The future according to Bruce Poon Tip

In tumultuous times, with the world economy seemingly teetering on disaster and upheaval coursing across the planet, Bruce Poon Tip’s mind leaps forward. While so many others are ruminating on the problems of today, the founder of GAP Adventures is focused on the decades ahead as he thinks about decisions that need to be made for Earth circa 2031 or so.

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Bruce Poon Tip will speak Tuesday at the Future of Tourism Conference in Toronto. (Photo courtesy of GAP Adventures)

Poon Tip, leader of one of the most successful travel companies in the world and a Canadian triumph, is constantly working for bigger goals. Hence this remarkable statement about his company: “We haven’t even begun doing what I want to do.”

Consider that GAP employs more than 1,350 people globally, is the leading adventure company in the world and is a model of good corporate citizenship, and you have to wonder what Poon Tip has up his iPhone’s sleeve. On Tuesday, we will find out some of his plans, including details of GAP’s first North American tour offering.

“The Future of Tourism” conference at Toronto’s Winter Garden Theatre (189 Yonge Street) isn’t about introducing products, however. Nor is it about reveling in GAP’s success. Poon Tip is gathering industry leaders on World Tourism Day to discuss what he believes is the most important issue for the trade: How to properly deal with the anticipated boom in business that will take place in the next decade.

Despite the economic turmoil and the retrenching of pocket books in the U.S. and elsewhere, Poon Tip says travel is expected to double by 2025 and the industry needs to be ready for the growth.

“We’re going to talk about how business models and companies have to change in order to be sustainable,” he said in a phone conversation the other day. “We see extreme hot spots that aren’t prepared for it or don’t have the infrastructure to support the growth.”

He suggested some places like China, where more and more western tourists will enter in coming years, will quadruple in terms of their visitor numbers. India and southeast Asian countries such as Cambodia are other spots he predicts will see tremendous tourism growth. Plus, maintaining iconic sites such as the Galapagos Islands and Egyptian pyramids is crucial for the industry, Poon Tip added.

GAP has been at the head of sustainability initiatives in the industry for years, in part because its adventure-seeking clientele tends to be more environmentally conscious than travellers who choose traditional vacations. Poon Tip, though, wants the rest of the industry to recognize the vital importance of maintaining the health and support systems of all destinations.

“We need to engage the bigger companies. That’s why we have some of them coming to this event,” he said. “This is about changing their business model and showing them that putting sustainability in place is a key for the future of the industry. Being in the tourism business, I want to make sure the places people are travelling to now will be around in 30 or 40 years.”

Poon Tip said he and his company “are about to create a lot of new disruptive integration” on Tuesday. What that means is a bit mysterious but given the company’s focus on creating adventures that do as little harm to the planet as possible, you can’t help but get a sense that Poon Tip is going to challenge the industry to focus on the environment even though he said his message “is not about eco-tourism; that’s the wrong way to look at it.”

“The future of tourism is about the consumer and they’re going to become more savvy in terms of their travel choices,” the Trinidadian-born, Calgary-raised entrepreneur said. “Ultimately, we create products based on demand. As we have seen demand for hybrid cars and alternative energies for automobiles grow, such demand will move onto travel. Consumers will demand a more sustainable product. Where they stay and who they travel with will be based on how those companies practice.”

What he advocates may not win over a lot of people in the industry, especially those faced with hard financial times. Yet, there’s no denying Poon Tip is someone who should be heard. While most others in the tourism business were reeling in the midst of the Great Recession, GAP was growing at a 40 percent rate and has expanded by double-digits each year since it began in 1990.

Those early days are well documented. Poon Tip maxed out credit cards as he feverishly tried to fill a niche between backpacking and traditional hotel travel. He said he took big chances and the first eight years were arduous. GAP’s “alpha mentality of controlling the consumer experience” meant owning its equipment and hiring its own guides when other tour operators would outsource such work and infrastructure.

“We own ships in Antarctica. We have six ships in Galapagos. We were opening offices and running all our tours with our own people. No one ever did that before,” he said.

His company is so successful that Poon Tip said he is presented with lucrative buyout offers on a weekly basis. One recent suitor came with a deal “worth 10s of millions of dollars.” Poon Tip wasn’t going to take it. He’s only 44 and retirement isn’t here yet. “I live my life every day like it’s going to be my last and you need that in order to get a sense of urgency.”

He’s been named Canada’s Entrepreneur of the Year and one of Canada’s 100 Leaders of Tomorrow, and he could walk away except for the fact the thought of doing more consumes him. For those in the travel industry and those of us who travel the world, Poon Tip’s ambitions now seem focused on preserving as much of the planet as he can. In that context, his continued success is something we should all be rooting for.

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One Comment to “The future according to Bruce Poon Tip”

  1. Certainly the travel industry will be on its best moment in the near future. Even when people think the current economy crisis will be stopping many of those travelers still the accessibility for new travelers will be opening new doors to discover new countries and cultures.

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