The Insider: Tony Wheeler

20th January 2009 (Last Updated January 20th, 2009 18:30)

With his wife Maureen, Tony Wheeler launched Lonely Planet with the publication of Across Asia on the Cheap in 1973. The company is now one of the largest guidebook publishers on Earth. In October 2007, BBC Worldwide bought a 75% controlling stake in LP. Wheeler retains the remaining shares, is an active philanthropist and continues to write about travel.

The Insider: Tony Wheeler

People like to have a picture of Lonely Planet in which everything is still produced on the kitchen table by a small bunch of hippies. We can point to the 500 members of staff, technicians looking after the computers and several lawyers on our books, but this myth still persists.

It means that whenever I meet our readers, they always want to know whether I still stay in dollar-a-night hostels. My answer inevitably disappoints them.

Sometimes you can have all the money in the world and the best place in town is a simple little guesthouse, but I certainly have no aversion to a hotel room that comes equipped with its own swimming pool.

I’ve travelled with money and without. Both experiences are great but there’s no doubt which one is easier.

When you’re really budgeting, the great fear is not how much you’re spending at the time; it’s running out of cash further down the line. Not having to hold your breath when paying the credit card bill is great, but neither Maureen nor I have ever been profligate.

I’ll still drive an extra 500m to avoid paying a parking charge.

“I’ll still drive an extra 500m to avoid paying a parking charge.”

There is occasionally a self-imposed pressure, as Lonely Planet’s founder, to walk the walk. You turn up in a new town and feel it’s your duty to see what the bus connection from the airport is like, despite having the money in your pocket for a taxi.

By the time I’ve reached my destination I tend to regret the decision.

The readers have always been there to keep us in check. Our first book requested feedback and updates from fellow travellers.

Almost immediately the letters started to arrive. Readers could sense the work, energy and enthusiasm that was being invested and wanted to be a part of it.

That sense of community has lasted to this day.

Trust is everything. A good guidebook should be able to do three core things: convey a sense of fun, help you learn and have the potential to save your life.

That philosophy came later, but when I reread our earliest publications I can see that we were doing the right things even back then. Like much of our success, it wasn’t part of a conscious action plan, it simply fell into place.

Luck has played a big part. I was a classic baby-boomer and my generation was coming of age when we started.

“A sense of community has lasted to this day.”

It was the time to hit the road and explore. Our horizons were wider and there wasn’t a lot of incentive: it was all Beatles in India and the Marrakech Express.

Jumbo jets were coming in and the cost of travel was falling. Our timing was perfect.

We were living a hand-to-mouth existence for a while but we got there in the end.

As Maureen and I have grown up, so has the company.

There came a time when we no longer felt able to give a fair assessment of the backpacker trail. Our target audience had also expanded by then.

Lonely Planet appeals to a far wider demographic than the shoestring traveller – even putting out business travel guides – but the same principles still apply.

We didn’t really start thinking about ‘the brand’ until the late 90s. What continues to amaze me is how Lonely Planet means different things to different people in different countries.

We’re the biggest-selling guide book in the Italian language and whenever I deliver talks there, attendances are amazing. In France, where we also have a large presence, the public sees us as being stylish and avant-garde.

After years of trying to make it work, we managed to exert control over how translations were handled. Now the tone of the book is as consistent as we can make it, regardless of the language it’s printed in.

That has caused problems in China and means that a Chinese-language version of our guide to that country has yet to be printed. However, there is a demand for our other titles over there.

Young Chinese are the people making the money. They are looking beyond their borders in a way that previous generations could never have imagined and they want to see the world.

“Young Chinese people are looking beyond their borders in a way that previous generations could never have imagined.”

That trend will only increase.

It also reflects the changing way in which our titles are accessed. Accepting BBC Worldwide’s offer was down to books becoming a less important percentage of the whole and a recognition that the passion Maureen and I shared lay on the publishing side.

We were no longer the right people to provide the fresh thought and impetus the company needed.

We still hold a 25% stake, but we’re not involved in the day-to-day. We compare it to having kids: they drive you crazy for years but, once they leave home, the worry subsides.

For the rest of your life, however, if they call needing help, you’ll drop everything.

I still have must-dos left on my travel wish list. The Trans-Siberian Express is a long-held dream.

It would only take two weeks, but it’s a matter of finding the time. I still make new discoveries.

I visited Orvieto in Italy for the first time this year and it was absolutely beautiful. Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean coast blew me away.

I also stayed in the Haiti hotel that Graham Greene features in The Comedians – it was a tatty old place, but that was sort of the point.

I’m more capable of taking holidays than I once was, even booking hotel rooms from time to time, but I always bring my notebook. Old habits die hard.

Would I stay in the same place twice? That might feel a little too constrictive.

Once While Travelling: the Lonely Planet Story is available now, published by Crimson.