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The VolunTourist™ is a premium Newsletter for the Travel Trade. For those interested in discovering what is happening in the world of VolunTourism™ and seeking emerging practices, general information, and case studies, this is your Source.

Volume 6 Issue 1 Highlights



VolunTourism Turns '2' At The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, LLC

April 2008 saw the launch of 'Give Back Getaways,' a voluntourism program for leisure guests staying at Ritz-Carlton Hotels & Resorts worldwide. Since that time, numerous blog posts and articles across the globe have discussed this initiative; but what do we really know about it? I have asked Sue Stephenson, Vice President Community Footprints, to respond to my 3Qs for this issue.

1) In the past two years since the Ritz-Carlton launched Give Back Getaways(SM), what have been the most important 'learning moments' for you and your team?

"From the onset, when the initial proposal to create a voluntourism program was approved, there was great enthusiasm at our properties. Our hotels in Cancun, Sarasota and New Orleans were already seeing success with a number of voluntourism pilots and we were also aware of the growing interest on the part of travelers to participate in community development, environmental and wildlife conservation projects. We realized a voluntourism offering gave us the opportunity to extend our traditional service experience beyond the hotel and build on both our solid partnerships with local NGOs and existing Community Footprints social responsibility efforts already in place at our locations around the world.

As background, we developed the programs around our existing Community Footprints focus areas:

  1. Hunger and Poverty Relief
  2. Disadvantaged Children
  3. Environmental Conservation

Give Back Getaways was designed to be a free-standing program, versus an experience tied to a hotel stay. The main reason was to enable us to highlight that all profits go to the NGO and that we absorb all internal costs including employee payroll, activity planning, on-the-ground support, materials and supplies etc. 

To date, over 2,000 guests have participated and we have garnered enthusiastic feedback. It has been interesting to see that the environmental programs, ranging from planting indigenous trees to helping protect endangered wildlife, have attracted the most participation.  We are also seeing a broad demographic of guests taking part. While the original expectation was that the program would mostly attract families, we have in fact seen vacationing seniors, business travelers and honeymooners sign up.

2) What fundamental elements of the Give Back Getaways program do you think are most important for those who might be considering the launch of a similar venture?

"The essential first stage when developing a voluntourism concept is to identify core values for the program.  In the case of Give Back Getaways, we determined that the important core values (or guiding principles as we term them) are that the program provides a positive experience for all involved (community, employees and guest volunteers) as well as an:

  • authentic and genuine experience that is unique to the destination
  • opportunity for our employees to participate in the experience
  • educational component by a subject matter expert so the volunteers understand the mission of the NGO and how the voluntourism experience makes a meaningful contribution

A program’s core values provide the roadmap to assist with decisions that need to be made throughout the process and help to ensure the program design stays true to the original intent.

An essential element of designing the program was to get the commitment of all key stakeholders during all stages of the program’s development.  It is particularly important that you involve a representative from the non-profit or NGO you plan to partner with, as well as those individuals who will have operational responsibility for any of the component of the program.  Brainstorming with key stakeholders helps identify potential challenges and improve or refine the program concept.  Once we had designed the overarching program (half-day in length, tied to one or more of our three Community Footprints focus areas, employee participation requirements, and program availability standards, etc.) we engaged teams of employees at our hotels around the world to design the location specific program concepts.  We provided a Concept Development Guide to give an easy to follow template and program design process.  It also provided a mechanism to help the teams “filter” the programs at each stage of development, ensuring the designs were meeting the core values and program standards.

Developing detailed Operations Guidelines is also key, spanning everything from the reservations process, risk management, activity checklists, site visits and post-event surveys. It’s also important for there to be a rigorous testing/pilot phase to iron out any logistical issues. We required the senior management to take part in their properties pilot so to ensure they were fully knowledgeable of the offering and had ownership of the program’s success.

There were many benefits to this approach; in particular, we were able to develop the local level programs at all 73 properties within a three-month period.  The level of employee enthusiasm for their (specific property's) program was very high and it’s considered a “badge of honor” to participate in a Give Back Getaway with guests and share a volunteer experience that benefits their community.

3) What outcomes from Give Back Getaways would you say have been the most unexpected?

About Sue Stephenson

Sue Stephenson, a hotel executive with 25 years experience in the hospitality industry, relocated from England to the United States in 1991 to join The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, LLC. The company, which is headquartered in Chevy Chase, Maryland, generates US$3 billion a year in annual revenues and currently has 73 properties across the United States, Caribbean, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

From 2001 to 2006, Sue was the Senior Vice President, Human Resources. In this role, she worked closely with the President & Chief Operating Officer and members of the Corporate Executive Committee as the company undertook a global expansion. Sue provided leadership and strategic direction to a human resources organization that is committed to the delivery of service excellence through innovative and sustainable human resources approaches. 

In 2006, Sue assumed the leadership of The Ritz-Carlton social responsibility program, Community Footprints. Reporting to the President and Chief Operating Officer, Sue is charged with expanding the company’s global efforts with hunger and poverty relief, well-being of disadvantaged children and environmental conservation through a series of multi-faceted initiatives.  In April 2008, Sue led the development of a companywide voluntourism effort. “Give Back Getaways” enables guests at the 73 Ritz-Carlton Hotels and Resorts around the world to participate in a volunteer experience in the local community where they are vacationing. The half-day programs are unique to each destination and offer guests a variety of opportunities including protecting endangered species of wildlife, preparing and distributing food to homeless families, renovating facilities at orphanages, and building homes with Habitat for Humanity International. Full details of the programs are available on www.givebackgetaways.com.

"Intuitively we knew there was a segment of our guests who were looking to expand the scope of their visit to a destination beyond traditional activities.  Although we were confident that participating guests would find the programs rewarding, the level of the emotional connection to the causes they’re helping is even greater than we anticipated.  It is clear that our Give Back Getaways programs deepen the experience of visiting a destination.  Guests tell us that participating in a voluntourism experience makes their trip personally enriching and much more memorable.  We frequently receive post event comments such as "inspirational", "I felt so appreciated", "absolutely amazing", "more than words can express" and "I learned so much", highlighting that this type of involvement creates an entirely different kind of memory.

Our community partners embraced the program concept and definitely saw the value in their cause being introduced to new volunteers.  However, we had not anticipated the amount of very positive social and print media coverage since the launch. This exposure has, most notably, benefited our NGO partners who are seeing their local programs showcased by the national and international media, giving them the opportunity to expose their great works to a much broader audience.

I think there are a lot of opportunities out there, but there’s also a good amount of opportunists out there as well. There’s a lot of trips advertised as ‘voluntourism,’ but it really is just a volunteering service trip and nothing more. And I don’t think that’s - - I think it should be more balanced. So that’s my idea about what traveler’s philanthropy is and how voluntourism really fits into it all; and I think it fits into it nicely and it’s really at the heart of traveler’s philanthropy.


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