If given the choice, most travelers would choose sleeping in a five-star seaside resort over bedding down on the floor of a rural medical clinic under construction.
But experts say there is still a strong market interested in building community-service projects in remote locales into their vacations. Many see "traveling with a purpose" as a natural evolution for consumers wanting to immerse themselves in authentic experiences, with Millennials a prime target market for interested agents.
"Millennials are making money now, and they're saying, 'Let's travel, but do some good, have a positive social impact," said Josh Cameron, head of strategy and business development at CV Humanitarian Travel, in Birmingham, AL.
Anneli Buehrle, volunteer product and contracting manager for STA Travel, said being socially conscious is top of mind for many of today's travelers, "and we're seeing increased interest from Millennials and Gen Zers to participate in responsible travel. More than ever, travelers are keen to be immersed in local life, connect with locals, learn about the culture, and give something back to a community."
STA Travel offers trips in about 22 countries, including Canada, Costa Rica, and in Asia and Africa. Its current projects cover four categories: conservation, working with animals, communities and teaching children.
CV Travel has partnered with Choice Humanitarian, a charity based in West Jordan, UT, that helps relieve poverty in remote destinations in seven countries. The two organizations pair groups and individual volunteers with local projects.
Choice Humanitarian hosted 16 trips with CV Travel in 2015 and 21 in 2016, and there are 30 planned already for this year. Travelers work for at least a few days in a village sourced by Choice Humanitarian, and then append a trip afterwards. For example, a project in Nepal would add a side trip to Mount Everest; a trip to Kenya includes Lake Victoria.
"We will partner you with an organization and we will give you this experience that you otherwise wouldn't be able to get through a conventional vacation, including speaking the language every day, eating truly authentic local food, experiencing a real cultural exchange," Cameron said.
Choice Humanitarian's director of corporate community impact Jordan Menzel said he is seeing a lot of interest from high-net-worth families who are "looking for ways to help introduce the next generation to the challenges going on around the world." He also works with universities, including study-abroad programs and groups like Engineers Without Borders.
More agents interested in growing market
Tourism Cares certifies travel counselors in its Good Travel Advisors program to encourage agents to think about service travel. In the year since the Good Travels Advisor program launched, 851 travel agents have purchased the course, 498 have been certified and 101 have elected to be included in the agent finder (goodtravels.org) program, to help source sales leads.
Service travel "is having a bit of a moment right now. Demand is rising and it's more mainstream," said John Yonce, director of community advancement and engagement at Tourism Cares in Canton, MA. He noted Me to We's partnering with The Travel Corporation and Classic Vacations to offer service travel opportunities with vacation packages.
Yonce said he heard from one agent about a couple who asked the guests at their destination wedding to forego a gift and instead spend for a day of giving nearby.
"There is client interest in giving back, primarily among the people already involved with nonprofit organizations at home," said Daniela Harrison, travel consultant at Avenues of the World Travel in Flagstaff, AZ. "If you know your clients do that kind of activity at home, you can then speak with them about including giving back in their travel. Generally they don't bring it up, so it's important for advisors to know their clients well enough to know if this would be of interest to them."
Harrison helps promote service tourism by posting on Facebook. "I usually keep track of who 'liked' the post so when they plan their next trip I can tailor it to what they are interested in."
Doing good for your business and for the world
Agents say that combining community service with leisure travel can create strong bonds to an agency and repeat business because of the intimate and powerful nature of the experiences the agent helps create.
"It can lend to a deeper and richer experience for your client," Yonce said. "If you're doing it right, it becomes a virtuous circle. The conversations you had before the trip and after they return can lead to a deeper and richer relationship with your client."
CV Humanitarian Travel, which is part of Christopherson Business Travel, sends a group of employees on a Choice Humanitarian trip every year to help boost collaboration and engagement. Cameron recommends that agents consider suggesting such a trip to corporate clients looking for a new twist on an offsite meeting.
"You're in a village for four to five days. The people you are around have major issues, having enough food, clean water. You're building school houses. It totally takes the focus off of yourself and pulls at your deepest emotions, and you bond with people in a way that isn't replicable in the United States," said Cameron, who himself has gone on eight trips.