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INTERVIEW: Founder of G Adventures Bruce Poon Tip Talks Books, Business and being the Dalai Lama’s BFF

Bruce Poon Tip and dalai lama

Sitting in the darkened amphitheater with flashes of light from smartphones occasionally lighting the room, I listen intently to the speaker on stage, hanging on every word.

It is April 2012, and the Future of Tourism conference is in Melbourne for one night only. Run by G Adventures and Planeterra, the evening conference highlights the role of sustainability in travel. The main speaker of the night is founder of the companies and entrepreneur extraordinaire Bruce Poon Tip, and he has the entire audience in the palm of his hand.

As the crowd pours out of the conference at the end, the excitement among attendees is palpable, and anyone that doubted their sustainable traits are surely complete converts by now. It is almost cult-like, and I don’t mind at all; I am just delighted to be in the same room as others who share my passion for sustainable travel.

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I never got to meet Bruce in person that night, but I did manage to catch him for a chat a few weeks ago when he was in Melbourne to promote his New York Times bestseller, Looptail: How One Company Changed the World by Reinventing Business. And yes, he is still inspiring to listen to.

looptail new york times

For those who don’t know of G Adventures, could you tell them a little about the company?

Sure, we’re an independent tour company specializing in authentic, sustainable travel experiences few other companies provide. So many people spend their one vacation in an all-inlcusive and miss everything there is about a place. They may never leave the compound or meet any of the local people and we’re trying to change that. We offer travellers an alternative to the resorts and cruises that seem to have become so popular. We’ve been working with some of our partners across the world for over 20 years; have amazing CEOs (Chief Experience Officers) and a great team who love what they do. We have about 2,000 employees in over 100 countries now, and offer around 15,000 small group trips on all seven continents.

What’s your most popular tour, or is that too hard to pin down considering you have so many tours on offer?

We have a top destination in every region. Obviously Thailand and China are big for us in Asia. Peru is big for us in Latin America, and safaris in Kenya and Tanzania are huge. Egypt traditionally has been a huge destination for us, but is not doing too well right now. And then in remote areas, we have ships in Antarctica and the Galapagos where offer very unique trips.

Who sources new trips; do you have scouts always on the lookout for new opportunities?

Yes, we have a whole team for that sole purpose. The team keeps growing year on year as our reach widens and new opportunities come up. They speak to people on the ground and report back on new tour ideas and possibilities.

g adventures

What has been your most challenging part of running the company?

There have been lots of challenges. I mean, we financed ourselves. [Thinks hard] There are two things: people understanding what we do, and people understanding what our true purpose is as a business. Because when we come to a region they need to know us. For example, two weeks ago we were in Columbia and I met with the Minister of Tourism and the doors were open for us. I met the CEO of Avianca, their international airline, too. The country’s open for us because we have a reputation there and we know we can have a positive impact on countries. Ten years ago we didn’t have that, and people didn’t understand who we were. They just thought “that’s just another travel company”. Once we started building relationships within other businesses and community projects everything became much easier.

I think the other challenge for us in our industry is greenwashing. With the extent of which we do things, and the true passion we have at what we do, companies that are completely profit-driven conglomerates greenwash their businesses, make people think that that’s what they do, and that they’re equal to us in every way. We spend so much time with so many people on the ground to make our company work every day. Everything is just disrespected when companies in our space greenwash their all-inclusive businesses when it doesn’t benefit local people at all. One company claims to be the largest all-inclusive company in the world, yet buys out small adventure companies and uses them to greenwash their brand. It’s unbelievable what’s going on.

Getting messages like this out to the consumer is important.

Yes, that’s why the book [Looptail] is really important because I want people to understand our story; where we come from. Our company comes from pure intention. Pure intention has a positive impact in the world using tourism as a vehicle. And I want people to know that. But that’s our biggest challenge in the industry. The consumer doesn’t know who owns what now or where their money is really going.

A lot of people don’t necessarily ask questions either, or they don’t want to know sometimes. And a lot of people are scared to talk about it. I just did a keynote on the way down here in LA at the National Tour Association for North America. It’s huge, about three thousand people. I spoke about all these things on stage. There were a lot of upset people. Even the organizers were very, very upset at the end of it. Well, they wanted me to talk about sustainable tourism, so you have to talk about what’s not sustainable. Like the all-inclusive resorts and the cruise companies. Cruises in particular are absolutely devastating some parts of the world.

Do G Adventures have small ship cruises?

Yeah, we do. We own ships in Antarctica. We have six ships in Galapagos. Our ships in the Galapagos take only 16 passengers; we have eight double cabins. They’re small. You know, twenty years from now anyone who’s ever been on a large cruise ship are never going to talk about the experience meeting those people. They’re never going to talk about the destination, that they ‘saw’ Jamaica. What they’re going to talk about is the extraordinary ship and the extraordinary food. They’ll never talk about having a meal with the local family. They’ll never talk about Jamaican culture, about what’s interesting about Jamaica. All they’ll think about is shopping, the things they bought, the extraordinary food, and the incredible ship. So the destination is not Jamaica. The destination is the ship. That’s not tourism.

G Adventures Small Cruise Ship, the MS Expedition
g adventures cruise ship

What have you found most rewarding about the business over the years?

There’s the foundation work we do with Planeterra. There’s the relief effort we managed to do that our passengers can trust us with, like when the Philippines earthquake happened. We got over $100,000 just sent to us from our travellers. It happened in 48 hours. We put out emails, a donation page and over $100,000 came in, $10 and $20 dollars at a time. That feels good. Then there’s our local living program, which we launched last year. Where we take people to different places for a week and you just live with local people. We have farms in Italy or wineries in Chile, or you can stay with a nomadic tribe in Mongolia, or an Amazonian tribe. And you can stay with your family and your kids. The best part about that is the community tourism aspect, which brings revenue to people who wouldn’t normally benefit from tourism.

I’m also motivated by very traditional things. Giving back feels good but what really excites me as a business person is innovation, speed to market, building a great company based on company culture; your brand. All those things really excite me; that’s what really motivates me, and is what I talk about a lot in Looptail. But, I have to say that all the good work our foundation [Planeterra] does is pretty exceptional.

What was it like meeting the Dalai Lama, and how did you manage to get him to do a foreword for Looptail?

I don’t know if you ever met him. It’s not like you sit down and have a chat. I had three audiences with him. The first one was very impersonal. I was whipped in, he signed a book for me, he flipped through the book and he kind of had a chuckle, looked to me very strangely and someone said something to him about who I was and gave him the briefing notes. He puts his hand on my forehead and says to keep up the good work.

Normally, those types of people don’t faze me; I’m not star person, but I was in awe in his presence. And it all happened so fast. I was rushed into a room, turned around and he was just sitting there acting like everything is normal. I can’t really describe it. I was just at a complete loss. It’s like you’re bathing in light around him.

The second meeting was a real audience with him. I got to exchange a few more words, and that’s when I asked him would he write a foreword for the book. I presented him with draft copies of the book. But you’re still in a room with so many other people, so it’s weird. Now, I’m not an emotional guy, but I start getting all emotional around him because I’m so passionate about what I want to say to him. Then I get choked up and frustrated, and I think, “am I going to cry right now?” And in my head I’m saying, “What the … what’s going on with me?” But I know I don’t have much time, so need to just get it out.

Bruce Poon Tip and dalai lama

So the third audience I had with him was a little bit more personal because he’d agreed to do the foreword. All of his people around him were completely against it. In the last meeting he was standing up; this one he was sitting down and I was sitting with him. We exchanged a few words and he was only interested in hearing about my experiences in Tibet. But we talked. He asked me when I was there and what we did there. When I told him we ran eye camps through Planeterra, he wanted to know what regions. When I told him he started to cry. He started getting emotional when I told him that at every camp we run we restore the vision of 300 Tibetans through cataract surgeries. We try to do three camps a year, so we do about a thousand eye restorations a year in Tibet. We do seventy percent women because women are less likely to be treated, and he was very emotional. We had a connection in a moment, but if I had that moment with you we’d probably be best friends forever.

If you and I are crying, talking about something we shared we’d remember each other forever. With him, after I’m like okay are we BFFs now? Is this where we exchange Facebook pages? Can I tweet you? But no, you just get rushed out. Although, I did feel like he had a mutual respect for me in that moment. And from that he actually confirmed he’d do the foreword, even though he had already agreed in writing, but he wanted to meet one more time to make certain, spiritually, I was for real, and especially because all of his people said no. So I’ve been asked to meet him one more time. He’s in Washington this week. I was supposed to be there and I was asked to come and see him, but I’m here instead.

Can I say you turned down the Dalai Lama to meet me?

Yes. Yes you can. I did turn down an audience with the Dalai Lama because I promised the book publishers I would be in Australia this week. But I’ll probably meet with him again in the next couple of months; I want to discuss an idea I have for a world congress with him, and I want him to come speak at it.

You’re really busy; always travelling. I know you’ve got kids, how do you take time out?

You know, I feel like I have a lot of time off. I do. I am busy. I’m busier than the average person. At this stage, though, it’s so much easier for me. My kids are ten and twelve so need me around more. They want me to attend their dance recitals, sporting events and all their concerts, and I never miss anything. I’ve got an offer here to be on TV this weekend, but my daughter’s having her first father and daughter dance at school and I promised to go. I can’t miss it for the world. So there’s never two questions in my mind, there’s no grey areas. They either have to arrange to videotape TV appearances, or I can’t do them.

It’s often hard to get the balance right if you’re running a business and have kids, but you seem to be doing OK.

Yeah, but it’s only now that I’m able to do that. I’m kind of spoiled; I have people who run the company now.  But in my first ten, fifteen years in the company I didn’t have that freedom. I travelled all over the place but, it’s been much easier for me in the last three or four years. That said, when you own a business and you’re an entrepreneur, it comes in ebbs and flows. We’re about to make some serious changes in the business in terms of development, new products, acquisition of new businesses, and I’m prepared to get right back into business for a period of time. But I love it. I love what I do, and when you love what you do you never work a day in your life. I say that to my people all the time so I don’t feel like I do work. I just love what I do.

If you’d like to know more about Bruce’s book, check out the Looptail website, or even better, come back here next week to read the book review and win a copy of your own!

If you’ve enjoyed this interview with Bruce Poon Tip, you may enjoy these articles:
~ What is Sustainable Travel?
~ What is Responsible Travel?
~ Ben Keene, Tribewanted Co-Founder: Interview with an Ecotourism Pioneer
~ Interview with an Ecotourism Pioneer: Bulent Saraloglu in Turkey
~ Universal Standards for Sustainable Destinations – Coming Soon!
~ Planet, People, Peace: International Conference on Sustainable Tourism Gathers in Costa Rica

6 Comments

  1. Pingback: EcoTraveller Interviews Bruce - Looptail - How One Company Changed the World by Reinventing Business

  2. You have such a have such a brilliant blog. Thanks for all your efforts, I’m excited to keep up to date with all your adventures.

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