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G Adventures: the 25-year-old startup

  • Air
  •   05-20-2015  10:18 am

G Adventures: the 25-year-old startup

It was a very different world when G Adventures founder Bruce Poon Tip first got the idea for his company, a world where the World Wide Web was still in its infancy and the concept of sustainable travel was unknown.

With the company marking its 25th anniversary this September, Poon Tip took some time to chat with PAX about the company’s first quarter century while looking ahead to the next 25 years and beyond.

“There’s no way I could imagine many things that have happened in these 25 years, let alone doing what I’m still doing as well as the size that we’ve grown to,” he said. “You can’t anticipate those things when you start out. When we began, there was no Internet and not even fax machine - we started with a telex. It was a very different time.”

While a business licence for G Adventures was acquired in February 1990 (under its original name, GAP Adventures), the company's first brochures went out that fall to a travel industry that was somewhat unprepared for a new style of tourism, immersing guests in a destination rather than viewing it from a coach window. The concept proved to be a bigger challenge than the financial hurdles faced by any new business, Poon Tip admitted.

“The main thing was getting people to understand what we were trying to do,” he recalled. “There was no company like us doing what we did. It was getting people to understand that we were going to offer a new style of travel that hadn’t been done before. I could never just put an ad in a newspaper advertising ‘tours to Thailand.’ People had a preconceived idea of what a tour was, with air-conditioned coaches and hotels. Our biggest challenge was to get out in front of people and explain what we were trying to do and what this new style of travel would look like.”

With no Internet, getting that message out required the CEO to literally hit the streets and speak to anyone who would listen. While the “hardcore backpackers and adventurers” may have signed up immediately, convincing mainstream travellers took a little more work, involving impromptu presentations and lectures in basements.

“Every Wednesday, I did talks at Mountain Equipment Co-op,” he said. “They let me stand in the store and talk to people about G Adventures and this new style of travel. There was no area set up, it was just in the middle of the store. It was the main way we got the word out because our biggest challenge was getting out in front of people and explaining the concept to them. There was no Internet, so we did talks at every school, university, college and outdoor store – anyone who would get an audience for me. People sometimes had gatherings in their basements and brought their friends over to see a slide presentation. It was guerrilla marketing at its best.”

The fruits of that labour were not immediately realized, Poon Tip recalled, with the initial G team working out of his apartment before moving into their first Toronto office. After some initial trepidation from travellers, the first packages were booked and G’s inaugural trip saw a group of six journeying through Ecuador on a package still offered today.

“We turned on our phone lines, put our brochures out and we didn’t get a single booking for 30 days,” he said. “Then one day, we got 50 bookings in one day.”

In addition to the technological advances that saw e-mail and social media replace fax and telex, another tectonic shift taking place over the years was the way in which travel is viewed in terms of its impact on the people and environment of a destination, which has since become a cornerstone of G’s corporate philosophy, culminating in the creation of the Planeterra non-profit foundation.

“It wasn’t until the mid-1990s when the term ‘ecotourism’ first came about and that’s when people started to question whether travel should be something either positive or negative, or gauging it as anything other than a holiday,” Poon Tip said. “It changed again around 2000, when An Inconvenient Truth and climate change were big topics. We were early to develop that mindset of helping community projects and local people through our growth and success. But it didn’t start as part of our philosophy – our philosophy was cultural immersion, but the concept of sustainable tourism didn’t exist then.”

“Last year, we did a partnership with the Inter-American Development Bank and the Multi-Lateral Investment Fund and for the first time they worked with a private sector company to build tourism projects, so we built five community projects in Latin America,” he said. “It was a super-proud moment for us as an organization – no one had ever seen that before. The IDB recently said that these programs are the most successful community development projects ever in the history of government-industry development.”

And while it may have taken some convincing to get the industry on board at first, Poon Tip said that G’s relationship with travel agents continues to grow, with an estimated 70 per cent of the company’s worldwide business coming through agent bookings and wholesalers.

“Part of our success has always been to make a product that’s easy enough to be sold on the shelves of travel agencies, so the agents are a big part of our business,” he said. “Canada specifically has been an extremely close relationship, with all the support that we get here. It’s funny, the industry has constricted somewhat with technology and the online players, but for us it’s grown. We have a very high-touch product – we’ve proven that very few people will book our tours and never talk to someone because it’s a complicated product. It’s not a commodity product so it serves travel agents well to learn how to sell it.”

Affectionately referring to the company as a “25 year-old start-up,” Poon Tip is already looking ahead to G’s next projects and initiatives. With the launch of the Rail Adventures and Local Living programs last year, Poon Tip said that there’s “a lot of gas in the tank” at G Adventures as the company embarks on the journey toward its next milestone. In addition to new packages and destinations, the future will also see the company working even more closely with agents, with more opportunities for online training and FAM trips.

“We haven’t scratched the surface of what we can do,” he said. “It’s about finding innovative ways and showing people that we still have a lot of ideas.... Our goal is always to get stronger as we get bigger and that takes a certain philosophy as a company. That’s a lot different from when we first started.”

This is the third installment in a series marking major anniversaries in the travel industry. Previous stories include and the Korea Tourism Board.

G Adventures' Alon Marcovici is featured in the May issue of PAX magazine - click here to see the digital edition.