Volunteer Vacations

Has this ever happened to you?

You’re on a trip to an exotic locale checking out the wildlife when your guide says something like, “Look around you at the magnificent animal and plant life of the rainforest but be sure to take pictures because, with environmental encroachment, there may not be many of these majestic trees for future generations to see.”

You nod and stare, take pictures of the “majestic trees,” and move on.  It’s a sad situation, of course, but there’s nothing you can do.  Besides, you’re on vacation.

On the way back to your hotel you scan the countryside and notice villages with shanty houses made of misshapen boards and corrugated tin.  Your tour bus kicks up a fine layer of dust which billows in a cloud before settling on people lumbering by with heavy burdens on their backs.

As the tour bus stops at the hotel, a group of shouting children, not more than seven years of age, runs up asking for money.  Thin and malnourished, they clamor for attention as your tour guide shoos them away.  Although the walk to your scheduled five-‘o clock dinner is quiet, your head is humming with thoughts, and you wish silently you had given more to the children than the three American dollars you passed to their grasping hands.

Increasingly, travelers are taking an interest in the people and environment of the communities in which they travel. Whether this is a result of globalization, increased coverage by the worldwide media, or individual bouts of conscience, travelers all over have begun asking for ways in which they can help. 

Responding to this philanthropic spirit, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, L.L.C. has developed “Give Back Getaways.”  As one of the largest luxury hotel chains in the world, Ritz-Carlton operates 72 hotels in the Americas, Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.  Under Community Footprints, the hotel’s social and environmental responsibility program, “Give Back Getaways” allow guests to volunteer for half a day and assist communities around their hotels.

By going on the Give Back Getaway website (http://corporate.ritzcarlton.com/en/About/GiveBackGetaways.htm), or registering for the program through their travel agent, guests can volunteer to do everything from collecting food for endangered Blue Iguanas in Grand Cayman to providing music therapy for disabled children in Istanbul.  Working alongside Ritz-Carlton employees and non-profit organizers, guests are provided with all the materials they need to assist in programs that focus on hunger and poverty relief, environmental conservation, or the well-being of disadvantaged children.

Developed as a result of guests expressing an interest in assisting the areas in which they were staying and Ritz-Carlton’s own efforts to unify its charitable outreach efforts, Give Back Getaway are now offered at each Ritz-Carlton hotel.

“For over 18 years Ritz-Carlton employees in Cancun, Mexico were assisting a local organization in protecting sea turtle eggs,” said Sue Stephenson, vice president of Community Footprints.  “When the guests at our hotel would learn about this they often asked how they could become involved, and so we started developing programs in which our guests could volunteer and really assist these non-profits.”

Relief efforts in a number of natural disasters also motivated the development of Give Back Getaways:  “In the wake of Hurricane Ivan in 2004, the area around our Grand Cayman hotel in Jamaica was really devastated,” explained Ezzat Coutry, senior vice president of Ritz-Carlton. “Together with the SOS Children’s Villages charity, we helped to rebuild a school in the area and provide the children with supplies.  After our work there we decided that we wanted to form a more unified and streamlined way for us to reach out to the world, so we formed Community Footprints, and under that, Give Back Getaways.  Each of our hotels was already involved in charitable giving of some sort, but we wanted to unify it all and form real partnerships with non-profit organizations that were already in place.”

Following their decision to create Give-Back Getaways, Ritz-Carlton spent eight months developing the program and organizing its logistics. Instead of corporate heads choosing which non-profit organizations to interface with, The Ritz-Carlton left the decision up to the employees at each individual hotel.

“We believed that it was important for the people that actually live in the community and know the needs of the people here to decide,” said Stephenson.  “Our only requirements were that the activity had to speak to the unique nature of the location, had to be an authentic volunteer experience, and had to have a genuine, positive impact.”

Despite having only moderate promotion through the Ritz-Carlton’s website and in-hotel magazine, Give Back Getaways have caught on through word-of-mouth.  In fact, since its inception in April 2008, over 16,000 individuals have volunteered their time and money.  Even the travel industry in general taking a hit with the slow economy, Give Back Getaways continue to grow in attendance.

“I think much of this has to do with the type of guest that this experience attracts,” said Stephenson.  “Many of these individuals are very active in philanthropic involving their own community, and so the Give Back Getaways are just one extension of that while they are on vacation.  We’re also seeing a number of families participating.  Oftentimes these are very busy people, and they only have a chance to come together as a family on vacation.  The Give Back Getaway gives them a chance to do something meaningful together.”

Ritz-Carlton reports that responses from guests have been incredibly positive so far, with several guests even making sizable donations to the non-profits they had assisted after they returned home. 

“In a way though, everyone makes a donation because we give all of the money charged to guests participating in the program to the non-profit after deducting travel costs,” explains Stephenson.  “We make absolutely no money off of this.  It’s just fantastic to see that some of these smaller non-profits are getting attention and funding might not otherwise have gotten exposure.”

Beyond the scope of Give Back Getaways, the Ritz Carlton Hotel Company has been active community charities for some time.  Two years ago when its Palm Beach hotel was closed for four months, the company relocated most of its employees to available jobs at other hotels.  However, this still left them with nearly 250 employees without available staff positions to fill.  Instead of laying them off, the Ritz-Carlton kept them on salary while volunteering their services at local non-profits that worked with youth, the elderly, and support services throughout town.

“The employees at Ritz-Carlton really did good things there, and to this day the community at Palm Beach remembers this,” said Coutry.  “Many of our employees that were involved with this them still volunteer on their own time at those non-profits.”

Although most people would agree that charitable giving is always good, it’s one thing for managers to assign volunteer work exclusively to employees, and quite another for the managers themselves to volunteer and get their hands dirty with a little manual labor (and perhaps as rare as some of the endangered species being protected in the Give Back Getaways).  However, as a rule, each corporate meeting for employees at The Ritz-Carlton incorporates a non-profit volunteer event similar to a Give Back Getaway.

“For our last general manager’s meeting held in Cancun, Mexico we adopted a school located in the jungle,” said Coutry.  “All of us came together for one day and help elect a wall to protect the school from animals.  We also painted the walls, made a shed for the children, and even constructed a playground. The children were delighted because many of them hadn’t ever seen a playground in their life.  We’re committed to this sort of service as a company, and it’s this spirit that we try to capture with Give Back Getaways.”

For the more cynical, business-minded individuals out there, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company states that it has not started collecting data on whether Give Back Getaways are motivating guest to choose their hotels. However, with companies using non-profit branding like the (Red) AIDS/HIV relief logo, the National Breast Cancer Foundation pink ribbon, and numerous other non-profit associations to boost their public image and obtain business, the allure of such synergistic, mutually beneficial campaigning seems implicit.

“This program is really not meant to be self serving in that way,” responds Coutry. “This is about giving and helping the communities in which we have hotels.”

Still, Coutry concedes that it will begin including this question on surveys distributed to guests participating in the program in the future.

So what’s next for the fledgling Give Back Getaways program?

“As we volunteer and help, we’re learning about many other non-profits in our communities that need our assistance,” says Stephenson.  “In the future we will offer even more volunteer opportunities and continue to expand our program.” 

To find out more about Give Back Getaways, and see their current volunteer offerings, visit the Ritz-Carlton website at:  http://corporate.ritzcarlton.com/en/About/GiveBackGetaways.htm


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