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