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Road to riches

Travel entrepreneur mixes business with philanthropy

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How does a recent tourism grad return from a backpacking trip in Asia with no money and turn this experience into a $200-million business?

This is what travel entrepreneur Bruce Poon Tip, founder of Toronto-based G Adventures, outlines in his inspirational business book.

Poon Tip, now 46, is clearly a unique character -- how many business tycoons are admirers of the Dalai Lama? -- and his company's consistent success, even during the global downturn, indicates that this blend of culture, community and karma works for G Adventures.

That said, Looptail can be fairly self-indulgent at times, as Poon Tip describes the successes of the company while making sure the reader understands that all material decisions are his.

Poon Tip's parents moved their nine-person family from Trinidad in 1970 to provide their kids with the opportunity to be anything they wanted to be.

Young Bruce's entrepreneurial bent first became evident during his first job as a paper carrier. By the age of 12, he was managing multiple routes around Calgary and subcontracting the routes to younger carriers.

Even as a student, he was constantly looking to take advantage of gaps in the marketplace. He won a Junior Achievement award by selling his product (wool bookmarks) through retail drug stores rather than the typical door-to-door method.

After graduating college, he noted in his travels that there were typically two types of vacation options: back-to-basics backpacking, or fancy packaged tours in North American-style hotels and air-conditioned tour buses.

In 1990, maxing out his credit cards, and borrowing a further $23,000, he founded G Adventures in Toronto with the motto "Changing travel through fearless innovation."

Unlike most travel companies at the time, which utilized all-inclusive resorts and Western-style adventures (and took 95 per cent of the proceeds out of the local economies), G Adventures' focus was to bridge the gap between mainstream travel and backpacking by arranging trips where hospitality and adventure were provided by the local community and local owners.

Poon Tip has grown G Adventures into a truly global company with 1,000-plus adventure tours worldwide, serving more than 100,000 travellers annually. He has increased his sales in most years by a staggering 30 to 50 per cent, even during the global economic crisis.

G Adventures' business model is based on a concept the Poon Tip describes as "looptail." This is a blend of socially responsible concepts, including getting back what you put in, creating meaningful connections, paying it forward, and striving for happiness and freedom in the workplace.

While these concepts may seem unsettling to the average CEO, Poon Tip believes they are what makes G Adventures so successful and why the company can boast a 99 per cent customer satisfaction rate and employee turnover of only five per cent in an industry that averages 35 per cent.

Poon Tip tries to write an inspirational book blending his own beliefs with that of the Dalai Lama, whom he has long admired, and business lessons learned from innovators such as Disney.

G Adventures was revolutionary in the travel industry by developing a focus on community tourism, providing travel guarantees and allowing customers lifetime deposits.

The company also strives for a full staff buy-in to its core values and further seeks to develop a balance between happiness, freedom and productivity.

However, while this is the goal of the CEO, it is not clear if this message makes its way to the rank-and-file of the company's almost 2,000 employees around the world.

What is clear is that the company's staff and customers do consistently band together to assist underprivileged and devastated communities.

Can companies expect to experience high double-digit growth by replicating Poon Tip's approach? Probably not. However, can entrepreneurs relate to his by-the-gut systems and "all-in" approach? Absolutely.

As Poon Tip says, "Entrepreneurs are the artists of the business community."

Stuart Henrickson is the I.H. Asper executive director for entrepreneurship at the University of Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 28, 2013 A1

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