20 Minutes With: Bruce Poon Tip, Founder of G Adventures

Ella Castle

Bruce Poon Tip was in Barbados, having just flown in from a few days in Australia and New Zealand when the industry he’d helped transform shifted in ways everyone is still trying to figure out. When Poon Tip founded G Adventures (then called Gap Adventures) at the age of 24 […]

Bruce Poon
Tip was in Barbados, having just flown in from a few days in Australia and New Zealand when the industry he’d helped transform shifted in ways everyone is still trying to figure out.

When Poon Tip founded G Adventures (then called Gap Adventures) at the age of 24 in 1991, the travel industry hadn’t yet realized the potential of young travelers. 

“Backpackers were like trash,” Poon Tip says from his home in Toronto. “They didn’t spend enough, and they didn’t like bus tours.”

But they did like to travel—a lot. And as airfares began to plummet through the ’90s, and Generation X famously extended their student lifestyles into their 30s, G Adventures modeled a new way to travel—low-key, off-the-beaten-path, Southeast Asia instead of Europe, Peru instead of Mexico—that appealed to both younger and older tourists. It was the birth of adventure travel, and Poon Tip was in on the ground floor. From a single-tour, credit card-financed operation, by 2019 G Adventures had become a nine-figure global brand, operating out of 125 countries.

Then came 2020.

Poon Tip was with his family on their annual March spring vacation, his 18-year-old daughter’s last before going off to school, when word went out from the government that Canadians abroad should get back home.

“I wanted to just wait it out,” Poon Tip says. “There are worse places to be during a pandemic than Barbados, right?”

He convinced the kids easily enough, but his wife
Roula
told him this sounded serious, reminded him that they had elderly parents back home, and that they should start packing. And he’s been at home, with Roula and their two daughters, contemplating the reeling travel industry ever since.

But Poon Tip, now 53, is not a passive contemplator. The author of several books, including the bestselling business book, Looptail, he decided to put his thoughts into a sort of instant book. He spent the beginning of April thinking, the end of April writing, and on May 16, he published Unlearn: The Year the Earth Stood Still, a free e-book about where travel probably will, and in his opinion definitely should, go from here.

Penta recently spoke with Poon Tip about his thoughts on travel in a post-Covid world.

PENTA: How is Covid changing travel?

Bruce Poon Tip: Long term and short term, it’s going to be devastating. I mean, short-term, it’s going to be difficult to travel. I mean, they’re not making anything easier at the moment. But until there’s a vaccine, I think that travel just won’t be the same. And that’s months, if not years away. And even then, my hope is that this big pause will change travel significantly, but history shows that people have quite short-term memories when it comes to this stuff. But I do hope that people travel differently on the other side of this.

How would you like to see people travel?

I would hope that people will be more connected to the destinations they go. We were in a very dangerous place in the tourism industry where the destination was no longer relevant because people were being sold on amenities. It was like the entire travel industry was taking their lead from the cruise lines, which are sold on the idea of having 10 different restaurants to choose from, and Broadway plays, and big thread counts and these things. The amenities, this idea of luxury and abundance and a sort of stultifying leisure were becoming more important than the destinations themselves. 

But a lot of places have been hit really hard by Covid, and a lot of people, in the tourism industry and otherwise, are going to need the sort of help tourism dollars can provide. My hope is that on the other side of this, once we realize how connected we are as a planet, that people are more purposeful when they decide to travel and people and places become more important than swim-up bars and hotel points.

Are you privy to any industry-wide talks going on about how to make things work again?

Oh yeah, everyone has panels and discussions going on at the moment, throwing around ideas. I think the biggest one to come out of it, and the one I think is the best idea, is to follow what places like Machu Picchu were already doing, and adopt timed-entry models for everything from
Siem
Reap to Venice to Disneyland. It works well from a Covid perspective, sort of like the current five-customers-at-a-time shopping. They just have to eliminate crowds and people lining up. But it also makes sense from a business management and planning perspective. And I think ultimately, it’s going to be a better customer experience as well. Instead of just showing up at Disneyland, which can be such a zoo, you book a certain morning or afternoon, and that’s your time. But Angkor Wat, too, and the Taj Mahal. 

Travel is at a standstill at the moment. How do you see it starting up again?

First, there’ll be the early adopters who are just waiting for flights and borders to open because they want to be the first in to places that are normally packed, but they want to be able to see Machu Picchu, for instance, with less people, they want to go to Taj Mahal with less people, they want to go to the pyramids of Egypt and not have to line up all day to see them.

The next group of people that we would want to convince to travel are people that are more nervous, a sort of mid-term cohort who need to know that there is just a little extra care that’s being done before they will consider taking a tour.

And then I think a bunch of people who just aren’t going to travel for the next year or two, no matter what you say no matter what you do, they’re just, they’re just done until there’s a vaccine.

Which group are you focusing on?

We’re interested in those mid-term people. We’ve actually just released a new set of tours, the smallest we’ve ever done. We’re calling them “Book Your Bubble.” They’re for groups of no more than eight, so two families, or four couples, or just a group of friends, people who are in a bubble at home and want to take it on the road. We’ve got 80 of them to Peru, Portugal, Thailand, the Caribbean, and elsewhere, with lots of flexibility to allow people to change or cancel, because everything’s still shifting so much.

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