try and play the field. It’s the same with hotels. I feel guilty when I stay in the same hotel twice. I think I should be trying something else.
Q: What do you hate most about travelling?
A: Airport security! There’s this jumble of people, some going slower and some going faster. The thing that drives me craziest of all is that you’re got this tiny little space before the x-ray machine to do everything. It’s completely illogical. I’d love to take over the design of airport security. I’d do a much better job!
Q: What are your travel essentials?
A: I always carry a GPS. I like to see how fast we’re going and how far we’ve got to go. I can’t travel without a laptop these days. Partly because my handwriting is so awful! I always carry a mobile. I hate not having a window seat, I like to look out and see what’s down there. I always have a camera as well, because sometimes I want to photograph what’s down there. But I do travel light!
Q: Where do you still want to go?
A: There is a long list! Some of them are really bad places. Yemen’s always fascinated me. Every time it gets a bit safer I think I should leave right now! There are a number of countries in Africa that really intrigue me, because they’re so misguided. I’d like to go to some of them.
On life and looking forward
Q: So what is your future path?
A: Three things: I’m going to keep doing what I’m already doing, writing and contributing to magazines and papers. We’ll carry on with (charity work at) The Lonely Planet Foundation and contributions to the Wheeler Centre, which promote literacy and literature. I’m involved with the London Business School on an academic level, my wife is working on an opera project with Opera Australia, and I still travel about four months a year. So there’s no shortage of things to keep me out of trouble. Or in trouble. But I’m open to suggestions!
Q: Any advice for entrepreneurs?
A: Do something you love. If you love it and you don’t make money out of it, it doesn’t matter because you’re enjoying it. Other people will realise you love what you do, and it’s catching. You get a buzz out of that, you think whatever they’re producing or selling or doing must be good because they’re so keen about it! I love enthusiastic people.
Q: If travel wasn’t your passion, would you have started another business?
A: I often wonder that, it’s that Sliding Doors thing. I was originally an engineer. I still know a guy I went to uni with, and I look at him as a sort of test of what I could have done with my life. But he’s been an employee his whole life. I can’t imagine doing any better than I’ve done, but I’ve been very lucky.