I’ve often been asked to write articles or columns for various publications, but I’ve never agreed to do it. I tell the person asking that I don’t really have anything to say, but the truth is, it’s because I usually don’t have anything to say within the topic and framework being presented. This request was different though, because the publisher didn’t want me to just “tell my story”; she wanted me to inspire people. As much as I tried, I just couldn’t resist contributing to a magazine whose purpose is to motivate!
I’ve never fancied myself a writer, but if you ask anyone who knows me I don’t usually have a problem talking about myself! I believe that as a leader you do have to be a storyteller of sorts. You have to lead people through good and bad times and paint a greater picture to keep groups of people focused in one direction.
I’ve always thought that some of the world’s greatest leaders are also some of the world’s greatest storytellers.
My story begins at age 15. I had joined Junior Achievement’s company program where I learned how to start my own business. By age 16, I had started three. Where other kids were playing football and joining the debate team, I was spending my hours learning how to read a balance sheet. –Running companies just seemed to come naturally.
My parents thought I was a bit of a strange kid at the best of times; getting fired from both Denny’s and McDonald’s didn’t improve my standing any. I come from a long line of hard working people who have spent most of their lives working for a single company. So, when I announced one day that I was moving to Toronto to start a business, they were convinced I had joined a cult.
I had a different plan though and long knew that destiny had my number, and when it called I had to be ready.
Tourism in 1990
My story really begins in 1990 when the tourism industry was at an all-time low. There was a race to build a bigger cruise ship and a more inclusive resort. Ships that originally had 1,500 passengers grew to 1,800, and then 2,000 and beyond! Resorts advertised their properties as virtual compounds; miniature cities complete with their own train transportation systems on the property. Travelers could eat, drink, play, and shop themselves into a coma. More and more was promised and people got bigger and bigger.
I was amazed at this phenomenon and wondered what was wrong with me! I scratched my head and wondered, “Why is the consumer so attracted to being around more people, that it can be used as a key selling point in their advertising?”
I couldn’t imagine anything more horrible. More people on a ship? –A compound with everything so you never had to leave? It sounded eerily similar to what I imagined prison to be like, except worse! In a prison you wouldn’t have to share your space with crowds doing jazzercise in the pool or attend a sarong tying class to pass your time away. Sure, the food would be marginally better than in prison, but you wouldn’t have to expend any energy swatting people away from your prime location beach chair!
It was backwards, wrong, and against everything I thought international travel was about.
The tourism industry had even managed to convince people that the beach chair, buffet, and bloat vacation was a status symbol of sorts. Somehow people were brainwashed into believing that experiencing a western environment in a developing country was what they wanted! Inclusive packages at premium prices, shielded customers from ever interacting with the culture, or any of the “harsh realities” of the country they were visiting. They could feel as though they’d never left home. My first thought was, “If you want to travel and you want the comforts of home, please stay at home. Do everyone a favour!”
I didn’t get it. –I just didn’t get it.
Throwing on the Backpack
Doing travel research before the advent of the internet was challenging, but I knew I had two choices. I could either choose the mainstream cruise or resort (read, “prison”) or I could put on my backpack and travel alone.
In 1990, the backpacker was the most maligned traveler walking the face of the planet. Every tourist board wanted the dreaded “backpacker” out of their country. Considered young troublemakers who refused to spend money, they were immediately vilified by everyone in the industry. I can’t tell you how many meetings I had in my early days with tourist boards, consul generals, and government agencies who looked me straight in the eye, claiming that backpackers were the vermin of the travel industry. Outside of their budget and mandate, they couldn’t be classified, so they wanted nothing to do with them.
I knew backpackers spent money but the government didn’t see any of it. They were the original “ecotourists” before the word existed. They didn’t use local, centrally based, operators but instead traveled around and paid people in-hand for services rendered. They paid fair trade prices to the local communities they visited, and no one person benefited from their travel in that country. Their money was spread around from traveler to community but it didn’t get into the hands of government, tourist boards, or centralized tour operators.
While travelling, I found an underground group of young professionals who wanted grassroots travel without the compounds, all inclusives, or big coach company sanitized travel experience. Instead, they wanted to meet people, have a cultural experience, and learn something while on vacation.
The concept was simple, getting people in touch with people. As I travelled and saw tourists in air-conditioned coaches and staying in Hilton Hotels, I started to think that those travelers never really get to experience what makes any country great – the people. While every country has its share of tourist attractions, to me, they were the side attractions to the local culture and the richness of the people.
I wanted to shake things up a bit. I wanted to pull travelers off the buses where their noses were pressed against the sterile glass “observing” a country, and engage them in an authentic cultural experience. I wanted them to have a grassroots encounter where they would be interacting directly with the local culture and people of the country.
I believed that if I offered small, intimate, travelling groups, I could decrease the cultural and environmental impact and reciprocally, travelers would return home with a greater appreciation for their home country and more tolerance for the world at large.
Listening to the Internal Call
In order to fully understand my story you have to take a trip yourself. Close your eyes and think back to a time before the invention of the internet, Google and even the fax machine. Go way, way back to a time when Nirvana was a best new artist – not played daily on classic rock stations! When you have that image in your mind’s eye, then you have the right time period.
In theory the concept for G.A.P. Adventures was sound but in practice the challenges were endless. I was trying to launch a company at 22, in the middle of a recession (again!) and during the Gulf War. So, as far as timing goes, it really wasn’t ideal to be pitching a new style of travel, and preaching revolutionary concepts that would change the face of organized exploring.
I was shut out by every bank and possible investor. They seemed to either lack the capacity to understand the general concept or they had a capacity of understanding and refused to support it anyway. I always say my ass is still sore where the door hit me on the way out. It’s a constant reminder of my first challenges and the start of my life-long training in focusing my energy on solutions instead of problems. When I think back, there wasn’t a single time I questioned whether I’d achieve my goal. As doors closed and people turned me away, I never considered for a moment that it wasn’t my calling, my destiny. I was convinced that this was my place in the universe and I knew that my first task would be to get in front of people to sell them on the benefits of my new holiday company! Before long, it became glaringly obvious to me that I would be going after this dream alone and my only fuel would be passion.
I was my own first true believer; self-propelled by internal drive.
Armed with a college credit card, and money that I begged, borrowed and stole from friends and family, I started my journey to change the way people vacationed.
I began by putting together my first set of programs, travelling to create my itineraries. I found local indigenous tribes in the rainforest and spoke to local hotels and families who owned accommodations; they were interesting and they were diverse. I stayed in farmhouses, bed and breakfasts, and jungle lodges. I travelled around by local bus, train, canoe or rickshaw. I reveled in the joy of being active, and felt alive interacting with fun and interesting people. I was beyond excited at the thought of being able to share this experience with others. I now had a philosophy for travel.
When I set out to develop relationships with local families, villages, and communities to deliver my product I was acutely aware of the responsibility I was now taking on. Those that came on board were helping me achieve my dream and I in return was committing to represent their best interests.
Trust is what we shared.
It was a balancing act to honour what I promised. But I’m happy to say the communities, programs, accommodation, people and families that I approached in my first year, for the first two programs ever offered through G.A.P Adventures, are still active partners today. These programs run exactly as they did, 18 years ago.
A few months ago, I visited Delphine and the Pimpilala community, the first indigenous tribe I met back in 1990. I hadn’t seen Delphine since the day I wandered into his village with a promise to build a company, asking for his trust in me to take care of his family and to keep his best interests at heart. Delphine and his family held a ceremony to welcome me back to their village, cleanse my spirits, and thank me for keeping my promise. It was an emotional full circle completed for me.
After I created my programs, I traveled anywhere and spoke to anyone who would listen. On a mission to begin a quiet revolution against the tourism industry, I’d do anything to get in front of audience. –Any audience. I spoke at schools, bookstores, outdoor clothing stores and even at private dinner parties.
And when I spoke, I spoke with confidence, passion and with supernatural energy that only comes with youth.
While I at times felt like a bit of an island I never once doubted my purpose. I remember those days with so much fondness. When I look back now I see what a true accomplishment it was and I wonder if I could do the same thing today. –Probably not, maybe youth isn’t always wasted on the young.
Never Giving Up
I lived in a warehouse, spent every waking moment working, and I willingly sacrificed most of my youth to serve my internal passion to change the world. I couldn’t have friends or dates or any semblance of a life really; there weren’t enough hours in the day. I was determined to prove not only that there were other people like me who wanted more out of their holiday experience, but also to prove to those that doubted me, what I was capable of.
I was driven by the C- grade I received in college for my first tour company concept. I was driven because I was an immigrant who always had to work harder and be smarter just to be accepted at face value.
There is no question that my greatest moment arrived in 1993 when I decided to sell overseas, and essentially export tourism. The concept was both innovative and aggressive. The idea that someone in Belgium (pre-internet) would book an Africa safari with a Canadian company was truly revolutionary. This epic decision set in motion the explosive growth for G.A.P. Adventures and for me as an individual.
Timing Paired with Leadership
I was presented with a mountain of obstacles that resulted in the creation of something uniquely special. I found myself in a place where I needed to respond with solution based thinking and this started my journey in appreciating the art of leadership. To my amazement, in my quest to do great things, the world rose up and met me offering every opportunity to succeed.
During this time of challenge, the word “ecotourism” emerged and G.A.P. Adventures was seen as the company leading the charge. Before it could be dismissed as a fad, we embraced it. People began to understand the importance of recycling which led to the broader realization that we’re ultimately responsible for how we leave our planet. People sought out vacations that matched their values. And then, the gift of technology arrived.
I remember thinking how magical the fax machine was – but when the internet came along, it revolutionized our ability to manage international reservations and operations. It was the catalyst that transformed us from being a local phenomenon to a worldwide brand.
Technology allowed us to grow from four million dollars in revenue in 1996 to over 120 million in 2008. We’re now selling over 1,000 adventures in 100 countries, and over 600 employees sell G.A.P Adventures’ tours in over 27 countries. We’ve been chosen by National Geographic as the Best Adventure Travel Company on Earth, and as one of the 50 Best Managed Companies for the 5th year in row.
My world has changed in ways that I can’t even begin to describe. What’s abundantly clear is how my leadership skills have been challenged at every turn.
I’ve come to realize that G.A.P. Adventures can only grow as fast as I grow as a leader.
It all starts and stops with me and I must constantly strive to do things better, more efficiently, stronger and faster. It’s clear that everything starts with my own relentless self-evaluation. It’s through me that the G.A.P. Adventures will continue on this journey of achieving greatness and “wowing” people beyond products and services.
G.A.P. Adventures’ Planeterra Foundation has been a labour of love, born out of this desire to think beyond products and services, giving back to the communities we tour. Travelers are given opportunities to build and educate, give water, medical attention, eyesight or even employment while on vacation. They receive and they give; it is reprocity at its best.
We’re rated one of the top 100 companies to work for, and received the Ethics in Action Award for our business practices. We continue to lead our industry through fearless innovation and passion showing people and the world, that sustainable and responsible business practices are possible.
Choose Your Path and Make a Difference
If you stop to reflect, you’ll realize that we change moment to moment. With each passing experience we’re transformed. I’m not the same person who began with a dream to open a travel company. I now have a sincere desire to shape the world I live in.
Doors open for me these days and I get to meet interesting people. I’m regarded as a “professional” now; I lost the “wiz-kid” tag long ago. People pay me to speak about myself, at times this leaves me feeling conflicted because of how I view the marketing of mainstream tourism. I thought I would lose my edge, but I think I’m sharper and wiser.
I’m still pushing harder than ever and even more so now that I’m surrounded by great people who inspire me to rise to my own fullest potential; so I can, in turn, help them achieve theirs as well.
It is all part of an evolutionary process. And, it’s all about impact. I choose my impact to be positive. I choose to become a better person, a better father, a better leader and a better global citizen every day. –You have the very same choice.
I agreed to write this piece because the core purpose of this magazine is to motivate others. I can’t think of two higher honours than serving as a catalyst for change and inspiring those I have yet to meet. I’m humbled by the prospect.