Fittingly for a man who co-founded the world’s largest travel guidebook business, Tony Wheeler is a hard man to pin down for an interview.
Short-haul trips to Tasmania and Sydney from Melbourne, Lonely Planet’s base, delay attempts to talk to Wheeler.
Travel is intrinsic to the Lonely Planet co-founder. It is, and always has been, more than merely a vehicle for a business that has become one of Australia’s most iconic brands.
“Lonely Planet was never really perceived as a business to start with,” Wheeler says. “People wanted the information about travelling and we wanted to get that information out there.
“In a strange way that has always been the way of the business – to tell a story, rather than to make money.”
A happy accident
Wheeler happily admits the first Lonely Planet book, Across Asia on the Cheap, was an “accident” and points to other pieces of apparent good fortune since, such as the coin toss that resulted in Wheeler and his wife and co-founder Maureen heading back to Melbourne to start the business, rather than returning to London.
Wheeler is keen to downplay his own business acumen. You can almost hear the shrug of his shoulders as he describes how he turned a collection of flimsy, hand-stapled sheaves of paper into a multi-million dollar global pioneer.
But a sharp commercial mind clearly lurks within Wheeler, as his friend Eric Beecher, founder and chairman of StartupSmart publisher Private Media, attests to.
“Don’t let Tony fool you,” says Beecher, who also chairs The Wheeler Centre, a centre for ‘books, writing and ideas’ spawned from Wheeler’s philanthropy. “Behind that calm facade lies a curious and engaged mind. And a hugely ethical compass.
“Tony is really a kind of Renaissance man. At one level he’s an intellectual who reads voraciously, loves politics, travels incessantly, follows his social conscience and genuinely tries to make the world a better place.
“But if you look behind the global success of Lonely Planet, it’s obvious he and Maureen are also highly pragmatic, tough and strategic as business people.
“You don’t create a massive international brand like Lonely Planet – arguably Australia’s best known brand in the world – through idealism alone. There were many really hard and painful decisions along that path.”
The start-up journey
If the first Lonely Planet book was an accident, it was an epic one. Wheeler met Maureen on a park bench in London’s Regent’s Park and the duo travelled to Australia via Europe and Asia in a $130 minivan.
Arriving in Sydney on Boxing Day 1972 the couple had the princely sum of 27 cents and a camera between them. The camera was promptly pawned.
After being continually questioned by people they met about their trip the Wheelers decided to put together a book based on their diaries.
Tony Wheeler used skills gained on a university newspaper to lay out the publication, which had an initial print run of 1500 and was hand-stapled.
“The second print run was bigger,” recalls Wheeler. “I took a day off work to sell them to the book shops. I described the book to Angus & Robertson and they said they wanted 50. They flew off the shelves apparently,” he says.
The couple was at that point living on one salary but decided to make Lonely Planet, named after a misheard line in the Joe Cocker song ‘Space Captain’, their sole focus.
“We left Sydney at the beginning of 1974 and sat in a hotel in Singapore putting together the book,” says Wheeler.
“It was a real eye opener. We printed 5000 and then had to do a further 10,000. We came back to Australia and decided to work on the business full time. I drove a taxi for two months and that is the last proper job I had. So to speak.”
Wheeler went into salesman mode, filling up his suitcase with $1.95 books and selling them to bookstores in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. Initially running the business from their home in the Melbourne suburb of South Yarra the couple eventually upgraded to a house in Richmond where they could fit their first staff members.