Hear from Bruce Poon Tip at Kick Start Smart Melbourne (25/11/16)
When the Dalai Lama says your business is making an “active contribution to creating a more peaceful and happier world while at the same time creating a model from which others can learn,” then you know you’re doing something right. This is how His Holiness describes Bruce Poon Tip, the founder of Canadian start-up G Adventures. Starting as a one-man operation and exploding into a global travel company, G Adventures’ mission is to engage customers to travel sustainably while also changing the lives of local communities around the world. And it all started with one startling statistic. In 1990, at the age of 22, Bruce was backpacking across Asia when he learnt an alarming fact – only US$5 of every US$100 spent in a country stayed in that country.
“At the time, tour operators were doing everything in their power to give travellers the comforts of home by creating as close to a typical Western environment as possible,” recalls Bruce. “Cruise liners were getting bigger and resorts were getting more inclusive.”
Hotels were developing shopping centres on their grounds so visitors didn’t need to interact with a single local citizen. “Some even made it difficult to find an exit,” says Bruce. “They had signs up warning that ‘the natives are restless’. Well, I could see why they might be restless. They weren’t benefiting [financially] from the tourists being there.”
From an early age, Bruce had been one to take action. By his 15th birthday, he had hired fellow kids for two ventures (one doing paper rounds and the other a product called the Weather Worm, which was a mixture of a bookmark and a barometer). Later, after returning from Asia to his Canadian hometown of Calgary, he drew up a business proposal, maxed out his credit cards, applied for a program aiding students to start businesses that saw him receive a CA$15,000 loan, and prepared to bootstrap a travel brand that “got people from around the world in touch.”
He had two rules – accommodation had to be family operated and locally owned, and group sizes would be capped at 16 to make it an intimate experience. The first itinerary came about after hearing of a native indigenous community near the Amazon area, the Indigenous people of Misahualli. Bruce enlisted a local translator to make them a proposition: “That we bring our own sleeping bags and just hang out.” In exchange, the community would be rewarded financially. The biggest challenge, in 1990, was finding customers in a pre-internet era.
“I didn’t even have a fax machine,” laughs Bruce. “For me, it was all about guerrilla marketing. I travelled the country speaking at outdoor stores, colleges, universities and anywhere I could. People would have private parties and I would speak in their basements.”
Yet, the lack of googleability had an unexpected benefit. “I had the element of surprise,” he says. “Travellers back then didn’t have all this information in their pocket. Today, everyone searches pictures of their hotel before arriving, they know the local pub and where they want to eat. Back then they didn’t know what to expect.”
He admits the first six years were tough (“I lived on Doritos and took a job at a deli to keep the lights on at home”) but slowly his publicity campaign began to pay off. He tapped into a gap in the market – young people with disposable incomes who wanted the authenticity of backpacking with the security of travelling with like-minded people. It was not only purposeful, but profitable.
Since 1990, G Adventures’ revenue has grown by an average of 30 per cent every year. And in the aftermath of the financial crisis, G Adventures grew by 42 per cent (while competitors shrunk at an almost similar rate). Today, the company offers more than 650 tours on all seven continents, from African safaris to Inca Trail hikes and Antarctic expeditions, serving more than 150,000 travellers annually.
Yet it’s philanthropy that Bruce is really passionate about. G Adventures has supported a drop-in centre for at-risk youth in Cusco, Peru, gifting the local organisation with a home, office and workshop for 30 years. The company has also helped restore the vision of 500 Tibetans by supporting three rural eye camps. In 2003, Bruce launched a not-for-profit called the Planeterra Foundation, which has supported more than 50 community and conservation projects in underserved regions all over the world. The aim is to establish 50-plus new community projects in the next five years, including a ‘Women on Wheels’ training program that teaches women in countries such as India to become drivers for the travel industry. Meanwhile G Adventures also plans to open an Indigenous training cafe in Australia, teaching young people from the Janbanbarra Jirrbal community in Queensland to work in hospitality.
With more than 1500 employees around the world, Bruce is passionate about company culture – and his methods are left-of-centre. He once wrote out a cheque for US$5000, placed it on his desk and told his employees the money was theirs if they could say something to hurt his feelings. “It was a way to encourage employees to speak openly and honestly,” he says.
In 2008 he fired his entire HR department, replacing it with two sections – the Talent Agency and the Culture Club. The former organises interviews, which are conducted by three employees randomly chosen from any level of the business. The latter is in charge of morale-boosting activities such as ‘Family Lunches’, which take place every Wednesday, and ‘G-Stock’, an annual festival where several hundred employees are flown to Toronto for training. There is also an in-house group of customer advocates, Incite, who launched an initiative called ‘Random Acts of G-Appiness’, where any employee can suggest a way to boost the happiness of a staff member or traveller. One customer who booked a trip through the call centre was amazed when a care package of lozenges and tea arrived on her doorstep soon after (the employee who took her call noticed she had a cold).
Despite these achievements, not everything has been smooth sailing in those 25 years since launching. While on an expedition to the South Pole in 2011, Bruce found himself seriously wondering, ‘Am I the right person to lead this company?’
“I was going through a few things at that time,” he admits. “I had to find out if I still had gas in the tank to move us forward.”
Yet in a fortuitous twist, the expedition coincided with the 100th Anniversary of Roald Amundsen’s discovery of the South Pole and involved camping at -60°C.
“It was an absolutely killer on my system,” says Bruce. “But it was significant to me because I believe the original explorers defined adventure travel today – the idea they risked their lives for the advancement of mankind. It challenged me mentally and physically but it helped me to remember what I really love – helping people to discover and enjoy the world.”