BBC sells Lonely Planet guide business to U.S. firm

LONDON — The Lonely Planet guide started out in 1973 on the kitchen table of Tony and Maureen Wheeler, who turned their adventures traveling on the cheap into a publishing empire— a backpacker Bible that made far-flung places seem easier to access.

The company went on to publish 120 million books in 11 languages — and made a fortune for the Wheelers when they sold the business to the BBC in 2007.

Unfortunately for the BBC, the story didn’t end well.

BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the BBC, announced Tuesday it had agreed to sell the guide business, Lonely Planet, for 51.5 million pounds ($77.8 million) to U.S.-based NC2 Media — an 80 million pound loss that drew criticism for wasting public money during an economic downturn.

The deal followed a strategy review that determined the BBC should concentrate on its own brands, and the BBC said the deal would be studied to learn lessons from what went wrong.

“We have also recognized that it no longer fits with our plans to put BBC brands at the heart of our business and have decided to sell the company to NC2 Media who are better placed to build and invest in the business,” BBC Worldwide interim CEO Paul Dempsey said. “This deal begins a new chapter for Lonely Planet and signifies the end of one for BBC Worldwide.”

The Melbourne, Australia-based Lonely Planet has been hit hard by a surging Australian currency, consolidation in the publishing industry and the economic crisis, which reduced leisure travel.

The only thing that surprised afternoon shoppers at a Waterstones bookstore in north London Tuesday was that the BBC owned the company in the first place. The BBC, known somewhat affectionately as “Auntie” in this country because of its omnipresence, is more associated with news programs and costume dramas.

“I didn’t know it had anything to do with the BBC at all,” said Chris Watt, 68, a surveyor who was thumbing through a Lonely Planet book on the Italian language in the store’s travel section.

That lack of connection to the British national broadcaster underpinned the decision to sell.

The BBC bought Lonely Planet at a time of expansion. Since then, the story has been one of contraction in a country reeling from the worst economic slowdown since the Great Depression.

Amid pressure to strengthen its core, the BBC decided to cut its losses and move on. NC2 made clear that the future of the brand lay in the digital sphere and said the transition was under way.

“I imagine BBC will focus on what they do best, rather than try to be a multipurpose corporation,” said Ellis Cashmore, a professor of media culture and sport at Staffordshire University. “Many might just read about and think `Tut tut, the Beeb is wasting more of the license payers’ money.’ But I think there is another narrative here, so to speak. BBC Worldwide is actually a surefooted, profitable organization. This is just an Icarus-type folly: it got burned, but not too damagingly.”

Based in Nashville, Tennessee, NC2’s primary shareholder is Brad Kelley, an American who made his fortune in tobacco and is listed on the Forbes 400 list of the world’s richest people. Now a rancher, he is among the top landowners in the U.S. and is a board member of Churchill Downs, the home of the Kentucky Derby.

The BBC bought 75 percent of Lonely Planet in 2007 for 88.1 million pounds and paid an additional 42.2 million pounds for the rest four years later.

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