G Adventures’ founder weighs in on the future of travel
Q&A with Bruce Poon Tip
Over the past 30 years, Bruce Poon Tip has averaged almost 200,000 miles a year on flights as the founder of G Adventures.
When COVID-19 hit, he spent his newfound time at home penning Unlearn: The Year the Earth Stood Still, a free instabook about how the industry has an opportunity to make changes as travel becomes the world’s largest start-up economy. In a Q&A with CTP, Poon Tip discusses the future of travel, the value of agents and what he’d have done differently if he could go back in time.
2020 marks the 30th anniversary of G Adventures — how was business before this?
We were riding on the top of the world — December, January, February, were record months for us — 40% growth in January, 25-30% growth in December, it was absolutely incredible, we were absolutely crushing it.
One of the biggest challenges is not knowing when travel will resume — how are you handling this and what are some of the other difficulties?
It’s a fluid situation. I don’t think our issue is just opening up borders so we’re not really following that because I think borders are going to open up long before people feel confident getting on a flight and comfortable getting on a flight. For us, like all travel companies, we’ve all gone into hibernation mode at the moment.
We’ve done all these though decisions and changes and all of us have taken advantage of furlough schemes and had to deal with terminations as well because none of us is going to be the same size on the other side of this, the numbers of people aren’t going to be needed for some time until we kind of have a bounce back to where we were before this. The biggest challenge we face within the industry out of all of this is not just opening borders, it’s people being comfortable on flights again. I think people have very short term memory when it comes to these things and a vaccine is a game changer. I think travel will bounce back fairly normally but the idea of crowds, I think older demographics on cruise ships I don’t think will never be the same, but I think it will bounce back once a vaccine is launched.
When do you think the industry will see a bounce back?
Right now, as a company our official stance is that we think we’re going to start seeing an increase in bookings for the following year at the end of this quarter. By the end of summer, we’re hoping by fall we will see slight increases. I wouldn’t consider it a bounce back though, a lot of that for us is going to be rebooking. The bounce back for us will be in the last quarter, October, November, December, where we see business coming at a reasonable level, in terms of bounce back to where we were before, I think it will take some time.
If you could have seen COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdowns coming, what would you have done differently internally at G Adventures as well as in relation to G suppliers, and the wider tourism industry?
I would have done so many things differently. For us, as an operator, we became quite comfortable with how the circular economy works within the travel industry where if someone books through an [online] travel agency in Germany or the UK, they hold the money and don’t pay us until after travel sometimes. Our small scale operators, we’re putting up money for deposits to hold hotels, hold transportation, buy tickets to attractions and admission tickets, buy local flights and transportation, when we don’t even have the money for their and as soon as someone lays a deposit we start spending money. This circular economy goes on and it’s what the travel industry has been built on for decades but no one ever anticipated it to stop and everyone looks after your own. This customer wants their refund but we don’t even have the money, and as soon as they left a deposit we started extending credit to this person and we start to make bookings and pay those services and we have a full office we’re paying salaries so we’re expecting the flow of money to come and we have trusted each other as partners. If I knew it was coming, we’d have been able to tighten all those things, make sure we get paid before someone travels.
How will travellers be different post COVID-19?
I think that travellers are going to be smarter, wiser and ask more questions. I think we were getting a bit ridiculous in terms of people being really motivated by price point — booking any scale or any kind of resort or going anywhere they can based on price. I think people who continue to travel are going to be, I won’t say picky, but they’re going to ask more questions. They’re going to book more confidently with brands who have a good reputation.
What will companies have to do to regain consumer confidence in travelling?
A lot of the smaller companies, some people won’t make it on the other side so I think how we gain consumer confidence is A) creating flexibility and comfort, that they can book with confidence and also transparency in terms of what we’re doing, how we’re going to do things differently, how we’re going to ensure their safety, and really on trusted brands. Focus on transparency and making it easier for them to understand what they are booking and giving them that flexibility and ease is what is going to give them the confidence.
Are you concerned some businesses — like travel agencies — won’t make it to the other side?
I think the other thing that’s going to change significantly is the small business of travel agents. So many travel agencies are small businesses. Bigger chains have the ability to get stimulus money to get their doors open but the smaller businesses are going to have a much bigger challenge and how that’s going to change the landscape of the travel industry as well.
When this all started, we thought, oh it’s just going to be 60 or 90 days. Any business can survive 60 or 90 days but small businesses find it much harder to withstand six months. There’s opportunity for the travel industry, if there’s less travel agents on the other side, but it’s also going to be very tough for some to survive. That’s also going to have an impact on the landscape of how people book, like having less options if there are less travel agents or more chains that survive. I think that’s another part of the landscape change.
Throughout this time, agents have come out on top as heroes for advocating for their clients and taking the stress out of getting refunds. What are your thoughts on this?
I think it’s also very important that travel agents make that very clear too. For us, within the industry, it’s much easier to deal with agents when something like this happens than it is with consumers directly. We see the value as well as an operator. But when you talk about change and how it is going to look on the other side, my fear is that a lot of small businesses won’t be able to make it if this goes a year, if this goes eight months. I think the OTAs are getting roasted the most in terms of not being able to service and handle all these people that had their flights cancelled, not being able to take the volume of calls and the cancellations of the people that have been disrupted with their flights. I think that’s an opportunity for travel agents. It’s a disaster if you booked a hotel through an OTA and tried to get your money back. They just don’t have the response times and the care and no one anticipated that business would just stop. I think, as well, that’s an opportunity for travel agents. Customers are definitely going to question [using an OTA.] For us even, people who book our trips on these OTAs, we can’t do anything because they haven’t paid us, we don’t have their money and we don’t know what to do and the OTA won’t return their calls or talk to them but just online in general and they’re not our customer. We’re supplying a service for them but they’re ultimately not our customer, they’re the customer of who they booked with and that’s who is holding their deposit… I think that once all that comes out in the wash, I think travel agents should actually form advocacy groups to point out these issues. Get that message across to consumers and create a bigger understanding of why travel agents are so important.