G Adventures founder Bruce Toon Tip took the stage at Skift Global Forum in New York City to express his views about the state of the travel industry, including why he believes it wasn’t in a great place prior to the pandemic and how travel companies have deemphasized the importance of destinations for travelers.
Poon Tip also argues that travel has become commoditized, the travel industry is too focused on keeping travelers in a comfort zone and travel can be a form of giving to local communities worldwide.
Watch the full video of his speech below, which includes a presentation highlighting programs G Adventures has been involved in. You can read the transcript as well below.
Good afternoon. How’s everybody doing?
It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me here, Skift. It’s almost where you’re pulling into the end guys. Life is not about the destination, it’s about the journey. Most of you probably read this from Emerson. This is one of the most quoted memes in travel people that use in their signatures. And really what it’s saying is how important a destination is. I think the travel industry has followed this meme. The journey suddenly becomes more important than the destination.
This is kind of highlighting the fact the destination is no longer relevant, how the journey is so much more important. You know in 2013, I wrote a book called Looptail, and Looptail was on the New York Times bestseller list. It was a book about how you do good with travel, and you encourage people to do good, it unlocks the potential of travel to be a force for good. That travel can actually be a transformational industry (and) as an industry, it can finally embrace our ability to be that transformational industry.
And during the pandemic, we had another book called Unlearn. I wrote another book called Unlearn, which was a free book. (It) was an interesting idea to put a book that was for free and convince Amazon and Apple Books to give away a free book. Which Apple was able to do. Amazon had to charge a penny in the background in order for you to download that book. And Unlearn was really a month after the pandemic. If you can remember when the pandemic hit, we were kind of flooded in our inboxes about with everything we’ve ever bought, giving their statement about Covid. Suddenly this tee-shirt you bought online on Instagram was telling you everything going’s to be OK, we’re going to get through this together, we’re going to come back stronger, all of these things. Every company was putting out a statement about Covid.
And I knew I couldn’t write that because I didn’t know. When we all went home on March 13, 2020, we thought it was a two-week break. We thought we were going home for a couple of weeks (and) we were all going to come back. And so a month later, we’re all kind of dealing with government programs to keep the employees we want. Those of us that (in) international companies are dealing with multiple governments around the world with aid programs and then, we’re starting to lay off people because we’re realizing this is going to go longer than two weeks or a month.
And so I wrote a letter to our customers that went a bit long and ended up going 9,000 words and I thought, “Well, this is no longer a letter to our customers.” And we released Unlearned as an instabook that was for free. You can still download it on unlearn.travel or you can go to Apple Books or Amazon and look at Unlearn. And it really is a message of hope on how the travel industry coming out of Covid has the opportunity to be something so much more than what it was before Covid. I think I want to thank Skift because we got an Idea Award this year and I think earlier today, they played our trailer for The Last Tourist. The Last Tourist, I think, has gone through the pay-per-view circuit in the United States and is now available on Hulu if you have Hulu in the (U.S.).
The Last Tourist is a message of hope, but it’s the same message about how you were forced into this pause into this hibernation over Covid and we have this opportunity to come back better. And you know, there’s this push right now to come back to normal. It’s like when all the messages were coming out right after Covid, it was people pushing back to normal and our message is very simple. We started a whole bunch of meetings and conferences called Retravel about coming back better. How can we come back better? How can the travel industry take this opportunity to stop and think about how we can do things better on the other side?
Tourism as a Commodity
Because my argument today is that prior to Covid, I don’t think the travel industry was in a great place. I just don’t think it was in a good place. I’m going to talk more about that. Prior to Covid, if you could go back there, we had the word overtourism was starting to take hold. We had locals protesting tourist invasions. We had Greta Thunberg who was coming out of Sweden talking about flight shaming and carbon emissions. But not only that, us within the travel industry were selling tourism as a commodity, selling travelers to come on. Experiences were being commoditized. It was no longer, we were listening to that Emerson quote, where it was the journey was so important but the destination was irrelevant.
That was a very dangerous place to be if we’re in the travel industry and if you go back to where we were, we’re selling amenities and capacity within the travel industry now. There’s this constant push for infinite profits in the travel industry. So there’s constantly building bigger ships, more and more compound resorts. And there’s a constant push in the industry … and it’s not working with what local people want.
And so this idea that people are now buying amenities when they travel is really dangerous for us in the travel industry. Where if you open any brochure, they’re talking about 10 restaurants and 10 types of food you can eat, the swim-up bars, the thread counts on sheets, the entertainment whether it’s a Broadway show, indoor surfing. So people are buying amenities and the destination is no longer relevant. So we’re living up to the Emerson quote that says it’s all about the journey … and the destination is no longer important.
If any of you have friends on social media because social has taken such a big part of our marketing these days, you’ll notice that people who go on these trips never mention the destination when they send these pictures back. Quite often, they’ll send pictures of their food, what they’re eating and if you don’t have a friend …. if you don’t get those things, you’re probably that friend who posts socially about their food.
And it go so ridiculous, prior to Covid, there was a company that decided to put a go-kart track on an Alaskan cruise ship. This is not a doctored image, this is true. This is a true image. So you can go on holidays and you don’t have to give up your aggressive go-karting hobby and this can be anywhere. And the destination is no longer important because you’re now booking because of … and the experience is not relevant and the destination is not important.
And so I think that’s a dangerous place to be in. Just prior to Covid, I don’t think travel was in a great place. As I said, we had all of these forces against us. People were questioning even getting to destinations with the use of fossil fuels and even carbon emissions. And then on top of it, we’re in the industry, we’re selling capacity. We were selling amenities. We were not longer making the destination relevant.
Addicted to Convenience
As we kind of push to hotels, (they) become commoditized. We’re stripping away the relevance of destinations by making people comfortable. And in our first brochure, G Adventures, back in 1990, we said if you want the comforts of home, maybe you should think about staying at home. If you go on holiday, you should actually feel you’re in that country. And now what’s happening in the industry is hotel chains are trying to create a commoditized experience. If you look at the Oman hotels, no matter where you go, if you’re in Bali or South Africa or if you go anywhere, they’re promising you the same experience.
And so somewhere along the way, we confuse the idea between comfort zone and comfort. We’re stripping away the relevance of destinations to protect people’s comfort zones as opposed to comfort. And suddenly, thread counts on sheets become something that’s relevant and important as opposed to the destination where they’re going.
When we strip away the relevance of the destination, what do we have really? We have a comfortable hotel that can be anywhere. We call this the McDonald’s effect, and the McDonald’s effect is McDonald’s really isn’t a restaurant. McDonald’s is a real estate company that promises consistency, that the Big Mac tastes the same whether it’s in Moscow, Singapore, Buenos Aires or Miami. So no matter where you are in the world, you have that comfort of knowing when you come into a McDonald’s, you’re going to get that same taste and that same experience.
And when we take that into tourism … to protect people’s comfort zones, I think it’s the complete opposite of what we should be doing in the travel industry. We shouldn’t be protecting people’s comfort zones. You should be prepared to leave your comfort zone when you decide to travel. And that’s really want makes a remarkable experience and what we do is so emotional.
The travel industry is one of the most emotional purchases people can purchase. We have a beautiful industry and we sell people dreams and it’s an emotional purchase. I spoke to Reed Hastings, who started Netflix. He’s made Netflix into this romantic brand when it’s just video streaming. It’s just the most boring thing in the world. Jeff Bezos did it with books, and they create brand attachment to something so boring. We have the benefit within the travel industry to be selling an emotional experience for customers. And we don’t take advantage of it if we continually push people and protect their comfort zones. It’s not about people being uncomfortable. People think when I talk (about) these things, it’s about camping or roughing it or that luxury can’t be comfortable. But it isn’t — it’s about the destination and focusing on the destination and people having purpose in where they go and where they travel.
We in the industry play into it. You know the problem that we have in society in general is that we’re addicted to convenience. We are addicted to convenience. This pandemic made it worse because people were forced at home and we realized how much we can do from the comforts of our own home. We got used to that, and so we pushed more and more people. I don’t know about you, but we’re having problems getting people back into the office because they have everything they need at home and they think they can do their jobs at home.
So the hotel experience becomes where you stay and how the travel industry moves forward is really that bridge between comfort and comfort zone. And so when us as tour operators are kind of looking for the ideal combination for people, it’s not about comfort zone. It’s not about the amenities. It’s about capturing that local area and that local flavor.
Looking at Travel Differently
So the news about this is life is not about the destinations, it’s about the journey is actually one of the biggest — I guess you guys in (the U.S.) use the term fake news. I know it’s a political statement. But Emerson actually never said this. It’s one of the biggest crimes on the internet. Even it’s all over memes, he actually never said this. What he did say was this: To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours is wisdom.
Life is about moments. We’re sharing a moment today. Thank goodness we can actually come together again. I came from Canada (on September 20) and in Canada, we have fully masked airports, fully masked flying. And it seems like everyone in the U.S. is pretending the pandemic never happened. I’m totally cool with that. I’m ready to move on, too. But it was a bit jarring to be at the airport shoulder-to-shoulder when we’re still relatively locked up in Canada. But anyways, life is about moments and where you are. It’s the moments that we share. But the destination is important where you share it.
Coming out of Covid now, it’s really important that we all understand that in the travel industry that Covid isn’t going away …. As we emerge out of the pandemic, we all know that Covid is not going away. We just have to learn to live with it. So this is the best thing as I’m concerned that that has ever happened to the travel industry … because there’s inherent risk to travel. (So) for the people (who) decide to travel, it’s because it’s important to them. It’s meaningful to them if they’re willing to take the risk. If there’s any risk at all, it’ll be meaningful for them.
And so we have to look at travelers very differently in the future on why they’re going to travel and the purpose, being more purposeful on why they’re going to travel. And the destination becomes so much more important. All of our data is showing that people are going to travel longer and deeper moving forward. They’re going to stay in destinations longer. They’re going to take less holidays throughout the year and then go deeper into the destination. There couldn’t be a greater gift to the travel industry coming out of Covid than putting that inherent risk on people and forcing people to be more purposeful and meaningful when they decide where they want to go.
And going back to what we were saying before, which is the destination becomes important because it has to mean something to you. In order to travel to in the future, it (has) to be important.
So during the pandemic, we did a series called Retravel, (in) which we talked continuously about how the travel industry can come out of this pandemic and be better. And how we can come together as an industry. We had amazing meetings every month, we had different speakers from all over the world about how the travel industry can finally embrace its ability to be that transformational industry that we’ve always known it could be.
Travel as Giving Back
The idea of going on vacation can be your idea of giving back. That is the holy grail for travel, as far as I’m concerned. The world is set up to have (a non-governmental organization) for every one of your values. If it’s animal welfare, it’s (World Wide Fund). If it’s human rights, it’s Amnesty International. If it’s disaster relief, it’s Red Cross. If it’s conveniently set up for poverty alleviation, there’s UNICEF.
But imagine if done right and tourism was done right, and money stayed back in the communities, and communities were engaged and were part of the value chain. That’s what The Last Tourist was about – (tourists) were included in the value chain. The idea of going on holiday could be your idea of giving back. Imagine if we were there in the travel industry that instead of donating money to a charity that’s going to do the work for you, going on holiday can create wealth distribution because we’re heading toward a $10 trillion industry, they say. Travel is one of 10 jobs in the world. In the next few years, (it) should be a $10 trillion industry. It’s the largest form of revenue for the 40 poorest countries in the world. So (in) our most in need countries in the world, tourism is driving the economy. If done right, we can assist some of the most in need citizens on the planet.
I know in (the U.S.) as well, it’s a hot topic when you talk about poverty or wealth distribution. But the idea of wealth distribution through tourism is a very real thing. There’s no vehicle better than when someone goes on holiday and your pay for services, fair trade prices for the services that you use locally. I just wanted to mention this because last week in England, in the UK, we won travel brand of the year and we’re pretty proud of it because nobody went. We actually didn’t think we were going to win. The nominees were TUI, Royal Caribbean, Cobone, all multi-million dollar corporations, and G Adventures.
Because of all our Retravel Lives and the work that we did during the pandemic, this year, G Adventures won Travel Brand of the Year in the UK and Europe, so we’re pretty proud about that.
Creating a Value Chain
But if you look about redistributing wealth through tourism, you can see (from) 1998 (through) 2018, the (number) of destinations (earning) more than $1 billion (through tourism). You can see how tourism is growing. Tourism is heading toward a $10 trillion industry. It’s an amazing business to be in right now. And so the business case for tourism is amazing — it’s way ahead of all of its projections prior to Covid in terms of its growth. So if you look at it as a business case, tourism is a great industry to be in.
But community tourism is what brings people together. Tourism traditionally has been a one-way experience. People buy an experience, they buy a holiday, and they demand service. They demand the comforts of home when they travel. This is the single thing if we get right in the travel industry is the understanding the privilege that you have and how few people on the planet have the opportunity to say I want to go on holiday.
We’re very lucky and we’re very privileged — There are very few people (who) can say, “I’m going to go on holiday this year.” — that you have the disposable income, you have the time, you have the education, whatever it is that we have. We realize that the day you say “You know. I want to go on holiday” is a very big decision and a very important one.
And community tourism brings communities together. And so you when decide you want to travel, we found over time — over 32 years, G Adventures has been around for 32 years — when someone decides to travel, they create a value chain. The more people we bring into that value chain, the bigger impact we have and the more enriching it is for the traveler and for that transformational experience for customers.
So when you look at it, when someone decides to travel no matter what they do, they create a value chain immediately. And so, suddenly their accommodation becomes important. If you’re staying at accommodation that isn’t locally owned and doesn’t have local management and local employees, then you’re missing a massive opportunity to have a major impact in that region. What you eat, where you go, your transportation — everything that you do, the partnerships on the ground, your services that you’re providing, everything on the ground becomes part of that value chain.
Creating Social Solutions
So here are some of the examples that we have, and this is Bikes With Purpose. I’m just going to give you examples of how we look at things at G Adventures. This is in Belize, where we started. We have 100 community projects around the world through our foundation tied to our programs. This is Bikes With Purpose. We’re on an island that we brought travelers (to) for years. There was only 15 percent of the kids going to school on the island. We created Bikes With Purpose, which is a program that is a biking tour of kids registered in school. They would get a a job with Bikes With Purpose, and they have 90 percent of their children going to school now. They do tours with all of our groups that come through the island.
So that’s an idea of you can create a social solution and create a great experience for your customers … Just look at our transportation. How we look at transportation is very different. In India, the very common arrival transfers, which most of you will just book with a local company. We have Women With Wheels. Women With Wheels is a program that works with women (who) are in shelters … many of them have been abandoned by their families and we give them an 18-month training program with Women With Wheels. They learn to drive. They get their driver’s license, which is very powerful for single women in India, and then they get a car. We give them a car and they do all of our arrival transfers when you arrive in India. On day two, when you take a city tour with G Adventures, it’s with the Salaam Baalak Trust and that’s a street kids home where we take kids at 14 or 15 (who are) trying to learn English and they do all of our city tours within Delhi.
So that’s how you bring others in the community into that supply chain and even our partners, more of our partnerships. Just before Covid, I was sick of the traditional (familiarization) trips. (Familiarization) trips where agents kind of all come together and get drunk and (take) a trip to another country and learn nothing. I was fighting with our sales people all the time that traditional (familiarization trips) suck and said we have to reinvent it. So we created Change Makers and Change Makers … I lead the first two Change Makers because I promised (to) and we did lectures along the way …. visited all of our social enterprises and projects and taught along the way the capacity that tourism has to change the world. To have a positive impact and be that force of change.
And Change Makers is very successful — we ran our first one in Peru, our second was in India. We had Nepal going (but) it got canceled just before Covid. And we invite agents from all over the industry to take a (familiarization trip) with us. But it’s on Change Makers. They’re going to learn something and they’re going to have a great time. They’ve been very successful.
When you bring more people (into) your supply chain, that’s what community tourism is about. So it’s not now this one-way experience. The one-way experience was created by Nike years ago (when) they hired Michael Jordan before all the technology exists. And Michael Jordan is the best athlete in the world. You walked into a Nike store, you thought of their commercials and Michael Jordan (and) it made you feel a certain way, so you bought that shirt.
Well, we don’t live anymore in that kind of economy with social (media) because you can follow Phil Knight, you follow leaders of any company, you can follow their factories. If they fire people, it all comes up on Glassdoor. So the more people you bring into your value chain, the more impact you have and suddenly, that decision to go on holiday has a positive impact.
And in the last slide, I’m going to show you is just an example of some or our partners we worked with. (One of them is) the IDB, the Inter-American Development Bank. We were the first travel company to work with the Inter-American Development Bank when they gave us money to build community projects across Latin America.
The last one is the National Geographic Journeys. I love to say this in front of audiences but National Geographic contacted us one day. They actually reached out to me through LinkedIn. Isn’t that weird? They said, “We’ve been wanting to make our brand more accessible and we never have found a company that matches our values.”
So suddenly our values and how we’re on our business created one of the largest partners we’ve ever had in National Geographic and we created National Geographic Journeys, which is available. But it was how our values grew our partnerships. And it was our value chain, as we brought more and more partners into it, (is) what has made G Adventures special and made us the Travel Brand of the Year this year in Europe.
So thank you very much for your time and enjoy the rest of your conference.
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