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Leon Kaye headshot

How a Travel Company Became a Global Sustainable Supply Chain Leader

By Leon Kaye

From its origins in 1990 as a vision first funded by two maxed-out credit cards, Toronto-based G Adventures is now a global travel juggernaut that reaped approximately $500 million in revenues during 2017, hosts 200,000 travelers a year across 160 countries and boasts a product line of 700 tours.

But G Adventures is also a thriving social enterprise, as it has supported over 50 community development projects worldwide, a figure that the company says will grow 50 percent by the end of this decade. G Adventures claims 92 percent of the travelers who have booked trips with the company will visit a social enterprise project during their tours.

As any manufacturing or professional services company with a global footprint could witness, G Adventures has had its share of challenges as it seeks to ensure its supply chain works for local communities. The company has rolled out child welfare and animal welfare policies while it continues to groom new ideas for community welfare projects worldwide.

Meanwhile, the company’s 2,200 employees in 28 offices strive to offer an exceptional travel experience across all seven continents. G Adventures’ trips are not the motorcoach tours or cruises on which you may have been shuffled around with family or friends. The company’s social enterprise mission allows G Adventure’s customers to have an experience often not possible when traveling independently or with a conventional tour operator.

So how has G Adventures been able to achieve this remarkable track record, and what are lessons for other tour companies - or even other companies outside the travel and tourism sector? Around the world, the company embarks on the following four steps:

1: Build strong relationships with organizations that provide expertise

More consumers are demanding the companies from which they buy goods and services are socially and environmentally responsible - and they also insist these companies are transparent as they back up their words with deeds and data. To that end, G Adventures and its founder, Bruce Poon Tip, have worked with various organizations, including the Multilateral Investment Fund (MIF), the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the Planeterra Foundation, which Poon Tip established in 2003.

Planeterra has proven to be an indispensable partner as its staff has worked to launch community development projects in several countries where G Adventures runs tours. These projects have helped build wealth for local communities while offering customers an experience that they would have otherwise lacked.

One place where G Adventures’ partnerships are thriving is in Peru’s Sacred Valley, the 62-mile route that starts near the city of Cusco to the iconic 15th-century Inca citadel Machu Picchu. The narrow, winding valley, long revered for its fertile soil and farms tucked between spectacular mountains, is visited by over 1 million visitors annually. Yet many local communities have not gained any economic benefits from the visitors who traipse along this path in their quest to trek along the Inca Trail or visit Machu Picchu’s archaeological wonders.

2: Create opportunities that differentiate from the competition

One outcome of G Adventures’ mission is the Ccaccaccollo Women's Weaving Workshop, on which Planeterra and G Adventures have partnered since 2005. For years, with the exception of men who worked for tour operators as porters or cooks, this agrarian community was one that had not profited from the area’s thriving tourism sector.

That has changed over the past 13 years. This cooperative now employs 60 people, who have revived timeless weaving techniques that were almost lost - and quite frankly, had become unaffordable as many of the community’s families were relegated to living off subsistence agriculture. Planeterra estimates that 850 people now benefit from this project, and the ripple effect includes other communities that supply the wool needed by the Ccaccaccollo co-op, as well as families who now offer overnight homestays to travelers.

Meanwhile, Ccaccaccollo’s visitors can purchase high-quality, locally-made textiles. This is not the typical day trip and dog-and-pony show you may remember from that gap year visit to Southeast Asia or elsewhere in Latin America - Ccaccaccollo is far from that visit to a local coffee plantation or souvenir stand where the tour operator or driver scores a kickback in return for taking tourists to such a destination. Purchases made at the cooperative go directly into local coffers. Planeterra said the workshop alone made about a $6,000 profit off of the approximate $20,000 in revenues generated last year - and those monies in turn were reinvested into the community, from infrastructure spending to education for local youth.

3: Develop capacity building

The success of the Ccaccaccollo co-op prompted G Adventures and Planeterra to seek other community project opportunities that could enhance its customers’ visit to Peru. The company wished to improve the meal experience during the Sacred Valley tour included on over 35 Peru itineraries that host 20,000 visitors a year.

Hence a search started for a community on the route that all tour groups take between Cusco and the town of Pisac during the lunch hour time frame. Villages located within this specific area were evaluated, and a decision was made based on the community’s assets and need for better economic opportunities.

Planeterra’s staff eventually realized 65 families in the Huchuy Qosco village of the Sacred Valley had at one time received culinary training for hosting guests in their homes along with grants for building a small artisan project. But neither initiative had succeeded. G Adventures and Planeterra soon envisioned a community meal experience to enhance its tours and serve up to 20,000 visitors per year - once months of training, from cooking to accounting, were completed.

The Parwa Community Restaurant opened in March 2014. The business is now a self-sufficient business that reinvests profits into more community development projects. The restaurant’s managers saw revenues soar from nothing during its first year to over US$160,000 three years later. Profits have resulted in a new restaurant pavilion and a computer laboratory for local students. According to Planeterra, micro-enterprises associated with the restaurant saw revenue increases of over 1800 percent during that same time span.

4: Communicate the results

Planeterra and G Adventures have worked on similar success stories worldwide, including projects in Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka. With such dispersed operations, the organizations insist on regular communication to update stakeholders on both successes and struggles.

Planeterra sends a quarterly newsletter to its donor network with updates on statistics, new project launches, and human impact stories. G Adventures also includes a “Planeterra Spot” in its weekly newsletter once a month. Once a year, Planeterra also publishes an Impact Report. An internal quarterly newsletter also keeps staff informed about ongoing projects, and highlight top fundraisers and various initiatives happening that are occurring within G Adventures and Planeterra.

The results, which I witnessed last week during a visit to Peru, appeared to work out well for all the parties involved. Locals who were asked to speak expressed enthusiasm about the positive impact these projects had on their lives. Visitors were able to experience the local culture, dined on freshly prepared local cuisine, and could purchase goods, from sweaters to herbal teas, that they knew would directly benefit their hosts. And G Adventure’s guides, or CEOs (“chief experience officers”) had a constant spring in their step, as their guests’ enthusiasm generated by this experience gave their job what many employees across all sectors crave but cannot always find: purpose.

Image credits: Leon Kaye; Parwa Restaurant

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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