Spotlight: LBS MBA Alum Tony Wheeler
If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go? It’s a tough question, but if anyone would have suggestions, it would be Tony Wheeler, a London Business School MBA alumnus and the co-founder of Lonely Planet Publications—the world’s largest travel guidebook publisher.
This January, Tony and Maureen Wheeler received the 13th UNWTO (United Nations World Tourism Organization) Lifetime Achievement Award—a prize conferred every year to individuals with visionary leadership and significant contributions to the global tourism sector. For over 40 years, Wheeler has played an inspirational role for worldwide travelers, writers, and the tourism sector through Lonely Planet Publications.
Tony Wheeler was born in England in 1946, but spent much of his younger years in different locations around the world, growing up in Pakistan, the Bahamas, Canada, the United States and England. After high school, which he completed in the U.S., he studied mechanical engineering at Warwick University. Wheeler then spent two years working for Chrysler before he earned his MBA at London Business School.
It was then, in 1972, soon after he graduated with his MBA, that everything changed.
Lonely Planet Publications
Wheeler has been described as the “flag-bearer for a generation (or more) of independent travelers seeking adventure,” by the Financial Review. Wheeler has spent most of his own life traveling with the occasional interruption by what the rest of us call life.
After marrying, Tony and his wife, Maureen, decided to take a year-long trip to Asia. When they arrived home in Australia with just 27 cents and a camera, everyone they met asked, “How did you travel? What did you see? How much did it cost?” Those questions and their answers inspired the first Lonely Planet book: Across Asia on the Cheap.
Their first print run was 1500 copies, and it sold out in the first week. After another 18 months in South-East Asia, they wrote their second guidebook: South-East Asia on a Shoestring. This book became the “definitive guide” to the region and sold over half a million copies worldwide.
According to Saxton, Australia’s Leading Speaker’s Bureau, “Tony believes that travelers enjoy themselves much more when they know more about the places they’re visiting. He says that travel writing is ‘dawn to dusk hard work, always on the move, always checking things,’ but he and Maureen manage to fit in several trips each year.”
For years afterward, Wheeler and his wife traveled the world creating Lonely Planet travel guides, driving guides, and walking guides. Today, there are over 500 Lonely Planet titles, which have sold over 100 million copies in myriad languages. As for Wheeler’s management style, he said that his goal was to find people who did things better than he could and to let them run amok. It’s a style that still has echoes in today’s startup culture.
“In lots of things, Lonely Planet was ahead of the curve,” said Wheeler in the Financial Review interview. “Within the books, we always encouraged feedback, and we always used the feedback. That involvement with your customers was always very important.”
Then, ten years ago, BBC Worldwide acquired Lonely Planet Publications, buying an initial 75% stake in 2007 and the remaining 25 percent in 2011 for a total of $269 million.
Unfortunately for Wheeler and Lonely Planet, the BBC purchase was a disappointment. “We thought the BBC would bring all sorts of muscle we didn’t have, but instead the BBC sort of lost their way,” Wheeler said in the Financial Review interview. “The biggest thing was they got tangled up in politics. They weren’t able to use it the way they intended to because the politics got in the way.”
In 2013, BBC sold Lonely Planet to NC2 Media. While Wheeler no longer have any stake or a regular role with the publisher, he still contributes to the books.
Wheeler’s publications are just a small part of his story. His involvement with philanthropy is one of the reasons he received the LBS Alumni Achievement Award in 1998.
Tony and Maureen Wheeler are the founders of the Planet Wheeler Foundation, which is currently involved in more than 50 projects in the developing world focusing on education, health, human rights, and building communities—their core focus being to alleviate poverty in Southeast Asia and East Africa.
Wheeler also sits on the Board of the Global Heritage Fund, a San Francisco-based archaeology organization. And they help fund the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing & Ideas, which aims to be a hub for a diverse range of literary ideas and conversations important to Australia. Last but not least, at LBS there’s the Tony & Maureen Wheeler Chair of Entrepreneurship, which concentrates on entrepreneurship in the developing world.
With all of these accolades to their names, it’s no wonder Tony and Maureen Wheeler were chosen as this year’s recipients of the Lifetime Achievement Award in Tourism.