So You May Know
Gathering The Stakeholders
An ever-increasing involvement in VolunTourism means that we have the opportunity to begin convening the stakeholders, albeit in a very grassroots manner. This is something that I have been doing for a number of years on a global scale, but now we are reaching a critical mass within regions throughout North America and beyond. I began the process of reviewing the potential of regionalizing VolunTourism via a recent cross-continental trip that took me to Washington, DC, Virginia, British Columbia, and Washington State. Are they ready to regionalize? Are they ready to be VolunTourism stewards?
In my opinion, we have achieved a level of involvement in a number of cities and regions across the planet to establish what I would call "Hotspots For VolunTourism." With each passing day, an article runs in a travel pub, online e-zine, blog community, or elsewhere that alerts individuals to VolunTourism. For some it is the NEW idea, but for others it is the BIG idea. The BIG-idea-people need support and they can acquire some of that support through interacting within their respective communities and regions.
I envision regional stakeholder networks offering unique opportunities for dialogue exchange amongst voluntourists, would-be voluntourists, inbound operators, outbound operators, nonprofits/NGOs, governmental agencies, and hoteliers, transport companies, and other suppliers. Facilitated communication can lead to greater understanding, program improvements, reasonable expectations, and constructive evaluation techniques & methodologies.
From my recent trip, I offer some highlights that have further reinforced my opinion:
Simon Cooper & The Ritz Carlton Company, LLC
If you want to know the "Heart Of The Lion," you need to speak with its head. I spent a day in Chevy Chase, MD, with members of The Ritz Carlton Company, LLC, even attended their morning "line-up," and had some time to sit down with several executives, including Simon Cooper, President & COO of the firm. Joining me for that discussion was Sue Stephenson, Vice President of Community Footprints.
There were two questions that I asked Mr. Cooper during our exchange that I will share with you:
1) Why did you decide to initiate a VolunTourism program at The Ritz Carlton? and 2) Are you and your team prepared to be stewards of VolunTourism?
I received two very unexpected answers to the first question. From the personal side, Simon Cooper initiated a "voluntourism" program of his own thirty-five years ago as the manager of the Young Island Hotel in St. Vincent. He shared a testimonial of his active participation in establishing a youth center in Kingstown, the major port there. The young people would hang out on the docks and, eventually, get themselves into mischief. By establishing Largo Heights home for young people in the hills behind town, Simon and his main collaborateur, Col. Anderson, the local police chief, created a venue for engaging the youngsters and providing them with alternative activities - ones that were less disruptive to craft entering the port.
He was also able to partner with other entities in the surrounding area. An example that he mentioned was working with a banana-shipper to give him spoiled bananas, which were otherwise over-ripe for putting into a cargo hold, and he would bring these to the youth center's pig farm. In addition, Simon encouraged guests to purchase piglets for the "farm" at $20 each. Pig-farming became the primary revenue source to support the general upkeep of the facility. Although his efforts could be viewed as altruistic, I think he saw them and spoke of them as being very practical - addressing a need that would prove beneficial to multiple parties. And so it was.
His second response to initiating "Give Back Getaways" centered in what may also be seen as the very practical - the importance of guests interacting, side-by-side, with the "ladies & gentlemen" [team members] of The Ritz Carlton. This answer was accompanied by the gesture of his two index fingers coming together. "We want our guests to experience [voluntary] service with our ladies & gentlemen," he said emphatically.
In response to the question of stewardship, one phrase summed it up: "this is not the flavor of the month." But he went further to say,"This [voluntourism] is part of the philosophy of the company. It is part of the 'DNA' of The Ritz Carlton." His sincerity, rooted in the personal and the practical, leads me to believe that stewardship of VolunTourism is also in the "DNA of The Ritz Carlton." We will likely see a significant effort on the part of the company to ensure sustainability of these projects and the cooperative involvement of guests and ladies & gentlemen around the world.
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An Education Alliance For VolunTourism
During my travels, I had a chance to sit down with Kristin Lamoureux, Director of the International Institute of Tourism Studies (IITS) at The George Washington University, Dr. Nancy McGehee, Associate Professor of Hospitality & Tourism at Virginia Tech University, and Dr. Terri O'Fallon and Dana Carman, Principals of Pacific Integral. My primary motivations for meeting with these folks were to discuss what they are currently doing in relation to VolunTourism and to gather their input regarding the possibility of forming an Educational Alliance as well as unique curriculum.
There are a number of universities & colleges and learning & leadership institutes around the world that feature educators and faculty who have participated in VolunTourism trips, conducted research, written books & other publications, and/or are offering courses which include VolunTourism. Dr. Stephen Wearing of the University of Technology (Sydney) and his colleague, Dr. Kevin Lyons of the University of Newcastle (Australia) are just two examples, having recently released a book which they both edited - Journeys of Discovery in Volunteer Tourism. In order to assist the various educational stakeholders in knowing what is occurring throughout the world, I have thought for some time that it would be beneficial for all of them to have a communication platform to share ideas & hypotheses, stories & testimonials, and research on the subject of VolunTourism.
After these discussions, I am more convinced than ever before that the technology exists to support such a platform and that there is sufficient interest to warrant the creation of said vehicle. There are certainly some entities that I have in mind, but I also want to share this with you, dear readers, in case you would like to enlighten me as to some prospects I have failed to consider. Rather than release a list of prospects, I will wait a couple of weeks to hear back from subscribers as to which institutions, colleges, or universities might be interested in joining the mix.
A couple of years ago, I inked an article focusing on Canada and how I perceived it to be a potential incubator of VolunTourists. Earlier this year, the Canadian Tourism Commission posted a follow up to the article written by James Glave. I finally had a chance to visit my "north-neighbor" to further investigage my hypothesis. Karma Brophy, a resident of Vancouver Island, BC, and proprietor of Inbound West, organized my visit to the island and to Vancouver, BC, by setting meetings with key stakeholders. She even managed to get me into the Painted Turtle Guest House in Nanaimo, BC.
What did we discover over the course of my week there?
- We learned that The Land Conservancy (TLC) of British Columbia has been running Conservation Holidays for the last eight years. These trips have been offered to their roughly seven thousand members, but, to date, not beyond their membership base. We spent one midday at Wildwood, a sustainable logging space founded by Merv Wilkinson back in 1938. TLC has assumed charge of the space and they have designed a "voluntourism" weekend (July 3 - 6, 2008) during which time participants learn about the space, meet with Merv, remove invasive species, tackle some structural challenges - fences, building maintenance, etc. - and spend time hiking the trails on the property.
- We learned that Volunteer Victoria and Tourism Victoria have worked together to create options for corporate groups hosting meetings and events in the area to conduct service projects in conjunction with annual conventions and gatherings. We also learned that VolunTourism may very well have a place within the "Green Travel" initiative that has been set forth by Tourism Victoria.
- We learned that the Canadian Tourism Commission (CTC) and BC Tourism are relying on local stakeholder groups to develop products and services, including VolunTourism. Local groups will then communicate that information to CTC and BC Tourism, respectively, for dissemination as they see fit. Thus, entities like Tourism Vancouver Island will offer the proving ground for such initiatives as VolunTourism.
- We had some time to sit down with Wayne McRann of Developing World Connections and Dara Parker of Handprint Adventures to discuss the directions they are taking with their operations and the potential for creating Canadian-based VolunTourism experiences.
It may sound somewhat complicated, but it is certainly helpful to know the landscape in order to determine the best approach to regionalizing VolunTourism, in this case, within and amongst British Columbia's stakeholders. (One stakeholder group that still needs to be invited will be an educational institution; there are certainly several from which to choose, so this should not pose much of a challenge.) Each additional region will require similar, ongoing dialogue - fostered by occasional visits, of course - to strengthen the relationships, answer questions, share emerging practices, products, and services, assist in the education and awareness-building of VolunTourism experiences for potential voluntourists, and evaluate programs as they are developed throughout the course of the process.
I came away from the experience feeling very honored to have seen the groundwork that has already been established. The efforts that have taken place to date will surely be enhanced through facilitated discussions and a common vision. Who knows, perhaps Victoria, Vancouver Island, and British Columbia will become a case study from which we can learn how to approach and organize VolunTourism in destinations throughout the world.
I feel very much like a cheerleader when it comes to the development of VolunTourism. I have a vested interest in the idea that tourism & travel have vast potential in the socio-economic improvement of individuals and destinations around the world. The exchange of assets - from communities to voluntourists and from voluntourists to communities - represents far more than win-win; to me, it epitomizes our global interdependence. Seeing and hearing the interest of persons in being of service to others and facilitating similar service and exchange between even more individuals keeps my pom-poms moving - Rah!
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