Q & A with G Adventures Founder, Bruce Poon Tip

Written by  October 18, 2013

G Adventures’ fearless leader talks to Verge about his new business book, Looptail.

For G Adventures founder Bruce Poon Tip, writing his first book was a labour of love—which is why the book nearly never made it to print.

“I pulled the plug twice. I was just like, ‘I can’t do this,’” he recalls. “It wasn’t just difficult writing—it was the emotional connection. Putting it all out there was very difficult.”

Surprisingly, Poon Tip isn’t talking about the emotional connection to writing about his travel experiences. Instead, Looptail: How one company changed the world by reinventing business is exactly what the title implies—decidedly a business book.

For those not familiar with Poon Tip’s business philosophy, to describe it as unorthodox would be an understatement. The company doesn’t have one CEO—it has hundreds. They don’t have a president, but they do have a mayor. There’s no need for a stuffy human resources department when they have “the talent agency” and “the culture club” (not to mention "haircuts and hot dogs" days). It’s unconventional, but somehow it works—today, G Adventures offers more than 15,000 departures to more than 100 countries every year.

This month, Poon Tip spoke with Verge about his unusual approach to business and what the term “responsible travel” really means.

Verge: Why did you want to write a business book, rather than writing about travel?

Poon Tip: I was very apprehensive to write a book. There’s a loss of personal privacy when writing a book, but my motivation was to have a positive impact on businesses. As a company, we’re constantly trying to influence traveler’s minds—but as an individual, I was interested in having a greater impact on how people look at businesses through sharing my experience of how we engage our customers.

Early on in the book, you describe the racism that you experienced as a child when you first moved to Calgary from Trinidad in the 1960s. How has that experience shaped your business and how you work cross-culturally?

From a very young age, I’ve been a little bit more in tune with diversity. That experience certainly taught me a lot about tolerance and a lot about celebrating differences. I think that kids often aren’t raised to think globally and to just appreciate lateral thinking through diverse thinking processes.

The power of our business is the inclusive voice that we can create with employees in over 100 countries. We have the social tools today to create a lot of dialogue with all the various cultures and that has served our business well. I think my upbringing gave me more of a passion for that.

Do you have any advice for people who are about to volunteer or work overseas?

Make sure your mindset is accurate. The first thing that people have to understand is that travel is a privilege that we have in the Western world and not a right. Just because we pay for holidays or we’re going to volunteer, we have to expect that we’re going to respect local cultures and traditions.

With volunteer holidays, people pay an enormous amount and they expect something in return when they pay that kind of money. That’s very dangerous when your motivation should be about doing meaningful work and appreciating the privilege that you have to visit another country and culture.

You wrote in Looptail that you believe that the traditional vacation model only creates “momentary happiness.” Why is this?

There’s a whole philosophy about momentary happiness in the book and about how people can achieve sustained happiness through being more connected, being part of something greater than the self, finding passion in their work and creating the integrity and integration between their work and their personal life.

But when it comes to holidays, with the all-inclusive compound holiday, the cruise holiday or even the coach tour holiday, there’s a disconnect between the local culture and communities. Local people aren’t benefiting from those foreign-owned compounds or cruise ships and it doesn’t create local benefit. There’s a staggering statistic that for $100 spent by a foreigner on a tour, only $5 actually stays in country.

So for those 75 per cent of travelers who are booking these types of holidays, how does G Adventures intend to engage them?

For us, it’s about our brand and it’s about our culture. We transcend what we do. We communicate with our customers about how our culture is our brand and how our people drive the success of our business. That’s kind of evident in Looptail and that’s why it’s not a travel book. We feel that we’ve transcended that as a company and we engage our customers to a much higher purpose than just travel.

The social tools that we have available today allow customers to have an unprecedented intimate relationship with brands and create a two-way dialogue. The relationship is more intimate with customers today and we’re examples of that. We have over a million fans on Facebook, for instance, which is unprecedented for a travel company of our size. It’s because of our relationship with our customers.

Why do you believe that tourism has the potential to be the single greatest vehicle for global wealth distribution?

Most people give to a certain cause that they feel passionate about. So my vision is, “Why couldn’t your holiday be your form of giving?” Through travelling with an operator that is creating local businesses, local industry and creating sustainability on the ground or cultural preservation in any way—your vacation could actually be seen as a form of wealth distribution. Just going on vacation could be seen as your form of giving.

That’s the philosophy that we’ve operated with our company. In Looptail, I’ve tried to expand the business philosophy that goes beyond travel for any company or even how people live their lives.

Apart from booking one of G Adventures tours, what advice would you have for travelers who want to make responsible travel choices?

We have a very famous saying within our marketing department: “If you can’t travel with us, travel like us.” That’s about getting off all-inclusives, spreading your wealth using local taxi drivers and tour guides and going to local craft markets instead of shopping in ports of cruise ships.

Have a meal with a local person—create a cultural exchange and learn something that will give you a greater appreciation for where you come from. It’s kind of a policy of mine to never leave a country without sitting down with a local person. One thing that’s universal is food. Even if you need translation or can’t speak, you can show pictures of where you come from. I always travel with postcards of Canada or pictures of my family.

In the book, you also discuss the idea of “careers” vs. “jobs” vs. “callings.” What is your “calling”?

For me, it’s about leadership. I never take for granted my success and the opportunity that I’ve been given to lead this company. Anyone who touches our brand aligns with our purpose and can help people discover more passion, purpose and happiness in their lives. Through G Adventures, we’re also able to lift people out of poverty every day.

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Jessica Lockhart

Contributing Editor

Although Jessica has travelled to more than 30 countries, her favorite place to throw down her bag is still her hometown of Cold Lake, Alberta. A freelance journalist, Jess has worked for international development organizations and tour operators. She’s conducted workshops in Vanuatu, perfected the use of a satellite phone in the jungles of Guyana and supervised teenage pool parties in the Dominican Republic. Although she's based in Toronto, Jess works remotely from all around the world.

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