Travel has always held the power to change travelers and the places they travel to. Today, a growing number of travel agents are combining their passions for profits and charitable giving by building a niche category that is slowly altering the travel landscape.
Mockingbird Travel, founded by attorney Vanessa Perlman, is the latest in a series of hybrid agencies/tour operators that are tapping into the desire of some consumers looking to help communities around the globe.
“I’m focused on two pillars: sustainability and philanthropy,” Perlman said. “I want to encourage people to travel in a way that benefits where they travel to.”
A portion of the proceeds for each tour will be donated to the charity featured on the trip. As an individual books more tours, Mockingbird makes a larger donation.
Mockingbird’s inaugural tour, leaving for Ecuador in July, will benefit Timmy Global Health, an Indianapolis-based non-profit, and its local partner in Ecuador, Fundación Tierra Nueva. Timmy provides access to healthcare for underserved communities in Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and Nigeria.
The trip will focus on the center of the country, including a visit to the Tierra Nueva Hospital Padre Jose Carollo in south Quito, where Perlman’s clients will hear from local Timmy and Tierra Nueva staff about their work.
Travelers will have opportunities to volunteer with Timmy Global’s local staff. “We hope to inspire our travelers to remain engaged and to continue to build on their contributions long after they’ve returned home,” Perlman said.
Clients also will explore the country’s highlands and forests, the capitol, Quito, and small market towns. (None of the tour destinations were damaged by the recent earthquake, Perlman said.)
In the fall, Perlman will take a small group to Southeast Asia, visiting the Mekong River traversing both Cambodia and Vietnam.
Volunteer travel is a growing market
Perlman and Mockingbird are part of a strong trend. Road Monkey launched in 2008. Me to We, a company that has a much broader charitable giving platform that includes online retail, has been offering international trips for about 10 years.
More and more, universities have been turning towards travel and volunteer work as a way to engage alumni and their families in group activities.
Beth Hutchison, director of alumni engagement at South Carolina Honors College in Columbia, SC, is speaking with Perlman about organizing alumni trips for 2017.
“We noticed that other colleges were doing travel,” Hutchison said. “We’re also thinking that since a lot of our alumni have children who are students at the college, this could be a way for them to experience what their child’s study abroad program looks like.”
Hutchison is coordinating with the college’s study abroad office, and talking about ways to coordinate these adventures together. The college has an exchange agreement with a university in Ecuador, and this fall, 15 Ecuadoran students will attend the college. “As we develop those ties, it makes sense for our alumni to experience what the university is involved in,” she said.
South Carolina Honors College, which is part of the University of South Carolina, has about 10,000 alumni, and many of those who stay in touch with the college are very involved in their communities. “A volunteer travel trip is a unique way for our alumni to connect with each other, stay in contact with the college, and experience giving back something,” she said.
Hutchison said she is working with Mockingbird because it has a very personal hands-on approach, and is working with her to potentially incorporate both educational and philanthropic components.
For example, South Carolina Honors might engage a professor to join the group trips. “Dealing with a company like Mockingbird, we can help fashion a destination trip to make it more appealing for our alumni,” Hutchison said.
Georgetown University, Perlman’s alma mater, is also looking at booking trips through Mockingbird. Ana S. Ayala, Director, Global Health Law at Georgetown’s O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, said “Collaborating with Mockingbird Travel would help us strengthen ties between graduates of our program and also provide our students an opportunity to gain a greater understanding of why working toward achieving global health matters.”
Only the beginning
Perlman, who lives in Washington, D.C., only recently launched her business website and accompanying blog, so bookings are building slowly. In the meantime, she continues to work part-time as a lawyer to pay her bills. In fact, she holds two law degrees, including a Masters of Law in global health law and international institutions from Georgetown.
Her Georgetown degree, and a brief stint working on international health policies, was one of the motivations for Mockingbird. Perlman’s second source of inspiration is “Grandma Millie,” Mildred Perlman. Perlman’s grandmother circled the globe in the 1950s. As Millie neared the end of her life, she took her extended family, including Vanessa Perlman (then 14), to Turkey, Greece, and Crimea.
“Two decades later, the sound of the muezzin call to prayer echoing over the harbor on our first morning in Istanbul is as fresh in my mind as if it happened last week,” Perlman wrote in her blog. “Although I certainly didn’t know it then, the trajectory of my life had been irrevocably bent.”
By 2010, Perlman was “bored silly” and “jaded by the business world.” She needed a change, so she quit her job, sold her car, and moved to DC. She’s been working on a freelance basis and building her business for about the past two years.
Her work experience in global health has helped her make the relevant travel and philanthropy connections, like Timmy Global. “My contacts have been very helpful. They make me confident we are picking projects that are thoughtful and impactful.”
Ultimately, Perlman would like to develop a network of trips, and offer multiple tours per year.