Best selling author casts spell over business conference

Members of the staff and board of the Great Spirit Circle Trail get into the spirit with entrepreneur and reluctant bestselling author Bruce Poon Tip following the keynote speaker’s remarks at the GSCT 9th Annual Business Tourism Conference at the Manitoulin Hotel and Conference Centre in Little Current.

Regales audience with how he took a business from garage apartment to Fortune 500

LITTLE CURRENT—Author Bruce Poon Tip wrote his first book (and by his own impassioned vow only book) after firing two ghost writers. “They couldn’t seem to find my voice,” he said.

Mr. Poon Tip had been courted (maybe badgered is more appropriate a term) by numerous publishing houses to write a business book on how he took his tiny Canadian adventure travel company, G Adventures, from its humble beginnings in his apartment in a converted garage, and using nothing but credit cards and a boundless personal well of energy, drive, integrity, compassion, enthusiasm and a vision of a different way of doing business, to turn it into the world’s premier adventure travel company with receipts of over $300 million.

The resulting book is the only Canadian business book in history to rise to number four on the New York Times best seller list (six weeks no less) and the only business book to date with an endorsement/forward from the Dali Lama himself. “And I am not even a Buddhist,” quipped Mr. Poon Tip.

Mr. Poon Tip’s book is entitled ‘Looptail: How One Company Changed the World by Reinventing Business’ and his talk centred not on his book per se, but on the central idea that businesses today need to understand the underlying truth of the products they are selling. The circled G that is his company’s logo is the looptail of which he writes. His company logo is actually GO. “The translation of the Dali Lama’s name in English is actually ‘Great Ocean’,” he explained. “That is what the GO that makes up the looptail actually stands for, Great Ocean.”

He related a story of how he inadvertently found himself smuggling a forbidden biography of the Dali Lama’s life into a still virulently Communist China in 1997.

He had picked up the book at book exchange in a tourist hostel while he was waiting for his travel papers to arrive. Luckily the book was tucked away in his un-searched day bag and not his minutely searched luggage as he later left the country. But for a serendipitous decision to carry the book right to hand, Mr. Poon Tip might have wound up languishing for years in a Chinese prison rather than the head of a major corporation. As a person of Chinese descent, albeit several generations removed by way of Trinidad, he would have been seen as guilty of treason.

Mr. Poon Tip did pass through the search unscathed, complete with pictures of the Chinese guards eagerly posing with him in a photo op. But he was returning to a company on the very verge of bankruptcy. He was forced to let go most of his workforce, many had already jumped ship when their paycheques had bounced, but the lean mean remainder were those who believed in the company and shared its vision of responsible tourism—empowering the well being of local people.

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Author Bruce Poon Tip signs books and shares a laugh with Andre Morriseau of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business.

Tourism traditionally has developed along the model of providing travellers with an experience that closely resembles what they left at home. Resorts and cruise ships offering ‘all inclusive’ experiences have developed to the point where even finding the exit to the resort is a challenge, and the resorts try to cater to every possible whim, even to the point of creating faux marketplaces inside the resort grounds offering a kitsch version of the outside countryside. Tourists are warned that travelling outside the resort is dangerous.

The result is that almost all of the tourism dollars coming into a country are taken back out again almost immediately by the huge corporations dominating the industry.

“G Adventures operates on the exact opposite to that prevailing principle,” said Mr. Poon Tip.

Instead of comfortable beds, his clients often experience the same living conditions as the villagers of the region they are travelling to.

Instead of pulling vast sums out of the regions they bring clients to, G Adventures has created literally hundreds of businesses in those countries, which include a women’s weaving cooperative in Egypt, safe drinking-water programs in Tanzania and Kenya and a training centre and restaurant that employs former sex workers in Cambodia.

Among his company’s latest campaigns is the creation of eye hospitals in Vietnam and Tibet.

Tourism has long held a privileged place in the mindsets of travellers, who leave their social conscience and concerns at home with the rest of their worries and stress. But today, “tourism is being held accountable for climate change, for global warming,” said Mr. Poon Tip. “Thanks to the carbon footprint of air travel, tourism for the first time in its history is being looked at very negatively.”

This has given rise to a new business opportunity with the advent of sustainable tourism.

[pullquote]Tourism is expected to jump to $10 trillion over the next decade, he noted. “That is 10 percent of global GDP (gross domestic product). It is the single greatest force of wealth redistribution the world has ever seen—if that money is spent locally.”[/pullquote]

Mr. Poon Tip advised his listeners to think outside the box when it comes to product development and to understand what it really is they are selling. “Henry Ford once said that ‘if I asked people what they really wanted, they would have told me a faster horse,” he quoted. “If you ask people what they want, they can only draw their answer from their own experience. Think about what hasn’t been done yet.”

He advised employers to seek employees, not on the basis of their skill set, but on how well they will fit into their company’s culture. He pointed to the employee who tattooed the company logo on his skin, and the legions of customers who followed suit when the idea went viral online.

He exhorted the audience to engage their customers in a two way conversation and to encourage their employees to do so as well.

“Opportunities for small businesses have never been greater,” said Mr. Poon Tip. “Iconic brands have to act like small companies today if they want to survive.” He pointed to the lost market share of Nike to upstart Under Armour and the plunge of a once dominant Levi’s in the jean market as examples.

“When we came along, the world did not need another tourist company,” he said. He realized that he had to look at his company not as a travel company, but as a brand.

A host of commercials played out on a screen in front of the audience reinforced that message. Visions of good works and positive impacts of the company’s initiatives around the world flashed by with inspiring music—with nary a mention of the word travel to be seen onscreen.

The other important message Mr. Poon Tip imparted was of the overblown importance of being a leader. He illustrated his point with a video of a crazy dancer kid at a rock concert. At first he was alone, then a brave follower appeared, then another. “And three is a crowd,” he said as the scene began to fill with people running down to join the dance. “Never underestimate the power of the first follower,” he said.

Four pillars underpin his company’s success, said Mr. Poon Tip. The ability to grow, being connected, belonging to something greater than themselves and freedom.

“The most important part is happiness,” he said. “When you think of it, the driving force behind consumerism today is the stringing together of small moments of happiness trying to create a solid line of happiness.”

National Geographic’s list of the top 40 adventure travel companies lists G Adventures in the number one spot. It seems likely that Mr. Poon Tip knows what he is talking about. His audience certainly seemed to think so as they leapt to their feet in a spontaneous ovation and then lined up to have the author sign his book for them. His brand is certainly looking secure.

mike@manitoulin.ca