//Interview: G Adventures founder Bruce Poon Tip

Interview: G Adventures founder Bruce Poon Tip

Sam Ballard hears how the small-group specialist has redefined responsible travel. 

For many people within the travel industry, the World Travel Market holds a special place in their hearts. It may have been where they first got an opportunity to meet a supplier face-to-face or where they struck that first big business deal. For Bruce Poon Tip, the founder of G Adventures, it was one of the first steps to building what is now one of the leading companies in the world of responsible travel.

“When I was starting the company I went to a library that had global phone books to find out if there were any other companies doing what we do,” Poon Tip explains to ABTA Magazine. “This was in 1990 and there was no Google.

“That was how I learnt about this thing called WTM. There was no email back then, and long-distance calls were so expensive, so I wrote a letter requesting more information.

“I ended up spending my whole year’s marketing budget on flying to London to attend.”

The gamble has clearly paid off. Fast forward 28 years and G Adventures is a global brand with more than 2,000 employees in 28 offices around the world. People in 160 countries book tours every year.

“For us, WTM was crucial. It started everything. It made the difference between us being a tiny tour operator and a global brand.”

Poon Tip’s first experience of WTM, which, by his own admission, he did on the cheap – staying in a hostel with a group of Nepalese guys who were cooking dal bhat over a fire in the backyard – gave him the opportunity to meet wholesalers face-to-face to discuss representation, scope out potential competitors and pitch his fledgling company.

“We got in front of all of these people and explained our idea, which they had never heard before. It was about using local transportation, travelling by rickshaws; grassroots travel like staying with tribes in the Amazon. I was trying to convince them that this was something that people wanted.

“However, most would turn their noses up at it – they didn’t think anyone wanted to do it.

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“There was a real stigma attached to backpacker-style travel. It was seen as being cheap and poor – that’s not what travel is all about. And tours with just 12 people? No one ever did tours that small.”

The formula has clearly worked. And, at this year’s conference, Poon Tip is returning as a speaker, delivering one of the conference’s key speeches (Monday, November 5, 14:00 on WTM Global Stage) entitled How to discover more passion, purpose and happiness in travel”.

“It’s going to be a talk on the future of tourism. I’ve now had 28 years in the travel industry, so this will be a chance to look at the emergence of ecotourism in the 90s and look at how that developed into responsible tourism. I also want to speak about how society has changed in parallel  – we have become more conscious consumers.”

This is an area that Poon Tip knows back to front. In 2003 he founded Planeterra, which connects tourism with social enterprise initiatives around the world, such as Women on Wheels – a group that helps teach women in India, including single mothers, how to drive and hires them as taxi drivers. G Adventures then uses Women on Wheels for its airport pickups in Delhi, something particularly reassuring for the huge number of single female travellers who take G trips. It’s all about travel boosting local communities, rather than leaving them worse off. G Adventures estimates that it has helped more than 50,000 people through its social impact projects.

However, when pushed on whether the industry has become more conscious in its entirety, Poon Tip is reluctant to agree.

“It’s pulling in both sides,” he explains. “Responsible travel is the fastest-growing travel sector, I think next to river cruising. But the all-inclusive market is growing too. In that market it’s amenities over destination – and that market is growing just as fast.”

The ability for G Adventures to have claimed some level of ownership in the responsible travel space is in no small
part down to the company having such a vocal leader in Poon Tip, who says that wellness is set to be his next big focus.

“Wellness fits in perfectly with what we’re trying to do,” he says. “Our travellers want to have something more on their holiday than an all-inclusive offer. The world has changed significantly. People are living in an extremely wired and engaged world where they are attached to their phones and work 24/7.

“There is a genuine desire to disconnect when you go on holidays, to recharge. Wellness is something that we weren’t talking about 20 years ago, but society has changed and we have changed in parallel with society.”

The new tours will include yoga in Bali, where travellers will also take holy baths and try traditional herbal medicines, or Colombia where there will be guided meditation by a waterfall.

“People increasingly want to focus on themselves and recharge. They love our style of travel but perhaps don’t want to be that active while on holiday, so these new tours will give them that option,” Poon Tip adds.

“When people say they want to go away, they go to an all-inclusive resort or on a cruise. We need to redefine that space.”

When asked about what challenges Poon Tip faces as he steers G Adventures from a “mid-sized tour operator to a large company” (his words), his first answer is, unsurprisingly, on maintaining the customer experience and particularly a structure that won’t affect the company’s current innovation and speed to market. These include recent moves such as developing the G Adventures app to allow for a chat function, which enables members of a tour to communicate with each other and their tour leader as soon as they book on a trip. The company has also launched an in-app Gear Shop, where you can buy merchandise from social enterprises – good news for those who wanted to purchase extra souvenirs but didn’t have the cash or luggage space while they were away.

As G Adventures continues to grow and innovate, the speech Poon Tip will deliver at WTM will act as a homecoming of sorts, according to the man at the top.

“It was the birthplace of us going from being a local tour operator here in Canada to being a global player. I’m very thankful, but also very excited about coming back.”