How Your Hotel Can Capitalize on the Voluntourism TrendJuly 22, 2014 by Lynda Gerry
A growing trend in the hotel industry, “voluntourism” unites visitors with volunteer opportunities at their travel destination. The goal is to offer activities that help improve host communities while providing people with a more meaningful traveling experience.
The volunteer traveler demographic is especially attractive for hoteliers: it’s estimated that there are 10 to 15 million volunteer travelers per year in the U.S. alone, and this number is expected to reach 20 million by 2020.
There’s a significant gap, however, between the number of travelers who want to volunteer and those who actually do so. One such reason is that travelers are often unaware of available voluntourism opportunities, which has been attributed to a lack of strategic marketing for these programs.
To help hoteliers overcome this challenge, we interviewed several experts to learn their tips for implementing a successful and well-publicized voluntourism program. Here, we highlight their top advice.
Offer a Unique Experience That Meets a Community Need
The Ritz-Carlton has set the benchmark for hotel voluntourism programs: It was one of the first hotels to take advantage of the guest volunteer market with its Give Back Getaways program, launched in April 2008.
Give Back Getaways allows hotel guests to participate in diverse half-day volunteer experiences that appeal to families, honeymooners and seniors alike. Each of the Ritz-Carlton’s hotels has its own Community Footprint team, and team leaders venture into the local community to determine where the biggest volunteer need exists. This allows each hotel to develop partnerships that can best meet the needs of its individual location.
Team leaders specifically look for opportunities that are educational and allow guests to learn more about the destination they’re visiting. These opportunities range from planting native tree species with Trees Atlanta, at the Ritz-Carlton Atlanta, to cleaning cages of retired circus lions and tigers with the Big Cat Habitat program at the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota, where the popular Ringling Brothers circus show is based.
Volunteers with Trees Atlanta at Ritz-Carlton Atlanta aid in planting native trees
The Four Seasons is another hotelier that offers voluntourism opportunities. Its Living Values program has three main pillars: community involvement, sustainability and cancer research. Hotel staff are trained on developing and implementing volunteer projects that support these initiatives.
Many Four Seasons properties have a Community Relations Committee to oversee internal efforts. At the Four Seasons in Denver, for example, its committee meets once a month to review charity partner requests.
The Four Seasons Costa Rica, Península Papagayo partners with the region’s award-winning social responsibility outreach program, Creciendo Juntos (which means “Growing Together”). This program offers custom-designed volunteer experiences to individual hotel guests or groups, including supporting local schools, environmental conservation and adopting a family or child during the duration of the guest’s stay.
The Love Hope Strength cancer foundation, meanwhile, partnered with Four Seasons Denver to allow hotel guests to volunteer at the Red Rock Amphitheater during events to help the foundation register bone marrow donors. In exchange for their time, guests get to enjoy an outdoor activity at a beautiful, unique and world-famous venue.
Although it’s ideal to offer volunteer opportunities that are distinctive to your hotel’s destination, it can still be meaningful for volunteers to participate in activities that have roots in other locations, as well. For example, the Four Seasons Denver partners with the Volunteers for America with Meals on Wheels program, through which hotel guests can deliver fruit donated from organic grocers.
Since Meals on Wheels has locations across the entire U.S., guest volunteers may be encouraged to visit one of the nonprofit’s chapters in their hometown when they return from their trip.
Recipient from Meals on Wheels program with Four Seasons Denver
Encourage Hotel Employees to Get Involved
Sending employees into local communities to volunteer is another way to determine the greatest needs in a particular community in order to launch a successful voluntourism program.
David Clemmons, founder of VolunTourism, recommends that your entire hotel staff get involved with volunteer initiatives and participate directly. This helps employees become more invested in your program and its goals, and better prepares them to discuss these with guests.
Ritz-Carlton, for example, encourages every employee from security personnel to cleaning crew to participate in one of its employee volunteer programs. In addition to helping foster a sense of giving back among staff, these programs help employees develop potential partnerships with organizations. By getting staff feedback on their experience with certain nonprofits, the hotel can determine which make the most sense to include in the Give Back Getaways program for guests.
Encouraging employees to get involved is something other hotels find useful as well. Tanja Morariu, director of brand development and the Green Team Initiative at the Palms Hotel and Spa, says one reason she decided the hotel should partner with Miami Dade Coastal Cleanup (a branch of International Coastal Cleanup) was that she had really enjoyed her own volunteer experience with them one year prior.
Similarly, Tara MacIntyre, director of public relations at the Four Seasons Nevis, says that staff started to notice that sea turtles were appearing more and more frequently on the island. After investigating further, the hotel learned that the turtles return to their birthplace several times throughout their lives, especially when building nests for hatchlings.
Since the animals are an endangered species, the hotel decided to partner with the Nevis Turtle Group and Sea Turtle Conservancy to launch programs such as its Kid’s Club, Sea Turtle Camp and Family Night Walks. These programs educate guests about the turtles while helping ensure the animals’ safety. Night Walk activities, for example, include tagging nests, cleaning the beach, measuring turtles (which allows the organization to track growth rates) and capturing turtles so GPS transmitters can be attached to them.
Find Organizations That Align With Your Values
Hotels are keenly aware of the importance of ensuring a consistent, positive guest experience, and voluntourism programs should be no different.
“It’s really important for executives to make sure that the voluntourism experience remains on brand with their particular company and that it represents their particular values,” explains Nicki Allen, manager of Ritz-Carlton’s Community Footprints program.
To this end, hotels should seek partnerships with reputable, long-standing organizations that are transparent about their mission, how they receive funding and where the funding goes, the target communities they’re impacting and how their work is received within the community.
Ritz-Carlton, for example, focuses on three initiatives when figuring out how Give Back Getaways programs can correspond with the company’s values: hunger and poverty relief, environmental responsibility and adopting children.
Morariu of the Palms says the hotel formed a partnership with Adopt-a-Beach and Coastal Cleanup back in 2010, when the hotel was re-launching its brand to include a greater focus on nature preservation and environmental sustainability and conservation.
The hotel created its Green Team initiative, and began to train staff on environmental issues. Environmental awareness was increasing in Miami at the time, which led to the creation of the Adopt-a-Beach program. When program staff contacted the Palms Hotel about a partnership, it was an ideal match.
In addition to developing relationships that consider the needs of the community, hoteliers should also form partnerships that take into account the sporadic, temporary nature of voluntourist efforts and ensure their programs continue to provide support, whether volunteer tourists participate or not.
Nina Patel, owner of Vacations That Matter, recommends partnering with organizations that are already working on sustainable projects to support the local community. This allows hotels to bring in volunteers who can offer a little bit of their time to continue moving an organization’s projects forward.
Make It Easy and Rewarding for Guests to Participate
Finding a nonprofit to partner with is only half the battle: you also have to entice guests to participate in the program you launch, and make them feel good about contributing their time. To accomplish this, our experts advise making your program as visible as possible, the barrier(s) to entry low and the rewards high.
Ritz-Carlton, for example, sends “pre-arrival” emails to guests once they’ve booked their reservation to notify them about the Give Back Getaways program opportunities available during their stay. Upon check-in, the hotel concierge invites guests to participate in these activities, and upcoming opportunities are posted on an activity sheet at the front desk. Most Ritz-Carlton hotels also provide free transportation to and from the hotel to the volunteer site to make it easy for guests to join.
Four Seasons Nevis promotes the program on its website, with brochures, through press recognition (e.g., Travel + Leisure, The New York Times, USA Today) and on social media. Press coverage can be especially valuable, as it puts your organization in front of the travel consumer.
To reward guests for their hard work, the Palms Hotel hosts an “After Hour” party for volunteers on its grounds. This party is limited to program participants, which helps encourage other guests to volunteer. The Palms Hotel also provides volunteers with free transportation from the hotel to nearby beaches as a way to say “thank you.”
Small gifts can also help promote voluntourism programs, both at the destination itself and abroad. The Palms, for example, hands out “Inspired by Nature” T-shirts to guest volunteers. Jim Guttau, director of communications at Four Seasons Denver, says his team is considering giving program participants a complimentary framed photo of themselves volunteering as a reward for their efforts.
Educate Hotel Staff and Guests for an Optimal Experience
In order for your voluntourism program to be successful, it’s also important to ensure that travelers are educated both about the organization they’re helping and the local customs and etiquette of the region they’re volunteering in. To this end, Ritz-Carlton’s Give Back Getaways program provides an on-site orientation for guest volunteers as soon as they arrive for their half-day assignment.
The orientation gives guests a full overview of the nonprofit they’re volunteering with, explains the tasks and responsibilities they’re expected to complete and provides tips on local customs. The hotel also has one or more employees remain with volunteers for the duration of their activity to help oversee the process and make sure everything runs smoothly.
MacIntyre of the Four Seasons Nevis says the partnership with the Sea Turtle Conservancy was especially appealing because of the amount of educational materials the organization had available on its website, which aligned with the hotel’s goal of creating an educational program for children.
To further this education, the Sea Turtle Conservancy trained Kids Club staff on the educational component of the program. Security and beach pool staff were also trained how to identify turtle tracks on the beach in order to help protect them, and the hotel was instructed to keep its lighting dim to avoid interrupting the creatures at night.
Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman takes this a step further, and has a team of trained naturalists from Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ambassadors of the Environment who educate guests about the Blue Iguana Recovery Program and how to conserve the iguana’s habitat. Volunteers can then help by performing tasks such as clearing trails, looking for nests and eggs, fence building, nest digging and surveying and monitoring iguanas.
Use Social Media to Show Volunteer Impact
Once volunteers have participated and made an impact, it’s essential to spread the word in order to show current and potential future participants the positive effects your program can have. Social media is one way to do this.
According to Nancy McGehee, a professor of hospitality and tourism management at Virginia Tech, social media tools are often under-utilized in this area. She recommends exploring unique options to relay volunteer opportunities to potential guests through various social media channels.
Four Seasons, for example, has a very active presence on social media. The Four Seasons Nevis promotes its voluntourism program through Trip Advisor, Twitter and Instagram. It conducts a social media contest each year to name two turtles tagged with GPS transmitters that it releases annually, which brings a tremendous amount of traffic to their Facebook page. The hotel also posts photos of the turtles when they’re released.
Hotel guests and volunteers witness GPS-satellite tagged turtle being released at Four Seasons Nevis
Nina Patel, owner of Vacations That Matter, says sharing pictures of completed volunteer projects to show their success is essential to encourage more small-scale, short-term volunteer work. As guest volunteers may not see the fruits of their labor during the short duration of their participation, communicating this impact to them confirms their efforts made a difference.
Guests at the Four Seasons Nevis, for example, can register for quarterly e-newsletter lists from the Sea Turtle Conservancy. The sales team at the Four Seasons Costa Rica, meanwhile, showcases the success of previous group activities on its website to illustrate the impact of volunteer work. Creciendo Juntos, the program the hotel partners with, also sends follow-up thank you emails directly to volunteers.
According to Clemmons, another helpful strategy is to have a data collection platform for tracking and posting what your hotel or resort is doing at the local level to demonstrate the success of the program to potential guests.
Four Seasons is already getting started on this. Thanks to its advanced guest-tracking system, the hotel has extensive information for hotel guests who participate in volunteer programs. This allows the hotel to gain insights into its volunteer guest demographic.
For example, Guttau of Four Seasons Denver reports that this data tracking system indicates volunteer rates are higher amongst guests who are “foodies” and who express an interest in getting local insights on what to see and do in the community of their travel destination.
Whether your hotel is a small, local chain or an international brand, there are likely many volunteer organizations in the area that serve a vital need within the local community. Partnering with these organizations can offer a unique experience for guests and bring more business to your hotel.
What techniques are you using to create a successful voluntourism program? Share your experience by leaving a comment in the section below.