Lonely Planet founders Maureen and Tony Wheeler have sold their remaining 25% stake in the guidebook business for 42.1 million pounds (A$67.2 million) to BBC Worldwide, informing staff this afternoon in an emotional address at the publisher’s Footscray offices that their time at the behemoth was up.

The decision to sell severs a 39-year connection with Lonely Planet after a 1972 park bench meeting in London’s Regents Park sowed the seeds for the empire. The couple then produced a guide, Across Asia on the Cheap, that became a best-seller.

When the duo sold three-quarters of their share in 2007 to the BBC for $A202million (88.1 million pounds), the contract contained an agreement that they could sell the remaining holding at the same price it was worth at the time.

At the gushy staff address, the couple talked about their “baby growing up”, before exiting the building as co-owners for the last time.

Tony, who writes and blogs for the empire, told the assembled employees that he still planned to be involved with Lonely Planet, especially its television arm. Maureen said that the firm had been her life’s biggest passion — other than Tony and the kids — and that she was still struggling with her identity following the initial sell-off.

According to BBC Worldwide, in 2009-10 Lonely Planet sales rose 8.4 million pounds to 51.4 million pounds, while profit grew to 1.9 million pounds — an improvement of 5.1 million pounds on the previous year.

However, in the UK, conservative politicians have harangued the public broadcaster for maintaining a stake in Lonely Planet, considering it a non-core asset and a waste of taxpayer resources. In 2009 the BBC said that it wouldn’t embark on any future acquisitions on a similar scale, unless “exceptional circumstances” prevailed.

In February 2009, the company axed 10% of its global workforce in the wake of the global financial crisis.

In an email to staff, Lonely Planet CEO Matt Goldberg called the development “an important moment in our history for reflection”.

“The Wheelers will always be the founders of Lonely Planet, and while their commercial relationship has come to an end, their deep personal relationship with employees, authors, partners and travellers everywhere will be everlasting.

“In the two years I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Tony and Maureen, I’ve felt incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to work with such visionary individuals, who have ignited all of our passion for travel in so many different and fun ways.  I want to thank them for welcoming me as CEO, and for their amazing stories, sound advice and warm hospitality.

“Today’s announcement won’t change our strategy or the current day-to-day running of the business.”

The decision to sell-out was widely predicted, with Tony Wheeler heavily involved in global charity the Planet Wheeler foundation in recent years, headquarted at Lonely Planet, to assist third world countries with development projects.

The couple have also emerged as figureheads at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre, a leading literature and cultural forum that regularly hosts well-attended seminars.

Crikey publisher and Wheeler Centre supremo Eric Beecher recently praised the Wheelers’ business acumen, telling StartupSmart that it was “obvious he and Maureen are…highly pragmatic, tough and strategic as business people.”

“You don’t create a massive international brand like Lonely Planet — arguably Australia’s best known brand in the world — through idealism alone. There were many really hard and painful decisions along that path,” Beecher said.

In the address to staff, Tony Wheeler, who has just returned from Nauru, noted sagely said that if he and Maureen had “come to Australia in a boat under the Howard Government, we might have ended up in Nauru and the whole operation might have been run out of Nauru instead of Melbourne.”

Lonely Planet did not respond to Crikey‘s requests for comment on this story.

UPDATE: 5:10PM

Tony Wheeler has sent the following email to staff confirming the sell-off:

From: Tony Wheeler
Sent: Friday, 18 February 2011 5:06 PM
To: Everyone at LP – Global
Subject: Tony & Maureen Depart

On 1 October 2007 we stood up in the Melbourne office – and in subsequent weeks in London and Oakland – to announce that we had sold a majority interest in Lonely Planet to BBC Worldwide. Today we’re taking the inevitable next step, BBC Worldwide is now moving to total ownership.

From that day three and a half years ago we knew this was inevitable. We’ve always been believers in simple rules and straightforward answers – you cannot be half pregnant, you cannot jump across a ravine in two steps – and as 25% owners we knew we would always be back seat passengers, along for the ride but no longer behind the wheel. Well, we’re confident about the people who are in the front seat and at the controls. It’s time for us to open the back doors and get out.

We know these are challenging times, but we also know that Lonely Planet has met many challenges over its nearly 40 year life. We’ve also done amazing things in the three and a half years since BBCW’s arrival.

  • In books, our market share has grown and of course we’ve hit that astonishing 100 million books landmark.
  • At the same time non-print revenue has grown to 22% of the business and will continue to become a more and more important part of our turnover and profit.
  • We’ve been pioneers in the travel apps market and total iPhone app downloads are over 8.5 million.
  • Monthly visitors to lonelyplanet.com have more than doubled.
  • Lonely Planet Magazines have been launched in eight different international editions.

In the period since the BBCW acquisition we may have not been at the wheel, but we’ve certainly played our part in the ongoing LP story.

  • We’ve attended regular board meetings in London and Melbourne.
  • We’ve supported Lonely Planet’s international efforts in China, India, Italy, Spain and Brazil.
  • We’ve written introductions and forewords to numerous LP books and our books Bad Lands and The Lonely Planet Story have recently come out in new LP editions.
  • There have been the LPTV productions that have always been tremendous fun to work on.
  • And of course travel is always going to be an important part of our lives; it’s why we started Lonely Planet in the first place. Anytime we go anywhere, like the Solomon Islands and Nauru earlier this month, there will always be notes back to the Talk2Us team at Lonely Planet.

But of course, a business is always more than just ‘business.’ ‘Our travellers,’ those people out on the road with our information guiding them, will always be of huge importance and we never forget the people inside the office, who get as big a kick out of Lonely Planet as we do, who love what we do, are proud of what we do and the way they can play a part in those achievements. Nor do we forget the way the Lonely Planet Foundation has grown over the years and taken on its new bigger and better incarnation as Planet Wheeler.

Our willingness to stand up for Lonely Planet whenever and wherever we’re asked to, will not change. Next week there’ll be a BMW China vehicle launch which involves Lonely Planet marketing and Melbourne Client Solutions. Next month it will be Chile for a LAN Chile airline event which again involves Lonely Planet marketing and the Oakland Client Solutions department.

And of course we feel towards Lonely Planet just the way any proud parent feels about their child. Eventually that kid is going to grow up, wave goodbye and walk out the door, but you’re never going to stop worrying about them, you’re always going to be proud when they do good and annoyed when they don’t.

Well, this may be the moment when Lonely Planet waves goodbye to us, but we’re always going to be Lonely Planet’s number one believers and supporters.

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