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Mary Novakovich

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gapProof that a business based on happiness can change the world

Twenty years ago, a young entrepreneur set up a travel company that aimed to do far more than turn a profit. Despite the recent recession, it’s never been more successful. Mary Novakovich meets its founder

The Independent on Sunday: Business, 12 December 2010

Bruce Poon Tip was already on his fourth business when he launched Gap Adventures 20 years ago at the age of 23 with the help of two credit cards and some savings. The Canadian’s serial entrepreneurial streak first showed itself in his paper round as a 12-year-old before he started to breed rabbits a year later. “It wasn’t just breeding rabbits. You make it sound so cheap,” he says in a mock-wounded tone. “I imported the first set of Dutch dwarf rabbits into Canada. I only sold the females and offered stud services for the males. I knew people would breed their own males eventually. But until then I controlled the product.”

The teenage Poon Tip was already showing two aspects of his business acumen that were to serve him well: spotting a gap in the market and controlling the product. He called his adventure travel company Gap Adventures because “it bridged the gap between mainstream travel and the backpacker”, he says, although the clothing giant has been trying to wrest the name from him for the past four years in a futile legal battle.

The need to exercise control over the product is a fundamental part of the company’s business model. It means that Gap Adventures, which has since become the world’s largest adventure travel company, owns many of its assets, from its ships in the Galapagos and Antarctic to the 38 offices around the world that operate the tours directly.

“My ethos has always been that if we offer an innovative or unique product, we have to be able to control the experience,” he explains. “Any other travel company will rely on a local operator to deliver on their brand. I can never do that. I don’t even know how you can do that. Our brand is about creating experience and the most important thing is delivering that experience.”

For the Gap Adventures traveller, the experience has always gone hand in hand with the benefits it can bring to the local community. Poon Tip has seen the industry go from ecotourism in the mid-1990s, when everyone was concerned about saving the rainforest, to today’s carbon offsetters whose claims to help the environment cause some confusion among consumers.

“There’s a lot of ‘greenwashing’ in the industry. It’s kind of like the organic industry 15 years ago. Same thing is going on now with carbon offsetting,” he says. “When you look at it closely, there’s a lot of hocus pocus because there are no true guidelines. I’ve spoken to five of the largest offsetters in the world and within five minutes I can make them very nervous. And all I’m asking them is questions about their business.”

Poon Tip, on the other hand, always focused on sustainability in travel by organising tourism projects with local NGOs: women’s co-ops, homes for street children and eye hospitals have been some of the results. He expanded this in 2003 by setting up Planeterra, the company’s not-for-profit foundation that exists purely to promote community development around the world.

“Back then we were even against talking about it,” he says. “We thought we shouldn’t even be marketing it. But the consumer changed over the course of the past 15 years, and now they want to know what a company stands for. Buying travel is an emotional purchase for some. It wasn’t 15 years ago, and it still isn’t for 90 per cent of travellers. They want a Ryanair flight or a cheap deal. But a small growing number that purchase their travel more emotionally want to identify with a company.”

Poon Tip is on a flying visit to the London headquarters of Gap Adventures, in between making keynote speeches at tourism conferences in the Gulf states and jetting off to the South Pole. The 43-year-old is dressed, appropriately enough, in a Gap Adventures fleece; his casual style suits the gadget-filled office where the young staff seem to have every form of Apple product on the market. I’m shown an iPad that’s playing a video that is meant to give me an idea of what the company is all about. To the soundtrack of the Jacksons’ “Can You Feel It”, staff from the company’s offices around the world – from “base camp” in Toronto to Peru and India – film themselves dancing in unself-conscious joy, It’s not your typical corporate video.

“We can deliver extraordinary experiences with happy people,” says Poon Tip. “We have 800 employees on Twitter, and everyone gets time off in the morning and afternoon to tweet and we post them all live on our website. We convert it to what we call our happiness business model. I work bloody hard to keep our people happy. It’s intertwined with our business.”

It’s a business that has passed the $150m revenue mark, and he won’t get more specific than that. Even during the recession, while his competitors were frantically downsizing, Gap Adventures grew 40 per cent. It’s an astounding feat considering the many troubles that have plagued the travel industry this past year. While the ash cloud caused havoc with European connecting flights to Africa and Asia, it was the floods in Peru and the rebellion in Bangkok that made life difficult, as those countries are the first and third most popular destinations for Gap Adventures. “The ash cloud was the least of our worries,” says Poon Tip. “That was a much smaller problem than the Red Shirts in Thailand and the floods in Peru. They shut business full stop.”

Similarly, three years ago, the company hit the headlines when its Antarctic ship MS Explorer sank in the freezing Southern Ocean. Its passengers and crew spent five hours in lifeboats before other vessels came to pick them up. Then they had to be flown from a tiny island to the Chilean mainland, and that’s where disaster struck again.

“We had 154 passengers and we had a Hercules plane that carried 155 people to bring back. When the plane arrived it was full of journalists who had paid the Chilean government for their seats. I had to choose who wasn’t coming back,” he recalls with a tinge of bitterness. “And I didn’t know when I’d get a plane to go back there to pick them up. After what they’d been through.”

His customers remained loyal, though, as almost every one of them have rebooked an Antarctic holiday with him. He also knows that paying compensation to that small number of people is peanuts compared with what the giant conglomerates such as TUI had to fork out during the ash cloud.

As TUI continues to snap up smaller companies, I ask Poon Tip how that affects his business. “Every time they buy a company that’s in my space we throw a little party,” he says, smiling. “It’s a great thing for us because that competitor disappears from our radar. As soon as TUI buys a company it loses its soul.” His smile disappears when I ask if he would sell Gap Adventures. “I’d never sell to TUI. We’re doing extraordinary stuff right now, but we’d lose that edge. We’d just become another average company and I don’t think that’s where I would want to be.”

The possibility of going public, however, is a slightly different prospect. “I’ve thought about it, only because I think it would be fun. It would be a kind of a sexy company in a public frame,” he says. “It would be a great to have a public company that’s based on happiness. I’d love that. But I think long term I’d be ousted by shareholders.” He laughs. “There’d be a coup. But that would also be fun.”

This article won the British Guild of Travel Writers Best Business Feature award in November 2011

AB3_4735Altitude Festival, Méribel Auditorium, France

The Independent: Arts & Books, 7 April 2010

Outside the Auditorium in Méribel’s main square, a miniature snowpark had been set up. As the music blared, slightly drunk snowboarders queued up to have a go at sliding down the rail. One by one they fell off ignominiously, to laughter and cheers from the raucous crowd. The jib session was one of several dozen events in the third annual Altitude Festival, when comedy and music take over the French ski resort for a week in low season and give the mainly English skiers something else to do than just get tanked up during happy hour. It was as good a warm-up as any for the comedians inside – better, in fact, than the official warm-up comic, Mark Walker. (Laughing at your own feeble jokes as you deliver them is not a good idea.)

The next act up, Nick Doody, was an improvement, but his obsession with explaining why he didn’t want kids wore a bit thin. He fared better with his Clown Song, a cheerful ditty that echoed what most people think about clowns: they’re scary, they’re likely to kill you and your parents and they come from Satan. It was hard to disagree.

Professional cockney Micky Flanagan was an excellent replacement for the cancelled headline act, Rich Hall. His background provides entertaining fodder: originally from the working-class East End of London, he’s now in a middle-class enclave in East Dulwich and amiably rips both to shreds. He recalled a classmate at school who was scoffed at for having grand ambitions to be a van driver. “No one from this school has ever gone on to drive a van. We’re the people who carry the stuff to the van,” he said. “I left school with nothing – except a bottle opener. We made ashtrays in the first year, bottle openers in the second and prams in the third.”

By late evening, the auditorium had filled up with a lairy crowd that had waited specially for the Improv Allstars: Steve Frost, Rufus Hound, Ian Coppinger, Andy Smart, Dave Johns and the festival’s co-founder and keen snowboarder, Marcus Brigstocke. They’re old pros, and knew how to get the best out of the audience’s increasingly lewd suggestions for their improvised routines. They got their own back by taking the mickey out of the cream of the young English middle classes sitting before them. It was too good an opportunity to pass up.

University Challenge: ‘I thought about leaving’

Student debt is ballooning, so why are there such huge inequalities in the funding available to students — both in the UK and abroad? By Mary Novakovich

The Guardian: Education, 19 January 2009

Student debt has reached eye-watering proportions since 1997, when the government abolished maintenance grants in favour of loans. With tuition fees capped at £3,145, but set to increase to £3,225 for the next academic year, there is little wonder that the average student debt is almost £5,000 a year.
Students from better-off families will get little or no state help if their household income is above the maximum for a maintenance grant. Annelie Ryan, 20, is in her second year of a BA in public relations at Bournemouth University, and was able to get only a loan to cover her living expenses.

“The loan is just short of the amount I need for my rent,” she says. “My parents try to help me but they’re not minted. I did have a part-time job but I couldn’t keep it up because there’s so much extra work this year. And I’m freezing my toes off because bills aren’t included in the rent.” Ryan can only hope that her sandwich year on a paid placement will get her back on a better financial footing.

Students in other parts of the UK can find it somewhat easier to meet the costs of a university education. Scottish resi’hauntsdents studying at a Scottish university do not have to pay tuition fees, and Welsh students get a payment from the National Assembly of Wales that effectively halves the cost of their tuition. This is enormously helpful to young mother Kayleigh Davies. The 20-year-old from south Wales, who is in her second year of a law degree at the University of Glamorgan, is able to receive a student grant while she raises six-month-old Mia. The fact that she is living at home — and with childcare — makes a big difference financially but Davies still had to take out a student loan. “I have found this year quite hard-going and thought about leaving. But then I see how tough it is for students who haven’t had the support I received.”


While public universities in the US charge high tuition fees in comparison with Britain’s, there is considerable state funding to help to cover students’ expenses in the form of grants and scholarships. Amanda Kopp, 19, is in her first year at Grand Valley State University near Grand Rapids, Michigan, studying international relations. This year’s expenses including tuition, books and rent come to about $15,000 (£9,740), most of which was taken care of by state financial aid and several grants. Still, Kopp had to take out a small student loan, and her part-time job takes up about 15 to 20 hours a week, well above the maximum recommended 10 hours per week.

The situation in the US could change drastically in the near future, however. Last year, Harvard University announced that it would extend financial aid to students from households earning from $120,000 to $180,000 (£78,250 to £117,375) and cap its fees at 10% of this income. Yale soon followed Harvard’s lead, which caused alarm among public universities that don’t have the endowment funds of private institutions. As the chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, Robert Birgeneau, told USA Today, it creates an anomalous situation: “Harvard’s new cut-off point for aid is a family income of $180,000 a year; Berkeley’s is about $90,000. Consequently, a family with an income of $180,000 will pay $18,000 to attend Harvard, while one with an income of $90,000 pays about $25,000 to attend Berkeley.”

One option gaining popularity is part-time study, undertaken by 40% of British people in higher education. But part-time students, who are already pressured to fit their studies around demanding full-time jobs, often feel left out when it comes to financial support and flexibility. It’s the subject of a government review led by Staffordshire University’s Christine King, who warned last year that radical changes are needed to prevent Britain falling behind in the knowledge economy.

saabSaab 9-3 Biopower Convertible: Green with envy in the Languedoc

Saab’s biofuel soft-top slips down nicely in wine country. By Mary Novakovich

The Independent: Motoring, 4 December 2007

It seemed too good to be true: a car with solid green credentials that looked great, performed beautifully, came with a soft top and wouldn’t let me down in style-obsessed France.

In fact, Saab’s BioPower range seems to have found its spiritual home across the Channel, where environmental issues are taken rather more seriously than in Britain. First of all, the eco-friendly fuel that the BioPower uses, E85, is found in 160 pumps across France, whereas only 19 have popped up in the UK so far. Admittedly, France is double the size of Britain geographically, but that’s still an incredible difference, given that we have roughly the same population.

Secondly, the French autoroutes are a dream to drive, especially in comparison with horribly congested British roads unless you’re in a summertime tailback on the A75, of course. Luckily I wasn’t, having decided to test the Saab BioPower 9-3 in mellow late October. The leaves were changing colour and the harvest had been and gone, leaving nothing but golden vineyards, the heady smell of fermenting grapes and the first of the new vintages in the wine shops.

It was even better once I got off the motorways and sauntered along the quiet D-roads in the Languedoc region. To the golds and crimsons of the autumn leaves I added the attractive baby-blue 9-3 convertible. With the top down, of course. It was just mild enough to get away with it (while wearing a hat and scarf), and the sky was too vividly blue for me to hide it from view after enduring so many weeks of dull, dreary British weather.

These mostly deserted roads were perfect for putting the Saab through its paces. My model was an automatic 2.0 turbo, and the engine, as on most bioethanol fuel cars, is tuned to be more powerful than conventional powertrains because of the relatively lower power output from bioethanol.

The car scored highly when it came to turning heads too. At the car park near Hotel de Vigniamont, our handsome B&B in Pézenas, I was a bit nervous to see a gang of local youths hanging around on their bikes outside. Were they going to hassle me, maybe do something to the car? Not a bit of it. “Wow, that’s a beautiful car,” they said, crowding around it in appreciation. “Super cool. Bravo, madame!”

So no quibbles regarding the Saab’s performance, comfort and style. But I was just as interested in exploring some of its green credentials. The E85 on which it runs is so called because it’s made of 15 per cent fossil fuel and 85 per cent bioethanol, derived from plants such as wheat, corn and sugar cane. Bioethanol has received some bad press lately because of the fear of deforestation in poorer regions in order to grow these cash crops. What is heartening to hear, however, is that a second generation of biofuels is becoming more widespread. This fuel makes use of the agricultural stuff that would normally go to waste, such as straw and wood shavings from sustainable forests.

Driving through Languedoc, you can’t help but notice the number of wind farms dotted about the landscape. This makes sense: the region has its own version of Provence’s mistral, the tramontane, a vicious, evil wind that can almost blow the door off a car. Why let such power go to waste?

Making full use of natural resources is a concept that hasn’t escaped one British expat wine-grower in the area either. When Robert Eden (the great-nephew of former Prime Minister Anthony) bought the Château Maris vineyard in the La Livinière appellation 10 years ago, he quickly discovered the effects of relying too much on chemicals and not caring about the environment. “I inherited a lot of sick vines and dead soil,” he recalled, describing the 40 hectares he bought in Languedoc, the world’s largest wine-growing region. Robert tried the organic route first, then went a step further by using “biodynamic principles”. This method of farming, pioneered by the philosopher and social thinker Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s, is a more holistic approach to organic farming; its popularity is growing in both France and Britain.

Robert laughed when he saw me approach. “I knew it was you when I saw you turning into the lane,” he said. “Who else but the British would go around in October with the top down?” The car won him over, however, as we drove up the hill to one stretch of vineyard where he was cultivating a particularly fetching pile of manure. “Everything that has gone into this shit is biodynamic,” he said proudly, getting his hand stuck in. His two horses, Karabi and Malicieuse (who apparently lives up to her name), not only contribute to the manure supply but also plough three hectares of vineyard using a home-made contraption that would make Heath Robinson sigh in admiration. (Robert’s plan is to get rid of all motorised tractors eventually.) The rest of the vineyards is ploughed using an ancient tractor that runs on the oil from rapeseed grown in what would have been a fallow field. Waste not, want not, and produce some very good wine in the process.

This sort of ecological thinking is finally making headway in the car industry. Saab is very proud of its BioPower fuel option, and has offered it across its entire range. But what use is that with so few E85 pumps in Britain? Well, these “flexi-fuel” cars run on unleaded petrol as well as E85, and can mix the two: the engine determines how to get the best performance out of whatever combination of fuel is in the tank. The only remaining problem was reluctantly putting the top back up and giving the car back after such a pleasurable journey. Bonne route!

www.saabbiopower.co.uk; Hotel de Vigniamont (00 33 4 67 35 14 88; www.hoteldevigniamont.com)


Model: Saab 9-3 BioPower convertible, 2.0-litre
Performance: 0-60mph 9.4 seconds; 33.2mpg; 138mph top speed; automatic turbo
CO2: 70-116g/km while running on E85 fuel
Price: 26,710

wellerPaul Weller: The style counsellor

His music changed – his look stayed cool, says Mary Novakovich

The Independent: Arts & Books, 10 February 2006

I had a boyfriend who had the scarf (paisley with maroon tassels), the crisp white shirt, the skinny trousers, the stolen bowling shoes and, of course, the three-button Italian-cut jacket. While his fellow-Scousers preferred the ballbreaking scally look, he turned instead to Paul Weller for inspiration.

Clean lines, fanatical attention to detail, smartness bordering on obsession – Weller’s Mod look was one we all aspired to. His bandmates couldn’t come close: damn fine bass player though he was, Bruce Foxton still had a whiff of the Seventies refugee about him, and there was a good reason why Rick Buckler was stuck behind a drum kit. Both men looked of their time, which was their problem.

Weller, however, always looked cool, and eventually compelled the boyfriend to pick up a guitar, and me (with Louise Brooks bob, black poloneck and plain miniskirt) to buy a second-hand bass. After months spent trying to master the intro to “Start!”, I realised that I would contemplate cutting my hair to look like Bruce Foxton if only I could have an ounce of his ability. At least we had the right look, if not the talent.

The demise of The Jam was bad enough without having to endure the pretensions and often embarrassingly rubbish music of The Style Council. What on earth was Weller doing with that Talbot bloke from the Merton Parkas who was wearing a navy blazer? A navy blazer, for God’s sake! And who gave the Cappuccino Kid permission to write excruciating waffle on the sleeves of their releases? (Example: “Their second record mixes sweat with love, anger with joy and they take long walks down by the riverside during the month of March in search of tea parties.” Oh, how droll. What was this, the Sixties?)

Weller, to his credit, was still oozing style, and looked like an extra from A Bout de Souffle. This time we were inspired to be seen sitting in a Continental café, looking nonchalant, reading Le Monde and smoking unfiltered Gitanes. Again, the look prevailed (although the flat stank of French cigarettes). The music, unfortunately, left us cold and not a little derisive.

Weller’s appearance has hardly changed in the intervening decades, even if his face is rather attractively lived-in. While some admire his consistency, others suggest that perhaps his haircut isn’t entirely suitable for a man in his 48th year.

But you can’t really criticise a man for sticking to the Mod rule of clean lines and unfussy style. Certainly, he has strayed occasionally into some dodgy territory: what was he doing in a collarless shirt on the cover of his solo debut album, for instance? But while Mod revivals came and went, along with Britpop, Weller could be counted on time and again for his classic look and complete inability to give a toss what anybody thinks.

Some retro men’s fashions (frilly Seventies shirts, old men’s suits of the Fifties) look daft on anyone old enough to remember them the first time round. Mod, however, transcends fashion. It was strange, at the time, to be so influenced by a style that was created by men, for men and deliberately excluded women. It was even stranger to be so obsessed with a man’s look and not fancy him in the slightest. Now that’s class.

otwayJohn Otway: Fans with a plan for their man

You’re 50 and you want a chart hit. How do you do it? John Otway tells Mary Novakovich the answer

The Independent on Sunday, 30 September 2002

Thanks to the unbeatable combination of Will Young and Gareth Gates, tonight’s number one single in the Top 40 is a foregone conclusion. Those same charts which Top of the Pops producer Chris Cowey recently called “dysfunctional” remain awash with manufactured hits from manufactured pop idols. And now an old punk is poised to join them, armed with the sort of fan power which has nothing to do with impressionable tweenie girls.

Twenty-five years ago, John Otway made a respectable dent in the charts with the minor punk anthem “(Cor Baby That’s) Really Free”. It reached number 27, sold 125,000 copies and convinced Polydor to offer Otway an album deal which exceeded those of the Sex Pistols, the Jam and the Clash. Otway’s follow-up attempts, however, were resounding flops and he banished himself to the pub circuit which, despite itself, produced a fanatically dedicated following for the self-proclaimed “rock’n’roll’s greatest failure”.

As Otway turns 50 this Wednesday, his fans, who in the past have given him such birthday gifts as a theremin and bagpipes, are clubbing together to give him what he avidly wants: a second hit. And Otway, who knows his judgement for picking Top 40 singles is spectacularly rotten, has left it to his fans to choose the song.

“I always had the opinion that if you ask 2,000 people they’re likely to come up with a better result than five people sitting round a table,” says Otway. “I didn’t trust myself to pick the hit but there was nobody else I knew whom I could trust to pick it either.”

A CD of 11 songs was sent to about 2,000 people, and the results were announced at a sold-out gig at London’s Astoria – overseen by the Electoral Reform Society, no less. The clear winner was “Bunsen Burner”, an upbeat track that borrows heavily from the Trammps’ “Disco Inferno”.

Otway and disco? He has his new collaborator, Barry Upton, to thank for that one. Upton helped to create Steps, but he’s been hankering to work with Otway for years. The song itself, though, is almost irrelevant: the fans are so desperate to get their man back in the charts that they’ve formed a hit squad to do the things a record company would normally do. “They’re going to make it a hit without a big corporate media push behind it,” says Otway. “They’ve been given local press and local radio to do, and they’re doing a good job for people who don’t do that for a living.” The fans also sang on the B side, which was recorded at Abbey Road studios. A choir of a thousand packed into the “Beatles’ room” to record the backchat that accompanies Otway’s romp through “The House of the Rising Sun”. They did, however, need strict instructions on how to make advance orders of the single to ensure that record shops, which normally wouldn’t carry loads of Otway stock, would have a plentiful supply.

“We’re preaching largely to a group of people who haven’t bought a single in the past 20 years, and certainly not a CD single,” says Otway. “They really don’t know how it works. If you’re seen to be hyping the charts you’re going to get your sales discounted – if you walk in and buy 100 copies, for example. But we’re not hyping the charts; this is just the fans going out and buying the hit.”

Fan power has already resulted in almost 20,000 advance sales (helped by the fact that the single is available in three versions, all of which are being bought), which puts it at least in the Top 20. And because HMV in Sheffield is opening up specially tonight at midnight for an in-store appearance after an Otway gig, the number of copies sold will send him to number one – at least until Monday afternoon.

Otway is so confident of his return to the charts that he’s booked the London Palladium next Sunday for a “Back in the Charts” gig. It’s almost sold out.

“It’s going to be a big celebration because the fans have worked really hard for it,” he says. “It’s their record in a way. When they were younger and watching Top of the Pops, the idea of a hit used to have a great deal of romance attached to it. That’s been taken away, but just for once this rekindles it for them.”

John Otway’s ‘Bunsen Burner’ is out tomorrow on U-Vibe.

All photos © Adam Batterbee