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

A man who makes waves:
Throughout his history as an entrepreneur, Bruce has at times been a controversial figure, and there is no doubt that he has continued to march to his own drum, unafraid of other people’s judgment. Here are a few examples:

In 1996 Bruce refused to accept one of the prestigious awards that he received since it was sponsored by major banks. When Bruce first started his company all major banks refused to give him any financing and he ended up starting his company with an $800 debit to his credit card. Bruce was outspoken about the banks’ lack of support and his statements were widely publicized, leading to an extended feud with one of Canada’s major banks.

In the mid 90s, when G.A.P Adventures first experienced major success, Bruce was touted as an entrepreneurial wonder child, in his words he was treated ” like a novelty, a circus act”, being such a successful entrepreneur in his late 20s. Later on he started to receive more criticism, particularly when he set up his own non-profit organization, Planeterra. Other non-profit organizations did not understand why he would want to set up his own organization and accused him of being arrogant and a control freak. Many people in business and in the non-profit sector don’t understand how Bruce can run a profit-oriented business while also running his own NGO.

In 2000, Barbara Walters from “20/20” was producing a special feature story on unusual weddings and requested to cover Bruce’s wedding in the Amazon. When the producers wanted to portray him as an American, Bruce did not cooperate and said he would not lie to the audience. They threatened to pull his story, but Bruce stuck to his guns. In the end 20/20 never aired the piece.

Interestingly enough, his story aired anyway when Diane Sawyer from Primetime found his footage and decided to air it after all. Bruce sees that as an example of karma.

As one of the most charismatic entrepreneurial figures in Canada, Bruce is often asked to speak at universities and business schools. When he spoke at a well-known Ontario business school a few years ago, he mentioned that true entrepreneurship doesn’t necessarily require a business degree. As a matter of fact, Bruce was “on fire” that day and really inspired his entire audience to the degree that 6 of the MBA students dropped out of the program and showed up on his doorstep the Monday after the speech to tell him that they were going to start their own business. Naturally that did not sit well with the business school’s administration and Bruce hasn’t been invited back since then. However, Bruce continues to receive invitations to speak at other Canadian business schools and is a popular figure with the students.

The secrets of his company’s success:
In his own words, Bruce says that his strength is focus and single-minded determination. He calls it “firing on all cylinders”. Bruce also believes in being innovative and constantly strives to improve his service offerings. He identifies being original and being at the leading edge of his industry as one of his key success factors.

Contrary to many entrepreneurs, Bruce is clearly aware of his strengths, yet equally aware of his weaknesses. Bruce says that he is very limited at what he is good at, but he concentrates on these strengths and brings in qualified people in areas that he identifies as weaknesses.

Bruce believes in the importance of good leadership: an ability to take a large group and focus it towards one unified point. He aims to raise the bar in his industry and works hard to have a positive impact on individuals and communities around the world.

Bruce’s biggest challenge:
He identifies his biggest challenge as “running the business” – Bruce says he is a builder and likes to get things off the ground. Over the years he has learned to delegate the day-to-day running of his company and recently hired a Chief Operating Officer with 20 years of experience at a Swiss bank. As a result, Bruce can get out more to talk about his vision and inspire people.

A leader in sustainable tourism
Early on Bruce Poon Tip identified sustainable tourism as one of his primary objectives and as a result, his company has developed strict operating principles to minimize its impact on the environment and on local cultures. Some of G.A.P’s trips today involve a component of local volunteering, and Bruce is also at the leading edge of the “voluntourism” trend.

G.A.P Adventures limits its group size to 12 people to have a smaller impact on their travel destinations. G.A.P does not use local tour operators to run their tours, but they hire and train their own people: porters, cooks, local guides and tour leaders get paid above local wages. Bruce promotes ecologically and culturally sensitive travel and believes in a give and take. He is driven by a desire to inspire others and raise the bar in the industry.

Bruce’s interest in social and cultural causes:
Bruce understands what it means to be marginalized. As a visible minority he came from Trinidad where his family was treated like first class citizens. Upon arrival in Canada, his family’s status was downgraded to second class in ethnically homogenous Calgary. When his mother took him and two of his siblings to a Calgary daycare centre in the in the late 60s, early 70s she was told that “coloured kids weren’t allowed”.

A few years ago, in a department store, the cashier served the person behind him first and Bruce had to speak up to bring this to the cashier’s attention. Just recently Bruce went to visit a law firm in Calgary and was told that deliveries would only be accepted on the fourth floor.

Bruce’s personal experiences have shaped him into the man he is today and he strives to instill respect and understanding for underprivileged groups.

On his role today:
Bruce says that today he talks for a living. He does presentations, gives interviews and shares his vision. He communicates his ideas and Bruce wants to have a positive impact and inspire his audience. He says that ideas come to him during flights and showers, and his co-workers often hope that he doesn’t take too many showers because his newly minted ideas mean more work for them.

Plans for the future:
Bruce says he intends to get into vertical integration and focus even more on sustainable travel and living and on promoting conscious lifestyle choices. He wants to encourage people to get off the cruise ships and into the community and get involved.

Why his company was chosen as one of the greatest employers:
The environment in his company is very casual, there is no formal dress code and co-workers often go out after work to socialize together. G.A.P also invests in training local workers in foreign countries and pays their employees above-industry rates. Tour leaders make the same, whether they are from North America or local Latin Americans.

As part of its commitment to a better environment G.A.P has instituted a “clean air commute program” where the company pays a percentage of employees’ bus passes to encourage a more sustainable life-style. G.A.P uses recycled paper and biodegradable soaps in all their washrooms and encourages their employees to conserve energy wherever possible.

On his life-style:
I asked Bruce what his life-style looks like, considering he is one of Canada’s most successful entrepreneurs. He said he essentially lives like a regular person and emphasized that he is turned off by materialism and ostentatious consumption. Bruce said he never wants to flaunt his wealth, and he credits this modesty to his parents of whom he speaks very fondly.

Bruce said that he lives a fairly simple life, he’s got a house, a car (a Toyota Prius hybrid vehicle), plays volleyball and picked up tennis and golf last year. He mentioned he doesn’t have any fancy memberships in high-priced clubs but prefers to hang out with regular people.

Bruce admitted that his main vice is his addiction to basketball, and every year he has a hard time justifying the expense for his season tickets to the Toronto Raptor’s basketball team. Dressed very casually and walking on the street you definitely would never be able to tell that he is one of the most successful and wealthiest business people around.

Bruce views life holistically and doesn’t see a strict divide between family and work, his life is integrated. He also considers eating and sleeping gross wastes of time.
Today Bruce has a young family and likes to spend time with his wife and children. His parents and his wife are currently in China where his father has travelled back to his grandfather’s village for the first time in his life to explore his family’s roots. Bruce wanted him to have this opportunity and from the emails and phone calls that he is receiving, this experience has been extremely special to his father.

Bruce Poon Tip is a fascinating individual – an extremely successful entrepreneur, a committed champion of social and environmental causes, often a controversial figure who marches to his own beat, and a charismatic visionary who knows how to inspire others.

I thoroughly enjoyed my few hours with Bruce, picking his brain and finding out just a bit about what makes this unusual person tick. And as a socially aware entrepreneur myself, I am hoping I’ll be able to pick up a lesson or two from this remarkable individual.

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

  1. Pingback: Skydiving - for a Great Cause » Travel and Transitions

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