How G Adventures is redefining the travel & tourism industry – and connecting customers to their destinations
“We ask ourselves all the time as an industry, not just at G Adventures, how badly do we want travel to benefit local people? How badly do we want travel to be truly a transformational industry? Because in order for us to do that, there has to be significant change in how we do business.”
A conversation with G Adventures Founder, Bruce Poon Tip, where we discuss community tourism, and what it means to be a responsible traveler.
Jon Finkelstein: Hi, welcome to Shift. It's PwC Canada's podcast series, and we're digging into key digital trends and topics that can make your business transformation a reality. I'm your host, Jon Finkelstein, and I'm also the Creative Director of PwC Canada.
All right, this is an amazing one and it's actually super, super timely. We're here with Bruce Poon Tip, who is the founder of G Adventures. Hey, Bruce. Welcome to Shift.
Bruce Poon Tip: Thank you, thanks for having me.
Jon Finkelstein: Just for the purposes of our listeners, who, I mean, I can't imagine that they would be unfamiliar with G Adventures, but perhaps as a Canadian success story and an amazing entrepreneur yourself, you can just give us the two second bio about you and what you're up to.
Bruce Poon Tip: Well, I founded G Adventure back in 1990. We are the largest small group adventure holiday company, I guess, is how you'd recognize us today. But, we've transitioned over 31 years.
Bruce Poon Tip: We have our foundation of the work that we do that's connected to being responsible when we travel and creating wealth distribution. Just creating travel for good.
Jon Finkelstein: Tell me, in terms of where you're coming from and what you're seeing in terms of travel, what are seeing people, how are they shifting? What are they thinking about? What's on travelers' minds now?
Bruce Poon Tip: It's about being more purpose driven and being connected to destinations. Just before COVID, people weren't connected to destinations. The destination became irrelevant, because people were buying amenities. There was a huge push for capacity. Bigger resorts, bigger cruise ships. They commoditized experience. That's what we were in danger of.
Bruce Poon Tip: So, it has to be important to you. People are going to be way more purpose driven. If you want to go to this country, you know why you want to go to this country over that country. I don't think we saw that before COVID.
Jon Finkelstein: Are people more or less risk averse, in terms of where they want to go and what they want to experience from travel, pre versus post-COVID?
Bruce Poon Tip: There's not one defining way people are handling COVID, or how they process it in their life. There's some people, that are early adopters, these are the people that line up outside a store for a week to get new iPhone. The early adopters were rushing to travel sooner and take the opportunity to travel when there's no other tourists in some of the most iconic destinations in the world.
Bruce Poon Tip: Then, we all know people that were borderline germophobes prior to COVID. This, mental health-wise, has really affected a lot of people. I think there's going to be just different people. Everyone's going to have their own experience and everyone's going to have their own limits. It's our goal to get people traveling right away, but I know so many people saying, "I'm not traveling for five years."
Jon Finkelstein: I'm a pretty safe traveler for the most part, I haven't been out too much into the wilderness or into countries that are deemed more dangerous than others. But now, I might. I was just wondering whether you saw any of that…
Bruce Poon Tip: Well, we do see a huge growth in active and outdoors. I don't know if that's because people were locked up for so long that they now want to be active and outdoors. Because we have many different trips and some are more active than others, but we're seeing people searching. We have search data where people are searching for active trips, trips that are outdoors. The other thing that we're noticing through data, is that people are looking for very specific experiences.
Jon Finkelstein: What would you say to people as they start to think about traveling again and how to really weigh out their options?
Bruce Poon Tip: Well, I think the biggest change that has to happen, and it's on the way, is that people have to understand the privilege they have to travel. There's so few people on the planet that have the opportunity to travel, to do international travel.
Bruce Poon Tip: You have a privilege to travel, you have a right to nothing. So, we have to get that across the consumer and to the traveler. I think that more and more people are thinking that way naturally.
Jon Finkelstein: You mentioned education and retraining a little bit. I'd love to talk a little bit for a second about your internal, your employees and the culture of responsibility, sustainability, community. How do you make sure that you can move an organization and align them with the type of vision that you have?
Bruce Poon Tip: Well, the most important thing is in the recruiting process.In order for you to get a job with us, you have to go through culture fit and culture fit is done by cross section of people across the company who's going to make that choice to bring you into the business. So recruiting is the number one, but then it's about getting and retaining the best people. Retention is everything in business. And so it's how you run your business. It's about transparency. It's about inclusiveness.
Bruce Poon Tip: And it's about being ahead of doing what's right. Lots of people are changing now, whether it's because of the me too movement or because of the LGBTQ movement, but really companies should just do what's right. And when you do that, you get buy in from everybody. And so how you recruit people becomes really important, but how you retain them, how you create something special from why they chose to work with your company, is really one of the most important factors in running a business, especially in people businesses. We have this philosophy. If you build it, they will come, from Field of Dreams.
Jon Finkelstein: Yeah.
Bruce Poon Tip: We don't have the same problems because people love working at G Adventures, but that's all part of our philosophy, our culture, our business strategy is attracting and retaining the best people.
Jon Finkelstein: It must take a lot of focus to keep that going because I have to believe or think that as the world changes and ebbs and flows in this kind of stuff to not lose what makes you fundamentally you, to just kind of keep the lights on. Do you find a lot of pressure?
Bruce Poon Tip: We've been very courageous over the years of really putting money into our people, into people programs. And we do amazing things for our people that nobody else does.
Jon Finkelstein: Care to give us an example or two.
Bruce Poon Tip: Yeah. Well, leadership camps, we run leadership camps all over the world.
Bruce Poon Tip: And everyone in the company can apply. And some of our leaders from all over the world, we would've never known them if they didn't come through leadership camps. When we see the graduates of our leadership camp and we were doing two or three a year, we have to do women's leadership camps as well that was specific for women that can just all apply. And it's a huge expense because we're flying people all over the world. There's mentors and content and it's a whole leadership camp for a week. And they're all over the world and that's not something that anyone does, teaching people to be good leaders.
Bruce Poon Tip: And the content isn't relevant for just G Adventures. People come and think they're going to leadership camp, and the number one thing that people say when they come back from leadership camp is there was no mention of G adventure. But G Adventures is training people to be great leader. There's so many fans. Making sure people take trips within our company. Everyone gets a free trip once a year and an allowance for air as well. And if you take a trip, you get an additional week's holiday. Stuff like that.
Jon Finkelstein: Sorry, sorry. I just want to repeat that in case anybody missed that. If you take a trip, you get another week's holiday.
Bruce Poon Tip: Because we want to encourage people to take trips. So if you don't take a trip, you get the standard holidays. But if you take one of our trips, you're doing us a favor. You're learning about our product and our people are our greatest brand ambassadors.
Bruce Poon Tip: And so we have so many things, I can tell you so many things that we do on a regular basis. On Friday, we do this thing called Christmas in the Community in Toronto. We've been doing it for 15 years and I was out there wrapping presents for the kids. So we found out that the city has a party in Toronto for zero to five, a Christmas party for kids below the poverty line. And it was only zero to five.
Bruce Poon Tip: And with COVID, it's changed a little bit, but I consider that a perk and our people love it. It's such a blast getting ready for the kids on Friday. I was on Turkey carving duty. There was like 40 turkeys on a table, and I was carving turkeys all evening, but everyone does their part. And then on the day, every department has to run a station because the kids come in and all of these kids are identified by the city for being below the poverty line.
Jon Finkelstein: Incredible. Guys, congrats for doing that, man. That's amazing.
Jon Finkelstein: So Bruce, just so everybody's really on the same page here, I love this notion of community tourism and it's such a great term. Do you think that you could just describe it for us? Give us your definition of what community tourism means and how it plays out.
Bruce Poon Tip: Well, there's two paths to community tourism. The first one being that everyone benefits when you decide to travel. It's not the one way experience that you're taking travel. Shouldn't be about taking, it should be about giving. And so everyone should benefit and it takes a community to make... When you do one of our trips, there are so many people that are participating in making an amazing experience for you and everyone has to benefit and creating community. And then the other one is taking people to areas that don't normally benefit from tourism.
Bruce Poon Tip: We have a whole series of local living trips where you can stay on a ranch in Iceland or a farm in Italy or a winery in Chile or a Mongolian tribe, nomadic tribe, or an Amazon rainforest tribe, and just live with local people. It's not about entertaining you. Sometimes travel could just be cultural immersion, cultural sharing, where local people benefit equally by learning about your life as you learn about their life. And creating that community is really what makes travel so special. It allows us to transform. And not just us. By you traveling you're going to transform people on the ground. You're going to transform communities. The 40 poorest countries in the world, tourism is one or two in terms of our revenue to those countries.
Jon Finkelstein: There's a lot of different factors and a lot of different people involved in trips. And one of the things that, in preparation for the podcast interview, the notion of leakage I really find alarming. And I think I'm familiar with it in the context of retail and people mean theft, but leakage and travel is a very different thing. And I was wondering if you could just take a second to explain what that is and how what you're proposing, your take on community tourism, turns that on its ear.
Bruce Poon Tip: Well, it's about the money that you spend on your holiday staying in the country. There's so much of that that leaks out. So some of the biggest travel organizations in the world are public companies, and that breeds a certain process in decision making, but that money doesn't stay in the country. There's so little of the money spent when you go on holiday that stays in that country for local people to benefit. But everyone knows that. And so we ask ourselves all the time as an industry, not just at G Adventures, how badly do we want travel to benefit local people? How badly do we want travel to be truly a transformational industry? Because in order for us to do that, it has to be significant change in how we do business. Everyone's starting to do something, and it could be donating or starting a little foundation but we really have to look at where we're spending.
Jon Finkelstein: Do you think people are like, "Oh, I can't do anything."?
Bruce Poon Tip: Yeah. Well, that's the problem because people are fatigued. Especially with the definitions that I told you before, ecotourism, responsible tourism, sustainable tourism, ethical tourism, green tourism, whatever the ism, it's confusing. And people, they'll only go so far because they just want to go on holiday and we have to make it easy. We have to make the choice easy and the definition easy. And it's complex because everyone's fighting to do it their way for their... They're putting it as part of their brand, so they're shouting on rooftops about what they're doing, but it's to serve their brand. It's not to serve the higher purpose.
Jon Finkelstein: I wanted to ask you, when you think about your trips and planning them, and there's so many different people and operators involved, how do you make sure through the line that the people that you're dealing with, that you're working with live up to the values or doing the things that you want?
Bruce Poon Tip: Well, you can't do everything. We have something called the Ripple Score. The Ripple Score is a very, very unique thing. It was a five year labor of love that people thought I was crazy to try and create. And what it does is it actually changes the behavior of our buying because we give a score on every trip. And we're the only company in the world that gives a Ripple Score, meaning that we give a percentage, when you travel, of the money spent running your trip, how much of it stays in the local economy.
So every trip will say 90%, 80%, 100%, 60%. And so we're motivated to work with local operators and local people that hire people within a radius of their business and don't have outside leadership coming in.
Jon Finkelstein: So I wonder whether something like the Ripple Score could be one of those things that suddenly becomes a bit more defacto, a little bit more prolific.
Bruce Poon Tip: We've had a lot of big mainstream companies contacting us about the Ripple Score, how it works. And we openly share that information because it was all done by an outside group of consultants, because we couldn't create the standards for that. It had to be verifiable outside. But our goal is to have it available. Again, if you can't travel with us, travel like us, that's our whole motto. So it's available to anyone.
Jon Finkelstein: It makes me think of if you're a company or a destination or whatever that would like to be part of the G Adventures family and your Ripple Score is not quite where it needs to be… Does that motivate change with some of your partners to say, "How could we do better so that we could be more involved and more of a partner to you?"
Bruce Poon Tip: Oh yeah. No, that's the behaviors on the ground. So everybody knows what it takes to work with G Adventures, and if you want to work with us, that's a really important component now because it's all done in our buying. So G Adventures is a massive company and I can't control all the behaviors that go on, but the Ripple Score really created behaviors within the organization. And in the right way, to buy in a way that benefits locals, that matches our brand and it's our brand promise to our consumers.
Jon Finkelstein: What advice have you given or would you give to CEOs, presidents who need to make difficult decisions, who know deep in their heart that the difficult stuff is worth doing? How do you even begin to redefine a business, an industry, your company? What's the first thing you can think about?
Bruce Poon Tip: I don't think many companies set out to do that, to redefine. It's all about doing the right thing and also doing your best in every circumstance because there's times where you just can't make those decisions or you can't... It's not, and... But as long as you could stand in front of your people and say, "We did our best."
Bruce Poon Tip: When COVID hit and it escalated so quickly, we had so many layoffs and terminations because we didn't need all the people. We had thousands of people, it was over a thousand people affected. And we got a lot of people for the first time criticizing the organization, criticizing me for the decisions we were making.
Bruce Poon Tip: And we did our best. And we did make mistakes. We made a ton of mistakes because we, who knew the world could shut down?
Jon Finkelstein: Yeah.
Bruce Poon Tip: I can safely say to everyone that along the way, every decision we made, we did with the information that we had at the time and we did the best that we could to make the best decision for our people and for the business.
Jon Finkelstein: So did you give CEO keys away? What is that? What's that about?
Bruce Poon Tip: So this goes back about 15 years ago, where I was trying to make a seismic change in the business by putting our customers first. Right? And our people first.
I had to send a message of the most important people within our business and change the way the business looked at our people. So the most important title in business is the CEO title. And so I decided the most important people for our business is anyone who deals with a customer. It's not me. I barely meet customers. I barely meet customers. I'm not important.
Bruce Poon Tip: I want to change the thinking right across the organization that the most important people within the organization are anyone who deals with people. And we changed the CEO to Chief Experience Officer. And the number one position to elevate the position was our tour leaders. So traditional tour leaders who run trips, because they have access to all of our customers every day. They're right in front. They're our face. They're the face of the company. And so I wanted to give them the most important title within the business.
Bruce Poon Tip: And what it did is it created an incredible differentiation for us. And CEO has just taken on a life of its own. All of our tour leaders, and originally all of the people that answered our phone to deal with our customers were Chief Experience Officers. So they had a CEO title because I had to change the way we were thinking of our customers and change the way internally we were viewing the most important people of the business.
Bruce Poon Tip: And now the CEO title, everyone proudly uses it right across the world. And we are the employer of choice, best in class. And everyone wants to be a CEO, no one wants to be a tour leader. Whenever we go into a country and we start hiring people to be our CEOs, the best of the best come because they want that title, because we created a brand around Chief Experience Officers.
Jon Finkelstein: That's so amazing.
Jon Finkelstein: All right. Ding, ding. Time for the lightning round where we get a chance to ask our guests some non sequitur questions that may or may not have any bearing on anything. For example, Bruce, what is the worst meal that you've ever had?
Bruce Poon Tip: Yak butter tea in Tibet.
Bruce Poon Tip: Tea shouldn't be salty or chewy. That's what I tell people. Yak butter tea or camel yogurt in Mongolia. Those are the two worst. And everyone serves it to you when you go into their home, so it's rude not to eat it. It's awful.
Jon Finkelstein: Yikes. Okay.
Jon Finkelstein: What's the scariest mode of transportation you've ever been on?
Bruce Poon Tip: Oh boy, probably New York subway.
Jon Finkelstein: The New York subway. Nice.
Bruce Poon Tip: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jon Finkelstein: I'm curious, what's your comfort food?
Bruce Poon Tip: I'm from the Caribbean, I'm from Trinidad, so my comfort food is all around Caribbean dishes. Roti.
Jon Finkelstein: Oh, I love roti.
Bruce Poon Tip: Flying fish. Yeah. Any kind of Caribbean food is my comfort food.
Jon Finkelstein: Very nice. And would you be willing to tell us what your hardest life lesson so far has been?
Bruce Poon Tip: My hardest life lesson has been this last two years of dealing with the pandemic. I was taught, growing up, that business was unemotional. It's black and white decisions. And I fought against that throughout, if you read my book, I fought against, that business can be compassionate. And I open my book, Looptail, in Tibet, and I talk about how that changed me when I got home to business. Because going through business school, you're taught that business is unemotional.
Jon Finkelstein: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Bruce Poon Tip: But here I am in this pandemic. And I had to make a lot of just unemotional decisions. I don't know what the lesson is there, but for the first time, I had to look at positions and cultural heritage preservation to save the business, as opposed to people, when we were deciding who we're going to keep and who not. It's the worst position to ever be in.
Jon Finkelstein: I just, maybe just for myself on the last question, where is one place that you haven't traveled that you'd want to go? Because I have to think that you've been probably pretty close to everywhere.
Bruce Poon Tip: That's Russia.
Jon Finkelstein: Oh.
Bruce Poon Tip: So I have not been to Russia or the Trans-Mongolian that goes through Siberia and Northern Russia, that train that goes from Beijing to Moscow.
Jon Finkelstein: Amazing.
Bruce Poon Tip: The Trans-Siberian train. I want to do it, but it takes a long time. It's a long trip. And so I reckon I'll do that when I'm much older and I have time.
Jon Finkelstein: All right, well, that wraps up another episode of Shift. That went by really quickly as we talked about travel and tourism and what it means to be responsible, all kinds of interesting things beyond, beyond. And hey Bruce, thank you so much for being on Shift and sharing your journey with us and giving us some really awesome things to think about when the pandemic is over.
Bruce Poon Tip: It was my pleasure. Great questions. Thanks for having me.
Jon Finkelstein: Thanks for listening to this episode of Shift. You can get more details at pwc.com/ca/shift. If you enjoyed this episode and want to hear more subscribe to our podcast series, you can find us on iTunes, Google Play, or your preferred podcast platform. Just so you know, this podcast has been prepared by PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, an Ontario limited liability partnership for general guidance on matters of interest only, and does not constitute professional advice until next time.