BBC Worldwide sells Lonely Planet to a Kentucky billionaire for a massive loss

By Patrick Stafford

After weeks of speculation, travel publishing group Lonely Planet has finally confirmed it has been sold to a media group owned by reclusive Kentucky oil and land billionaire Brad Kelley.

The move comes several years after the company’s original founders, Tony and Maureen Wheeler, sold the former Melbourne-based business to BBC Worldwide, and left the day-to-day operations entirely.

A local spokesperson for the company confirmed with SmartCompany everything is “business as usual” with regard to local staff numbers. The local office was reduced following the full BBC Worldwide takeover back in 2011.

SmartCompany attempted to contact both Tony and Maureen Wheeler through their foundation, although no reply was received prior to publication.

BBC said in a statement it would sell the company to NC2 Media, which is owned by billionaire Brad Kelley, for $US77.8 million or £51.5 million – nearly £80 million below the original purchase price.

The business, despite continued innovation, has struggled to maintain its value in the face of a transforming media industry.

Although a significant proportion of the company’s revenue comes from digital ventures, travellers have opted for reading free content online.

BBC Worldwide says the BBC itself didn’t lose any money on the deal but an oversight panel has already recommended a review.

The BBC acquisition of Lonely Planet attracted controversy at the time, with industry figures suggesting the move into publishing wasn’t appropriate for the organisation.

“BBC Worldwide has been exploring strategic options for Lonely Planet over the last year and was keen to find a new owner that could bring greater focus and capital to the business,” BBC Worldwide said in a statement.

“NC2 Media demonstrated a commitment to invest in Lonely Planet and today’s announcement concludes the process to find the right buyer.”

Lonely Planet is the largest publisher of travel guide books in the world. Maureen and Tony Wheeler founded the business in Melbourne in the 1970s, and slowly expanded its range of guide books to both popular and niche locations, directed at backpackers and serial travellers.

The business was a solid success story for the local travel industry, with Lonely Planet books gaining recognition around the world.

In 2007, the company sold a 75% stake in the business to BBC Worldwide for $201.6 million. Then, in 2011, the pair sold their remaining 25% stake for $67.2 million.

Now, NC2 Media has gained control. The company’s main shareholder is billionaire Brad Kelley, who amassed large amounts of his fortune through tobacco investments in the 1990s.

Since then, he has spent most of his time focusing on land and conservation investments, and is said to be the fourth-largest landholder in the United States. Kelley is notoriously reclusive, shunning photographs, interviews, and even email.

Kelley has already delved into digital media before with another venture, OutWildTV, a travel video site. In a statement to the TheNextWeb, NC2 Media executive director Daniel Houghton said the goal for Lonely Planet will be to upgrade the business with “21st century digital technology”.

“If we can do this, and I believe we can, we can build a business that, while remaining true to the things that made Lonely Planet great in the past, promises to make it even greater in the future.”

This story first appeared on SmartCompany.

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