BBC Worldwide announced Tuesday morning that it will sell its travel guide series, Lonely Planet, for $77.8 million to Nashville-based NC2 Media, a company owned by reclusive U.S. billionaire Brad Kelley. That selling price is more than $120 million less than the BBC paid for the company in 2007.
The Lonely Planet imprint accounts for some 120 million books in 11 different languages but was hard hit by the downturn in publishing and a financial crisis that tightened travel budgets worldwide. Founded in 1973 by Tony and Maureen Wheeler as a series of backpacking bibles, the Melbourne, Australia-based business, acquired by the BBC from its founders, has become among the world's best-known travel publishers, despite competition from online travel sites like Trip Advisor.
According to the BBC, Lonely Planet websites receive 120 million hits each year. Still, the decision to purchase it in 2007 sparked a wave of criticism from those who believed the BBC's public money was better left out of private-sector business. James Murdoch described the deal in 2009 as a "particularly egregious example of the expansion of the state."
Now the BBC finds itself under fire once again, this time for selling the imprint at a loss. The BBC Trust, the corporation's governing body, issued a sternly worded statement chiding its commercial arm for what "did not prove to be a good commercial investment," and calling for a "review of lessons learnt."
NC2 Media, the new owner, has largely focused on digital content, though it is unclear what this means for the Lonely Planet brand. The company's executive director, Daniel Houghton, is being tapped as Lonely Planet's new chief executive. He told the Guardian that "the challenge and promise before us is to marry the world's greatest travel information and guidebook company with the limitless potential of 21st century technology."
Kelley, who besides being the nation's fourth-biggest landowners is also the primary shareholder of NC2, has said he will invest in the guidebook company's future.
[For the Record, 12:31 p.m. PDT March 20: An earlier version of this online post described Brad Kelley as the nation's largest landowner. He is the fourth-largest landowner.]