Wednesday,  April 24, 2019  8:45 pm

TRAVELHOTNEWS PROFILE: BRUCE POON TIP, CEO OF G.A.P ADVENTURES

05-26-2008 

Adventure travel mogul and self-professed ‘shy’ guy incorporates compassion into his business
Charmaine Pang

Jeff Russill, Director of Product and Operations; Sean Benner, Senior Operations & Product Manager – Americas; Bruce Poon Tip, CEO and Founder; Frank Schuran - Vice President of Product & Operations; Saul Mandel - COO
This month, TRAVELHotNews.com had the rare opportunity to meet with Bruce Poon Tip, the CEO and founder of G.A.P Adventures at his company’s global headquarters in Toronto. 

A true entrepreneur, Poon Tip started G.A.P Adventures in 1990 as a 22 year-old with “all these dreams and $800 in my pocket…I just wanted to take over the world”. He financed the company with his meagre savings and a handful of credit cards, as banks were reluctant to loan business money to someone so young.
 
“The name G.A.P Adventures [short for ‘Great Adventure People’] comes from a gap in the market between the mainstream kind of traveller, between the traditional market and the backpacker.”

Backpacking was only the beginning

Taking over the world
When Poon Tip first decided he wanted to go backpacking, at the time, “the only choices were a coach tour cruise or a resort – pretty standard stuff – or I would have to do it myself. So that’s where the name came from. There was this gap in the market between that, between people who wanted a grassroots type of experience and who didn’t want that package tour kind of feel.”

“Like any kind of business, good ideas are born out of your own experience,  said Poon Tip. Through his first backpacking trip, “I met a lot of people along the way and met lots of people had the same sort of challenges and issues, so that’s how the ideas were formed.”

“But of course building the business or practices around [that initial idea] takes a different type of skill and different type of tenacity,” he said. “In 1990, there was no internet, there was no Google, there weren’t even any fax machines so it was a very different world in terms of starting a business, doing research and developing new programs and new tours.”

International and worldwide after just 3 years

In 1993, G.A.P Adventures began selling their product internationally. “It was considered quite revolutionary at the time to be exporting tourism. We had a unique enough product and strong enough brand, something so different in tourism that we could export it to other countries. So that was really the key to our success. It’s the difference between us and other small travel companies – we’re international and worldwide.”

Immigrating to Calgary in…February?

Port of Spain, Trinidad
Bruce Poon Tip was born in Trinidad to a Chinese father and a Chinese-Venezuelan Spanish mother. When he was six, the family immigrated to Calgary. “We have a very traditional kind of immigrant story, we came here through a struggle; I come from seven children. We came [to Canada] with my parents wanting a better life for their family like everyone else who comes to Canada does.”
 
“Our added challenge, of course, was coming from an island located on the equator to Calgary in February,” laughs Poon Tip, who is the second-youngest of seven siblings – he has three sisters and three brothers each, who all live in Canada, as do his parents. The rest of Poon Tip’s family is back home in Trinidad.
 
Entrepreneurial beginnings

One of his first businesses involved breeding prizewinning Dutch rabbits
He began his career as an entrepreneur fairly early. “I had my first business when I was 12 and I was in Junior Achievement when I was 14 and won the gold medal for Alberta through a bookmark business that I had.”

What he glosses over is that he ran two paper routes and subcontracted them to younger kids in the neighbourhood, while at the same time owning and breeding prize-winning rabbits, also writing a book about rabbits that he sold to pet stores in Calgary.

At the age of 16, he got a job at Denny’s and was fired after two weeks. After that, he says, “I got a job literally the same day after I got fired, at McDonalds. I got fired during the training program. I tell that story only because it was a catalyst.”

He jokingly labels himself as having a “general bad attitude, I thought I could do everything better. I think I was just a rotten kid actually…uncoachable,” he laughs.

“The year before that I won a gold medal for entrepreneurship then the next year I get fired from 2 jobs, which was fairly traumatic for a 16 year-old. But it was also the catalyst for what I became.”

Business school dropout

Like many entrepreneurs before him, Poon Tip went to business school, but ended up dropping out to pursue his interests and build his company from the ground up.

Today, when asked what he does in his own words, Poon Tip replies, “Generally, my life has become very odd in recent years. I always tell people that I talk for a living because it seems that’s what I do. If I’m not speaking to people in my office I’m speaking to [journalists] or speaking to audiences.”

It was at one such speaking engagement that an ‘incident’ happened.  Poon Tip was speaking to a group of MBA students at an Ontario university, whereby he appeared to have motivated and inspired some of them to follow his path. “Four people dropped out of school and showed up at our offices on the [next] Monday saying they wanted to be in business.”

Today, he continues to spend most of his time doing public speaking, “at one point close to 70 engagements a year. Now I’m down to about 50 or 60 now.”

On entrepreneurship in Canada

Bruce Poon Tip won the Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2002 and 2006, in the Hospitality and Tourism field
Poon Tip is a very opinionated man, and he’s not one to mince words when speaking about his beliefs, especially when it comes to the Canadian business environment in light of the path he took to achieve his and his company’s success.

“I have a lot of opinions about Canada, entrepreneurship and business in general, especially since that I know that through my path and developing my business and drive, to what we’ve become as a company, it’s just been very…”, he trails off. “I’ve always had strong opinions about that, which makes it interesting for people when I’m at speaking engagements.” 

“I’m a firm believer that entrepreneurs are born, not made. It’s a difficult challenge everywhere for our business schools and education systems to pinpoint entrepreneurs at young ages and give them the right environment to develop. Because most entrepreneurs that are successful who are Canadian become successful outside of Canada, which is sad but true because the environment of business doesn’t support them here.”

Cultural identity – growing up as an “island”

TRAVELHotNews.com asked Poon Tip about his unique perspective, having been born in Trinidad and raised in Calgary by Chinese-Spanish parents. Poon Tip says his parents spoke English to him and his siblings, “so none of us speak Chinese, unfortunately. I say I have no fixed background because I’m from Trinidad and consider myself from there.”

“Having a Chinese background [and] growing up Asian in a country like Canada, you have no role models. You never see your image on TV, there’s no one that’s kind of your role model and so you kind of grow up as an island. You’re in very much in your own world and your own space, you’re self-motivated.”

Awards galore

Second from left, accepting the Chinese Canadian Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2007
He went on to describe his emotions and feelings about having received the Chinese Canadian Entrepreneur of the Year award. “I was very thrilled by that because I felt somewhat embraced by a community that I felt alienated from in the past, so…when I was approached [about the award] I was quite overwhelmed by it honestly.”

“At first I was quite nervous, because I don’t speak Chinese, and I thought, well, how am I going to fit in with this group when I can’t and don’t speak the language. I’ve probably been to China more than any of them have, but that’s beside the point,” he quips.

“And the time came, as it got closer, I was just so embraced by the community and given so much respect just right off the top, right from the start. It was very overwhelming and a very emotional time, because it was also a celebration for my parents.”

“They’re the ones who did all the sacrificing. They’re the ones who made a huge decision to leave a comfortable home and a relatively comfortable existence, to better the lives of their children and create opportunities. I just took advantage of [the opportunities they provided me].”

At top right, winning the New Pioneers Award in 2007
In 2007, he also won the New Pioneers Award in the Entrepreneurship category, which recognizes Canadian immigrants and their achievements. “That was also very touching for my parents. I never would have accepted that award myself. I would just prefer not to be nominated. But for my parents, it’s everything.”

Providing resources to the next generation

Poon Tip is also working with the Association of Chinese Canadian Entrepreneurs to mentor and provide resources for young Chinese Canadians.

He reiterates that the Chinese Canadian Entrepreneur of the Year award was something he accepted with heartfelt gratitude, because the Chinese Canadian community “really valued my contribution and anything I could offer to the community in terms of advice and mentorship to young entrepreneurs and young immigrants, and it was just a great, great thing.”

“I’m so happy to be a representative of [the whole community] and be an inspiration. And I’ve always been sore about it, I guess, because I’ve never had [a mentor to look up to]. And I mention it all the time. How I never had those mentors or how I wish I had someone to bounce stuff off of, outside of my family and parents of course.”

Poon Tip doesn’t have any regrets, though; he says when looking back and “learning to function as an island, I don’t know if necessarily that’s a bad thing. When you’re trying to accomplish what I’ve done, there are a lot of times when you have to follow your gut and it’s not necessarily based in reality, and sometimes it’s hard [to get others to support your instincts].”

Family adventures

Bruce with his wife Roula and their two daughters
Ever the adventurer, Poon Tip’s marriage was not the traditional church-bound ceremony; he said his vows in the Amazon. He and his wife Roula have two daughters, aged 4 and 6. When asked if the girls travel with him, he notes that “my [eldest] daughter went on 20 flights before she turned one. So they’re used to travelling.”

Last year, he and his family spent most of the year in Europe, summered in Greece, and also travelled to Australia. “I try to incorporate them as much as I can but now that they’re reaching school age, I’ve actually had some complaints from their school, I have to be a bit more careful,” he says good-naturedly.

He’s also close to his immediate family, who are all in Canada; one brother is in Vancouver and two sisters are in Toronto; everyone else resides back in Calgary. “All of my siblings are all over the place, from human resources to social work and Canada Post. No one is an entrepreneur though, I’m definitely the ‘freak’ of the family.”

“I’ve also always questioned if I was adopted, because our family’s very risk-averse compared to me. Something happened for sure,” he says.

If he didn’t work in the travel industry…

In Patagonia
When asked what he’d be doing if he weren’t in the travel industry, Poon Tip says he’d be working in the music industry. “I’d probably start a record label and promote some artistic endeavour like music. I was going to start a record label in 1990…but Nirvana kind of confused me”.

Pondering over the question further, for once, Poon Tip seems stumped. “But if I [hadn’t founded] G.A.P…It’s very difficult to say. If I had my choice I’d say I’d do something in music. But knowing me I’d probably be in trouble somewhere. I know I can’t work within the confines of a bigger corporation – I wouldn’t be doing that.”

Poon Tip has never worked for anyone else besides himself, “so I don’t even know what it’s like [to work for someone else], but I’d imagine it’s horrible,” he smiles.

Daily motivation

Some of the people that make G.A.P "great"
When asked what fuels him on a daily basis, he replies, “I think the thing that motivates me the most is the people who work for me now, the people who make my company great. A lot of people who work for me are very committed and dedicated and work very hard, and it’s my greater responsibility to take their careers in my hands, to create opportunities, to create a great place to work, that’s quite exciting for me.”
 
 “I’m a builder by nature. I enjoy the idea of building business. I never walk to work. I run to work. I love working, I love what I do. I can’t say that I need to motivate myself. I’m motivated by life. I love what I do, my family, my kids, just getting up, getting stuff done.”

“Every day is an opportunity to get [something] done. I like to know that I’ve made a difference on some level to someone or something or somebody,” he concludes.

Thoughts on leadership

Another daily goal for Poon Tip is to “work on becoming a better leader every day. I study leadership a lot, and so my job these days is one of leadership. That has evolved and changed as we’ve grown; we have about 600 employees around the world, probably about 200 of them I’ve never met.”

Poon Tip has had to learn how to change his leadership style to inspire his employees “to achieve greatness…to achieve their greatest potential when [they’ve] never really met [me].”

“It’s totally a different type of leadership and it’s something I never signed up for. I’m [an effective leader] when we’re all in the same room and I get to lead by example. You see me working hard, so you work hard. That comes very easily for me.”

“I give people a lot of confidence to execute ideas and plans that they have, and…I do very little work,” he laughs. “I spend a lot of time troubleshooting, problem solving, all those kinds of standard corny answers. But it’s true.”

What you might not know…

In Chile, at the Torres del Paine...alone
Some people might be surprised to learn that the CEO and founder of G.A.P Adventures is “actually quite a little bit introverted. I’m very solitary. And quite shy. Some people don’t think that. Or [that I’m] quiet.”

“I always say I’m social for a living. When it comes to time outside of work, I’m actually quite solitary, and quite independent, and quite a loner. People never believe it though. They’ll say, ‘Oh, yeah right, Bruce is a loner. Whatever!’”

It’s something that people will “never understand”, he adds. “When I get my time off, I want to go somewhere as remote as possible. You’ll find me in the deserts of Mongolia by myself. Or Tibet, or countries like Belize, anywhere that’s very remote and anonymous.”

Compassion and business can go together

Poon Tip adds that he’s an “extremely compassionate person. And a lot of people don’t believe it, that compassion and business go together. Compassion is a big part of business – in my world anyway. It’s there in all aspects of my life, not just running a business.”

Eating and sleeping: wastes of time

"Don't forget to eat!" is something Poon Tip must be reminded about at least once a week
With a 24-hour on-the-go schedule, Poon Tip works efficiently. He thinks that eating and sleeping are wastes of time. “If I could have that time back I could learn Japanese or something,” he quips. “I get very frustrated at night when I have to go to sleep, [but I get tired] so I have to.”

He finds eating “disruptive” to his day, instead saying, “My strength has always been my ability to prioritize and be focused. And when you have distractions like that they become irritants.” Poon Tip says that at least once a week, he must be reminded by his assistant to eat his lunch; she even has an alarm that prompts her to ask him, “Have you eaten yet?”

Balancing work and life

Poon Tip makes it a point to play basketball and volleyball at least three times a week, as well as practicing Bikram yoga three times a week, as these activities “are important as anything else. Those are extremely [fundamental] for my ability to do my job.” He is also a season ticket holder for both the Toronto Raptors and the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Regrets?

TRAVELHotNews.com asked Poon Tip if he had any regrets about what he’s done with G.A.P Adventures. He answers that he probably would have added more inbound Canada programs and more inbound North America programs, but on the whole, he doesn’t regret any major decisions he’s made.

“Everybody makes mistakes and I’m not one to be down on mistakes. [The cliché] is that it gives you an opportunity to learn, but like everyone, I made a ton of them. I don’t want to sound pretentious, though. I think my life is filled with mistakes! I make them on a daily basis.”

The Planeterra foundation assists communities all over the world; one project will bring drinking water closer to Nepalese villages
“I regret not starting my foundation sooner, Planeterra [it was founded in 2003]. We tried initially to partnership with various NGOs and it became quite apparent that my level of thinking and way of thinking was quite different to the nonprofit world. I would have done that a bit sooner.”

Greatest achievements

Poon Tip has won numerous awards for himself and his company over the years recognizing his entrepreneurship, leadership style, forward thinking in green and sustainable travel, among others.

When TRAVELHotNews.com asked him to reflect on his greatest achievements, he says without pause, “My greatest achievements are still to come I’m sure.”

He feels pride in the work and attention his company receives regarding ethical business practices, but one of the best things he’s done is his work with the Planeterra foundation and the impact it has had on people’s lives through it. 

An information board at G.A.P's Toronto head office
“I don’t think of my company as exceptional”

At the same time, he is humble and down to earth. “I don’t think of my day as exceptional. I don’t think of my company as exceptional. Because I’m constantly trying to get better. Every day, how [the company] can get stronger, faster, better.”

“My proudest moment is when I actually get a chance to talk about it. When people I reach out to are listening, and I actually reflect on what we’ve done and what we do, and I realize what a great company we have, and it gives me that opportunity to reflect, because otherwise, my life is very unremarkable, day to day.”

A message for the industry

At the conclusion of the interview, TRAVELHotNews.com asked Poon Tip if there was an important message he wished to send to the travel industry about himself or about his company. 

“I would like to get across a lot about our sustainable tourism packages. It’s my goal to raise the bar across the travel industry industry about what we do, with our foundation work and giving back.”

He says he is “thrilled” to see the world changing in a more sustainable, eco-friendly path over the last few years with the rise of climate change and global warming issues. He adds that there is a “general spirit of giving and significant change that’s happening in the general population which will internally change our industry.”

Sustainability is the key for the future

In Guyana: envisioning a greener future
Poon Tip hopes that more companies and organizations look towards G.A.P Adventures and other companies like it, to investigate corporate social responsibility and define how they give back to the communities impacted by their travel product.

“I hope [other travel companies] get a greater sense of that kind of community that’s needed for tourism to succeed in the future. Sustainability is going to be the key for the future.”

“The travel industry is really being pinpointed as a major offender of the global warming issue, and I think that a lot of travel agents and travel [companies] are sort of burying their heads in the sand or trying to put together a strategy that’s kind of half-hearted… [such as saying] ‘Let’s donate to the WWF and use the panda logo, or use carbon credits’, but not intrinsically changing the way they do things.

He hopes that trend passes, but adds that he doesn’t like to be “too critical. I like to celebrate victories, small wins. And [there are] victories in that area. Just the whole mindset of mankind right now towards giving, and responsible giving, and how to spend responsibly, and it’s just a wonderful, it’s a great thing. So we have to celebrate those kinds of victories.”
 
TRAVELHotNews.com would like to thank Bruce Poon Tip for his cooperation with this interview and Kira Zack for her assistance.

Indicator...