Travelling globally, thinking locally

Toronto-based G.A.P Adventures has become one of the world's largest adventure travel companies, offering group adventures with a focus on sustainable travel to over 60,000 passengers a year. As a way for the company and its travellers to give back to the people and places visited on its tours, G.A.P developed its own non-profit organization, Planeterra.

Toronto-based G.A.P Adventures has become one of the world’s largest adventure travel companies, offering group adventures with a focus on sustainable travel to over 60,000 passengers a year. As a way for the company and its travellers to give back to the people and places visited on its tours, G.A.P developed its own non-profit organization, Planeterra.

Inspiration

G.A.P Adventures’ commitment to sustainable travel is woven throughout all aspects of the company – from its corporate initiatives to the way tours are run. By using small-scale lodging and local transportation, supporting locally owned businesses and incorporating community-based ecotourism projects, G.A.P is environmentally, socially and culturally responsible.

Planeterra was established to take that commitment further. It supports 19 community projects worldwide, from the Salesiano Street Children Project in Ecuador to BearHealth in Svalbard on the Arctic Ocean. The projects – the number of which increases each year – focus on health, education, community development, environmental conservation and employment skills training.

G.A.P pays all administration fees, which means that 100% of each donation goes directly to Planeterra programs. The Dollar-A-Day program gives travellers the option to donate for the duration of their tour, and G.A.P matches all individual donations.

G.A.P customers can also donate their time while on holiday. Planeterra volunteer trips give travellers a chance to experience cultural immersion and help improve the living conditions of local people. G.A.P ran eight new volunteer trips in 2007 and expanded to 15 in 2008, including delivering wheelchairs to land mine victims in Cambodia, assisting in a medical clinic in Kenya and working with a sea turtle conservation project in Costa Rica.

G.A.P also promotes partnerships by employing local guides, suppliers and operators. This provides economic benefits and leadership opportunities for local people, supports their initiatives and encourages the preservation of natural and cultural heritage.

New for 2008 is the Planet Positive Project, which focuses on environmental sustainability. G.A.P aims to plant one million trees in the next 18 months to offset emissions, including one tree per passenger, to support regrowth projects in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The operator’s existing carbon offset program has been expanded to include the footprint of tours as well as flights.

At home, the head office and five concept stores are powered by 100% green energy. The company also provides a monthly subsidy for staff members who use public transportation.

Execution and Marketing Efforts

G.A.P Adventures’ marketing strategy is to raise awareness and educate consumers, customers and agents about sustainable tourism and its initiatives.

The Internet is the primary medium for providing travellers with guidelines on how to minimize their impact on the environment, wildlife and marine ecosystems. Gapadventures.com generates 200,000 unique visitors and two million page views per month. The Watering Hole travellers forum has a sustainable travel category for passengers to ask questions and share tips, and over 110,000 subscribers get a monthly e-newsletter highlighting various sustainable travel initiatives.

G.A.P works to reinforce this sustainability message throughout the traveller’s experience, right down to the information provided on their itinerary. Concept stores in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Melbourne and New York are staffed with ‘adventure specialists’ to provide advice and information on weekly featured trips, as well as access to the website, brochures and videos of the Great Adventure People TV series, which follow travellers on G.A.P trips. Each store also offers events and seminars ranging from slide shows to cooking classes and travel writing workshops.

When the holiday’s over, the adventure continues at home through events and fundraising. Each April, G.A.P celebrates Earth Day. This year’s ‘Turn your green adventures blue’ promotion centred on a contest to win a volunteer trip, and G.A.P donated a dollar for every entry towards Planeterra’s clean drinking water programs. In 2007, the ‘Get dirty for Earth Day’ campaign included trail and beach cleanups on tours from China to Belize.

Closer to home, Toronto and Vancouver store staff handed out over 500 tree seedlings. The company also offered to carbon-offset flights for people who booked during the week of Apr. 20 to 27 with its ‘Fly a little lighter for Earth Day’ promotion last year, which was advertised in newspapers and magazines in major centres. (G.A.P ads are all done in-house.)

Relying primarily on the website, PR activities and word of mouth, Planeterra raised over $300,000 last year – $100,000 of which went to ease the fallout from the earthquake in Peru in August, and the rest dispersed among Planeterra projects. The annual ‘Jump for Charity’ skydive, which raised $20,000, regularly sells out before the team has the opportunity to advertise it.

Aside from fundraising, the company focuses PR efforts on pitching itself to media as an expert source. CEO Bruce Poon Tip is a regular interview subject in articles on sustainable travel in National Geographic Adventure, Condé Nast Traveller, Elle, Canada AM, Breakfast Television, the New York Times, the L.A. Times, the Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Maclean’s and MuchMoreMusic. G.A.P maintains its leadership position by maintaining a presence at trade shows, sponsoring industry awards and speaking at conferences including the inaugural UN World Tourism Organization Seminar on Ethics in Tourism and the WTO Climate Change and Tourism Conference.

Results

Focus groups and evaluations show that G.A.P Adventures’ sustainable tourism mandate is one of the determining factors for consumer loyalty. The company has received awards including the Ethics in Action Millennium Award, was named National Geographic’s Best Do It All Operator in 2007 and was ranked on Condé Nast Traveller’s Green List.

G.A.P is continually looking at ways to expand its reach. Planeterra and Planet Positive have large growth potential as the company continues to source out new NGOs to partner with, plan new initiatives and research new trips.

Judges’ quotes

‘G.A.P. Adventures has integrated its brand into its business, and translated environmental sustainability into its approach to tourism. This enlightened extension of the travel business is transforming tourists into supporters of the Earth. While I was not aware of this, those who participate are – and are undoubtedly the best spokespeople. I suspect other travel agencies will have to follow their lead.’ – Pamela Divinsky, Ethos JWT

Jump to:

Introduction

Water, water, everywhere

cause + action top champion: Vancity

cause + action winner: Pantene

cause + action contender: Fairmont Hotels & Resorts

cause + action contender: Virgin Mobile Canada

cause + action judges