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January 2006 - Study and Research

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Study and Research

Choosing Your Conservation-based Volunteer Tourism Market Segment With Care - - Part I

This month I am extremely pleased to welcome Alexandra Coghlan, another of our Australian friends, to the Research Forum section of The VolunTourist. Ms. Coghlan writes to us from James Cook University in Townsville, Australia, where she is starting her academic career. Alexandra selected the subject of conservation-based volunteer tourism for her dissertation as a result of her strong concern for the state of the natural environment and a perceived lack of public understanding and involvement in conservation issues. Her thesis on the experiences of conservation volunteer tourists illuminated some interesting pointers when it comes to creating a satisfying volunteer tourism experience. In the first of a two-part contribution to The VolunTourist. Alexandra focuses on what she learned were:

1) The motivators, and

2) Elements of the experience that were most important for the two primary markets in conservation-based volunteer tourism.

Conservation-based volunteer tourism includes those organizations that use paid volunteers recruited internationally to undertake projects that aim to restore or enhance the natural environment. Despite its not-for-profit status, conservation-based volunteer tourism organizations must operate in the highly unstable and competitive industry that is tourism.

As conservation-based volunteer tourism grows into an increasingly sophisticated consumer industry, it must develop a certain amount of business acumen and build upon existing best practices in marketing, recruiting, organizational behavior and management. In particular, one of the first steps facing any new operator is determining who will buy their product. Anyone wishing to tap into the advantages of volunteers must first ask themselves who, in the general population, has the time, the discretionary income, and the inclination to volunteer. Once this basis is established, the product may then be refined to suit the needs and constraints of the target “market”.

Intuitively, it could be argued that in studying volunteer tourists’ motivations, we are in fact looking at the various components of motivations for 1) conservation volunteering, and 2) tourism, and how they gel together to form that unique beast, the conservation-based volunteer tourist! First, volunteers are believed to be motivated by a range of motivations that go above and beyond simple altruism. Some of these motivations are described as:

  • Advancing a personal ideological agenda, such as the desire to help others, compassion for people in need and working for an important cause
  • Meeting new people and developing friendships
  • Learning new skills
  • Building a personal power base
  • Developing a career that leads to status or other rewards


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Second, tourists appear to be motivated by a very different set of needs. Some of the most commonly recognized are:

  • Enhancing family life
  • Resting and relaxing
  • Pursuing special interest and skills
  • Being respected and earning social status
  • Rewarding oneself
  • Meeting local people
  • Understanding local culture and the host country

Combined together, conservation-based volunteer tourism is believed to involve altruistically motivated travel. The travel component may be seen as travelling for the stimulation and development of character, and has a certain appeal as travelling not only for pleasure but also to fulfil a purpose, such as working with communities in developing countries and spending time to assist in saving natural environments. Conservation-based volunteer tourists are also motivated by a desire to do something meaningful or conservation-orientated, to learn new things or be challenged, because they have an interest in the subject matter, or because they wish to help the researcher or conservation project leader.

Based upon the above-mentioned information, how can conservation-based volunteer tourist organizations learn about their participants, and then apply it to their marketing and programming efforts?

In order to answer this question, the author undertook a survey of 76 volunteer tourists from six different organizations representing a wide range of possible types of expedition, in both marine and terrestrial environments, long-term and short-term, small or large groups, in Australia, Africa, Asia and Europe. Conservation-based volunteer tourists were asked to provide information on their gender, age, occupation, travel experience (number of overseas trips undertaken in the last two years), previous conservation-based volunteer tourism trips undertaken and general involvement in conservation projects.

Tourist motivations were investigated by asking volunteers how strongly they agree with the statement “one of the reasons I chose to come on this trip was…” for 26 possible travel motivation items on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). The motivations were selected based upon previous studies in tourism and leisure motivation and on elements that were identified as being important in the promotional image of the conservation-based volunteer tourism organizations. The 26 motivational items focused on elements such as cultural interaction, having fun, meeting people, dissertation work, adventure, personal development, learning, career development, working with animals, rest and relaxation, doing something useful, seeing new landscapes, working with a particular organization.

The results of the survey revealed a clear and consistent trend of which many readers may already be aware: two very different groups of volunteer tourists could be distinguished based upon their motivations and socio-demographic profiles: the young, college and post-college market, and the mature, 50+ market. These distinguishing characteristics are summarized in the following table. Organizations often appear to be successful in tapping into two primary markets, adopting different, but arguably winning strategies as described in the table. The table also highlights that there seems to be a distinct gap in age whereby 30- and 40- year olds are not as active in conservation-based volunteer tourism, for many obvious but relatively under-studied reasons, including family and career constraints and obligations, but we will save that discussion for a later time.

Young Volunteers (18 – 24 years old)

Travel Experience

No or few (0-3) international trips in the last 2 years

Prior Conservation Involvement

“Not very” involved

Motivations (Differences & Similarities)

  • Personal development, novel experiences:
  • H ave fun
  • Discover new things
  • Meet new people
  • Help the researcher
  • Develop skills & abilities

Advantages & Disadvantages of Tapping Into This Market

  • Fast growing market
  • Flexible schedules
  • Able to undertake long-term expeditions
  • Not likely to be repeat visitors,
  • Less interested in conservation
  • Less experienced travelers

Mature Volunteers (Over 50 years old)

Travel Experience

4 or more international trips in the 2 years

Prior Conservation Involvement

“somewhat” or “very” involved

Motivations (Differences & Similarities)

  • Learning and helping the researcher:
  • Support the organization
  • Do something meaningful
  • Learn about wild animals
  • Experience new cultures
  • Have fun

Advantages & Disadvantages of Tapping Into This Market

  • Stable market
  • Repeat visitors with a demonstrated commitment to volunteering, conservation and travel
  • Sometimes duration and type of activities restricted by physical limitations and/or obligations at home

The results also showed that conservation-based volunteer tourists are indeed motivated by a mixture of tourism and volunteering motivations. The motivations that were ranked highest overall on the five point scale include “experiencing new and different things”, “having a good time”, “taking part in a rare opportunity”, “increasing their knowledge of conservation and ecology” and “exploring new places”. Furthermore, potential conservation-based volunteer tourists appear to distinguish between expeditions that offer tourism-related opportunities, such as having fun, meeting new people, seeing new places & volunteer-relatedactivities, such as skill and knowledge development, networking and professional advancement.

The logical argument that comes from these results is that conservation-based volunteer tourism organizations should specialize their image and/or their product in order to attract one of the primary volunteer tourism markets. However, this approach has both its advantages and disadvantages; the organization is able to tap into a relatively well-established market, but it can then be constrained by the motivations, needs and expectations of that market.

For instance, organizations tapping into younger markets cannot expect their volunteers to become repeat customers, nor can they be expected to become highly committed conservationists, although some research does point towards a greater involvement in social and environmental movements as a result of their volunteering trip and they may have no prior knowledge or experience of conservation issues when they start the expedition.

On the other hand, the mature market may have some certain pre-trip knowledge of environmental issues and may even have some specialized interest in the subject matter that prompted them to volunteer in the first place. They cannot, however, be expected to volunteer for longer periods of time and may in some cases be limited in the types and duration of physical activities which they may undertake. These advantages and disadvantages must be considered by conservation-based volunteer tourism organizations as they design both their marketing material and their product.

Each organization must evaluate their goals and vision in order to determine which group has the best fit with what they have to offer. In addition, if an organization makes the decision to market to both of the primary conservation-based volunteer tourists, they must determine if they can manage to combine both groups, or if it is more prudent – and still cost-effective - to create separate volunteer experiences.

Having described some of the ways in which the different groups of volunteers differ, and how conservation-based volunteer tourism organizations must tailor their marketing to suit younger, less experienced or older and more experienced travelers, the next step is to examine how and in what ways the socio-demographic profiles and motivations of the two groups of volunteers affect their conservation-based volunteer tourism experiences and their involvement in, and satisfaction with, the actual conservation expedition activities. This leads us to next month’s article on ensuring volunteer tourist satisfaction. In particular, how many and which travel motivations are being fulfilled by daily expedition activities? What are the patterns of conservation-based volunteer tourist on-site emotions and satisfaction levels? Is there a correlation between motivation fulfillment and satisfaction, or do other factors affect the volunteer tourist experience? Stay with us and find out!

Hope you enjoyed this month’s Research Forum! Perhaps your organization has a story to share about how they solved the “duelling market” dilemma. Share your experiences with the other readers by posting your marketing perspective in next months UnXpected section of the Voluntourist! If you have any questions or comments, please either submit your questions to the Voluntourist newsletter, or e-mail Alexandra Coghlan at alexandra.coghlan@jcu.edu.au . Next month we look forward to once again hearing from Ms. Coghlan!

Nancy McGehee, PhD., Virginia Tech University

See you next issue!

Nancy McGehee , Ph.D.

Hospitality and Tourism Management, Virginia Tech

Blacksburg VA


For more Study & Research Articles visit Dr. McGehee's VolunTourism Research Forum. Go There >>>

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