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June 2005 - Feature Article 1

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JUNE 2005 - Home


So You May Know
Wisdom & Insight
Supply Chain



Inbound VolunTourism: "Watch Out for MICE Traps! " - - Part I

What are the biggest challenges that Incentive Travel Executives and Meeting Professionals face in relation to VolunTourism? We begin by identifying them in this, Part I, of a three-part series.

I spoke with Sue Pelletier, Executive Editor for Medical Meetings and Web Editor for MeetingsNet.com, several weeks ago. She is also the host of the “face-2-face” MeetingsNet Blog and delivers an excellent cross-section of news and happenings in the meeting industry.

I originally contacted Sue to discuss her thoughts on creating a VolunTourism Blog. Soon, however, our discussion turned to a more important topic: “Why are meeting, incentive, and event professionals failing to embrace volunteer activities in conjunction with meetings, incentives, conventions, and events (MICE)?” We decided it was time for some research and created a survey that is posted on SurveyMonkey.com.

In the interim, it is my job to “speculate” as to what the MICE Traps are for the industry and its professionals. This is not blind speculation, however. I have held numerous discussions with Destination Management Companies (DMC’s), meeting, incentive, and event professionals and the following is what I have compiled from those discussions…

There are two, four-letter words that undermine the development of Inbound VolunTourism projects and events for the MICE Industry – RISK and LACK! If we break down each category, we will have a clearer understanding of the types of RISK or LACK, and how they contribute to the demise of Inbound VolunTourism. In Part II (July issue) of this article, I will discuss how these challenges may be addressed.


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There are four types of Risk that I have heard identified over the years. Here they are in no special order:

  1. Liability Risk,
  2. Safety Risk,
  3. Risk of Event or Project Failures, and
  4. Risk of Client Dissatisfaction/Loss

Liability Risk – “But what if one of our attendees gets hurt while filling boxes with school supplies for children, or falls off of a ladder while painting a building?” Of course, the question here is really not what if; the more appropriate question is: “What party will have to pay for such an injury?”

Safety Risk - The safety of clients and/or guests is a high-level priority for MICE. Certainly, this is influenced by insurance premiums. Safety, however, takes on very different criteria when VolunTourism is involved.

Generally safety issues are related to the type of work being conducted - labor safety risk, and the contact with residents - interaction safety risk. If tools or equipment are required for a project, this adds to the safety risk. If direct contact with local residents is involved, then health safety may be a concern.

Risk of Event or Project Failures - Because VolunTourism involves activities, contacts, and organizations that are outside of the MICE Industry, there is a heightened sense of "things might go wrong." Time constraints may be breached due to circumstances beyond the control of a meeting professional. Supplies may be late in arriving to a work site; residents may be detained because of local or family issues; and organizations may not be fully prepared to handle last-minute changes due to increases in participation levels.

When a project is moved off-site, the challenges may become infinitely larger in terms of violating time constraints. There may also be the traditional impacts of weather, etc. The more involved the local population is in a given project the higher is the level of risk for issues to occur such as NO participation by local residents.

Risk of Client Dissatisfaction/Loss - VolunTourism projects have, at their core, a passion or heart-felt anticipation by those involved. In many cases, meeting professionals or team leaders are building up the story with participants about what is going to be done as part of THIS YEAR's activity. "Well, everyone remembers what we did at last year's annual convention, this year is going to be even better!"

If this year's project is, however, not equal to the effort from the previous year, well, disappointment is an issue with which the meeting professional will have to deal. This is particularly challenging because the "heart" is so in-volved in these VolunTourism projects.


There are four areas under the LACK category:

  1. Lack of Knowledge
  2. Lack of Familiarity
  3. Lack of Suppliers/Vendors, and
  4. Lack of Financial Resources

Lack of Knowledge - None of us want to be the "dunce" when it comes to anything. Ignorance is not an excuse if an event does not meet expectations. And we can all think of countless other cliche's to describe this - one of our biggest collective fears.

VolunTourism is no exception, especially for the MICE Industry.

Since it is often challenging to know where to begin in developing and coordinating a VolunTourism activity in a destination, it is easier to simply throw up the hands and say, "Don't know where to start, so let's think of some-thing else for this year's social activity." A meeting professional may have absolutely no experience in organizing a volunteer activity, and it is far better to claim a "Lack of Knowledge" than it is to attempt to do something and face challenges that disrupt other aspects of a meeting or convention.

Lack of Familiarity - Am I attempting to use the same argument twice? No. In fact, here is a definition of familiarity: conduct implying familiar intimacy. I may have knowledge of a subject, in this case VolunTourism, but I may not have an intimate acquaintance with VolunTourism in a new destination.

This Lack of Familiarity may prove to be intimidating for meeting professionals that have, through years of experience, empowered themselves to shape spectacular meetings and conventions. Without the intimate under-standing of their subject, are they likely to make mistakes?

Lack of Suppliers/Vendors - Can there be anything more frustrating, and, therefore, more likely to be eliminated from an event or meeting, than an activity for which a supplier cannot be found?

This is a very big dilemma for meeting professionals or incentive travel executives when addressing the desire of a client to participate in "good-will" activities in a destination. Certainly, if you are in Chicago, IL, you are likely to be able to get the telephone number for the United Way Agency. But what if you are in Cancun, Prague, or South Africa, are there nonprofit organizations to which you can easily turn?

Or what if you want to conduct a VolunTourism activity on-site at a resort or hotel property; is there a nonprofit organization that can support your request?

Lack of Financial Resources - The meeting budget has surpassed our available funds or the big sponsors have decided to put their money elsewhere this year. Yikes! What will we cut first?

Or there may be a different scenario - the budget is fine, but we still don't have a sponsor for this year's "service project."

VolunTourism faces a real challenge when financial resources become a concern for clients and planners. These activities are easily eliminated because they have less to do with core programming and more to do with social activities or public relations - depending on the client, of course. But in most cases, VolunTourism can be described as extraneous to the overall goals and objectives of the meeting, convention, or event.

Part II

In Part II of this series (July issue), I will review the Risks and deliver some insight and strategic thinking as to how these may be overcome.

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