A few years back, Bruce Poon Tip began hearing from local authorities in Belize. Students on the small island of Caye Caulker had stopped showing up for class. Instead, they were picking up jobs in the booming tourism industry, primarily leading bicycle tours. Poon Tip recalls being scolded that “as your company grows, fewer and fewer kids are going to school.”
As CEO of the tourism company G Adventures, Poon Tip has long sought to boost local communities through travel. But enticing kids to drop out wasn’t part of the plan. “Here was this social problem we had [created], and yet we were promoting ourselves as this great social enterprise,” Poon Tip recounted to a room full of CEOs at Deloitte’s Best Managed Companies symposium in April. “We had to figure out a way to get kids back into school.”
So he struck a deal with the students. As long as they stayed in school, they’d be guaranteed a job and loaned a bike to lead G Adventures tours. Since the “Bike with Purpose” program was introduced in 2008, school attendance on the island has jumped from 35 per cent to 90 per cent.
The story is an example of the travel industry’s potential negative social and economic influence on a community. It also shows how G Adventures strives to redirect that influence as a force for social good. “Tourism could be the greatest form of wealth distribution that the world has ever seen,” says Poon Tip. The message, coming from him, is assured and polished from reciting it hundreds of times. But his delivery manages to be breathlessly excited in a way that makes you forget the company is nearly three decades old.
Poon Tip started G Adventures in 1990 at the age of 22. A backpacking trip through Asia—which involved being arrested in Burma and escaping from jail—had convinced him there was a segment of travellers who were being ignored by tourism trends of the era. There had been a growing focus on all-inclusive resorts and cruise ship vacations that offered “all the comforts of home.” Surely, Poon Tip thought, there were folks who wanted a travel experience that balanced the thrill of being arrested in Burma with the comfort of floating in a tin hotel on the ocean.
In its early days, G Adventures (then Gap Adventures) attracted hard-core backpackers seeking adventure in Central and South America, Asia and Africa. The young CEO bootstrapped the business by maxing out his credit cards and convincing his buddies to lead tours for little pay. “I had one friend who was a doctor and another friend from the Barenaked Ladies, Jim Creeggan, leading some of our first tours,” says Poon Tip.
The company now serves 150,000-plus travellers per year through 15,000 small group tours in more than 100 countries that range in style from roughing it to glamping to all-out luxury. It also boasts more than 2,000 employees. Poon Tip says G Adventures has had double-digit growth for all 27 of its years. As the size and breadth of the company has expanded, G Adventures has slowly evolved into a multinational with 36 socially responsible programs in various communities that aim to provide education and business opportunities to locals by creating tourism jobs for them.
Despite the company’s massive growth, it relentlessly maintains the pep of a start-up. Its core values are freedom and happiness, and the firm employs some novel methods to ensure all employees support those ideals. The late stages of the job interview process involve a wheel that interviewees spin and answer whatever question they land on. There’s also an interview session in a ball pit. While Poon Tip acknowledges there’s no science behind their methods, he says the quirky interview tactics help screen for culture fit. The final interviews are conducted by three people drawn from across the company; these individuals don’t know what position or department the interviewee is applying for. In this session, the mission is to determine whether the individual will fit with the company’s ethos—if the answer is “no,” it doesn’t matter how qualified they are for the job. “I’m always trying to get brilliant jerks into the company, but it never works,” Poon Tip says. “They’re totally screened out in culture fit.”
Indeed, people love the idea of working for a do-gooding company where exotic travel is required, you’re encouraged to pursue your ideas and your happiness is a primary concern of management. It’s why the company sees swaths of applications from what Poon Tip calls “corporate refugees” looking for a welcoming—and profitable—workplace to take them in.
But it’s not always sunshine and rainbows at G Adventures. In 2007, one of their ships, carrying 154 passengers and crew, hit an iceberg and sank off Antarctica. Luckily, everyone was rescued and no one was seriously hurt, but the catastrophe was a PR nightmare. “Having a ship sink as a travel company is a big deal,” says Lorrie King, a partner with Deloitte who coached G Adventures on their Best Managed Companies application process. “But they managed to stymie whatever issues surrounded the incident and they handled the public relations of it really well.” The company was immediately in contact with travellers’ families and the media. The story became front-page news across the world with the focus on the remarkable rescue response. “In the end, the people on board were our greatest advocates. When they returned home, many of them were on TV and raved about how we handled the situation,” says Poon Tip.
That same year, the company underwent major restructuring. The business was 17 years old at that point, and was somewhat limited by what Poon Tip could afford, from the tours they offered to how they ran the business. “The next thing you know, you have this company built around all of those decisions and you’re successful and you have real money, but then it takes a huge revolution to make change,” says Poon Tip, who was at a loss for how to manage the company that had grown beyond his original vision. He was torn between stepping down as CEO and selling the business (“I was getting these incredible offers to sell—money I could never spend in my lifetime,” he says), or staying at the helm to turn the lumbering ship around himself.
Choosing the latter was a tough but necessary decision, he concluded, in order to grow the company and fully commit to the goal of making a difference through travel. It involved bringing in more experienced managers, eliminating his HR department and firing seven of his eight directors. “I had grown up with people in the business, and they took me to a certain point,” he says, “but now we were a different company, we were global, we were approaching $100 million. We needed a culture revolution.” That year, the toughest year the company had faced, was the first time they landed on the Best Managed Companies list. “Being a Best Managed Company isn’t just about being good when the times are good,” says King. “It’s also about how you deal with the challenges, and these guys do that extremely well.”
As G Adventures approaches its third decade, Poon Tip is exploring other industries to apply his social enterprise model; outdoor clothing, gear and vehicles are all natural possibilities. But the firm is still growing in its core business. It bought five other touring companies last December. In terms of the travel industry itself, Poon Tip is cautiously optimistic. He sees more consumer demand for transparency and sustainability when it comes to travel—a trend that G Adventures helped fuel. “My hope is that it gets past us,” says Poon Tip, “and it becomes common for Ritz Carlton and Four Seasons, for everyone to build these concepts into their business.”
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