Big Interview: G Adventures founder Bruce Poon Tip

Big Interview: G Adventures founder Bruce Poon Tip

The founder of the adventure travel specialist tells Robin Searle he believes the sector is ripe to emulate cruising by becoming more mainstream and working closer with the trade

A comparison between the cruise and adventure travel sectors might not necessarily strike you as an obvious one to make. But for an agent community that has embraced cruising with unprecedented returns in the past decade, it is a comparison worth considering.

Unconvinced? Try a quick check list.

Misperceptions about customer demographics? Check. Confusion over price points? Check. Consumer caution over the complexity of product? A need for expert advice? A golden opportunity for the trade? Check, check, check.

For Bruce Poon Tip, founder of adventure travel specialist G Adventures, his own sector and big-ship cruising may be poles apart in one sense. But he is convinced not only that the adventure sector has matured sufficiently to become a mainstream choice but also that the trade is ready to embrace it and start realising its full earning potential. Sound familiar?

Under Poon Tip’s leadership, G Adventures’ UK team is courting the trade like never before, with a distribution network in the UK bolstered in recent months with the introduction of commercial relationships with mainstream powerhouses including Advantage Travel Partnership, The Travel Network Group, Global Travel Group and Barrhead Travel.

The company also linked up with Travel Weekly to find a Responsible Travel Ambassador from the agent community.

“We don’t have a simple product to sell, which is why the travel professional has such an important part to play, and why we are convinced that the time is right to develop those relationships even further,” he says.

“We know where we are in the food chain. We are the one in 50. The first 49 customers will want a resort or a cruise, but the 50th will want something different, and that’s where we come in.

“Over the past five years, we’ve seen a real push into the mainstream and a sharp increase in the number of first-time adventure travellers, with one or two on every trip.”

He adds: “Our product is land-only, so it fits for the agent selling air, and we continually encourage travellers to go back to their agents as they are the ones who can best prepare them to be ready for their trips.”

Echoing cruise lines’ perennial calls to match the right cruise with the right customer, Poon Tip says there is nothing worse than having “an ill-prepared traveller on day one who doesn’t really understand what they’ve booked”.

Dispelling myths

G Adventures currently takes 110,000 passengers on small‑group tours each year, with 70% booking either through a wholesaler or an agent. In the UK, that figure rises to 80%.

Poon Tip admits there is still plenty of work to do to dispel myths about the sector, but insists that the UK’s “conscious and aware shoppers” are increasingly looking for a more sustainable and rewarding holiday option.

He says: “What we offer is not volun-tourism. But it is more purpose-driven, with an emphasis on social and sustainable elements, and we are focusing on social enterprise elements of what we do.

“The word adventure is overused and can be misleading, but we offer eight types of tours, ranging from the ‘adventure wading pool’ up to more challenging options.

“There is still a misconception that adventure travel is only for the young, but the average age of customers on our tours is 38 and on some tours it’s 42. Every year we are getting younger and older (customers), so we are seeing growth at both ends.”

Speaking to Poon Tip shortly after G Adventures celebrated its 25th birthday in its home city of Toronto, there are no signs of him or the company he founded slowing up.

The introduction of a tie-up with National Geographic, state-of-the-art bespoke tour vehicles in Africa and a small-vessel adventure river cruise programme were among the announcements made during the celebrations in October.vAnd those new products were just the latest in a line of new projects including sustainable local living programmes, train adventures and consultation agreements with national governments that have been unveiled in recent years.

“It’s important for us to show we still have a lot of gas in the tank and we aren’t ready to be put out to pasture just yet,” he says. “Working with this group of people inspires me to work harder now than I did 10 years ago.

“We want the business to be a success but the key motivation isn’t necessarily financial anymore.”

Taking a lead

Returning to the comparison with the cruise sector, does Poon Tip believe there is room for the type of collaboration between operators that has been a notable element of cruising’s growth?

“We’re too busy trying to beat our competitors to chat with them, and it’s not like it was 10 years ago when I knew the guys from Explore and Exodus and would see them regularly,” he says.

“But we do see the value in working with partners and associations like Atta (Adventure Travel Trade Association) in Seattle to spread the word.

“Our industry was disrupted by Tui when they corralled so many companies in our space, and that took some of the soul out of the industry, but I have no doubt that consumers are ready to embrace what we are trying to achieve.”

Poon Tip adds: “We just want to ensure we continue to innovate and take the lead. Collectively, I believe the people in this company and the partners we work with are capable of extraordinary things.”

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