As Biloxi, Miss., and the Mississippi Gulf Coast continue to grapple with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, more than 300 tourism professionals, hoteliers, and corporate executives met one weekend in March to do their part to help put the area back together. The 2006 Tourism — Caring for America event brought about 5,000 hours oflabor to the region, including projects at tourist and business attractions such as the Mississippi Coast Coliseum and Convention Center, where volunteers reseeded the area out front.
“They all did a first-class job,” says Steven Richer, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau. But, in contemplating the devastation wrought by the August 2005 hurricane, Richer knows his home town “can still use a lot more assistance.”
Corporate America is one place Richer might find that help, because whether it's altruism or just good business sense, giving back has become an important value for some companies. One way to demonstrate that sense of social responsibility is to create incentive trip activities that benefit the host community. New businesses are launching to fill this niche. Here are profiles of three meeting professionals working to get altruism on the agenda.
Following Her Passion
In 2003, Lucy Eisele was manager of travel events and meetings for Creative Memories, St. Cloud, Minn. That year she planned an incentive program to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, that changed her life. The trip incorporated a community project refurbishing a school in the village of La Cruz de Quelitan. The experience was so profound that it started a chain of events that led to Eisele leaving Creative Memories to start a consulting business focusing on these kinds of activities.
Eisele made her decision after earning her Certified Incentive Travel Executive designation from the Society of Incentive & Travel Executives, which required her to write a thesis paper. She focused her CITE research on “her passion,” delivering a report titled “Social Capital: Introducing Your Achievers to Social Giving.”
“When I got word in August 2005 that I had passed, it was exciting,” she recalls, “but what was I going to do with it? I needed to do something.” That was the beginning of her new company, Integrity Incentives, whose goal is “to teach the meeting planner, or incentive house, how to incorporate social capital into incentive programs or meetings,” Eisele says.
The business has started slowly, and she continues to do traditional event planning to support it. “It's all about getting in front of the right people,” she says, adding that when she tries to pitch the idea of a socially responsible meeting, “I get a lot of, ‘It sounds great, but I don't know if it will work for us.’ I have to show them how and why it will work.”
Incentive to Care
Peter Turcic, an independent meeting planner and travel writer from Vancouver, British Columbia, had worked in the incentive industry for more than 20 years when he had a change of heart.
“I did incentives for various companies, and as wonderful as that experience was, I was beginning to develop a personal sense of discomfort,” he says. “We'd be traveling to some third world country, attending some lavish event, while people a block away were having trouble putting food on the table.”
He started writing about the subject, and has decided to focus on clients who share his humanitarian concerns. Recently he did a program, which received a Crystal Award from SITE, with Maritz Canada Inc. in Costa Rica for a telecommunications provider. On one day of the trip, the qualifiers — the company's top 10 percent of sales achievers — were given the option of volunteering for projects at the SOS Children's Village, a foster home in San Jose. They collaborated with the youth and staff to build furniture, plant flowers, install a fountain, clean, and paint. They also furnished a lab with computer equipment donated by their company.
Turcic has coined the phrase “Incentive to Care” to describe events such as these, and has even copyrighted the term. He hopes to eventually establish a related business in which he will use it.
Yet, he says, “there still seems to be some hesitation on the part of incentive companies to go to their clients and say, ‘This is an idea whose time has come.’ There's interest — but there's hesitation. The key is getting these corporations to give it a try.”
Impact 4 Good
A lot of companies want to be charitable, says Ira Almeas, “but they just don't know how to do it.” His answer, and that of the company of which he is president — Impact Incentives of Hanover, N.J. — was to form a partner company last year called Impact 4 Good, specializing ininitiatives “that make a difference.”
Impact 4 Good is unique, Almeas says, in that its teambuilding/community service initiatives are pre-packaged and can be self-facilitated. “You don't have to fly in crew and facilitators, so it can save quite a bit of money.” For example, he points to a recent incentive in Jamaica where a client wanted an event that could be spread out over several days. Impact 4 Good provided them with the instructions and materials to construct beehives, and over the course of the meeting, attendees would stop by a pavilion and spend a couple of hours working on these beehives, which were then presented to a local co-operative that was able to deliver honey to the marketplace.
“It was fun, it allowed everyone to work together, and people could see how it was helping the local community,” says Almeas.
He believes that this kind of program appeals to executives who might be concerned about the time and money needed to add community service components to their incentive programs. “A lot of the projects require an entire day, and it's probably off-site, so it's very costly. And you have to add an extra day to the agenda, adding more room nights, so it becomes a pretty expensive initiative. Many companies just don't have the time or budget.”
But if a company wants to incorporate a teambuilding initiative/community service project into a two- or four-hour time slot, Almeas says, “That's our niche.”
An Award for Programs With Purpose
It's called the Commitment to the Community Award, and every year, IMEX, the international exhibition for incentive travel, meetings, and events held in Frankfurt, Germany, honors one individual for an innovative charitable program he or she has organized in conjunction with a meeting or incentive trip. Entries are judged based on their creativity and suitability, among other factors. For more, visit www.imex-frankfurt.com.
VolunTourism: Giving Back
The San Diego — based nonprofit group Los Niños has a 25-year history of developing meaningful travel experiences, often for student groups. Four years ago, it created VolunTours (www.voluntours.org) to package community development initiatives as experiences for travelers — including corporate groups — to the Baja Norte region of Mexico.
VolunTours spokesman David Clemmons would like to see the new venture expanded, both geographically and in the number of meetings that it serves. “Over 40 percent of volunteers earn over $60,000 a year and are college-educated,” he says. “That's the meeting market right there. To me, meetings and volunteering should be a natural fit.”
One of his challenges is getting the ears of already busy meeting planners, which he is trying to do by working through destinations. It would help, he says, if CVBs and tourist boards had what he refers to as “go-to people” on staff to assist planners with logistical issues such as finding appropriate projects, arranging transportation, and handling insurance.
Most recently, Clemmons has been working to develop a VolunTour program with Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau Executive Director Steve Richer, who admits that at this point, he “can't get enough of the idea of community service projects.” Stay tuned.
You Can Go Back
This past January, Lucy Eisele, former manager of travel events and meetings for Creative Memories in St. Cloud, Minn.,returned to a place that's very close to her heart — the village of La Cruz de Quelitan, near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
This was the site of the community service project she conducted with an incentive group in 2003, and she wanted to see how the village had fared in the intervening three years. “I did it on my own,” says Eisele, now an independent incentive planner.
Upon returning to the village, she was surprised to find that the school her group had refurbished seemed to have deteriorated, and everything “just didn't look the same,” she says. But there was something new — a medical facility had opened next to the school.
She revealed her disappointment to a villager who had accompanied her to La Cruz de Quelitan. “Lucy,” he said to her, “you don't understand what you did for this village. Before you came, this village was not one — when you left, they understood what needed to be done.” That, he said, led to the opening of the new medical facility.
“It was almost three years later,” Eisele says. “That's a long time to maintain everything — what was I thinking? But I found out that what happened cosmetically wasn't that important. It was pretty profound.”