Lonely Planet was founded by married couple Maureen and Tony Wheeler. Tony Wheeler graduated from the University of Warwick and London Business School, and was a former engineer at the Chrysler corporation. The pair met in London in 1970 and, in July 1972, they embarked on an overland trip through Europe and Asia, eventually arriving in Australia in December 1972. The route that they followed was first undertaken by vehicle on the 1955 Oxford-Cambridge Overland Expedition.
The company name originated from Tony Wheeler's appreciation of a misheard line in "Space Captain", a song written by Matthew Moore, and first popularized by Joe Cocker and Leon Russell on the "Mad Dogs & Englishmen" tour of 1970—the actual lyrics are "lovely planet". Lonely Planet's first book, Across Asia on the Cheap, consisting of 94 pages, was written by the couple in their home. The original print run consisted of stapled booklets and sold out.
Following the success of the original booklet, Tony Wheeler returned to Asia with the deliberate intention of writing a travel guide and Across Asia on the Cheap: A Complete Guide to Making the Overland Trip was published in 1975. In October 2007 Observer writer Carol Cadwalladr—who also coauthored Travellers' Survival Kit Lebanon—described the book as "canonical".
Across Asia on the Cheap offered the advice of amateur travelers who had completed the overland trip from London to Sydney, Australia in just under six months. The Wheelers offer practical advice, such as the importance of not mentioning "arch enemies, Iran or Israel" in Iraq, as it is a "very hard-line socialist Arab country"; casual observations, such as their description of Singapore as a "groovy place"; tips of an illegal nature, such as where to obtain fake identification or an explanation of why one should have their "last drag" of the drug cannabis before they arrive at the Iranian border; and emergency options for people in need of money, whereby places that "have a good price for blood" are identified.
During the 1970s, traveling was considered an aspect of the counterculture and Tony Wheeler said in 2013: "The boomers were setting off to places their parents hadn't gone." What became known as the "hippie trail" was a popular route for such travelers, as the price of travel dropped and numerous Asian travel companies were launched. Cadwalladr explained in 2007 that the introduction of the Across Asia on the Cheap booklet was "a generational call to arms", as it contained Tony Wheeler's motivational cry: "All you've got to do is decide to go and the hardest part is over. So go." Cadwalladr further states that Wheeler's peers throughout the world subsequently made the decision to travel, regardless of whether they possessed a Lonely Planet guide. Other travel guide brand names also emerged in the early 1970s, such as Rough Guides and Bradt.
The popularity of the hippy trail, combined with the success of the original Lonely Planet publications, led the Wheelers to further develop the brand they had founded. The couple discovered writers in bars and also told people that if they could return to Australia with a completed book, then Lonely Planet would publish it. Tony Wheeler explained: "You couldn’t just look for travel book writers because they weren’t out there. There wasn’t such an animal. We just told people that if you turn up in a year and a half with a book, we’ll publish it, and we did. It was very rough and ready." The popularity of the overland route taken by the Wheelers in 1972 declined when Iran's borders closed in 1979.
The Lonely Planet guide book series initially expanded in Asia, with the India guide book that was first published in 1981, but progressively became a dominant brand in the rest of the world, as consumers appreciated the way that the manner in which the guides were written—as former CEO Judy Slatyer explained: "telling it like it is, without fear or favor." Wheeler explained in 2013, as part of the brand's 40-year anniversary, that working with the company's early writers, who were primarily travelers, was often challenging:
One writer came back with a 600-page guide to Jamaica—every pirate who stopped in got his biography—and we had to cut it by two-thirds ... For a long time we had a problem that every writer wanted to rewrite the history. We’d say, “Why are we rewriting the history of India for the 10th time? Surely, it’s not changing every two years.
In a 2007 interview, Tony Wheeler discussed one of the original Lonely Planet writers, Geoff Crowther, who wrote guides for India, South America, Africa and Korea. Crowther was renowned for frequently inserting his opinions into the text of the guides he wrote, giving the guide books real, gritty and un-politically correct passion and sometimes covering topics such as where to purchase the best hashish. His writing was instrumental to the rise of Lonely Planet. Tony Wheeler explained in the same interview that Crowther was, at that time, a "broken man living in Goa", while the journalist used the term "Geoffness", in tribute to Crowther, to describe a quality that has been lost over time in travel guides. However, Crowther at the time was not living in Goa, nor was he a broken man, instead he was living in the rainforests of East Coast Australia.
By 1999, Lonely Planet had sold 30 million copies of its travel guides and, by this stage, the company was recognized beyond hippie trail adventurers, and wealthier readers were an established part of the readership. The company's authors consequently benefited from profit-sharing and expensive events were held at the Melbourne office, at which limousines would arrive, filled with Lonely Planet employees. By 2007, Lonely Planet had officially been classified as a "Superbrand", having published over 500 titles and had sold 80 million titles, translated into more than eight languages. Cadwalladr relayed a rumor that, during one of his visits to Australia, Bill Clinton requested an audience with the Prime Minister and "someone from Lonely Planet".
In October 2007, the Wheelers and Australian businessman John Singleton, who became a shareholder in 1999, negotiated a put option agreement with BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the BBC, resulting in the latter's purchase of a 75% stake in the company, worth an estimated £63 million at the time; the Wheelers retained the other 25%. A put options frees the owner from any obligation to sell a specified amount of an underlying security at a specified price within a specified time, and instead provides the owner with the right to make such a sale. The deal was led by David King, chief financial officer, and Ian Watson, International Director, and advice was provided by Deloitte Corporate Finance and Blake, Dawson Waldron in Australia. Managing director of BBC Worldwide's global brands division, Marcus Arthur, who became the chairman of Lonely Planet after the finalization of the agreement, explained in 2011 that implementing a put option arrangement allowed the BBC "to benefit from the Wheelers' experience over the last three and a half years," further explaining that the founding couple "supported Lonely Planet's ongoing migration from a traditional book publisher to a multi-platform brand."
In the BBC press release, published on October 1, 2007, the BBC Worldwide CEO at the time, John Smith, explained:
Lonely Planet is a highly respected international brand and a global leader in the provision of travel information. This deal fits well with our strategy to create one of the world's leading content businesses, to grow our portfolio of content brands online and to increase our operations in Australia and America.
The Wheelers also shared their motivation in the press release, stating: "we felt that BBC Worldwide would provide a platform true to our vision and values, while allowing us to take the business to the next level." The founders have since written an autobiographical book titled Once While Travelling: The Lonely Planet Story (known as Unlikely Destinations: The Lonely Planet story in North America), describing their relationship, their initial overland journey and the founding of Lonely Planet.
Slatyer was the CEO of Lonely Planet at the time and, in addition to the Melbourne headquarters, offices existed in the U.S. and the U.K. The company was publishing 500 titles and the "next level" that the Wheelers referred to involved ventures such as the production of the third season of its flagship television series, Lonely Planet Six Degrees—in partnership with Discovery Networks and screened in over 100 countries—the company's website, which was attracting 4.3 million unique visitors each month, and the further development of lonelyplanet.tv, Lonely Planet's travel video website that was used by an online community of travelers, who could upload and watch their own videos, as well as those created by Lonely Planet.
Also in 2007, companies in the same category were making significant changes to their business operations. In early 2007, Bradt guides founder Hilary Bradt announced her retirement, alongside veteran independent publisher Charles James of Vacation Work—both founded their companies in the early 1970s like the Wheelers. Then, shortly before the Lonely Planet deal, the owners of Rough Guides sold their 25-year-old company to Penguin Books. Slatyer later reflected in 2014, in relation to the BBC acquisition: "We should have moved much more aggressively into creating a digital space where travelers could engage, interact, write their own guides".
The BBC deal also received a significant degree of criticism from rival media companies, such as Time Out and the Guardian Media Group, who argued that it represented an inappropriate expansion beyond the core programming and content of the media corporation. Such a sentiment was also evident within the BBC and the BBC Trust consequently ruled that similar acquisitions must not be sought out by the corporation's commercial arm in the future, unless "exceptional circumstances" are present. BBC Worldwide then struggled in the initial period following the acquisition, registering a £3.2 million loss in the year to the end of March 2009; however, the dire financial situation was eventually reversed with the implementation of a strategy that exploited new channels, such as Lonely Planet's non-print products.
By the end of March 2010, profits of £1.9 million had been generated, as digital revenues had risen 37% year-on-year over the preceding 12 months, spinoff products such as a Lonely Planet magazine had grown and non-print revenues increased from 9% in 2007 to 22%. Lonely Planet's digital presence at this time included 140 apps and 8.5 million unique users for lonelyplanet.com, which hosted the well-known Thorn Tree travel forum.
The eventual success achieved by BBC Worldwide led to the acquisition of the remaining 25% of the company, purchased for £42.1 million (A$67.2 million) from the Wheelers. The Lonely Planet magazine, launched in 2008, was described by the managing director of BBC magazines as the "star of the show" and, at the time of the 25% acquisition, eight editions were printed globally and the existing circulation of 60,106 continued to significantly grow.
BBC Worldwide had been unable to sustain the success that it had achieved in 2010 by early 2012 and was interested in divesting itself of the company. Factors such as a global recession and the appreciation of the Australian dollar were cited as influential. Kelley noticed the opportunity and approached BBC Worldwide in April 2012 without an explanation for why he was interested in Lonely Planet. The BBC did not make an offer immediately, but in March 2013, the details of the sale were announced to the public.
On 19 March 2013, the BBC confirmed the sale of Lonely Planet to Kelley's NC2 Media for US$77.8 million (£51.5 million)—significantly less than the £130.2 million the BBC had paid for the company, at nearly an £80 million (US$118.89 million) loss. The BBC received £41.2 million (US$62.24 million) after the completion of the deal, followed by the remaining £10.3 million (U$15.56 million) twelve months later.
The BBC reassured the public that public money was not lost in the sale, as BBC Worldwide used its own money, rather than the BBC's main budget, which is primarily derived from a license fee on British television-owning households, to purchase Lonely Planet; however, as the New York Times reported, any financial losses impact upon the BBC's overall funding because all BBC Worldwide profits become part of the BBC's monetary assets. The Trust consequently initiated a review of the investment, while the Trust vice chairperson said to the media that "at the time of purchase there was a credible rationale for this deal." Tony Wheeler stated in 2014 that, upon reflection, the decline in the company's television production was a key aspect of the BBC's eventual inability to maintain profitability, explaining that innovation is "tough".
In mid-2011, before the Lonely Planet consideration, Kelley met with Daniel Houghton, a young photojournalism graduate—from Western Kentucky University, the same institution that Kelley attended. Based solely on a handshake agreement, Kelley hired Houghton to help establish media company NC2 Media—the name "NC2" is short for in situ, meaning "in position" in Latin—which then launched its first venture OutwildTV, a website featuring sponsored expeditions, followed by a gear blog. Kelley eventually explained in 2014 that his hiring decision was based upon "a fortunate event" and Houghton's intense focus "on becoming something".
In March 2012, the month before they first approached the BBC, Kelley bought a US$24-million, 12,000-square-foot studio facility to house NC2 Media. The Lonely Planet deal was closed in April 2013 and Houghton, appointed by Kelly as the head of the newly acquired operation, visited the company's international offices to acquaint himself with the global nature of the enterprise. Worldwide, staff members were bewildered by Houghton's appointment and one longtime Lonely Planet author wrote in 2014: "I figured there had to be more to the story than 'reclusive billionaire hires 24-year-old with no known experience to run the joint' . But I think it's as silly and fucked-up as it sounds.". At the London office, a visual taunt was projected onto a wall prior to Houghton's speech to the team.
Houghton then met with employees at the Footscray, Australia headquarters on July 18, 2013 to announce a restructuring process that would result in staff layoffs. He revealed to the media at the time that between 70 to 80 positions would be made redundant from the overall business. Houghton confirmed the ongoing existence of a Melbourne-based office, while the restructure occurred over a 6- to 12-month period following the July meeting. Ultimately, 75 of Lonely Planet's 383 full-time employees were made redundant. On July 18, at the Footscray headquarters, Houghton "walked up in front of a microphone in Melbourne, where most of the redundancies occurred ... and told them, 'Today is going to be a really tough day.' "
Houghton spends a good amount of time on the road visiting Lonely Planet’s offices around the world according to an interview with Vice:
“About a year into my job, I realised I had done 300,000 miles in a year and something like 160, or 170 days away from home on the road. That’s tough, you miss your dog after that point. You do want to go home and relax.”
Tony Wheeler has publicly stated: "Certainly you don't want someone old and set in his ways—like me—at the controls". However, asking the rhetorical question" Is he [Houghton] the right 25-year-old? The jury is out on that one." Wheeler said that Houghton "seems a nice guy."
Houghton revealed elements of the content strategy in a 2014 feature article on him, stating, "We want the latest content, in real time." In November 2013, the company purchased the TouristEye app that is used for planning trips and offers guidance while people are traveling. Lonely Planet's new head of mobile products, Matthew McCroskey, explained, also in 2014:
... we have tons of information—all of Lonely Planet's historic content. And we're building really great technology to analyze that content and understand all the ways you can put it together ... You're in Rome, standing by the Colosseum. It's 3 P.M. on a Thursday in summer. You open your phone, and it says, "Hey, glad you enjoyed the Colosseum, which was on the itinerary we helped you make. We know you love coffee. Time for a cappuccino! The best cappuccino place in Rome is two blocks away. Here are walking instructions. And while you're walking, you should know: Don't order a cappuccino in the afternoon in Italy; they only drink them for breakfast, and they're going to think you're a stupid American. So you should get a macchiato. And this is how you ask for it." ... we've got most of the people who can deliver that kind of experience. And Daniel [Houghton] is finding more."
In 2013 Lonely Planet acquired Budget Travel to expand its international magazine presence for the US market and launch a US edition. In 2015 Lonely Planet Magazine launched in the United States, expanding the number of global edition to 12.
In January 2016, a mobile app called Guides launched and reached number 6 in the travel category of Apple’s app store.
In an interview with Vice, Houghton described the app’s purpose and functionality: “We really wanted to build something that was really useful for ‘I’m here – what do I do?’ So this is very much focused on you are out on the road, and you want to interact with Lonely Planet. Let’s just say you show up in Amsterdam, you’re on the ground, you can download the app—it’s free—and it starts by saving all the information on your maps offline. Because a lot of people are still traveling on Airplane mode, or they don’t have very much data to use.”
In February of 2016, the company launched its released new version of destinations on lonelyplanet.com marking one of the most significant project launches since the NC2 acquisition.
Lonely Planet's online community, the Thorn Tree, was created in 1996. It is named for a Naivasha thorn tree (Acacia xanthophloea) that has been used as a message board for the city of Nairobi, Kenya since 1902. The tree still exists in the Stanley Hotel. It is used by over 600,000 travelers to share their experiences and look for advice. Thorn Tree has many different forum categories including different countries, places to visit depending on one's interests, travel buddies, and Lonely Planet support. The Lonely Planet website includes travel articles, destination and point of interest guides, hotel, hostel and accommodations listings, and the ability to rate and review sites and restaurants.
Lonely Planet temporarily closed the Thorn Tree community on the 22 December 2012, with a notification stating: "We're sorry to let you know we've found it necessary to temporarily close the Thorn Tree section of Lonelyplanet.com as it has come to our attention that a number of posts do not conform to the standards of the Lonely Planet website. As soon as we have completed the necessary editorial and technical updates we will let you know but in the meantime we are very grateful for your understanding and patience." Later, Lonely Planet clarified the alert to say that it had found numerous posts containing "inappropriate language and themes," and the site would be reopened once these posts were found and deleted. Thorn Tree returned on 5 January 2013, having shut forums they felt were non-travel related. Now, the forum is regulated regularly and allows users to flag responses they deem inappropriate or not relevant.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported that a disgruntled former user alerted the BBC to numerous posts related to paedophilia. A source close to Lonely Planet management told the Herald that BBC executives still smarting from the Jimmy Savile scandal went into "full freak out, panic attack mode" over posts about the age of consent in Mexico and child prostitution in Thailand. However, a BBC Worldwide spokesman denied there was any evidence of paedophilia discussions on the site. The BBC subsequently stated that the cause of the shutdown wasn't paedophilia, but general concern with language and themes that the BBC was "uncomfortable" with.
In 2009, Lonely Planet began publishing a monthly travel magazine called Lonely Planet Traveller in the UK, and in 2010, it launched the Indian and the Argentine editions. Its Korean edition, with a digital edition for iPad, was launched in March 2011. Its Chinese version was launched in Mainland China in Aug, 2012. In October 2014, Lonely Planet announced a U.S. version of the travel magazine.
Lonely Planet also has its own television production company, which has produced numerous series, such as The Sport Traveller, Going Bush, Vintage New Zealand, and Bluelist Australia, along with the following:Globe Trekker – television series (also known as Pilot Guides) inspired by and originally broadcast under the name Lonely Planet
Lonely Planet Six Degrees – hosted by Asha Gill and Toby Amies
Lonely Planet: Roads Less Travelled – A co-production between Singapore's Beach House and Lonely Planet Television, airing on the National Geographic Adventure Channel 2009-2010, RLT is a reality-based travel series following nine LP guidebook authors and photographers.
A mention in a Lonely Planet guidebook can draw large numbers of travellers, which invariably brings change to places mentioned. For example, Lonely Planet has been blamed for the rise of what is sometimes referred to as 'the Banana Pancake Trail' in South East Asia. Critics argue that this has led to the destruction of local culture and disturbance of once quiet sites. As well, for travelers looking for hostels or places to eat, the ones mentioned are usually at full capacity or super busy. It is often easier to find places to stay at hostels not mentioned in the book. Lonely Planet's view is that it encourages responsible travel, and that its job is to inform people, and that it is up to guidebook users to make their informed choice.
In 1996, in response to a "Visit Myanmar" campaign by the military regime, the Burmese opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi called for a tourism boycott. As the publication of Lonely Planet's guidebook to Myanmar (Burma) is seen by some as an encouragement to visit that country, this led to calls for a boycott of Lonely Planet. Lonely Planet's view is that it highlights the issues surrounding a visit to the country, and that it wants to make sure that readers make an informed decision. In 2009, the NLD formally dropped its previous stance and now welcomes visitors "who are keen to promote the welfare of the common people".
In April 2008, American writer Thomas Kohnstamm published the memoir Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?, which touched on his experience writing a guide book for Lonely Planet in Brazil. After a review of Kohnstamm's guidebooks, publisher Piers Pickard agreed that no inaccuracies had been found.
In 2009, Australian author and former Lonely Planet guidebook writer Mic Looby published a fictional account of the guidebook-writing business, entitled Paradise Updated, in which the travel guide industry is satirised.