Published: Verve Magazine, Travel, April 2009
The founders of Lonely Planet Publications, Maureen and Tony Wheeler talk to Sitanshi Talati-Parikh about starting an empire, living like nomads, their experiences in India and often not being recognised
Simple, down-to-earth and practically incognito, the founder couple of Lonely Planet Publications whose guidebooks have become a bible for travellers, spend most of their time on the move. I find Tony Wheeler in his casual Hawaiian shirt, reserved in an unassuming sort of way; while Maureen, with trendy gold sandals and an instinctive sense of style is warm, friendly and bubbling with opinions, despite being under the weather. Their partnership is simple – ironically, Tony, hailing from England, with an MBA is the travel writer, while Maureen, born in Belfast, with secretarial skills and a degree in social work makes for a smart business person. Soon after their marriage, in the early 70s in an eventful overland trip to Asia on a shoestring budget, they reached Australian waters with no more than 27 cents and a camera (which they soon pawned). By popular demand they turned their experiences into a makeshift book, Across Asia on the Cheap. Eighteen months later, it was repackaged as South-East Asia on a shoestring, which has sold over half a million copies worldwide and is now in its 13th edition.
Today there are over 500 Lonely Planet titles, a thriving Internet community, and in 2007 BBC Worldwide took a majority stake in the company. Now, settled in Australia with two children, Tony, whose East Timor guidebook was awarded the Pacific Asia Travel Association 2005 Gold Award for Best Travel Guidebook; and Maureen, who has received the Inspiring Woman of Australia award (1999) and been voted Business Woman of the Year (2001), continue to travel to places that they haven’t yet been to. That is surprising seeing that they have already crossed more than 120 countries. Over an evening of conversation, I find that their experiences and decades of travel have led to their extraordinary success, which they handle with surprising diffidence.
As travel writers, you must live nomadic lives….
Maureen Wheeler (MW): We could never stay in one place for very long, because you always have to keep moving in order to keep the information current. We never spend a week on the beach just relaxing….
Is it a part of a restless spirit?
Tony Wheeler (TW): Not so much a restless spirit as much as a necessity.
MW: The restless spirit comes first, before you become a travel writer. TW: I hate going back to the same hotel again.
Do things change for you once people find out who you are?
MW: People don’t really know who we are. I’m not amazed, but other people seem to be amazed by that. We just don’t look like anybody. If we get an upgrade, it happens because there isn’t another suite or something!
TW: Some places are very aware – but we don’t realise it. Our writers do prefer to go incognito – they get a more genuine impression. You have set the standard for travel writers….
TW: Our writers today are far more professional than we were.
MW: No. They have more ways of taking notes and better ways of keeping track with technology and the Internet, but we were very conscientious – we went to every hotel, restaurant. We had to sit down at every train station and make a list, when now you can just Google it. I don’t think that makes them more professional, just makes it a little easier for them.
How diligent are you about each place you write about?
MW: We always went everywhere. We went to places where there was nothing. We spent three days in overnight trains getting to a place in India because we had heard you get mosaics there. After getting there, searching everywhere, we met a man who took us to a run-down villa and there was nothing to see! There was nowhere to stay or eat, so we spent another two days on the train getting back. And that ends up in the book as ‘There is nothing here – don’t bother going.’ There isn’t a standard stating you had to do ten pages, but that you had tried every single road.
In India, when Lonely Planet recommended ‘Rest House Bangalore’ other hotels changed their name to ‘Rest House Bangalore’….
TW: We are aware that in some places we have a really disproportionate influence, and we need to use that influence very carefully. We tell our writers not to be too enthusiastic and to rate judiciously.
MW: Indians are very entrepreneurial. We once got a letter from a traveller saying, ‘the hotel owner said they would give me a night free if I wrote a letter to you!’
Do you feel content?
TW: I am proud of what we’ve done. We have done a good job and we have been honest. The guidebooks should do a number of things – they should be totally practical, but they also should be educational.
MW: There is nothing worse than sitting with a bunch of people who are talking through a performance – because they are there simply because it is a tourist thing. People should understand why it is important and to show respect as well. A guidebook must inform, educate and guide, but also give you the confidence to travel. If it can’t take you a little bit further than if you had gone without the guidebook, then it hasn’t worked well at all.
Lonely Planet – what’s in the name?
TW: It originated from a song by a late 60s rock and roll band, that went ‘Once while travelling across the skies, a lonely planet caught my eye.’ And I thought that sounded nice! The reality was Joe Cocker didn’t sing ‘lonely planet’, he sang ‘lovely planet’!
MW: When we started, it was just the two of us. But when people began reviewing these books, what stuck in people’s minds was the name of the company – Lonely Planet. People don’t go in and say ‘I want a Penguin book’ even though they know about Penguin the publisher. Very few publishers’ names are bigger than the authors.
You must have great language skills….
TW: I can say ‘yes’, ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and ask for a cold beer in lots of languages.
What’s home for you?
TW: London and Melbourne. Clothes hang in the wardrobe, so you feel like you live there. What do take with you when travelling?
MW: I can’t live without my iPod.
TW: I’m a technical person – I need my laptop and camera with me. You need your passport and a credit card, some clothes and something to carry them in, and you’re set.
Favourite travel spots?
MW: I love walking in Nepal.
Maureen has written a book Travelling With Children….
MW: We took our kids at a very young age – after three years it gets much easier, yet travelling without them seemed unimaginable. By the time our kids started school, they had already travelled almost everywhere. It is a rewarding experience having them along. All the little things that you have forgotten about begin to appear new as you see it through their eyes.
When you’ve seen everything, what do you do?
TW: Go back to your favourite ones.
MW: I don’t have a burning desire to keep going back to places – I like seeing new places, to go to different parts of places I’ve been to before…. I doubt we will see everything in our lifetime.