G Adventures celebrates its culture of change at summit

G Adventures founder and CEO Bruce Poon Tip speaking at the company's first Change Makers Summit in Peru.
G Adventures founder and CEO Bruce Poon Tip speaking at the company's first Change Makers Summit in Peru.

CUZCO, Peru -- Travel advisor Julie Stone Frederick had never been on a G Adventures trip. And as a fairly new player in the travel world, she had only sold a few. But her commitment to community service as a prosecutor in her previous career won her a spot at the company's first Change Makers Summit in Peru.

Likewise, Doug Orens doesn't even sell travel. But he is director of marketing and operations for his family's business, Plaza Travel in Encino, Calif. He won a spot after submitting a video about how his first G Adventures trip, to base camp on Mount Everest with his son five years ago, prompted him to create a foundation called Luggage for Locals, which collects new clothing for travelers to take to developing destinations.

On the Record

G Adventures founder and CEO Bruce Poon Tip spoke about the company and its newest initiatives. Read More

That's because, like just about everything G Adventures does, its selection process for the travel advisor event was a little different than that generally used in the industry, focusing not just on sales volume but on building a community of agents aligned with the sustainable, socially responsible values on which the company was founded.

"I was a little concerned that going to sell travel full time, I would not get the same job satisfaction that I did out of prosecuting," said Frederick, now a full-time travel advisor in Austin, Texas. "But then I found out about G Adventures and how they try to change the world and make it a better place, and now I can combine my two loves."

Most of those invited here were indeed loyal sellers. But leaving other spots open for travel professionals who could write an essay or record a video application spelling out their social commitments, company officials said, was also a way to seek out new partners.

And so the group of more than 70 travel professionals and some 50 representatives from G Adventures offices around the world came together earlier this month for the first summit, a seven-day combination fam and corporate retreat in Peru, the country where the company runs more trips than in any other destination and where some of its first giveback programs were born.

Among the activities was an afternoon of team-building exercises that included competitions in setting up the tents the Peruvian guides use on the Inca Trail. There were also a number of challenges developed in the style of the "Amazing Race" television series, including seeing which team could get a group photo with the most locals during a walking tour of Lima.

Change Makers Summit participants at Machu Picchu.
Change Makers Summit participants at Machu Picchu.

Mostly, however, it was about highlighting G Adventures' itineraries in Lima, Cuzco and Machu Picchu as well as the community projects and small-business startups the company has funded in the country through its Planeterra Foundation and the G Values fund, which company founder Bruce Poon Tip created with money from his bestselling books about the company's culture, 2013's "Looptail" and its follow-up, "Do Big Small Things."

Peter Worthing, vice president of sales for G Adventures in the U.S., said the idea of the summit, with some activities modeled on those used for internal events, was to "make those meaningful connections with our travel advisor partners. So really, for the first time, we've invited other people into our world, into our culture."

It's a unique culture at that, and one that has its own vocabulary. Sales are not tallied by number of passengers, rather by "lives changed." Advisors aren't agents but "change makers." The company's in-country tour leaders are not guides but "chief experience officers." Travelers are "agents of change," and so on.

It's also a culture that has developed a loyal following, as evidenced by the standing ovation, and even some tears, from employees and agents alike when Poon Tip arrived for the final afternoon to detail what the company, now in its 29th year, has achieved and what's on the horizon.

Among the new initiatives he discussed were the company's "ripple score" for tallying and reporting how much of every dollar spent on a trip stays local and Project 100, a fast-tracked initiative by Planeterra to have 100 community development projects in place by 2020.

And regardless of whether or not you buy into the G-speak or G culture, one thing was clear: The company, a global pioneer in sustainable travel, and its employees do live and breathe what they preach.

Everything possible is sourced locally. There are constant reminders of how to travel without intruding on local cultures or supporting activities that might encourage children to beg or animals to be abused. And as part of its main focus on eliminating poverty, it has even set up its own stops for shopping to ensure artisans, not shopkeepers, are benefiting.

Tours of the Sacred Valley, for example, don't stop along the main drag lined with souvenir shops. Rather they go to the village of Ccaccaccollo, where Planeterra in 2005 helped establish a weaving cooperative to enable women to make a living by demonstrating their traditional techniques while also selling their wares directly to visitors.

The project became so successful it was expanded to six other villages, Poon Tip said.

One of Planeterra's first and most successful projects, the Parwa restaurant, is also in expansion mode, recently opening a second open-air dining room. The restaurant offers a parklike respite with mountain and glacier views that make it the perfect lunch stop for both G Adventures and other tour operators doing day trips in the Sacred Valley.

Parwa now has a school with a computer lab and a scholarship fund.

Women from a weaving cooperative that G Adventures helped create in the Peruvian village of Ccaccaccollo demonstrate how they dye wool using natural products.
Women from a weaving cooperative that G Adventures helped create in the Peruvian village of Ccaccaccollo demonstrate how they dye wool using natural products.

"For the first time, these women have employment opportunities," said Joel Callanaupa, Planeterra's project manager for South America.

Denise Canavan, a New Hampshire-based advisor with Cruise Planners, said she had recently returned from her first G trip, leading a group to South Africa, where she was impressed by the attention to detail. And while the company's culture was not really a factor in her past sales, she said, "I will book them again in a heartbeat. 

"Going into South Africa, I really didn't know their spirit," she said. "But I came away thinking, 'I am very blessed. I need to share that with other people and make them realize how good we have it and how we need to share that with others.' ... It's changed my life a lot."

JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI