The long & winding road
In July 1972, my wife Maureen and I jumped in a Morris Mini Traveller and left England heading east. I’d just graduated from London Business School with an MBA, and the plan was we’d travel as far as that £65 car would carry us. Times change; these days MBA graduates emerge with a backpack full of debts and need to start earning fast to pay them off. Our backpacks contained some clothes, but they were mainly stuffed with dreams. That dirt-cheap car carried us all the way to Afghanistan. Months later we arrived, penniless, in Australia, decided our plan to circle the world in a year and “get travel out of our systems” was doomed, and a few months later created something that would ensure we’d never kick our travel habit: Lonely Planet.
We didn’t even have a typewriter when we put together that first guidebook. Maureen would bring hers home from the office each Friday night and we’d spend the weekend hammering out the text on the kitchen table in our basement flat in Sydney. Of course we had no idea what we’d stumbled on, although years later it seemed obvious that this was the perfect moment to launch a travel publishing empire: the baby boomers were coming of age, jumbo jets were taking to the air and the hippie trail and the “Marrakesh Express” were on every young traveller’s mind.
A year later we were exploring South-East Asia on a motorcycle, but by this time our travels were completely different. The first trip across Asia had been enormous fun, but the idea that it was the foundation for an international business certainly wasn’t part of the picture. On trip two we could visualise the guide that would follow from the day we rode that motorcycle out of Sydney. In the following years we weren’t surprised when it found its way into so many backpacks. With edition 19 appearing soon, sales of Southeast Asia on a Shoestring are now in the millions.
We were, however, very surprised when that book was followed by hundreds of others, Lonely Planet offices popped up around the world and each year we unleashed what felt like an army of writers, researchers, photographers and cartographers to explore every country on Earth. Almost from the beginning I was confident that Lonely Planet would “work”; I just had no idea how well, and how a “Lonely Planet traveller” would become shorthand for a certain type of wanderer – not always young, but with an approach to travel and its importance to the world that I felt very strongly about.
Though people often assume digital media came as an unwelcome challenge to guidebook publishers, I think we can claim we were digital pioneers. As early as 1994 we had a blog (although the word wasn’t invented for another five years) on Tim O’Reilly’s pioneering Global Network Navigator website. We had our own website soon after and in 2000 we launched CitySync guidebooks on PalmPilots, those pre-smartphone mini-tablets. Nevertheless, I confess, all this digital groundbreaking was not my first passion; I still had a love affair with those old-fashioned print guidebooks.
Lonely Planet wasn’t going to be a family dynasty and by 2007 we felt it was time we departed. We weren’t short of suitors, but the BBC seemed the perfect partner, with the digital muscle and expertise we needed. The message was that just as Top Gear was the BBC footprint in the motoring world, so Lonely Planet would have the same position for travel. We had been successfully