Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd. History

Locked Bag 1
Footscray, Victoria 3011

Telephone: (61) 3-8379-8000
Fax: (61) 3-8379-8111

Private Company
Employees: 400
Sales:A$82 million (2001)
NAIC: 511130 Book Publishing & Printing; 424920 Book, Periodical and Newspaper Merchant Wholesalers; 511140 Database and Directory Publishers; 518111 Internet Service Providers

Company Perspectives:

Lonely Planet is passionate about bringing people together, about understanding our world, and about people sharing experiences that enrich everyone's lives. We aim to inspire people to explore, have fun, and travel often. And we strive to provide travellers everywhere with reliable, comprehensive and independent travel information.

Key Dates:

The publication of Across Asia on the Cheap spawns Lonely Planet Publications.
The company's second book, South-East Asia on a Shoestring, is published.
The success of a guidebook on India gives Lonely Planet financial security.
A sales office in the United States is established.
A sales office in the United Kingdom is opened.
Lonely Planet launches its Web site.
Lonely Planet begins to diversify aggressively.

Company History:

Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd. bills itself as a travel information publisher, producing guidebooks and a host of other related titles that offer frank and distinctive assessments of locations throughout the world. Lonely Planet maintains offices in Melbourne, Australia; Oakland, California; Paris, France; and London, England. The company has published more than 600 travel books and introduces roughly 25 new titles each year.


The partnership of Tony and Maureen Wheeler, the founders of Lonely Planet, began on a park bench in London in 1970. Tony Wheeler, in his mid-20s at the time, had earned a master's degree in automotive engineering at the London Business School. He sat on the park bench reading a car magazine. His soon-to-be wife sat next to him, reading a novel by Tolstoy, according to Tony Wheeler's recollection. The pair introduced themselves, struck up a conversation, and moved in with each other several days later. Tony Wheeler, born in Bournemouth, England, and Maureen Wheeler, a native of Ireland, were married a year later. The young couple flirted with a conventional lifestyle following their wedding, but wanderlust proved to have a stronger attraction than working in London. Tony Wheeler deferred accepting a well-paying job at Ford Motor Co. and Maureen Wheeler left her job working for a London wine importer. "The plan was to get the travel bug out of our systems, then settle down for good," Tony Wheeler recalled in an October 1994 interview with Smithsonian magazine.

In 1972, the Wheelers embarked on what was supposed to be the last big adventure of their lives. They emptied their bank accounts and used the $1,400 they obtained to purchase a few maps and a used Austin minivan. With much dependent on the reliability of the $130 Austin, the Wheelers boarded a boat, crossed the English Channel, and began driving eastward. As the young couple began their trek, they observed a daily budget of $6, crossing Western Europe, the Balkans, Turkey, and into Iran. Once they arrived in Afghanistan, the next country in a dizzying itinerary, the Wheelers sold the Austin and resorted to any transportation mode made available to them. The couple traveled by bus, train, boat, and rickshaw, hitchhiking whenever the need arose. Impulse served as their guidebook, taking the Wheelers on a meandering course snaking through Pakistan, Kashmir, India, Nepal, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

The itinerant Wheelers came to rest in Sydney, Australia, nine months after they left London. The journey left the couple virtually penniless, whittling their saving down to 27 cents. "Our original intent had been to find jobs in Sydney and work there for three or four months until we'd earned enough for plane tickets, then fly back to London and get on with our lives," Tony Wheeler explained in his October 1994 interview with Smithsonian. He found a marketing job at a pharmaceutical company, but the attempt to return to London soon was shelved. When other travelers heard of the Wheelers trip, they pressed the couple for details and advice. The interest convinced the Wheelers to write an account of their trip in guidebook form, a project neither one of them had entertained before or during the trip. They sat at the kitchen table in their small Sydney apartment and began writing their first travel guide. The effort was truly homespun, a hand-collated, trimmed, and stapled guidebook that was 96 pages long.

Lonely Planet Is Born: 1973

With the book completed, the Wheelers next needed a name for their kitchen-table company. The inspiration came from "Space Captain," a song by Joe Cocker and Leon Russell that contained the words "lovely planet." When he sang along to the song, Tony Wheeler had a habit of replacing "lovely" with "lonely," preferring his version of the lyrics even after Maureen Wheeler informed him of the mistake. Thus, Lonely Planet Publications became the name of the Wheelers' enterprise.

The 96-page travel book, which eventually became a collector's item, was entitled Across Asia on the Cheap, published in 1973. "It was a crude, totally handmade book," Tony Wheeler remembered in his October 1994 interview with Smithsonian, "but when we took it 'round to book shops in Melbourne and Sydney it was surprisingly easy to sell." The book sold for $1.80. The first printing sold out in ten days, necessitating another, larger print run. The second print run sold out as well, requiring another run. Within its first year on bookstore shelves, Across Asia on the Cheap sold 8,500 copies, prompting the Wheelers to plan a second adventure for the substance of the next Lonely Planet publication.

With the profits from their first travel guide, the Wheelers were able to finance their second trip throughout Asia. They purchased a 250cc Yamaha and rode the motorcycle through Indonesia, Burma, Malaysia, Laos, and Thailand. After spending a year gathering thorough information, the Wheelers spent the next three months in a $2-a-night Singapore hotel room, where the couple wrote their second guidebook, South-East Asia on a Shoestring, published in 1975. Reverently referred to as the "Yellow Bible" by its readers, South-East Asia on a Shoestring trumped the success of it predecessor, selling twice as many copies as Across Asia on the Cheap.

With South-East Asia on a Shoestring, Lonely Planet established several of its defining characteristics. The information within the guidebook was meticulously researched, conveyed to the reader in frank, sometimes witty prose. A Lonely Planet travel guide contained conventional and unconventional information, offering advice on hotels and restaurants as well as how to change money on the black market. Equally as important as how well the Wheelers did their work was where they did their work, particularly during Lonely Planet's formative years of development. They chose destinations that largely had escaped the attention of their competitors, focusing on countries, cities, and regions guidebook publishers such as Frommer's ignored. In an article he wrote for the July/August issue of UNESCO Courier, Tony Wheeler explained the importance of eschewing the world's more popular destinations. "We started with a very simple philosophy: we were the small time operator who couldn't compete head on with the big publishers in London or New York. So we would produce guidebooks to the places nobody had ever thought of writing about. In retrospect, it was an amazingly clever idea. By the time the 'big guys' had woken up to the tourist boom that was taking off from airports all over the world, we had carved out a name for ourselves as publishers for the new destinations suddenly topping the statistics lists. This hard-won reputation gave us the stature to move on to the more established and familiar destinations."

The success of South-East Asia on a Shoestring firmly established Lonely Plant as a guidebook publisher, albeit a decidedly small publisher. Using Melbourne as the base of their operations, the Wheelers spent the latter half of the 1970s traveling in and writing about a series of countries, publishing travel guides for Nepal, Africa, New Zealand, and New Guinea. The books sold well, but the profits barely paid for the travel and publishing expenses incurred. Maureen Wheeler, in an October 1994 interview with Smithsonian, described their financial status in the years immediately following the publication of South-East Asia on a Shoestring: "We couldn't afford a decent car, the house we lived in didn't even have an indoor toilet, and the books remained pretty amateurish because we didn't have the money to do things as well as we should have. I didn't think Lonely Planet was ever really going to support the two of us." By the end of the 1970s, the Wheelers had published a dozen books, but the financial future of Lonely Planet remained uncertain. Certainty arrived at the beginning of the 1980s, when the publishing company's fervent yet limited readership shed the characteristics of a cult-like following.

Lonely Planet needed popularity on a higher level to ensure its survival and the Wheelers' financial well-being. The turning point in the publishing company's development occurred after the Wheelers decided in 1979 to write a guidebook for India, a project that quickly overwhelmed the Wheelers and the two writers they hired to help produce the book. In scope and scale, the travel guide to India eclipsed all other Lonely Planet titles preceding it. Once completed, the book was 700 pages long, nearly four times the length of the publisher's other books. The extra length demanded an increased price tag, but when the $10 copies of the India guidebook arrived in bookstores in 1980, the higher price did not deter buyers in the least. The book was an immediate success, selling 100,000 copies in its first print run and earning a prestigious British literary award hailing it as the best travel book of the year. Eventually, the book sold 500,000 copies, giving Lonely Planet financial stability for the future.

In the wake of the seminal success of the India guidebook, the Wheelers were able to expand the size of their operation both in terms of personnel and its physical presence. They could now afford to hire editors, cartographers, and writers, all of whom worked on a contract basis, to assist in the production of a steady stream of Lonely Planet publications. As the library of Lonely Planet books increased, giving coverage to nearly every corner of the world, a small network of Lonely Planet sales offices emerged. In 1984, an office was opened in San Francisco, followed by the establishment of an office in London six years later.

Maturity in the 1990s

Roughly 20 years after the first Lonely Planet books appeared in stores in Australia, Lonely Planet stood as one the most recognized names in travel guide publishing. By 1994, the company's staff had written and published 155 guide books, titles that were advertised as "travel survival kits." Offices in Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France employed a full-time staff of 75 editors and cartographers, generating revenues exceeding $22 million a year.

As Lonely Planet pressed ahead during its third decade of existence, the company averaged annual sales growth of 24 percent. Part of the reason the company was able to maintain its momentum was its willingness to exploit new revenue-generating streams. In 1994, for instance, the company launched the Lonely Planet Web site, through which it fostered the development of a sizeable online community. To mark its 25th anniversary in 1998, the company published its first hardcover coffee-table book, Chasing Rickshaws. Another factor contributing to the unflagging strength of the company was the Wheelers' insistence that the tone and style of Lonely Planet books change to meet the changing tastes and needs of their readership. Travelers who were the Wheelers contemporaries during the 1970s had different lifestyles and traveling desires by the 1990s. The Wheelers of the 1990s brought their children along on their adventures, took shorter trips, and stayed in more expensive accommodations than they had 25 years earlier. Lonely Planet guidebooks reflected the changes, ensuring that the publishing company did not lose touch with the demographic that had fueled its rise.

By its 25th anniversary, Lonely Planet had more than 350 titles in print, a total that was expanding by 20 to 25 new titles each year. "The thing that sets us apart from other travel guide companies is that right from the beginning, Tony Wheeler planted the seeds for worldwide distribution," explained the company's U.S. general manager in an October 12, 1998 interview with Publishers Weekly. "And that puts us in the unique position that we can publish a guidebook about almost any place in the world, and it will still make a reasonable return." Worldwide, Lonely Planet was generating annual sales in excess of $40 million, drawing 44 percent of the total from Europe, its largest market. North and South America ranked as the company's second-largest market, accounting for 36 percent of sales. Next on the list was Australia, accounting for 20 percent of sales, with Asia and Africa accounting for the rest.

As Lonely Planet prepared for the future, a wealth of new products bearing the company's brand was expected to be unveiled. In 2000, the company marked the beginning of the new millennium by introducing seven new product categories. Included within the new breeds of Lonely Planet products were: Healthy Travel, a series of pocket guides on regional health issues; World Food, a series of pocket guides covering cuisine and culture; Read This First, a series listing pre-departure concerns for first-time travelers; and Citysync, which offered condensed palmtop versions of Lonely Planet guides for eight selected cities. In 2001, diversification continued when Lonely Planet published Out to Eat: San Francisco 2001, a restaurant guidebook. The success or failure of these new offerings would determine whether Lonely Planet evolved into a broadly-based publisher or stretched itself too thin. The Wheelers, emboldened by 30 years of success, awaited the challenge.

Principal Divisions: Lonely Planet Television; Lonely Planet Australia; Lonely Planet USA; Lonely Planet UK; Lonely Planet France; Lonely Planet Europe.

Principal Competitors: Berlitz International, Inc.; Random House; John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Further Reading:

  • Farmanfarmaian, Roxane, "Lonely Planet Celebrates 25th Anniversary," Publishers Weekly, October 12, 1998, p. 17.
  • ------, "Lonely Planet Has Strong '99, Sees Gains in'00," Publishers Weekly, March 20, 2000, p. 17.
  • "Hitting the Road with a Lonely Planet Man," Time International, June 1, 1998, p. 6B.
  • Izon, Lucy, "New, Improved Guide to Russia," Los Angeles Times, May 5, 1996, p. 16.
  • Krakauer, John, "All They Really Wanted Was to Travel a Little," Smithsonian, October 1994, p. 132.
  • "Lonely Planet Releases First Cuba Guidebook," Houston Chronicle, January 19, 1997, p. 2.
  • Roether, Barbara, "Lonely Planet Adds Spanish Line," Publishers Weekly, March 5, 2001, p. 20.
  • Schuman, Michael, "The Not-So-Lonely Planet," Forbes, May 22, 1995, p. 104.
  • Symanovich, Steve, "Lonely Planet Roves a Hungry City," San Francisco Business Times, January 19, 2001, p. 50.
  • Wheeler, Tony, "Philosophy of a Guidebook Guru," UNESCO Courier, July-August 1999, p. 54.
  • "Words of Wisdom; Back to 'Lonely' Roots," Advertiser, June 23, 2001, p. M34.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 55. St. James Press, 2003.