Volunteer Travel Operators: Get Off Your Asses and Help Your Industry!

Our goal at Voluntourism Gal is to provide insights into and facilitate discussion about the volunteer travel industry. And aside from a few wonderful, vocal people, you’re all clamming up—and that makes the whole “facilitating discussion” thing incredibly difficult.

In 2009, the State of the Volunteer Travel Industry Survey polled 28 U.S.-based organizations with a few short questions, which we’ll get into below. This survey allowed researchers, media, and stakeholders to understand where we were that year and what you guys projected for the future of your own industry.

Well, the landscape has changed and the information on the previous publication is outdated. This spring, we asked you five questions that would allow us to release a brand-new report with updated, relevant information. This report is intended to help the community grow and understand where we’re headed.

As of today, we haven’t received nearly enough responses yet to compile the 2013 edition. Many of you are interested in seeing the report, but you’re not actually participating in the research. Do you want to have a solid answer when someone asks, “Is volunteer travel growing?” How about, “How has your industry fared during the recession?” Do you want something to actually back it up? Do you want to see the most popular countries U.S.-based organizations are sending their volunteers to? How about an average return rate to see how you stack up against the national number? I know I did when I operated my own volunteer travel company. I built the 2009 report into my freakin’ business plan.

Those are answers we want to provide for you—and unfortunately, we can’t release or report on anything until more of you get back to us.

So! As a reminder: all participants’ information will be kept strictly confidential and only the results and a total list of companies that participated, will be produced. Your competitors will not know how many volunteers you specifically are sending abroad, or what your company’s return rate is, or any other information about you individually.

Please take a couple minutes to answer the following five questions (plus the optional ones, if you have time) and send them to me directly at Sarah@FrayedPassport.com or to Alexia at alexia@lassocommunications.com.

And to those that have already responded: Thank you!


  1. To which countries do you currently send volunteers?
  2. What is the most popular activity for your volunteers? Building; Community Development; Conservation—Environmental, Wildlife, or Heritage; Scientific; Health Care; Skills Based Professional; Teaching; Other (please describe)
  3. How many volunteers did you send abroad in 2012?
  4. Do you expect to send more or less volunteers abroad in 2013 than you did in 2012?
  5. What is your return rate for volunteers?


  1. Do you feel the economy is affecting your business positively, negatively or unaffected? What, if anything, have you done to counteract the effects of the recession?
  2. Are there any valuable insights or lessons learned you would like to share with the industry?
  3. Which term do you most associate with your organization? Voluntourism, volunteer tourism, volunteer vacation, volunteer travel, volunteer abroad, or other?

To qualify as an operator in this survey, you must have a U.S. office; send U.S. volunteers abroad; not be faith-based in any way; require that volunteers must pay for their placement; and require that travelers work for more than four days of straight volunteering (e.g., cannot be an adventure travel placement with a volunteer component).

Please send all responses to Sarah@FrayedPassport.com or to Alexia at alexia@lassocommunications.com.

High Profile Media Outlet Needs a Volunteer to Interview in Kenya

If you are a voluntourism provider and offer projects in Kenya (preferably around Nairobi) please contact me. This reporter needs to talk to a volunteer (preferably a bit older) who has either lost a job in the current economic climate or someone who has decided to jack it all in and do something different. The character would need to be an engaging person who we can spend a day with while he is doing his work with the locals. They will be filming the 21-28 of this month.

If you have someone that matches send them to me ASAP – will need info on the project and details on the volunteer.

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.

Free Brand Monitoring Tools

With the rise of social media your brand is being talked about more than ever before, how are you engaging and listening to those conversations? If someone is complaining about their trip do you know about it? If so are you addressing it? You should be otherwise you’ll be looking at media coverage like the recent Guardian article.

Here are some tools I love using:

Google Alerts (oldie but goodie)

BoardTracker.com (to monitor discussion boards and forums)

Twitter Search

Backtype (to monitor blog comments)

Technorati (monitor blogs)

30 Free SEO Tools – Are You Using Them?

A great list of free SEO tools from the folks at SEOptimise, if you’re not using most of these you probably should be.

Keyword Research

Site Check

Link Tools




Two Ways to Track Social Media with Google Analytics

It is becoming more and more apparent how important social media is to the travel industry. Most of you are using it in some way or other, but the big question still remains: how do you track it? I found this article from econsultancy.com that might be worth a look.

With so many resources spent on social media marketing these days, the job of analyzing its effectiveness in the overall marketing mix is becoming more important.

If you’re using Google Analytics to track your site’s visitors and revenue, you’ll notice that by default you can analyze traffic mediums such as direct, organic etc, but what about social networks as a standalone traffic medium?

To achieve this level of reporting in Google Analytics and to basically tweak Google Analytics to create this traffic medium, you’ve got two options.

Read the full article

Why Discounting Won’t Work to Survive this Recession

Great article by Anna at Tourism Internet Marketing – what are your thoughts on discounting? Have you tried it? What were the results?

The tourism industry has often boasted of its resilience and ability to rebound after drops in demand caused by such negative factors as 9/11, SARS or natural disasters. The adaptive response most frequently deployed is generic discounting. But does this serve the individual business or the tourism community well and will it work this time?  I believe the answer is NO and for the following reasons:

1.       We’re not looking at a temporary blip in demand. Life and business, as experienced between 2003 and Q3 2008 will not return to normal. The growth in demand for discretionary services was fuelled by cheap credit, cheap energy (until 2007), and asset inflation – all unsustainable illusions based on a denial of environmental realities. Expansion in capacity (airline seats, condominiums and ocean view apartments, whether sold in wholes or fractional units, hotels and restaurants) was all based on an over estimation of demand by suppliers and consumers alike. Now only the airlines have the option to remove excess capacity from circulation by parking their vehicles in the desert. As identified by Time Magazine in February 2009 , consumers shop very differently today. As indicated by McKinsey as far back as 2007[i], boomers won’t be spending as freely after seeing their assets (first homes, second homes, pensions and equities) plummet in value; and the kids, who were supposed to be filling a major labor shortage due to retirement of the boomer workforce, will face tough competition from people old enough to be their grandparents.

2.       We are looking at fundamental changes in the nature of demand; the way consumers make decisions and respond to brand messages and the way suppliers gain their attention. Not only do consumers regularly turn their backs on advertising, they worry more about the opinions of peers or society. Sean Gregory’s article in Time identified three kinds of consumer in terms of their willingness to spend right now. In short:

  • Those that can’t (they’ve lost their job or income)
  • Those that might but won’t (they fear they might lose their job or income or are simply being prudent/cautious)
  • Those that could but still won’t (because they don’t want to send the wrong signal to peers)

3.       We are looking at deep and major changes in the source of travel demand and businesses must be more granular and refined in their approach. In their 2006 article, McKinsey showed how price sensitivity varied by a factor of 13 across regional markets and even by a factor of 3 across zip codes in the same cities. In other words, consumer behaviour cannot be predicted by macro demographics, psychographics and post code but by individual circumstance, perception and attitude. Individual consumers are demonstrating their individuality. Destinations that continue to rely on macro economic models to prioritize top ten performing countries will miss out big time. This is the time for more in-depth research into customer perceptions and motivations not less.

4.       We are also looking at fundamental shifts in the way consumers spend their free time (internet usage now exceeds TV watching for many) and the way customers are reached and influenced. Furthermore, the relative cost and ROI of various distribution channels can vary enormously as illustrated by McKinsey’s research[ii]:


In this context, blanket reductions in marketing spend across the board combined with a reluctance to change channels would spell disaster.

At a time when customers have ceased to trust brands; when they favor the recommendations of friends and peers over the exhortations of sales personnel; and when they can research a producer’s claims or compare supplier’s prices on their mobiles as they walk to the check out stand, loyalty cannot be bought. It can only be earned through assiduous attention to detail, through rigorous honesty, through genuine respect for the customer’s intelligence and through genuine gratitude for past business. Tough but true.

To read the full article visit: