Posted on Thursday 14 October 2010 byUlster Business
Belfast-born co-founder of the Lonely Planet Maureen Wheeler was in town recently to share her experiences of forming the global publishing company from scratch. Symon Ross went to find out more about the Lonely Planet story
Chances are you have at least one Lonely Planet guidebook on your bookshelves or coffee table.
Perhaps a reminder of your backpacking days, a family holiday to an offbeat location or a well-worn reference point for a favourite country you revisit time and time again.
The brand has become synonymous with independent travel, one of first places holidaymakers and backpackers keen to investigate new and exotic destinations will look for information on how to get there, what to do and where to stay.
Lonely Planet’s guides revolutionised the travel book market, appealing for the first time to travellers who were on a budget or who were interested in getting beyond the usual stops on the tourist trail, and making far flung corners of the globe seem suddenly accessible to regular people.
When I meet the company’s co-founder after an MLN/Podiem leadership event in Belfast, one delegate can’t help but share her enthusiasm for Lonely Planet.
“Can I just say I was fascinated by your talk and that you inspired me to travel the world twice. You managed to get people like me from Belfast to go to places like Australia. It changed my life,” she gushes.
You get the feeling Maureen Wheeler has heard this sort of thing many times before, but she takes the praise graciously, joking that she hadn’t even had to pay the happy customer for such a glowing recommendation.
Not that one is needed. Today Lonely Planet has grown to become a global company employing over 500 staff, with 300 writers, countless titles and offices in Australia, London and the US.
It has succeeded because she and her husband Tony were passionate about what they were doing and understood their customers because they travelled to the countries themselves, says Maureen.
“I’m really loath to give people advice because I don’t see myself as a business leader. I’m a leader of my business and I know my business because I did it from the ground up and understand it,” she told Ulster Business.
“But I don’t think you can just take one set of rules for one business and transfer it to another. You’ve got to want to do what you’re doing. I always say to young entrepreneurs find something you really love so that you’re passionate about it, do it as well as you can, work very hard, and if you make money it will be a bonus. If you don’t at least you’ve had fun. If you fail, you will learn from it.”
After growing up in East Belfast, Maureen moved to London aged 20 where she famously met her future husband Tony on a park bench. Their travels overland from London, through Asia to Australia resulted in the guidebook Across Asia on the Cheap, which sold 1500 copies in its first week and led them to form Lonely Planet. Their second book South-East Asia on a Shoestring followed in 1975 and by the publication of Lonely Planet India in 1981 - the first comprehensive guide to the vast country - the company had entered the public consciousness.
“Lonely Planet was a name that stuck in people’s minds, it made them want to ask for our books in bookshops, to find out what we meant by the name. As a brand we went from there,” says Maureen.
After successfully establishing a US office in 1984 the company began to grow rapidly, taking on more staff, more writers and publishing more books – meaning it became less like a family and more like a business.
“It used to be that I knew everyone in our office and I could ask how were their husbands, boyfriends, girlfriends – I knew their names. I used to be involved in hiring everybody up until we had about 100 people. Then there’s a point where you can’t do everything. The point at which you learn to delegate is very important. A lot of people like me starting a business find it hard to delegate,” says Maureen.
“Tony was brilliant at it, he just got rid of everything he didn’t like doing, but I found it a bit harder. But when you get good people you realise they can do some of it better than you can and so you pass things on.”
She admits the publisher overextended itself and in 1998 saw the need to restructure and become more efficient. The timing of that decision was good as a few years later the bottom fell out of the tourism market following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the SARS health scare and the Bali bombing.
The company also decided to embrace technology rather than fearing it - putting significant investment into the digital side of its business. With Lonelyplanet.com regularly voted one of the best travel sites, Lonely Planet TV well established and a newly launched iPhone app, it is not a business that can be accused of operating an outdated model.
Though Wheeler thinks the company may gradually move towards a 50/50 split of print and digital, she has no fears that books are a dying medium.
“I had a bright young MBA come to me and tell me that our model wouldn’t work any more because there would be no more need for books within five years. That was ten years ago,” she says.
“I think there will always be a place for books. You drop a book in a river, you can dry it out and still use it. You don’t have to worry about finding an electrical point to charge it. They are simple, you turn the page to find the information.”
The Wheelers sold 75% of Lonely Planet to BBC Worldwide in 2007, but remain actively involved as directors of the business. Maureen admits it took her about a year to get used to the idea it was no longer fully theirs, but the sale has given her more time to travel and engage in philanthropic work.
She has created the Planet Wheeler Foundation and also set up Lonely Planet’s corporate contributions’ programme, which provides financial assistance for humanitarian projects in developing countries.
While in Belfast, she helped launch a new series of master classes aimed at urging local organisations to find out more about the social economy.
“I think for too long business has been too wrapped up in profits. When we started years ago people assumed that when you started a business you were going to be committed to it and work for it. There was a sense of not just running a business for itself but for a community because most businesses were situated in a community,” she says.
“In the 80s and 90s we saw a large change, you started a business with the idea that you might sell it in three to five years. You’d get as much revenue and profit from the company as possible and then sell it on. There was no sense of commitment to the business idea. The social economy may be a slight turnaround in the way people think.”
While Australia is home, Maureen comes back to Northern Ireland at least once a year to visit family and has some sense of the local business environment.
“There are some people here doing magnificent things,” she says. “But I think the overall atmosphere here is quite bureaucratic and conservative. I still think there is a ‘that won’t work’ attitude.”
The Lonely Planet founder says that Northern Ireland’s “wonderful scenery” alone won’t bring tourists to the province and believes greater “vision and planning” is needed to make the most of Belfast’s industrial heritage and the older parts of the city. She also sees untapped opportunities in Northern Ireland’s more recent political history.
“The majority of people coming to Belfast and Northern Ireland are going to come because of the history,” she says. “People are curious about the Troubles and there is an opportunity to cash in on that. That may sound terrible because it was a shocking period for everybody but it has happened. If it is what people want to come for then make sure it is done well. It’s not going to last forever, the whole interest in that period will disappear.”
Tony and Maureen Wheeler met on a park bench in Regent’s Park in 1970 and married a year later. For their honeymoon they spent several months crossing Europe and Asia overland, ending in Australia. Their experiences formed the basis of their first travel guide Across Asia on the Cheap. Today, Lonely Planet has offices in Melbourne, London and Oakland, with over 500 staff members and 300 authors. BBC Worldwide acquired a 75% share in Lonely Planet in 2007 but the Wheelers remain actively involved in the company.