GAP Adventures profile: Expanding your target market without sacrificing your vision

Bruce Poon Tip started his own adventure-travel company, Toronto-based G.A.P Adventures, as a way of exploring his personal values. He had travelled through Thailand like a native, riding broken-down buses, staying in small, family-run hotels and eating local foods. Pitying the Western tourists with their air-conditioned motorcoaches, he decided to launch his own company to help venturesome Westerners access authentic travel and cultural experiences through small-group trips to offbeat destinations around the world.

Today G.A.P Adventures is the world’s largest adventure-travel firm, with sales of more than $100 million, 100,000 customers a year, and tours on all seven continents. Now respected as an international expert on eco-tourism, Poon Tip has never sacrificed his personal values for growth. But he has learned to think big and embrace multiple target markets.

From his start selling tours to Thailand and the ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru, Poon Tip now sells more than 1,000 different tours. He realized early on that his company had to appeal to more than just backpackers. (His first brochure warned, “If you’d like all the comforts of home, we suggest you stay home.”)

Poon Tip’s true target: anyone looking for an alternative to conventional tourism and three-star beach resorts. Today G.A.P targets high-income singles, families, photography buffs, gourmets, affluent retirees and other niche groups, through a range of specialty tours – including a $13,000 voyage to Antarctica by icebreaker.

G.A.P grew by realizing that the product it’s selling is not exactly travel, but experiences. Satisfied customers sign up for G.A.P trips year after year because they trust the company to connect them to unique new adventures – in the company of like-minded travelers.

To reach this independent-minded market, G.A.P has pioneered new marketing techniques: abolishing “single supplements”, conducting travelling slide shows to entice prospects, and opening brick-and-mortar stores (in New York, Toronto, Vancouver and Melbourne) when the rest of the travel industry was focusing on the Internet. G.A.P produces its own television shows and online videos, and provides an online traveller’s forum moderated by satisfied customers, not the company’s staff. G.A.P has even created its own foundation, Planeterra, to build client relationships and “give back” to the communities G.A.P travelers visit.

With his company growing 30% a year, Poon Tip admits he is following no road map but instinct. “There’s no precedent for a company of our size in this industry,” he says. For his next act, he’s considering expanding into book publishing, restaurants and hotels. But he has no interest in accepting the many offers he’s received to sell his company. “I’m working hard, but I’m having more fun than ever.”