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28589 Leisure Handbook - Bruce Poon Tip

People

From Leisure Handbook 2014 issue 1
Bruce Poon Tip


Magali Robathan talks to the founder of G Adventures

Magali Robathan, Leisure Media
Poon Tip: the company launched a new boat on the Amazon for 2013
Small group sizes are key to the success of G Adventures. The company was recognised in the National Geographic 50 Tours of a lifetime
Small group sizes are key to the success of G Adventures. The company was recognised in the National Geographic 50 Tours of a lifetime
G Adventures operates in six continents, offering a wide range of trip styles

When I interview Bruce Poon Tip, founder of Canadian adventure travel company G Adventures he’s come back from two days spent travelling with the Dalai Lama, who Poon Tip says has been a huge inspiration and who has shaped the way he’s run his business over the past 22 years.

“[The trip] was one of the highlights of my life,” says Poon Tip. “I got a better understanding of my own purpose, and confirmation of all the things we’re doing at G Adventures. It was inspiring hearing the Dalai Lama talk about business and his thoughts on happiness and sustainability and his united view of religions and people. It’s exactly how I feel, and I’ve tried to incorporate those views into my business.”

The Dalai Lama was in Canada for a convention of world parliamentarians on Tibet, and Poon Tip was part of an entourage that included Harrison Ford who travelled with the Tibetan spiritual leader. Proudly, Poon Tip tells me the Dalai Lama signed a book for him, and thanked him for his dedication to responsible travel.

For Poon Tip, having a business that’s socially and environmentally responsible is as important as having one that’s successful. G Adventures (formerly Gap Adventures) has won awards for its dedication to ethical business practices and sustainable tourism, including the Corporate Award for Environmental Excellence, the Ethics in Action Millennium Award and Condé Nast Traveller’s World Saver Award. Earlier this year, the non-profit membership organisation Social Venture Network inducted Poon Tip into its hall of fame, something he describes as one of the high points of his career so far.

“Our business model isn’t just about bottom-lines and turnover. It’s about happiness, freedom and independence,” says Poon Tip. “We celebrate individuality, champion diversity and inspire innovation.”

This commitment to doing the right thing doesn’t seem to have done G Adventures any harm. Today it’s Canada’s largest adventure travel company, with an annual revenue of around $150m, offering small group travel experiences to more than 100,000 people a year.

EARLY DAYS
Poon Tip set up Gap Adventures in 1990, when he was just 23. As a keen traveller, he could see there was room in the market for an alternative to what was on offer.
“It was a very different time back then,” he says. “If you didn’t want to go on a cruise, or a coach tour or to a resort, you’d go back-packing – there wasn’t really anything in between. I did a lot of travelling, and when I went backpacking I saw lots of young, professional people with disposable incomes that wanted the kind of cultural experience you get from backpacking but in the form of a more organised and comfortable holiday.”

Unable to secure a loan from the banks, Poon Tip used his own personal credit cards to launch Gap Adventures, so called because it aimed to bridge the gap between the mainstream traveller and the backpacker. The main focus, he says, was on getting people in touch with the countries they were travelling in.

“Mainstream tour operators offered travel within a westernised bubble – air-conditioned coaches, Best Western hotels,” he says. “Outside of very brief moments when you might pull up outside a craft market, you hardly saw local people. Tourists were experiencing countries at arm’s length. The original focus of Gap Adventures was to get the traveller in touch with local people, and help them see the country through the locals’ eyes.”

THE OFFER
G Adventures (the company changed its name in 2011 following a copyright infringement ruling in a suit brought by the retailer Gap Inc) offers small group adventure tours in Asia, Africa, North America, Europe, Central America and Antarctica. The tours are organised into different ‘styles’ to help travellers pick – these include Active tours, Family Tours, Voluntours (which include an element of voluntary work) and Limited Edition tours, which feature trips that take in one-off events such as cultural festivals.

The tours all use local transportation – which can range from buses and trains to rickshaws and camels – and ‘authentic’ accommodation to try and bring the traveller closer to the communities they are travelling in. Keeping group sizes small is also important, says Poon Tip, with an average group size of 10, and a maximum of around 16 on any trip.

The company also owns the cruise ship M/S Expedition and offers cruises to locations including the Arctic, Antarctica, the Amazon and Greenland.

Earlier this year, G Adventures launched its Local Living programme. “It’s a new brand that gives people the chance to stay in a farmhouse in Italy, or live with a local family in Chile. It gives people a different experience,” says Poon Tip.

G Adventures has also teamed up with the Discovery Channel to create Discovery Adventures, offering 31 Discovery Channel-inspired trips to 18 destinations. “It’s a very big programme with more elements of learning on it and specialist guides creating trips around the Discovery Channel programme’s content,” says Poon Tip. “When the Discovery Channel did Frozen Planet and Planet Earth we did trips around those themes, for example. It’s been a really successful relationship for us.”

PLANETERRA
From the very start, it was important to operate in an ethical and sustainable way, says Poon Tip. “From day one it was always about people for us, about cultures meeting cultures. It always made sense for us to have an intimate relationship with our hosts. It’s about doing the right thing, which is one of our core values.

“First of all it was about creating jobs and benefiting local economies, but we became very successful in the process. There came a tipping point when we knew we had to do something more than just giving people jobs. It made sense to go that next step. There comes a point when you have to really get serious and incorporate doing the right thing into the entire philosophy of your business.”

In 1996, G Adventures started to partner with other non-profit organisations in order to give back to the communities in which it operated. Poon Tip soon became frustrated with the bureaucratic nature of the NGOs they were working with. “Because we were so entrepreneurial and quick to market with our ideas, we felt the NGOs were slowing us down,” he says. The answer was to go it alone, and in 2003 G Adventures set up the non-profit Planeterra Foundation, dedicated to the support of small communities.

Planeterra is currently running more than 50 projects around the world, spanning health, education, employment skills training, cultural heritage preservation, and environment.

“I always thought Planeterra would end up being bigger than G Adventures, because there’s so much potential and I think that prediction is coming to fruition,” says Poon Tip. “As an adventure travel operator, you’re a niche operator. Giving back is a mainstream proposition, with the potential to appeal to more people.”

As an example, Poon Tip cites an appeal that was launched during the Kenyan droughts to raise money to build water tanks for families travelling to refugee camps. “We raised CA$50,000 in 24 hours with a single tweet,” he says. “Then we raised another CA$50,000 the week after. Suddenly, we’re involved in disaster response, which was never on our agenda. We made CA$100,000 in a few days, and that cost us nothing as a company. It shows how we can transcend our product and engage our customers beyond travel.”

It hasn’t been all plain sailing, of course. Poon Tip says that 1996 and 1997 were his most difficult years, when fluctuations in currencies hit G Adventures hard. “We were selling in nine different currencies, making money, losing money depending on the currency – and then the price of fuel started to explode,” he says.

At the same time, the rapid growth of the internet meant the consumer could suddenly research and book their own trips in a way they had never been able to before. “People were getting so much information, so fast, that we had to react really quickly. When you’re selling experiences and your competitor is the independent traveller, it’s a different way of creating a value proposition. It was hard.”

Did he ever think the company might go under? “Yes. Between 1996 and 1997, it almost tipped over. It was a tough time.

“At many points, companies like ours would have thought ‘we can’t survive if people can book services locally’. It forced us to work harder to create value for our customers, to offer them something they can’t book locally. We had to create something that was beyond just a tour.”

SOCIAL MEDIA
While the growth of the internet has created challenges, it’s also provided new opportunities, and Poon Tip is excited by the potential of social media. All G Adventures staff are given social media training, and regular breaks to tweet, with their tweets posted on the G Adventure website so customers can see what the staff are saying about the company. “It’s about complete transparency,” he says.

“Social media means we have a more intimate relationship with customers than we had before – now we can engage with them, and hear their needs. It’s been a very interesting step and has forced us to be nimble and adapt to these changes.”

The company is also using technology in other innovative ways, such as with the launch of its wireless app, the Untourist, which aims to encourage people to travel in ways that benefit local communities. “With the Untourist, we’re giving out all of our information in terms of the restaurants we eat at, the hotels we stay at, the transport we use” says Poon Tip. “The whole concept of the Untourist is free information; our motto is: If you can’t travel with us, travel like us.

“The Untourist has been really successful, and it’s influencing the travel industry as a whole. For years it’s been tour operators’ well-guarded secret which hotels and restaurants they use. We’re the first company to say that the hotels and restaurants and transportation we use are just a small part of what we do. All of those things are important to us, but it’s not the magic of our programme.”

Poon Tip is driven by people. “The people that work for my business, the people all over the world that touch our brand every day. The fact we’re breaking the cycle of poverty for thousands who are involved in executing our services.

“It’s more of a calling than a job for me,” he says, “It’s a big responsibility and I don’t take it lightly.”


In his own words
Poon Tip on who he admires
and what makes him tick



 

Bruce Poon Tip
 

Who do you admire in business?
I like great leaders. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was a fantastic innovator. I admire Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu on the spiritual, motivational side. Richard Branson, who I’ve had a chance to meet, is a great leader and a great mind in terms of sustainable thinking.

What do you do for fun, outside work?
Work is fun! Outside of work, I play a lot of sports. I also enjoy staying at home – I travel so much that my vacation is sitting in the garden. I have two children, aged eight and 10, and my passion is travelling with them, because they are still amazed by everything. I took them to Peru in March. I’ve probably been to Peru 50 times in the last 20 years – we have 300 employees there – but going with my kids is a totally different experience, as they have new eyes for everything.

What is your philosophy on life?
As far as I’m concerned our whole purpose in life is to create happiness and to be happy. Happiness is free, for everybody, if you want it; you just have to create an environment where you can achieve it.

At G Adventures, our whole business model is centred around creating happiness, and that goes for anyone who touches our brand – our employees, our travellers, our travel agents.

What has been the highlight of your career?
There have been so many highs. This year the Social Venture Institute inducted me into its hall of fame – I was pretty excited about that. Two years ago National Geographic compiled a list of the best adventure travel companies on earth and we were number one. That was pretty nice. We always tell people how great we are, but it’s nice when other people say it too.

We have also achieved a lot of milestones with the Planeterra Foundation, which has been a real high for everyone.




From Leisure Management Issue 3 2012, p38

Originally published in Leisure Handbook magazine 2014 issue 1

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