Event Recap: Meaningful Travel – What, Why, How

| November 16, 2015 More

The blog’s 5th anniversary prompted an evening about meaningful travel. Here’s a summary of the event and panel discussion with industry experts. 

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The evening featured a panel discussion with Chicago-based ‘meaningful travel’ organizations, followed by Q&A

If you are familiar with Jetting Around, you may have noticed that I like to throw parties. There is JA Café: Travel Talk Over Coffee, intimate meetups for travelers in Chicago (my home base) and other cities I visit. JAM Session is a series of cultural events, featuring performances by international artists. And in the past few years, I have hosted the blog’s anniversary celebrations. All that because I like to take JA offline to meet my readers, plus other travel and culture-minded people.

As the 5th anniversary approached, I wanted to make it special. I envisioned a community event that would be both entertaining and engaging. And I hoped to support travel organizations, having previously volunteered in Ecuador.

The idea was born, but I needed the right partners.

When I met the program manager of Spark Ventures, a local “impact travel” non-profit, we quickly decided to collaborate. We had a shared interest in philanthropic events and knew a lot of the same people (it’s a surprise we hadn’t met earlier). Before long, we had agreed on a theme and brought other collaborators on board. Event planning began.


“Meaningful travel” came up in our conversations almost instantly. Not only did we feel strongly about the concept, but it had been identified as one of the major tourism trends by the Travel Channel, Travel & Leisure, TIME, and Forbes. We thought the best way to showcase it during the event would be through a panel discussion with experts.

Besides Spark Ventures, participating organizations included the Chicago-based non-profit Greenheart Travel (my partner in South America) and social enterprise Unearth the World. Both are providers of cultural immersion programs abroad. Hostelling International USA would also join the panel, and their Chicago location serve as our venue. HI USA is a non-profit network of hostels, focused on connecting their guests with local communities.


The 45-minute talk, followed by a Q&A session with attendees, was moderated by me and featured four panelists: Rich Johnson (CEO and Co-Founder of Spark Ventures), Megan Arzbaecher (Program Manager at Greenheart Travel), Kathryn Pisco (Founder of Unearth the World), and Megan Arlow (Regional Engagement Manager at HI USA).

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Panelists, from the left: Kathryn Pisco (Unearth the World), Rich Johnson (Spark Ventures), Megan Arlow (Hostelling International USA), Megan Arzbaecher (Greenheart Travel)

Our guests started off by sharing meaningful experiences they’d had when traveling, from visiting fair trade artisans in India to speaking with community leaders in Zambia. Megan from HI USA recalled volunteer-teaching an English class in Japan, where she connected with a local resident. As it turned out, the woman took the class to “meet an American and let go of the hate she’d held since WWII.”

All the panelists stressed the long-term effects of these interactions, especially in the way they perceive other countries. “People from the other side of the world are not that different from me,” Rich from Spark Ventures remarked. Kathryn of Unearth the World added, “I learned about the importance of human connection and cross-cultural exchange.” For both of them, travel also became the impetus to start their organizations.

Much time was devoted to industry trends when it comes to “traveling with a purpose.” Megan from Greenheart Travel mentioned a steady increase in solo female travel. The others had registered more inquiries about volunteer projects from Millennials and families traveling together. They also noted a “greater desire for unique experiences and connecting with local communities,” often facilitated by services such as Airbnb, Couchsurfing, and Meal Sharing.

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More than 60 people attended the event, held at Hostelling International Chicago


The panel agreed that “meaningful travel” will continue to get attention in 2016, but warned against organizations trying to “earn a quick buck.” They advised attendees to do research and find projects that are financially transparent and have a tangible impact on local communities.

Besides encouraging volunteer travel and participation in cultural exchange programs, we wanted to give the audience ideas to implement on any trip. Suggestions included: bringing a reusable water bottle, staying at “green” hotels, eating at establishments owned by residents, purchasing locally-made handicrafts, taking local tours and transportation. The panel also recommended learning about the culture beforehand, to better engage with people.

“Travel with an open mind,” they all concluded.


The event was scheduled to last two hours, but a number of people lingered on. We chatted over leftover snacks, exchanged contact information, made plans to meet. Some guests said that they felt inspired to make a difference – in their neighborhoods and on the road. “Me too,” I thought, as I recalled my time in Ecuador: living with a host family and working at a day care center. Perhaps it’s time to volunteer again.

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The party went on…

Thank you to all the participating organizations for making this event happen: contributing time, expertise, and raffle prizes (extra thanks to the Catrinka Project for their item). And thank you to all the attendees for supporting meaningful travel. Part of the proceeds were donated by my company JA Media to Spark Venture’s programs.   

Photos by: Kambua Chema Photography

Tags: , , ,

Category: Event Blog


About the Author (Author Profile)

Pola Henderson is a travel writer, city explorer, expat, and event host. Traveling has been a part of her life since she was three. Pola grew up in Krakow, lived in Chicago for many years and is currently based in Paris, where she teaches Business English.

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  1. 5 Invigorating Trips to Take In Spring - Jetting Around | March 4, 2017
  1. “Travel with an open mind” should be everybody’s motto. The same applies to life as well :)

  2. 5 years – sounds amazing, congratulations!
    And it’s actually really cool that you have these meetings, that’s a great idea!

  3. avatar Pat says:

    Fajny pomysł na celebrację. Przy okazji gratuluję!

  4. avatar Aleksandra says:

    Można tylko pozazdrościć takiego obchodzenia rocznicy. Gratulacje! :)

  5. avatar Cassie says:

    What a good way to draw attention to an important topic! I didn’t realize the phrase ‘meaningful travel’ was emerging as a trend. Glad to hear this. Congratulations on the great turnout and happy 5th, Pola!

    • Thank you, Cassie! I too am glad that ‘meaningful travel’ is getting more attention (it’s also referred to as impact travel or travel with a purpose). It’s already a multi-million dollar industry, so it’s important to pay attention who’s jumping on board and choose the right projects. Thanks for the note.

  6. avatar Martin says:

    Well, the most important thing is to go out and meet people as they bring most of the best stories! Well done! And congratulations on blog’s 5th bday! :)

  7. avatar balkanyrudej says:

    Firstly – congratulations! 5 years sounds great!
    Such meetings are graet opportunity to share experiance, to learn something new and understand others.

  8. Wow, 5 rocznica! Ładnie:) no i oryginalnie oraz pomysłowo świętowana. Gratuluję!

  9. avatar lola says:

    Well, you know how I feel about this! Volunteering in emerging countries is probably one of the things I’m most passionate about these days. It really is so very meaningful to me.

  10. What a great event, and a way to get people together and focused on travel related topics. Congrats on your five year anniversary. Let me know if you plan on having one in South Florida in 2016.

  11. Wow. Very interesting to hear about Megan teaching in Japan and the reason why a local lady came to her class. That’s a very powerful story.

  12. The long term effects of interactions across any travel experience are what resonate the most with me. Travel not only helps you grow and become more appreciative of other cultures, but great, meaningful experiences and interactions have led to some of the best friendships.


  13. avatar Mary Hood says:

    Wow, what a great idea for an event! I think “Meaningful Travel” is definitely the perfect theme for a travel related event, because really, what is the point of just going around ticking countries off of a list. We need to engage with locals and help make their beautiful country we are visiting a better place instead of just tearing it up more on our trip and getting out. Awesome idea!

  14. Looks like a great event. I wish I could have attended, but I was busy traveling. Not sure if the travel was meaningful though since I missed the seminar.

  15. avatar polakogruzin says:

    This is what everyone from our bloggers community should do in every city. There’s always time for good party! :)

  16. I really like how you continue to diversify Jetting Around. Panel discussions, when they include the right speakers with an appropriate audience are quite effective. I keep hearing about meaningful travel but it’s one of those things I think many people don’t understand how attainable it can be for them. I think this is a good topic to explore for one of my newspaper columns.

    • Thanks for the nice words, Lance! And you’re right in saying that “meaningful travel” can be attainable. While it certainly includes volunteer trips, it starts with the little things.

  17. what a great event, pola! we were truly changed by our experience volunteering in south africa earlier this year and look forward to finding ways to make more of future travels meaningful and impactful! xo

  18. Great event from the looks of it, Pola! I do a lot of travel “with purpose” with a non-profit called Trekking for Kids. I have trekked in many places around the world to benefit orphaned/at-risk children. I just went to Nepal and next fall I am headed to Simien Mountains in Ethiopia.

  19. avatar Sarah Ebner says:

    What a great meeting and terrific theme. It’s so important to make travel meaningful, to travel with purpose as you say, and to make a tangible impact on the places you deliver. Excellent stuff.

  20. avatar Heather Cole says:

    Sounds like a great event, and congrats on 5 years! I agree ‘meaningful travel’ is the latest travel ‘phenomenon’ and a great concept to buy in to. I’ve been thinking about getting back into volunteering again, perhaps now is the time!

  21. avatar Brianna says:

    I once read an interview with Andrew Zimmern about his time meeting with a tribe in Africa. While they were enjoying a meal, a jeep full of tourists pulled up to the village, snapped a few pictures and sped off. The village chief mentioned that he was hurt that these tourists never stopped and got to know him and his people. In our desire to experience the world we must never forget the people on the other side of the interaction. Meaningful travel is a two way street.

    • Thanks for sharing this story, Brianna! I think one of the panelists actually said that we shouldn’t treat people just as “accessories to take pictures of.” How very true… I once tried to sneak some photos of someone working in a temple in India. He saw me and waved me over to show what he was making and… to get better photos. We ended up having such a great conversation! Lesson learned.

  22. Congratulations on the fifth anniversary and what looks like a wonderful, and meaningful party! I can’t say I’ve done “meaningful” travel by your definition, but I completely agree with you that people we meet and what happens during our traveling can have a long-lasting impact and changes our view on the world. So that said, come to think of it, I think maybe our travels are meaningful, since our kids are learning about the world and how people live in other countries wherever we go. It opens their minds a bit, I hope.

    • Traveling with children certainly qualifies as meaningful! My parents took me everywhere with them when I was a kid and that has affected me for life, in positive ways (curiosity about the world, learning languages, and even my career). Traveling truly is some of the best education out there and it’s wonderful that you travel with your kids, Jolanta.

  23. avatar Monica says:

    Great topic for such an anniversary! I think that meaningful travel is a very important concept and I’m sure that the more we talk about it the more people become aware of it.
    I’ve noticed that you like meeting your readers outside the blog – I like the idea very much ;)

  24. avatar samos says:

    People have to change attitude towards mass truism and start traveling in small groups or alone …to get the most out of it. Congratulations about your work.