Last Thursday, Bruce Poon Tip, founder of the highly successful travel company G Adventures, delivered a guest lecture at UTM, as part of the Master of Science in Sustainability Management program’s annual Sustainability Leaders’ Series.
Poon Tip started G Adventures in 1990, a few years after graduating from university.
“The idea of travel at the time, as far as I was concerned, was completely counterintuitive to what travelling should be […] there was a race to build compound resorts, race to build bigger cruise ships and coach tours. [Travel companies] were doing everything they could to create a Western environment so you never felt like you left home,” Poon Tip stated.
For Poon Tip, travelling meant experiencing something different. He began the company to counter what existed in the travel industry at the time.
“Canada’s only our fifth-biggest market in the world, which is our home market, and it’s only eight percent of our business. So the idea that we export tourism, and export sustainable tourism, is really the unique thing that makes us special from other travel companies.”
Around the mid-90s, the idea of eco-tourism came up, and there was a lot of buzz around looking after the environment. The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of the local people”. Poon Tip explained that this definition is what really drove sustainable tourism.
“People want to match their values with their travel,” Poon Tip noted. He explained that this is the basic philosophy that his company strives toward.
“We’re born to be explorers—we’re naturally as human beings, curious, and explorers. And society makes us tourists.”
One of G Adventures’ first decisions was to print a bold statement on their brochures: “If you want the comforts of home, we suggest you stay home.”
Poon Tip explained that for every $100 spent on tourism, only $5 goes into the local economy—something that is against a sustainable tourism model. The problem is that for the world’s 40 poorest countries, tourism is the first or second most important source of foreign exchange, after oil.
“We’ve always believed, at G Adventures, that travel can be a force for good if done right, and with money going in the economy, tourism could be the greatest source of wealth distribution the world’s ever seen.”
This is Poon Tip’s belief and vision in sustainability. He firmly believes that tourism can be used as a means for creating jobs and eliminating poverty. “Imagine if we got to a place in the world where your form of giving back was going on holidays,” said Poon Tip. He introduced the concept of social entrepreneurship, the idea where non-profit organizations act like profit companies to solve social problems.
Poon Tip believes that leadership and sustainability is about creating a movement, and being social can create movements.
In his New York Times bestselling book Looptail: How One Company Changed the World by Reinventing Business, Poon Tip mentions, “In the future, people won’t buy products from brands—people will buy products from other people.” According to Poon Tip, engagement with customers is imperative for building brands.
“People want to believe in something. So [as a business] you have to state what you believe in, and you have to find the right people that are going to appreciate and want to buy your product,” Poon Tip explains. He mentions that one of the impacts of G Adventures can be seen through some of their customers getting tattoos of the company’s logo.
“[Looptail] was part of our movement to show that so many people were interested in our little story about this small travel company from Canada.” His Holiness the Dalai Lama wrote the foreword for Looptail at Poon Tip’s request.
“Our company’s culture is about the business model of happiness,” Poon Tip notes. He explained that this was greatly influenced by one of the Dalai Lama’s philosophies: “Our only purpose in life is to achieve happiness.”
According to Poon Tip, G Adventures is based on four main principles of happiness: the ability to grow, being connected, being part of something greater than yourself, and freedom. This is how the company was able to redefine and reinvent travel.
One of the company’s biggest marketing campaigns launched in 2013, titled “The G Project”. They began a conversation with their customers and posed one main question: “What will you do today for tomorrow?” They engaged their customers in order to generate ideas, with the best idea being awarded $25,000. Jane Goodall served as one of the judges for the competition, as well as representatives from the UN.
“Instead of telling our customers what we were going to do, we challenged our customers to ask them what they were going to do,” Poon Tip elaborated.
One of the winners of the competition was a project called SASANE, or The Sisterhood of Survivors, a local group that educated women survivors of sex trafficking in Nepal to be paralegals. They would station women across police stations in Nepal to help give legal assistance to women and to stop human sex trafficking.
From this project, G Adventures also launched a tourism project, where groups from the company would come by SASANE for cooking classes. The money generated would go towards funding SASANE, in addition to the initial reward for the competition. SASANE went on to win an award for excellence and innovation in tourism at the World Tourism Organization awards in 2016.
G Adventures also launched a major fundraising campaign for victims of the massive earthquake that devastated Nepal in 2015. Through social media, the company put out a call for donations to their customers. Within 12 hours, their initial goal of $50,000 was surpassed. Within a week, the company managed to raise $220,000. Poon Tip emphasized that this shows his company’s engagement and bond with the customers.
In 2003, Poon Tip founded the Planeterra Foundation, a non-profit organization that acts as G Adventures’ “charitable arm”. Planeterra has a mission of planting a million trees a year around the world in an effort to reduce the carbon footprint. One of the many projects undertaken by Planeterra is the “Women’s Weaving Workshop” in Peru.
“We set up the women’s weaving co-op in six communities on the way to the eco trail to get women to teach the younger generation to weave […], and all of our [tourist] groups stopped by on the way to Machu Picchu to consume all the products, take a weaving class, and create a social enterprise with that community,” Poon Tip explained.
G Adventures is the largest operator of the eco trail in the world. The company has 500 employees in Peru and consumes 32 percent of the global market shares of eco trail permits in the country. 29,000 people a year visit the Women’s Weaving Co-Op.
Another Planeterra project is Women On Wheels, where women in the shelters and slums of India go through an 18-month program to get their driver’s license, at the end of which the company gives them a car. These women provide transport for G Adventures’ customers arriving in India. Women On Wheels is also being launched in Cape Town and Nairobi later this year.
G Adventures has undertaken 50 projects in the past 25 years, and has set an ambitious goal to do 50 projects over the next 5 years. Planeterra has raised $1.5 million from private donors among G Adventures’ past customers towards their “50 in 5” project.
The company announced the first 12 of these projects last month. Among these projects is “Oodles of Noodles” in Vietnam, where underprivileged kids undergo a training program for cooking and engage with tourists in making noodles. The company provides these children with safe housing, tuition, school supplies, and medical insurance.
Other projects include Café Chloe, based in Tully, Australia. The project involves refurbishing an abandoned train station in the middle of an impoverished Aboriginal community. The station is now a tourist stop for G Adventures’ customers.
Another notable mention is “Bike With Purpose”, a project that has launched in the island of Caye Caulker, Belize. The project involves an education program that gives kids an opportunity to enroll in schools and work with the company to give bike tours to tourists. Within a year, the enrolment rate on the island went from 35 percent to 90 percent.
It is clear that Poon Tip has established one of the largest travel companies in the world by creating a sustainable model. His company continues to receive donations—private and from the government—for projects that create a significant impact around the world.