Bruce Poon Tip is the founder and managing director of G Adventures, one of the largest adventure travel companies in the world.
Recently G Adventures managed to win a grant from the Inter-American Development Bank to create tours in impoverished areas and lift economic standards. But to get the loan, his company had to go through two years of scrutiny over the company’s culture. He spoke to SmartCompany about the grant, and the experience of having his company’s iconic culture investigated.
So can you describe the type of project you’re working on?
We’ve launched a development with the IDB, a contract to give us $1.3 million to develop tourism projects around Latin America. This is the first time the IDB has worked with an international private organisation, the first time they’ve done something like this.
We’ve been working to make this deal, and we’ve had to show that we’ve gone from being just a company to being a social enterprise as well. Because this is a grant, it’s not a loan. None of these international organisations like the IDB have worked with private sector companies before; they’re only working with consultants and bailing out countries. They’re not used to working with private companies, so it’s kind of a controversial move.
What’s the end goal here? What’s the purpose of the project?
It’s my vision that this project actually forms a type of wealth redistribution, because the plan is to have these projects support local communities. So instead of donating money to a charity to get rid of your guilty, you go on holiday. That’s the vision of my business.
This IDB relationship is the next phase to that. What we’re doing is running projects that are sustainable and long term, and run by the communities. So we’re working on projects like a coffee farm that runs a day lunch and tour, or a restaurant in Peru that is going to be run through the community. Our groups can come in and work at these restaurants. It’s a big deal.
So it hasn’t been done before?
They’ve tried this before, but they’ve been failures because they can’t get the traffic to make it work. There are plenty of projects run by consultants, like in Haiti. We were offered money to work in Haiti, but I had to decline, because…I had to say that tourists didn’t go to Haiti before the big earthquake. I didn’t know what us getting money was going to do. Haiti has a long-term road to creating sustainable tourism platforms. It can be done, but it’s long term.
So that’s what we’re doing here, and it’s a little different to what we’ve been doing.
You say this whole process taught you a lot – what did you learn in respect to your business?
I’ve really learned a lot about the importance of company culture. In the two years of coming up with the idea and approaching the IDB, how they examined our business as a whole as opposed to just me as a person, it’s definitely been interesting. They are very careful and went through our whole organisation.
What attracted them was our culture. They saw a unique company, and they wanted to see that before they opened discussions.
I had to sell them on the whole culture of enterprise, and investing in that enterprise and making it clear that this is what we were about. We really had to convince them.
Could you describe some of the things that happened?
There was a moment when, I mean, in any business you lose employees. They move on or have moved in the organisation. But that’s a massive red flag for the people watching us. They’re asking questions like, why can’t we deal with that person anymore, or what are they doing now? It’s interesting because they’re just not used to the way that works.
That was really…people would never think that something like culture would be critical to the closing of a deal. But here, it was everything. They wanted to know that whenever they speak to anyone at G Adventures, that they believe in what they’re doing. They believe in causes, and a lot of companies don’t necessarily have that.
How long was the IDB involved?
It was just over a two year period that a lot of people were involved. They did a lot of their own studies and even had people on the ground. We’ve developed projects and sold them, and I showed them as examples of us being a social enterprise. And they had people on the ground asking, how was it working with people in G Adventures?
So they checked out our projects. They were happy, couldn’t believe what they found, and it really opened the door. We were able to get the money because of that.
If this takes off, is it something you’ll continue pursuing for a while?
Oh for sure. The IDB is seeing this as an innovative step for all institutions to do things globally, to study and see how this could be effective and lift people out of poverty. If they were doing this with consultants, it’d cost $20 million. We’re doing it for $1.3 million.