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COMMENTARY: How this once high-flying Canadian travel exec is riding out COVID-19 turbulence

A plane is silhouetted as it takes off from Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C., on May 13, 2019.
A plane is silhouetted as it takes off from Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C., on May 13, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Back before the coronavirus pandemic hit in the spring, Bruce Poon Tip was flying high.

The Canadian travel entrepreneur was jetting around the globe, keeping tabs on an adventure travel empire that had exploded in popularity.

After a 30-year run in the travel business, Poon Tip’s G Adventures experienced exponential growth in 2019, riding a wave of global interest in adventure vacations.

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“People are moving towards owning less things and collecting more experiences,” Poon Tip told me, recalling the heady pre-pandemic days when his company was growing at an astonishing rate.

“We pride ourselves in being nimble and speed to market is everything,” he said, pointing to successful partnerships with global groups like National Geographic to offer adventure travel packages to places like the Galapagos Islands and Antarctica.

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Then things ground to halt when COVID-19 hit in the spring.

“It escalated so quickly, we’ve laid off over 1,000 people,” he told me, noting his company has taken a deep hit in all of the 100 countries where it offers unique tours and travel experiences.

One of the hottest travel companies on the planet was suddenly grounded.

“We really are shut down,” he said. “Borders are closed. Countries are closed. There are countries forbidding their own citizens to actually leave the country. The world is shutting down around us.”

But it could have been worse. Right before the pandemic struck, Poon Tip had been in acquisition talks to buy out three competitors.

Fortunately, all three deals fell through.

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“I was angry at the time because we had spent so much time and money to move these acquisitions forward,” he said.

“But things happen for a reason. If those acquisitions had gone through, we would be in a very different position right now.”

It was a blessing in disguise. The failed deals left G Adventures in a strong cash position, vital to any travel company trying to weather the COVID storm.

“Cash is king right now,” he said, adding G Adventures has been helped through the crisis by government assistance programs.

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But not all countries are created equal when it comes to helping employers survive, he said.

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The experience of running a global company has given Poon Tip a wide-angle view of how governments around the world have helped businesses survive the pandemic.

“Australia has been amazing. The U.K. has been amazing. The U.S. has not been amazing, it’s been a disaster for us. Canada has been in the middle, not as robust and helpful as I would like, but they are there.”

As for the future, Poon Tip is optimistic about a 2021 recovery. Great strides have been made to develop a vaccine. And he predicts people will return to travelling again.

“There will be a short-term, mid-term and long-term solution,” he said.

“People will adapt.”

For one of Canada’s most successful travel entrepreneurs, his outlook could give hope to an industry that has suffered terribly through the pandemic.

Mike Smyth is host of ‘The Mike Smyth Show’ on Global News Radio 980 CKNW in Vancouver and a commentator for Global News. You can reach him at mike@cknw.com and follow him on Twitter at @MikeSmythNews​.