Corporate travel involves two key elements—challenging, team-building exercises and an interesting setting. Consider this, however: What if you were to factor in the opportunity to sacrifice a little comfort to make somebody else’s life better? On a larger scale, corporations and small businesses do that all the time through sponsorships, fundraisers, and sales promotions. Though these activities accomplish great things, you may learn that there is nothing like person-to-person contact to truly feel like something special has been accomplished.
Some will contend that the Peace Corps, instituted in 1961 by President Kennedy, is one of the earliest organized forms of voluntourism. According to one recent Travel Industry Association of America survey, an estimated 55 million Americans have participated in some kind of volunteer-based trip, and 100 million more are considering one.
Globe Trooper (globetrooper.com) has pointed advice for those interested in their programs and any voluntourism program in general: Thoroughly research existing volunteer programs. Volunteers should never go to indoctrinate people on Western ways, nor are they there to save the people.
“First and foremost, companies need to have a defined sense of mission about their firm and match that mission statement to what they do in the world,” says Samuel Uretsky, a Los Angeles-based senior advisor at Kuchanga Travel (kuchangatravel.com). The 35-year veteran executive management consultant helps clients structure community projects and manage relationships with destination communities. “Once they get that in perspective, voluntourism works wonderfully as a means to extend the firm’s presence around the world, reward employees who have sabbaticals pending, or provide work credits through activities that benefit communities around the globe needing help.”
“Once there, don’t lose sight of your purpose,” advises Kuchanga’s founder Joanne Trangle. “You want to be sure you are addressing their needs and not yours. What we do is establish a relationship between a [corporate] client and a community or a project’s leaders, then bring them together with a deliberate intention to improve the lives of the people who are there without in any way changing their fundamental customs, beliefs, or behavior patterns.”
While we spotlight some international voluntourism destinations, there are also plenty of excellent stateside opportunities to consider. While New Orleans has been a popular voluntourism destination in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Philadelphia Convention & Visitor Bureau made voluntourism an integral part of their 2009 Fiscal Year Planning Guide, making it the first U.S. city unaffected by a natural disaster to officially commit to voluntourism.
Malaysia’s economic growth record is one of Asia’s strongest, with the gross domestic product (GDP) growing by an average of 6.5% per year from its establishment as an independent nation in 1957 through 2005. This is particularly evident in the cosmopolitan capital Kuala Lumpur, which is also a key Asian convention city and home to several regional offices for various multi-national corporations. Its tin, rubber, and palm oil processing industries, along with increased manufacturing enterprises, make it a strong player in the Asian and global economies.
Kuala Lumpur is a cultural melting pot, not just for visiting executives but also the local population, which is comprised of different Asian ethnic groups as well as expat communities from the U.S., U.K., Switzerland, Germany, and Australia. Nothing exemplifies this international spirit more than the Mandarin Oriental Kuala Lumpur (mandarinoriental.com/kualalumpur). The property offers excellent fine dining and meeting spaces and is steps from the city’s convention center, the iconic Petronas Towers and fascinating Chinatown and Little India neighborhoods. Beyond the hotel, Kuala Lumpur is a definitive gateway to Asia and a wealth of opportunities to help bring the rest of Malaysia forward.
Though Malaysia’s transition between an agricultural and an industrial economy has proved successful, the environment has also become an issue of increased importance. Sustainability and conservation-oriented attractions have been a staple in Malaysia’s overall efforts to bring in visitors from the U.S. and other countries. Architecture, European influence, and older Malay ways of life are preserved in the UNESCO Heritage city Malacca and Kuching, the capital of the state of Sarawak. While the International Rainforest Music Festival helped put Kuching and Malaysia’s part of Borneo on the map for eco-tourists and world music fans every summer since 1997, the area offers other meaningful ways to preserve Borneo’s rainforest and, by association, its people.
The Juara Turtle Project (organized by goabroad.com) and Help Our Penyu (helpourpenyu.com), get volunteers involved in almost every aspect of these endangered animal rescue endeavors, from relocating eggs to burying them, releasing, and taking care of any resident turtles (handicapped in some way). Volunteers can also help maintain and expand the various gardens located around the project, take night-time boat missions to deliver hatchlings to their native beaches, tend the gardens, or engage in productive business networking activities that will benefit the area.
While The Orangutan Rehabilitation Center is deservedly one of Borneo’s most popular and spectacular tourist destinations, The Great Orangutan Project (orangutanproject.com) offers concerned volunteers 14- or 28-day experiences rescuing and nurturing endangered orangutans and other animals that share the habitat. The program is intensive, team driven, and hands on, with activities that involve animal husbandry, enrichment, and infrastructure so they can be productive in the process of the animals’ rehabilitation and release.
Familiarize yourself with Borneo’s terrain and indigenous cultures before you head to a philanthropic immersion with a short stay at the Batang-Ai Longhouse Resort, managed by Hilton Hotels (hilton.com/Batang-Ai). Though it is modeled after traditional Iban tribe structures and has amenities and rooms equipped for meetings and special events, the high point of the stay is a visit to the real thing, where members of the Iban Tribe still maintain their way of life and pass their traditions on to visitors.
Malaysia Airlines (malaysiaairlines.com) offers four flights per week from LAX to Kuala Lumpur, with extensive connections to Kuching. The business class cabin stands as one of the best in the sky, though its economy class cabin is superb in terms of quality, food, and service. Contact the Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board (213/689.9702) or visit tourism.gov.my for more info.
Africa: Nairobi, Kenya
While TRIBE Hotel Nairobi (tribe-hotel.com) has been both a triumph of urban renewal and a hub of sophistication, the property is incredibly involved in voluntourism, right down to its maintenance, decor, and cuisine. Building upon a great foundation, TRIBE meets with a variety of local companies to help develop a variety of voluntourism packages for both private and corporate clients. One company they have their eye on is Anastasia’s Africa, famous for its customized, eco-friendly safari packages.
Kuchanga Travel focuses on Southern and Eastern Africa, having forged relationships with several tribes and community leaders in Kenya and neighboring countries. “On a safari, we do team-building activities alongside local tribes, ranging from survival skills like making a toothbrush or starting a fire with sticks, to learning how to shoot a bow and arrow, to a competitive cook-off with locally sourced ingredients,” explains Trangle. “We can make the experience as challenging or relaxing as possible, as well as adapt different activities for people with different fitness levels, interests, and skills sets.”
Central/North America: Costa Rica
Costa Rica is an appealing destination for environmentally conscious travelers. The country and its resorts not only offer numerous adventure- and fitness-driven travel activities, but also a wide variety of opportunities to support and sustain its rich wildlife and plant life. Península Papagayo, which owns Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo, has managed Growing Together, an award-winning social responsibility outreach program, embracing the philosophy that local communities should play an important role in their own development. Volunteer experiences can include arts and crafts programs, reading to local school children, nature outings, and painting a school.
Growing Together works with 18 elementary schools and three high schools, with a combined student population of 4,433 students. The schools offer classes that lend themselves to a variety of projects, including building and landscaping maintenance, donation of teaching, sports, audiovisual, and kitchen supplies; cooking and sharing meals; and playing sports with students. Visitors can also choose environmental projects that involve innovations such as pheromone traps to the Terra-Mesh retaining walls that protect local wildlife, among other sustainability initiatives.
Build Your Team–Save The World
Look to these sites when doing your homework to customize a “trip-of-a-lifetime” that will transform many lives!
Travel Beyond Voluntourism Incentive Travel (travelbeyond.com) offers a variety of services that bring together a tight, efficient alignment between sales and social agendas as well as deep emotional reward for your employees and company. Itineraries are designed to equally benefit the destination and the participants.
i-to-i (i-to-i.com) tsends more than 5,000 people a year to volunteer on some 500 projects in 30 countries. The user-friendly site features a search box where a client can plug in the country, type of volunteer project of interest, and preferred length of trip, then see what pops up.
The United Nation’s World Volunteer Web (worldvolunteerweb.org)
is a self-described “global clearinghouse for information and resources . . . that can be used for campaigning, advocacy, and networking.” The site links travelers to dozens of organizations that list volunteer and service-based trips and vacations.
features a “getting started” questionnaire that is a valuable tool in terms of finding and selecting a program, as well as offering a directory of global organizations and trip ideas.
Grand Luxury–Grand Gestures
Luxury-focused hospitality companies get into the act with experiences weaving together giving, gratitude, and grandeur.
Los Angeles-based Crystal Cruises (crystalcruise.org) extended its trailblazing “You Care, We Care” program (established in 2011) with new hands-on opportunities for passengers. Participants have fed homeless donkeys in Antigua; supported conservation efforts at an Oregon state park; rehabbed an educational salmon hatchery in Alaska; planted trees in New Zealand and Australia; bonded with disabled adults in Tuscany and the Canary Islands; and much more.
Small Luxury Hotels of the World (SLH) has enjoyed a tremendous growth phase in the past year, with 25 new hotels joining the portfolio since the beginning of the year and a launch of the SLH iPad and mobile-friendly website that allows users to browse, book, and review SLH’s collection. CEO/Founder Paul Kerr is particularly enthusiastic about its Caring Luxury Initiative (slh.com/about-us). A specific example
of SLH’s “Caring Luxury” initiative at work is Aleenta Resort and Spa in Phang Na, Thailand.