If your clients or bosses are looking for a creative way to create a more meaningful event for attendees, consider incorporating a community service aspect. Voluntourism projects — activities that combine charitable work with an opportunity to see another side of the destination — are increasing in popularity among meeting professionals. According to a 2008 University of Florida study, nearly 45 percent of the planners surveyed said they had participated in voluntourism activities while attending a convention; 43 percent said they were likely to include volunteer activities in the future.
“President Obama [said], we should all give back; we should volunteer,” says Lisa Schmiemann, a special project manager for Tourism Cares, a charitable organization that coordinates giveback programs for groups and corporations. “So, it couldn’t be a better time for that.” To date, Tourism Cares has helped more than 2,000 volunteers contribute over 20,000 hours at various sites across the U.S. Their clients, such as the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, have helped rebuild the Mississippi Gulf Coast and revitalize several national parks.
Voluntourism helps companies put the focus on giving back, instead of glitz. It gives attendees an opportunity to team-build while sharing memorable experiences. It also helps align events with an organization’s corporate social responsibility initiatives. As a side benefit, incorporating voluntourism may help diffuse some of the negative attention meetings, incentives and events recently have been getting from the media. According to a Pulse Poll conducted by TBA Global, 69 percent of Americans said meetings that contribute meaningfully to communities will be viewed in a highly positive light.
Voluntourism programs aren’t just good PR, however. They also can make a tremendous difference to people living in the host community. When Texas Roadhouse held its five-day event in San Francisco this April, it donated over $1 million, nearly half of its budget, to humanitarian work being done around the city, and every annual event they hold includes a full day of service.
“When your groups go to a [typical] convention or a meeting, [they’re] wined and dined throughout the whole thing,” Schmiemann says. “What we do is [have the group] go to a school and cover books, do something at a historic site or paint. It’s usually something that’s tourism-related, but it gives people the feeling of being engaged. It makes the destination become part of them. [They take] ownership and they feel good doing it.”
The Timberland Company regularly incorporates voluntourism into its events. In 2006, attendees helped renovate a local restaurant, planted trees and cleaned up a playground ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. On the bus ride back to the hotel, the event planner took the group on a tour of the city’s devastated Ninth Ward. During the tour, an attendee noticed someone writing on a clipboard. The person was a volunteer community organizer who lived in the neighborhood pre-Katrina. When the attendee asked what he needed most, the organizer said shoes. He described how many of the volunteers were working in flip-flops and soleless shoes in an area littered with rusty nails and other debris. The attendee gave his shoes to the organizer and got back on the bus, barefoot. His story inspired a co-worker to get off the bus and donate her shoes. Her action inspired another co-worker to do the same. It became a chain-reaction. By the time the group headed back to the hotel, all 200 attendees were barefoot. Their actions inspired the company to make footwear donations to needy groups.
Planners looking to incorporate a voluntourism aspect can contact the local convention and visitors bureau, a non-profit organization like Tourism Cares or a destination management company to help with ideas, assistance and logistics planning. Some convention and visitors bureaus, like Greater Fort Lauderdale, have a list of available programs on their Web site.