A Conversation with Bruce Poon Tip: Global Travel Entrepreneur with a Conscience

It’s a very long list, and illustrates G.A.P’s unique position as a leading edge company. Today G.A.P has a staff of more than 300 people world-wide with more than 20 operating offices throughout Latin America and soon Africa. It offers more than 1000 adventure tours to over 100 countries on all 7 continents. 40,000 passengers a year travel on small group adventures with G.A.P every year and the company is constantly seeking and exploring new destinations to bring new adventures to their customers.

So it goes without saying that Bruce is a consummate entrepreneur. Yet he also has a strong social conscience and over the years he has supported a variety of non-profit organizations and community projects throughout the world. During the last few years, Bruce has fulfilled one of his life’s dreams and set up his own non-profit organization, www.planeterra.org, which is directly involved in helping communities in Latin America.

In addition, G.A.P has a policy of developing local experts rather than hiring local ground operators who generally pay and treat their local employees poorly. In this context, G.A.P has created its own training programs for local guides, porters and cooks who service the travel groups. In addition, G.A.P is also starting to train local tour leaders, a job that formerly used to be filled only by North Americans. In all these endeavours G.A.P pays above average wages, and tour leaders are all on the same pay scale, whether they are North Americans, or local employees.

It was fascinating for me to spend some time with one of Canada’s most successful travel entrepreneurs whose philosophies and approach to life are rather unconventional. Here are some of the insights that Bruce shared with me.

Bruce’s early years:
Together with 5 siblings, Bruce grew up in Trinidad of Chinese parents and his family came to Canada when he was 4 years old. He grew up in Calgary where his father owned and ran some gas stations.

His beginnings as an entrepreneur:
When Bruce was 12 years old he had 2 newspaper routes with 2 different newspapers and subcontracted both of them to younger kids. At the same age he also owned several prize-winning rabbits and people started to ask for stud services with his prized animals. As a spin-off of this business, at 13 years of age he wrote a book on how to care for rabbits and sold it to local pet stores.

At 14 years of age he joined Junior Achievement, an organization that uses hands-on experiences to help young people understand the economics of life. As part of this organization he had to set up his own business. Rather than setting up a lawn care or painting business, Bruce came up with something more innovative: he sourced temperature sensitive fabric to create colourful bookmarks and sold 10,000 in his first year.

At 16 years old Bruce had his first job at Denny’s and was fired shortly after for his ‘attitude’. The same thing happened at his next job at McDonald’s when he was fired during the training program. Bruce was devastated, but this experience made him realize that the one thing he excelled at was doing his own thing.

When Bruce was 21 years old, he moved to Toronto to start a business. In his own words, he never wanted to be a “big fish in a small pond”, so he decided to move to the biggest pond around. Initially he thought he was going to start a record company, but ended up founding an adventure travel company.

Bruce did not learn entrepreneurship from his parents, with the greatest amount of respect he says that his father was the “world’s worst businessman”. Interestingly enough, none of his siblings are entrepreneurs and his parents’ early ambitions for Bruce were for him to work for a big company like IBM, and they begged him not to get involved in setting up his own adventure travel company.

G.A.P. Adventures history:
When Bruce came to Toronto in 1990, he wanted to finish his business degree which he had started in Calgary. He had very little money at that time and decided to travel to Thailand on an adventure travel holiday for $10 a day. The experience of connecting with local people in far-away places left such a deep impact on him that he came up with the idea of setting up a company for organized small group adventures.

Bruce organized his first trip to Belize with a handful of participants, drove down himself from California with kayaks in tow and took several people on their first adventure kayaking trip. The local authorities had never seen kayaks before and actually detained the whole group. Bruce had to negotiate his way out of this dicey situation.

In the early years Bruce used a lot of guerilla marketing techniques to promote his company. He sent out flyers, and did lots of speaking engagements at universities and colleges to convince young people to try small group adventures.

Around 1992/93 Bruce started to export his adventure tours and approached wholesalers in Europe. Once he created brochures in their currencies his export business really started to take off.

In 1996 Bruce won his first award: the United Nations Environmental Education Award, and he became recognized as a leader in sustainable tourism and grass roots travel. In 2002 Bruce represented the world tourism industry at the opening of the UN International Year of Ecotourism in New York and was the keynote speaker at the UNEP Summit on Ecotourism.

In 2002, G.A.P Adventures doubled in size by making its first acquisition of Canada’s largest flight consolidator to Latin America, Global Connections. Today G.A.P is able to offer highly competitive air travel in addition to its adventure tours.

In 2003, G.A.P Adventures embarked on its next entrepreneurial adventure when it launched the “Great Adventure TV Series”, a TV program that brings the small group adventure travel experience to life. This show has been picked up by CTV Travel and soon will be featured on the UK Travel Channel.

Another landmark event happened in 2004 when G.A.P Adventures decided to purchase the “Explorer”, the world’s first purpose-built expedition cruise ship. Today the Explorer covers exciting routes in the Antarctic, the Amazon, Spitzbergen and Greenland and has become a major success for the company. (I am very happy to say that G.A.P Adventures is sponsoring our first travel story contest with a fabulous adventure cruise through the mighty Amazon River.)

2005 saw another landmark: the company opened two G.A.P. Concept Stores in high traffic areas in Toronto and Vancouver and several more concept stores are in the works. These stores allow would-be travellers to research their own personal adventure trip and their favourite travel destinations without sales pressure. The stores have also become venues for music performances, multi-media travel presentations and lectures on travel-related topics.

One Response to A Conversation with Bruce Poon Tip: Global Travel Entrepreneur with a Conscience

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