Why Adventure Companies Fail with Voluntourism

Having been a part of the volunteer and adventure travel industries for awhile now one thing seems quite apparent to me, most adventure companies that try to sell voluntourism flat out fail (Intrepid is the latest example). But why?

I have consulted on the adventure side for a lot of these companies and peeked my nose into their volunteer product marketing. I see the appeal on their side to merge into voluntourism, similar customer, interactive cultural experience, similar price range – should be an easy transition, but it’s not. Here are some observations on why they fail.

1. They use sales staff instead of ‘advisors’.

Someone looking to volunteer needs more guidance than someone looking to book a Machu Picchu trek. They need to understand the work they will do, the value they will bring, where their money will go and how they will cope with the language/cultural barrier without a group of peers or guide, etc. (to name a few).

The companies that have simply added voluntourism into the product offering and expected the same adventure sales team to sell it have definitely failed.

2. They don’t provide fundraising information.

How many times have potential volunteers called your company and complained that they can’t afford it but would love to volunteer abroad? The majority of volunteer organizations have a ready made solution to hand out for this dilemma, adventure companies are blind sided and lose the lead.

3. The marketing message.

All too often voluntourism experiences are portrayed as yet another adventure, or even worse, an add on. True voluntourists need to believe they are genuinely making a difference and somehow the ‘2 day pet the orphans’ option doesn’t appeal. The marketing needs to not only cover the experience but the circumstances surrounding it.

4. The target market.

Adventure companies are dominated by the 35-55 customer, voluntourists are still mainly 18-25. There is a discrepancy in the marketing and messaging that appeals to each of these customer segments.

5. Profit vs. Non-Profit

This debate rages forever and I can hear a couple of you reading this and cracking your knuckles ready for a reply but needless to say… All adventure companies are for profit, most volunteer companies are non-profit, the perception that volunteering through a non-profit is better still remains.

I could go forever on this and will in a part two blog post, but just wanted to throw this out there and see what comments we drive up.


16 thoughts on “Why Adventure Companies Fail with Voluntourism

  1. I’m surprised that the average age difference in adventure travelers and volunteer travelers is so great. We at Voluntraveler are lconsidering ways to tack on an adventure tour to our long volunteer programs in Peru, so we’re doing the same thing companies like Intrepid have tried, but from the opposite direction: Starting with the core volunteer experience, and then adding on some fun travel experiences. Most people won’t travel abroad just to volunteer and not see the sights.

    Do you or your readers think volunteer travelers will find a volunteer experience with adventure travel added on more palatable? Or will the association with a for-profit adventure travel company put them off?

    Jason Kucherawy
    Director – Voluntraveler

  2. This is exactly why we created Inside/Out Humanitourism™ Adventures a few years ago. It is somewhat inauthentic for adventure companies to simply tack on a volunteer component to jump into a trend, and it will show up in the quality of the experience. Humanitourism™ was designed from the outset to blend the two aspects and create a more meaningful travel experience.

    You are correct. A company has to have a wholly different area of expertise to plan and execute successful volunteer opportunities.

    We specialize in adventures that are equally divided between humanitarian volunteer work and active adventure travel because we believe it is the most authentic way to connect travelers with another culture.

    Zoe Katsulos
    inside/out Humanitourism™ Adventures

  3. I second Meilee’s comment.

    Jason: I really only know of one organization who does Adventure Travel linked with Volunteer Abroad exceptionally well and they send many, many thousands abroad each year: ISV. Their programs are superb, each one visited by staff and run through an extensive “Risk Management” evaluation and then there is the unstoppable “grass-routes” marketing at the college campus level that no one, anywhere, can match. In my humble opinion…only me…adding on an adventure piece to an existing volunteer piece will probably backfire and could hurt the rest of your volunteer projects. Having nothing to do with non-profit or for-profit and everything with confusing your brand.

    As for the rest of the post…loved it. In my mind, the traveler who really wants an adventure will get bored quickly with the volunteer project, depending on how long the volunteer project lasts. If I am not mistaken, I think Intrepid noticed many vollies leaving their projects early. And to lure a young volunteer to a project by offering an exciting adventure first is more questionable in my eyes than the non and for profit argument.

    We do not do adventure travel, and 51% of our vollies are 18-21, 37% are 22-30 and 8% are 31 to 49. Only 3% are over 50. So when we thought about innovation, it seemed logical for us to move more towards teaching and conversation programs. Adventure, except for those very few who already do it well, is a very different animal and for us at least would have been a very “adventurous” leap indeed.

    Know your segment, believe in your brand, and innovate in a way that compliments both. Tacking adventure on to volunteer or the reverse is not innovative. You will end up like a line in Fiddler On The Roof. “It doesn’t matter if the rock hits the pitcher or the pitcher hits the rock. It’s going to be bad for the pitcher.”

  4. I have been teaching a class on voluntourism for the last 4 years and must say the Boomer group is alive and kicking to join up as a volunteer. If a company was to add on Boomerish adventures, I think it would be great. If you look at the more expensive projects like Earthwatch or Sierra Club, you’ll notice a large percentage of seniors.
    As for a profit co. making a profit on volunteering, well, it frustrates me. Grassroots organizations do need volunteers, and funding but the large pricetags attached to these tours leave a lot of people out. Plus there is the question as to transparency…how much of the cost is actually going to the project.
    I hate to have voluntourism turn into a marketing ploy when it can be so much more.

  5. Hey Joyce. I wrote one of the comments above and wanted to comment on your note above. I’m a Boomer and I agree the boomers like volunteer programs. But here is why: they can deduct the trip. Most 22 year olds don’t care if they go with a for profit or a non-profit because they don’t itemize their taxes. A 55+ volunteer will.

    I have participated a Southern Connecticut State Univ. in their Travel and Tourism department and they have discussed Voluntourism. I’d suggest a research project for one of your classes based on what I’ve seen at SCSU.

    1. Go to Google and search “Voluntourism”.

    2. On my Browser, east coast U.S. at 8:44 p.m., I get 154,000 results. The number one PAID advertisement is by a 501(c)(3) Non-profit. They tout that they are NOT an organization who does “voluntourism” and instead, they tout themselves as a “Peace Corps alternative.” There are a few of them. Yet, they choose to advertise on Google under “Voluntourism.”

    3. Check out the paid ads on the far right and see how many non-profits are advertising under the “voluntourism” heading on Google.

    4. Click on each one. Look at their prices for this:

    A. 4 week program in Costa Rica.
    B. 4 week program in Peru.
    C. 4 week program in Thailand.

    5. Click on a FOR profit organization. Look at their prices for A, B and C above and compare.

    Joyce, what I have found consistently is that the non-profits charge more. But this would make a great project for a class and then do a Powerpoint on the results. Not sure where you teach, but you might have 2 or 3 travel companies come in and talk about the results with a class. Or, you could invite a voluntourism organization to come speak.

    As for “transparency” every single provider of volunteer abroad programs lists on their site how they spend their money. Every voluntourism site, no matter their tax status, financial transparency is there.

    Lastly. I agree with you 100%. Many of the large non-profits leave a lot of people out. Thank goodness there are smaller organizations who offer amazing programs and who charge sometimes 50% of the fee of the larger non-profits.

  6. Randy, you make some good points. Joyce, it is also frustrating on the other end, that companies shouldn’t profit from doing good things in the world. I think the contrary, our highest revenue companies and professions should be the ones that contribute the most to humanity, not oil and tobacco companies and the like. A company can be profitable and socially responsible without “leaving a lot of people out.”

    Zoe Katsulos
    inside/out Humanitourism™ Adventures

  7. I would argue that this list is missing the main point of why some adventure companies, and others, “fail” at voluntourism.

    #1) They are used to thinking of their guests as their only customers.

    All 5 of these points relate to how the company treats the potential traveler and how the traveler perceives the company. Adventure travel companies and others will continue to do poor work in this sector if they continue to only focus on the relationship between the company and the traveler. Many adventure companies have little to no contact with the communities and programs in the areas where their tours are located and instead leave those connections to their guides. Those companies are forgetting that their follow up, monitoring, and impact assessment, when doing any type of philanthropic or community based travel, is no longer just about surveying their client base but also about understanding the needs, educational potential, and relationship with the communities in which they work. That takes time invested in the communities they claim to be “serving”, not just in finding the best adventures, and often that is overlooked.

  8. Daniela – you make an outstanding point. To me, this is a given and should underscore all else. But I think it is great to have it spelled out, because it is likely not always the case. I think you are spot on.

  9. I have enjoyed reading all your comments. I have to be honest that I don’t know much about the Intrepid story. I think our company falls into the category of being a small tour operator who offers volunteer opportunities with adventure travel.

    We have definitely seen an increase in people who want to combine a tour with a volunteer experience. Most of these are small groups of older Americans who travel for 2 weeks. They seem genuinely interested in devoting a few days to a project while traveling.
    All our projects are customized. So we don’t always list them and then have people “sign up”. We get information from the group of travelers that helps us match them to projects. For instance, if we have a group of high school students, we’ll match them to a project in a school. If we have a group of mature hikers, we may recommend a project in a small village.
    Of course, all the projects are scouted and arranged by locals who have connections to the communities where the projects occur. We don’t charge extra fees to participate and the costs to run the projects are included in the fees paid by the participants. We offset those costs by camping and cooking our own meals.
    The results have been incredible. The feedback from participants is positive and the projects have resulted in some extraordinary outcomes too lengthy to go into here.

    I just got back from S. America a couple weeks ago. During my travels, I ran into young women (college age) who were there to participate in lengthy (1 year or more) service projects. When I asked who they were involved with, none of the names were programs I have ever heard of. Cost was a factor for all these young women (all came from different projects) when selecting the program.

    While I think that combining service with a travel itinerary is a good idea, it could be that several factors come into play in order to have “success”. Avoiding the “pet the orphans” kind of experiences is probably one factor, but cost may be equally, if not more important.
    It’s not just a matter of “offering it and they will come”. Can organizations make a profit off service projects? Should they? Not for me to determine, but it seems the public may have drawn a line in the sand that they will not cross. There is a limit to how much they will pay to volunteer their services.

  10. Side note: I love that the term “pet the orphans” is now becoming colloquial terminology. 🙂

    A comment on “adventure” and “service”. Habitat for Humanity, at the forefront of the volunteering abroad movement, has been offering trips for years and most of those are service trips followed by some sort of adventure trip organized by the participants themselves. I haven’t done the study to prove this, but I would bet that many of the people who travel to do a service project abroad where adventure or sightseeing is not combined in the offering then stay and do that on their own. In other words, its not that “people who are seeking to volunteer do not want to go on adventures” nor vice versa, but that operators who are doing each of these two components are not typically able to offer the best of both.

    At PEPY, we used to offer voluntourism programs which were more volunteer focused, but have since become a lot more skeptical of the impact of looking to “serve” in a place where we should be looking learn. Responsible edu-ventures is the category we now classify our tours in – educational opportunities where you can come to a new place, learn about development work, support that work financially and occasionally with your time as well, and go home better equipped to serve the world – not just in the 14 days of your tour, but forever.

    Some adventure companies are used to “taking people on vacation”. To offer a real learning experience, you sometimes have to push people to the “Fun B” zone – where they are challenged and out of their comfort zones. To do so, the trip leader’s goals have to be aligned with modeling responsible community interactions and supporting a challenging and educational experience for the travelers which sometimes strays from the most “relaxing” experience for guests. In other words, any company where a large portion of the trip leader’s salary is based on tips might not be suited to produce the kind of trips which put community needs above travelers and push guests to challenge their preconceived notions. Adding volunteering, for those companies, just doesn’t fit into their DNA.

  11. Great post Alexia, and excellent discussion.

    From a provider point of view I’d like to add a few reasons why traditional Voluntourism Organizations, primarily those focused on students, will fail to be successful as they attempt to move into an adult Vouluntourism/Adventure Travel space.

    They don’t understand what the new potential client/market needs:

    Comfort: These are adults, many who are 50+, a “shared room” means shared with one, not with many. Shared baths are a non-starter for many… as our long bus rides, public transportation and street food. Offering some level of basic comfort allows this population to engage in the experience without stress.

    Health and Safety Concerns: An aging population may be more concerned, and is definitely more susceptible, about what will happen if they are sick or injured. Food poisoning, infections, falling and breaking something are real and potentially life threatening events.

    Time: Unlike a younger traveler, the mature traveler looks at a destination as potentially the last or only time they will travel there. This means they want it all. If they are part of a Voluntourism Experience they are interested in modules they can add on for the more touristed “must see and do” experience. They are willing to invest $ and time but they want someone to offer them a complete experience.

    Sensitivity: Mature travelers don’t like doing things wrong. The are often embarrassed to try a language they don’t speak fluently or interact inappropriately with locals around customs. They need reassurance that someone/the group leader, will help them navigate this new type of adventure.

    Bathrooms: escorts and tour leaders need to understand that they will be asked many times where the bathrooms or where they might use a bathroom. I’ve had too many guides think this is crazy and treat clients like they are children.

    If you don’t understand, embrace, appreciate and enjoy the mature traveler…who makes up most of the Adventure Travel consumer group, you will not be successful.

  12. This is such a great debate….so many excellent points already raised. For me one of the prime reasons for “failure” is the mismatch of concept between consumer ( volunter and community ) and provider. I agree completely that all too many organisations do not understand fully the volunteer traveller’s motivation, and do not understand that the communities with which they work are indeed customers not “suppliers” add to this the lack of understanding that a volunteer placement is rarely a “package” as understood by the travel industry and we have a recipe for disappointment all round. The package that the informed volunteer seeks to buy may well involve packaged elements such as accomodation and flights but the placement itself, the very reason for their travel,is rarely if ever effective for communities or volunteers – the consumers – if it is anything other than bespoke.
    There are many excellent responsible travel providers offering meaningful cultural engagement in their tours, be they adventure or otherwise. Volunteer travel may at first sight be a natural extention to their offer – however the complexities of working with vulnerable communities and well meaning but unprepared volunteers where the experience cannot be “packaged” and controlled by a tour guide can lead to these very same “responsible operators ” causing unintentioned disappointment and even damage.
    Keep up the debate please!

  13. hi there!
    great debate going on here…. very interesting to read. i came accorss it as i was researching my dissertation project for my final year of university. i have chosen to study the ‘value of volunteering – putting a price on the priceless’ and trying to figure out why as a volunteer was justify these huge prices for a life experience. its fantastic and we dont regret the payment, but why it the price tag so high.

    i have worked with both profit (ISV) and a non profit (frontier) agencies. the first i found to be very well organised but almost as if the work we were doing was just to fill time rather than actively making a difference as we were only there 2 weeks then just as we were getting into it and getting somewhere we were packed onto a bus to go travelling. fantastic, but i couldnt help feel it was an excuse to make rich kids feel worthy and all we were doing was rubbing it in the faces of the poor people then leaving. the second project i did with non-profit fronteir was in rio de janeiro which was very poorly organised and we were left to fend for ourselves, from being abandoned at the airport for 6 hours to not having the right currency and having no money all weekend until the banks opened(we were told to take US dollars as apparently everywhere in rio accepts them – LIE). this was a very daunting start to teh project but once we eventually got started it was more of a we show you where to do, you get on and do it kind of atmosphere. we took the bus ourselves (just me and my best friend) to our slum and planned all the lessons, no group leader for us. but we found that by putting ourselves outside our comfort zone we tried harder and made a massive difference. we were there for 1 month which was a good amount of time to see an impact.

    on return from brazil, i compared my two experiences. i can see the benefit of why you would go with a profit as its a big package where you are led around like sheep from one thing to the next, but the non profit was so much less organised but not THAT much cheaper yet a more worth while experience. it made me wonder the physical value of this, and why companies can decide a price tag for something that is such a personal expeirence. they know they can charge over and above the fixed costs as its a desirable experience expecially in this day and age where young people have more readily available disposable income whether its from parents, over drafts, credit cards, or student loans. it is fashionable, and are companies taking advantage of this? are the poor being used to exploit the rich?!

    would love to here further debate on this, and if anyone is interested in being involved in my research i would love them to get in touch.

    thanks guys!

  14. Hi there – I have read each and every comment with interest and I want to make you aware of a truly fantastic company Trekking for Kids. Please visit the website to see how “purpose driven adventure” is being done right. This is a non-profit that seamlessly combines volunteering and trekking and has found that by staying small and focused on a sole mission it can truly make a difference. Trekking for Kids was started 5 years ago by a dedicated group of volunteers and is still run by the same group. The model is unique in that each trekker raises a mimimum of $1,000 that is purely pass through to the local orphanage that has been selected in the region where the trek will take place. Testimonials on the website will show that trekkers come away from the experience feeling that TFK has provided a truly life changing experience for all involved. Each trek is led by a world class guide named Luis Benitez so experience and quality is unparalleled. Please don’t be cynical about this experience – when it is done right – as Trekking for Kids does it, it makes the world a better place – one step at a time.

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