The long & wind­ing road

The Weekend Australian - Magazine - - FRONT -

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

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