In The Big Chair – Bruce Poon Tip of G Adventures

Amy Stewart

Bruce Poon Tip, G Adventures

Bruce Poon Tip, G Adventures

Bruce Poon Tip founded G Adventures, a small group adventure travel company and pioneer of community tourism, back in 1990 and leads as CEO still today.

In 2019, G Adventures hosted 200,000 travelers and offered more than 750 tours across all seven continents.

It’s been more than 30 years since you founded G Adventures – that’s quite a long run in this industry. What two or three things have been most critical to your longevity?

I would say that the world changed in our favor over time, because we started before the internet. So that, then technology, then social and then digital and then mobile, all of those things have kept shifting and changing in our favor. I think also just leadership. Leadership is a journey, not a destination, and going from an idea to a global brand and leading that transition that changed through so many obstacles has just kept me interested throughout that time.

Website

https://www.gadventures.com/

How has the audience for adventure travel evolved over the years?

We’re in an information age where people just have more information and they do more research. That tends to benefit us because we have a reputation and 30 years of experience. When people actually take the time and have the information, they can make informed decisions. But I think everything’s going to change now coming out of COVID.

Coming out of COVID, I think there’s been no greater change in how people will travel in the future than right now. Even though there’s lots of anticipation about what that’ll look like, I believe once again, it’ll be more purposeful and meaningful for people to travel. We stand to be in a good place with that.

Can you elaborate on what you mean by “no greater change in how people will travel than right now”?

People are starting to match their values with their travel. People would traditionally suspend their values in how they live at home because they’re in another country. That’s one thing, but COVID is not going away. I think we’ve all established we have to learn to live with it. So I think moving forward, there’s inherent risk in traveling. For people to want to travel, it has to be more meaningful for them, more purposeful, and I just think that’s a great thing for travel. Just before COVID, I don’t think travel was in a good place, and I don’t think we should be fighting back to get back to normal as an industry.

Can you expand on that too? What were you seeing in the industry pre-COVID?

I just think we got to a place where we were selling capacity and we were commoditizing experience and people were buying amenities. Operators were spending so much time promising 10 different restaurants, thread counts on sheets, Broadway shows, and the destination became irrelevant. When the destination is not the main reason why you’re traveling and people don’t know where they actually went when they’re on a trip, I think that’s dangerous for the traveling industry because you end up just commoditizing experience and you are selling amenities at capacity.

Quote

I don’t think we should be fighting back to get back to normal as an industry.

Bruce Poon Tip

It’s no longer travel anymore, just something completely different. I don’t think we were in a good place because it was this constant push for bigger and more capacity, whether it’s in the resorts, or in coaches, or wherever. Suddenly, that kind of growth, that constant perpetual growth is not sustainable.

COVID just stopped everything in its tracks and everyone has to rethink. As we restart, we have the opportunity to look at how we can be a more transformational industry.

Would you say travel has done a good job of addressing this as we’ve moved through COVID? What steps would you suggest travel can take to address the new ways people are thinking about travel?

I think it’s hard for a lot of companies because they’re trying to retrofit their brands to the change in landscape. This has been coming like a tsunami for some time with social because social has connected brands more closely and more intimately than been ever before. You have these two-way conversations with your customers that didn’t exist 10, 15 years ago.

I think it’s about transparency. It’s about communication and dialogue with communities and with travelers and having everyone benefit from tourism. It’s not just a one-way consumer experience where you pay and you think you have a right to travel. Travel is more of a privilege and it’s more of a transformational experience for everyone involved, not just that one-way experience for a paying customer or a tour operator.

Turning to the technology and data capabilities, how have those improved for G Adventures over the years?

Most decisions that we make at G Adventures are through data. It can tell you trends and where people want to go, patterns of how people want to travel, where they want to travel and what times they want travel. We can use a little bit of data when you actually get in-destination in terms of where people tend to congregate, but that’s not really what we do at G Adventures. We want to actually take people away from hot spots. We actually spend much more time in R&D and finding uniqueness in destinations.

Data is a very big part of what we do in terms of predicting consumer buying patterns and the demands of what consumers want, where people want to travel next. But as a brand, because we’re leaders in our space globally, we want to be more product-driven. We want to tell people where to go sometimes. We don’t want data to just show us. It’s a push-pull thing for us always, but data still is a very, very important part of every decision we make at the company.

You recently produced a documentary, The Last Tourist, about what the world has learned through the pandemic and how it can use these learnings to build back in a more responsible way. What are the key messages of the film?

The key messages of The Last Tourist are it’s about hope, it’s about the future of tourism and the potential for travel to be transformational, in an industry that can be transformational. In order to achieve that, it’s a bit of an affront to see where travel was prior to the pandemic, and seeing the extremes of how travel had become more entertainment than exploration.

We learned a lot during that, and we picked certain themes within The Last Tourist, like child welfare, animal welfare, overtourism, and showed where tourism is in its extremes to give people information so they can decide for the future as we come out of COVID. Travel has to be a priority to you now, it has to be very important to you. Or you have pent-up energy, or a lot of people have pent-up budgets to be able to travel right now. And that you’re going to travel in a more responsible way.

G Adventures received an investment from private equity firm Certares last year –  you haven’t disclosed the amount but can you tell us more about how you are using that capital?

We haven’t done much, I’ll admit. There’s a bit of pressure now, to be honest. It’s just over a year later. We were given a substantial amount of capital for acquisitions. We have not made one yet. There are going to be some announcements within the next month that we’re finalizing. We signed this deal with Certares, who has been a very generous, supportive partner. We didn’t think COVID was going to last two years. We signed this deal within that first year of COVID thinking there were going to be great opportunities for acquisition on the other side of COVID. But like every other travel company, we were in survival mode taking care of our own business.

We were in hibernation waiting for travel to start. We didn’t really have an appetite as I thought we would for acquisitions, especially when we had limited resources ourselves as an operation. But there are a lot of opportunities. We’re looking at a lot of different things. Certares has been very patient with us, they’ve been a great partner. Now the travel’s starting, we’re even more excited to pursue that strategy of acquisitions.

In what areas might you be looking to acquire, and how do you evaluate a build versus buy?

We’re pretty open. We’ve looked at startups, we’ve looked at established brands within the group travel space. We looked at investments in minority and majority stakes. We’re pretty open to different opportunities. Our wheelhouse is definitely group travel. We’ve owned the kind of adventure, sustainable side of the business for 30 years. So we’re looking to expand that market. I’m looking to other niche travel markets that could use more of our infrastructure and distribution and also our lens for community tourism and social enterprise.

In December, you launched “Roamies” in partnership with Hostelworld. Can you tell us more about that and where you see demand for this type of product?

During the pandemic, you talk to CEOs all over, sharing war stories, surviving this forced hibernation. I met Gary Morrison from Hostelworld who has a very interesting company. We had a converging interest in our business. STA Travel went bankrupt during the pandemic, which lost a huge student sales channel for the industry. That created a benefit for Hostelworld, which is more of a technology company and service that linked hosts around the world. They have a need to have more unique product and differentiate a product, and we create unique and differentiated products. So it was nice to have a project during COVID where we were creating something unique, something innovative.

Even during lockdowns we were able to create something quite special with Roamies, it’s been a great success. Hostelworld has millions of people booking all over the world. We wanted to take away the concept of a group tour and make it meetups in different parts of the world, some of the most unique places.

How are you driving repeat business and also bringing in new customers?

It’s a very different conversation right now because you’re trying to make people feel safe. That wasn’t something we ever had to talk about before, because people just thought you book with G Adventures to be safe. But now we have to be much more vocal about what we’re doing differently on the ground and how we’re working with local governments and local regulations to keep people safe, to get people to travel again. So the conversation is very different.

At the very start, the dream phase is much later in the process, because people … have a wait-and-see mentality in terms of whether they’re going to travel this year, especially in Europe. So our job becomes a bit of a whisperer, we’re travel whisperers now where we have to convince people that it’s safe to travel and show examples of people doing it.

What is the biggest challenge for G Adventures right now?

It’s government restrictions. It’s everything. It’s opening borders. Asia is still relatively closed. … we just found out today Morocco took away PCR testing for arrival. That’s huge for us. We had massive celebrations here in the halls of G Adventures. I should say virtual halls.

We’re at the helm of governments making decisions because it’s not making any sense anymore. It’s it’s all political. We have zero control of that because it doesn’t make scientific sense anymore. … There’s no consistency in the global strategy to open borders, and it’s extremely limiting and frustrating for us as operators.

If you could go back and talk to your 22-year-old self in 1990 as you were launching G Adventures, what would you want to tell him?

I would probably tell my 22-year-old self that everything’s gonna be okay. It’s all gonna work out for you. If you truly follow your destiny, listen to your heart and always do the right thing with pure intention. When we started, people had never heard of anything like what we wanted to do. There were enough people to tell me that I was crazy, that I couldn’t make money in small groups or governments weren’t interested in small groups. … There were so many negatives, but I would’ve told my 22-year-old self do the right thing, open heart, open mind.

What advice would you give to somebody that’s looking to enter a career in travel?

A wise man once said, if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. We’re coming out of COVID. People want this hybrid life where they want a job that matches their values. They want flexibility. They want freedom. They want the ability to choose their hours, to choose where they work. So be passionate about why you want to come into the travel industry, and it’s not to get rich. There are very few people that want to go into the travel industry to get rich. But to have an enriched life and feel the passion about global cultures and showing people the world, you’ll never work a day in your life.

Anything else to add?

The best thing that could come out of COVID – because people ask me, what can we do? – is a very simple change in mindset. Understand that when you decide you want to go on holidays, it’s a privilege that only few people in the world have. There’s such a small percentage of people on this planet that have the disposable income, time and the ability to take a holiday. So when you decide you want to go on a holiday, that’s a privilege, it’s not a right.

When you make that decision and you choose that mindset, hopefully you’ll understand that you have the opportunity to change the world, to transform communities. That privilege is a big responsibility. If we change just that mindset, the travel industry will rightfully take its place as a transformational industry.

More from our In The Big Chair series…

PhocusWire talks to leaders across the digital travel landscape.

https://www.phocuswire.com/ceo-interview-bruce-poon-tip-g-adventures

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