Filling the gap

How Bruce Poon Tip built GAP Adventures, the largest ecotourism company in the world.

NAME: Bruce Poon Tip
TITLE: CEO, GAP Adventures
AGE: 39
TENURE: 17 years

Bruce Poon Tip has only ever worked for two employers: Denny's and McDonald's. Both jobs were when he was 16, growing up in Calgary. At Denny's, he lasted two weeks before he was fired. He didn't even make it out of McDonald's training program. But those failures belie the fact that Poon Tip today owns and runs one of Canada's most successful travel operators, GAP Adventures, the largest ecotourism company in the world by a wide margin, with more than $100 million in sales last year.

Clearly, Poon Tip was not meant to work for anyone else. The success of GAP, which he founded in 1990 (seven years after his fast-food follies), is not just some happy accident. Poon Tip, who dropped out of business school at the University of Calgary, has applied relentless discipline and innovative thinking to forge one of Canada's great entrepreneurial ventures — and all on his own dime.

When Poon Tip founded GAP (short for Great Adventure People) — financing the company with credit cards out of a west-end Toronto apartment and distributing black and white photocopied pamphlets — he was on the leading edge of sustainable tourism, a fringe segment of the travel industry that prides itself on operating small-group tours to lessen the environmental and cultural impact on its destinations. Such tours have since moved mainstream, with GAP Adventures the industry's most recognizable brand in many countries. This year, GAP will send some 50,000 people on tours, which are usually limited to groups of 12. Operating out of six offices around the globe, GAP offers 1,000 different trips to more than 100 countries on all seven continents. Last year, sales grew 40% — impressive, yes, but that's the lowest increase in its history.

“I never thought we'd have the kind of international penetration that we do,” says Poon Tip, but it's turned out to be at the root of his success. He realized early on that Canada was a difficult market for selling travel packages, because most people get only two weeks of holidays, so he started selling his tours in the United Kingdom, where people get four or five weeks vacation. In other words, Poon Tip exports travel services — a rarity in a market dominated by domestic operators. GAP sells travel packages in 26 countries besides Canada, the company's third-largest market after the U.K. and Australia?New Zealand. “The idea that someone in Germany buys an African safari from a Canadian company when there are a hundred other German companies that sell African safaris, is really the key to our innovation,” says Poon Tip, who credits GAP's breadth of unique tours as the key to establishing its brand. “No one in this field has ever gotten to the size that we are, and it's basically because of our ability to export.”

The trip has not been easy, and Poon Tip has made some gutsy calls to grow and protect his business. In 2001, he created a wholesale division that partnered with other specialty adventure tour operators to offer trips outside of Latin America, where GAP then focused the bulk of its tours. At the same time, the company both expanded its portfolio of tours and defended its customer base in North America. Another bold stroke was acquiring Global Connections, Canada's largest flight consolidator, to give GAP the leverage with airlines it needed to offer travellers better airfares.

Poon Tip doesn't let much stand in his way. Take his dream of running tours to Antarctica: “I knew that if we wanted to be the world-class operator, we had to get there,” he says. “We can't just offer six continents.” After chartering a Russian scientific vessel to run a successful test tour of 100 passengers in 2004, he used Google to search for possible expedition cruise ships to buy and came up with just one: the Explorer, a 108-passenger vessel (with 55 crew) with a legendary 30-year history of trips to remote locations such as the Arctic. Poon Tip found it in an Italian shipyard, under arrest for unpaid bills, so he flew to Genoa, scaled a fence to break into the shipyard to take a look, and then spent three months leaping legal hurdles and regulations to acquire it. Although tours on the Explorer are GAP's priciest — as much as $11,000 per person for a 10-day voyage — they sell out well in advance. Last year GAP acquired another ship for more Antarctica tours.

That kind of new product development is Poon Tip's latest focus. In 2005, he recommitted himself to the business — after a few years spending more time with his young family — and restructured the company, hiring a chief operating officer, but insisting that HR, IT, product development and the non-profit Planeterra Foundation report directly to him. “We started out as being innovative and dictating to the market where they should travel,” says Poon Tip. “I wanted to get back in the driver's seat.” He also insisted on the in-house development of GAP's online reservation systems, which took three years to build and still has 11 IT staff looking after it, despite scores of off-the-shelf software packages. But for Poon Tip, the system was too integral to leave to an outside developer. “My goal is to always keep us as nimble as possible as an organization, to be able to move and stay entrepreneurial, make quick decisions,” he says. “I've seen way too many companies have to consult the company that builds their operating system before they make a decision.”