Wednesday,  July 28, 2021  5:43 am

“Stop using the term vaccine passport”: 12 things Bruce Poon Tip told agents at Special Agent G

“Stop using the term vaccine passport”: 12 things Bruce Poon Tip told agents at Special Agent G
Founder of G Adventures Bruce Poon Tip. (Supplied)
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

Founder of G Adventures Bruce Poon Tip addressed Canadian travel advisors on Thursday (June 10), sharing his latest thoughts on the state of the travel industry and the company's future plans. 

Speaking with candor, the entrepreneur, author and philanthropist covered several topics in an interactive Q&A that closed G Adventures’ flagship training event Special Agent G, which was held virtually this year.

The two-day course, which was free to attend, took place on June 9 and 10. Over the two days, agents attended panel events, keynotes and skill-building workshops.

Founder of G Adventures Bruce Poon Tip closed Special Agent G with an interactive Q&A session with agents.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, G Adventures has been running tours in select countries since September of 2020.  

Last April, the Toronto-based company celebrated 100 safe tours, and this July, it plans to run 165.

Supported by his e-book, Unlearn: The Year the Earth Stood Still, which was released in April of last year, Poon Tip has used the pandemic as an opportunity to engage with the travel industry, and consumers, to discuss ways to change the world through travel.

The businessman touched on several ideas in his closing keynote yesterday. Here’s 12 key things he said:

1. Agents have a rare opportunity right now

As the pandemic continues to evolve, travel advisors have a rare opportunity to “be a source of information and transcend your product,” Poon Tip said.

“We get very rare gifts like that,” he said, suggesting that agents are in a unique position to create meaningful relationships with their clients.

“When you’re selling people things all the time, that’s not a meaningful relationship. You’re just selling them stuff,” he said. “Look for ways to engage with your customers and transcend what you do.”

G Adventures, for example, does that through Planeterra, a non-profit community tourism organization that Poon Tip founded in 2003 to address poverty around the world.

“Look for ways to engage with your customers and transcend what you do," said Bruce Poon Tip. (Supplied)

The pandemic allows agents to offer a professional service “because travellers are nervous and they need to feel safe,” Poon Tip said.

By knowing the latest on vaccine rollouts and protocols for reopening destinations, “You become an authority,” he said.

“Having those conversations becomes a valuable source of connectedness that you can have with customers. These are rare opportunities,” he said.

OTAs have the disadvantage here, he said, because “all travel has become a high-touch product.”

“That’s when travel agents become valuable,” he said.  

2. Canada’s travel industry is behind

As the industry knows well, Canada’s strict quarantine and border measures have delayed the reopening of the aviation, travel and tourism sectors.

The Canadian government's plan to end quarantine hotel stays for fully vaccinated citizens and permanent residents returning from abroad, announced this week, is worth celebrating.

In fact, Poon Tip, in response to the news, played the song “Celebration” by Kool & the Gang, multiple times, into his microphone during the Q&A.

However, in Canada: “We’re behind,” he said.

Especially in comparison to the United States, which, on many fronts, is months into its recovery.

Canada’s vaccine rollout by age, with all its technical problems, “has been a mess,” Poon Tip said, putting it bluntly.

“We’re going to miss a big part of summer, unfortunately,” he said. “The government seems to have no urgency and that’s our biggest problem.”

But Canada, as it ramps up its vaccination efforts, is in a good position for a rebound, he added.

“We’re positioned well for inbound if the government works with us and makes things easier,” Poon Tip said, urging the industry to “be a voice” in communicating to governments its needs.  

Canada should recognize vaccines “other than the ones we’ve approved,” Poon Tip also suggested.

As for outbound travel, it’s going to depend on other countries opening their borders to fully vaccinated people, he said.

3. There are many good reasons to book travel now

G is starting is seeing a spike in bookings as more people get vaccinated.

Why should people book now and not later?

It's everyone’s responsibility to support the travel industry, says Bruce Poon Tip, seen here in Antarctica. (Supplied)

“There’s limited space everywhere,” Poon Tip said, saying that the demand will move fast once communities reach herd immunity and 70% vaccination levels.

There’s also “deals, deals, deals” right now, he said.

Furthermore: “All of us in the industry are offering flexibility that we’ve never offered before,” he said. “Take advantage of those things.”

Another reason to book now?

There are people on the ground, in destinations, “hanging on by a thread, waiting for people to travel again,” Poon Tip said, implying that it’s everyone’s responsibility to support all aspects of the industry.

4. Travel should be a two-way experience

One of Poon Tip’s main philosophies is that travel should be a two-way experience.”

By that, he’s referring to communities – everyone involved in creating experiences – benefitting from travel.

“Community tourism is about inclusiveness,” he said. “About everyone taking part.”

One way that agents can approach this concept is to research places that wouldn’t ordinarily benefit from tourism (but are still beautiful destinations).

These can be immersion experiences, such as staying on a farm in Iceland or at a winery in Chile, he said.

“There are so places you can get away from tourists and really live like a local,” he said.

5. Purposeful travel is a growing market

 More travellers want to have a positive, deeper impact on the destinations they visit, Poon Tip said.

“They just don’t know it exists,” he said.

This is where travel advisors can “be the light” as a source of information and provide customers with something different.

“It’s niche, it’s small, but it’s a vast growing market,” Poon Tip said. “You have to be able to educate people about options.”

In order for this market to truly take off, travel needs to become a “transformative industry,” Poon Tip said – “and hopefully this pandemic will change some of that.”

As Poon Tip has said before, the industry was getting to a “dangerous place” prior to the pandemic, succumbing to a model where people were selling amenities instead of destinations.

The travel industry was getting to a “dangerous place” prior to the pandemic, says Bruce Poon Tip. (Supplied)

Endless restaurants, Broadway shows and thread counts on sheets, for example, were becoming more important, Poon Tip has argued, and the industry was forgetting about its responsibility to connect with destinations.

“One thing that will come out of the pandemic is a new group of people who will be more purposeful in where they want to go,” Poon Tip said.

READ MORE: Travel industry was in a "dangerous place" before COVID: Bruce Poon Tip calls for change at ACTA summit

In this light, agents can be “an important teacher and mentor” for those seeking meaningful experiences that benefit communities.

“People are going to come in confused about what they want next,” Poon Tip said. “You have the opportunity to steer them the right way.”

6. G Adventures will help with testing

Pre-departure COVID testing for travellers returning home will be around for a while.

While G Adventures doesn’t conduct the tests, it can help make them happen, Poon Tip said.

“Every country in the world needs tests to get home, so we’re making sure that, within the time limits, we can get tests locally and help facilitate that,” he said.

Easy access to testing in destinations is one of the “building blocks” that will get people travelling again, he explained.  

“All of our customers need it, no matter where they’re going home to,” he said.

7. Stop using the term “vaccine passport”

Proof of vaccination is a “hot, hot button question,” Poon Tip said.

He urged agents to stop using the term “vaccine passport” because it has become a politicized term that has allowed some people to equate vaccines with liberty and freedom.

“It’s a lightening right rod of politicization,” he said.

In turn, he encouraged agents to use “proof of vaccination,” instead, as this is a concept that has been around since the “dawn of travel" and has been used many years for travel to Africa, for example.

“We are the educators of travel,” Poon Tip said. “We have to be rational, we have to be leaders.”

Proof of vaccination is going to play an “important part” in restarting travel, he said, and the term “passport” may be used down the road when there’s a global standardized system.

“But there’s nothing like that right now,” he said. 

8. The industry should continue to be flexible

While Poon Tip doesn’t think G Adventures will offer the same level of flexible booking after the pandemic, he believes it should be an ongoing theme moving forward.

“As operators, we’re all seeing the benefits,” Poon Tip said. “It’s so much better for the customer. I’m so for it.”

At the same time, tour operators can only go so far in this regard as full flexibility, due to the nature of travel, lies in the hands of airlines, he said.

9. Travel won’t recover until the end of 2022

While the pandemic is an ever-changing beast, Poon Tip offered his prediction for when the industry will return to pre-pandemic levels, suggesting it will happen in the last quarter of 2022 and into 2023.

“There is a very significant group of people that are going to have a problem with getting on an airplane again and being in a contained space,” Poon Tip said, calling this the “biggest challenge” tour operators face.

10. Countries without access to vaccines need travel most

Refusing to travel to a country with low vaccination rates is a “personal decision,” Poon Tip said.

However: “I don’t think it’s the right one,” he said.

“Countries that don’t have access to vaccines are the ones who needs travel more than anyone else. Unfortunately, because of birthright, they don’t have the luxury or privilege of accessing vaccines like we do.”

Poon Tip urged agents to have “logical conversations” with clients about this subject.

Some of the poorest countries “need you more than ever,” he said, “and you can have that positive impact,” reminding agents that “travel shouldn’t be a one-way experience.”

11. Building tours in Canada is a “slow burn”

G Adventures was expanding its Canada product prior to the pandemic, and it will continue to do so in the future, Poon Tip said.

“It’s been a slow burn for us bringing it back because of our government,” he admitted.

With blanket bans and lockdowns, the Canadian government “has shut everybody out.”

12. Something “very, very big” is coming

G Adventures is working on something “very, very big” to enhance its G for Good commitment to making travel a positive force.

Poon Tip just can’t say what it is…yet. His lips are sealed. 

“We are working on some industry-changing and G Adventures-changing projects,” he told attendees. “It’s really going to change the game for us and the industry.”

Whatever it is, it’s going to be something “incredible, innovative, and it will be out later this year, or next,” he said.


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