BRUCE POON TIP

Can hol­i­days have a HIGHER PUR­POSE? Bruce Poon Tip be­lieves so. At just 22, the TRAVEL EN­TRE­PRE­NEUR set out on a mis­sion to SPREAD HAP­PI­NESS on a GLOBAL SCALE.

Collective Hub - - CONTENTS - WORDS AMY MOL­LOY

the founder of g ad­ven­tures on hap­pi­ness and holis­tic change

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. >

When the DALAI LAMA says your busi­ness is mak­ing an “ac­tive CON­TRI­BU­TION to cre­at­ing a more peace­ful and HAP­PIER world…” you know you’re do­ing SOME­THING RIGHT.

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

I LIVED on Dori­tos and took a JOB at a deli to keep the LIGHTS ON at home.

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.”

BY BRUCE POON TIP LOOPTAIL: HOW ONE COM­PANY CHANGED THE WORLD BY REIN­VENT­ING BUSI­NESS

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