Want to volunteer abroad? Abra Dunsby speaks to agents who’ve been there and done just that, with tips on selling these trips to clients too
Callum Sodeau, travel advisor at Tui’s Bury store, recently returned from a volunteering fam to Andorra, helping people with disabilities to
ski and snowboard with Crystal Ski and Disability Snowsport UK.
Sodeau first saw the trip advertised on Tui’s agent page and signed up. A training day at the Snow Centre in Hemel Hempstead followed, before he and six other Tui agents flew to the resort of Arinsal for a week of skiing with Crystal Ski and Disability Snowsport UK (DSUK), which promotes adaptive snowsports for disabled people.
“There was one volunteer to one guest. A lot of guests had helpers or family members attending too. Some had skied before and were very independent, others needed more help. They varied in age from 14 to late 60s.”
Sodeau says the trip exceeded all expectations. “The experience was unbelievable, and eye-opening. I didn’t know what to expect but it was really rewarding. I’d do it again. People in the resort came up to us and gave us high fives because of what we were doing.”
It has also helped him to sell the experience. “I’d definitely recommend a ski trip to disabled clients now,” he says. “There’s nothing that DSUK can’t deal with – they could get anyone to enjoy the holiday no matter what their ski level or disability. It’s very personalised around the clients themselves. It isn’t just about skiing or snowboarding either. In the evenings there were quiz and karaoke nights – it was very much about enjoying the holiday as a whole.”
Jenny Lane, Global member and owner of Blue Eye Travel, volunteered in the Galapagos Islands with Projects Abroad.
“My husband and I chose Projects Abroad as they offered us the opportunity to get involved in a variety of conservation work, as well as living with a local family,” Lane explains. “It was a great way to see the Galapagos and its animals.”
Daily tasks included assisting at the national park’s giant tortoise breeding centre, reforesting indigenous vegetation, monitoring local animals and helping with beach and sea clean-ups.
The trip taught Lane a great deal. “I learnt about the huge impact that the introduction of ‘alien’ species of fauna has on the natural environment of the Galapagos, and how balanced their ecosystem needs to be to preserve the amazing animals and plants,” she reveals. “Also, it highlighted how important it is to travel and live responsibly while on holiday or volunteering abroad, to ensure we have a positive impact.”
The experience has shaped how she sells holidays. “I always try to encourage my clients to consider more responsible options. Responsible-focused trips allow you to truly engage and see a country or area through a local’s eye, rather than visiting somewhere and not exploring what’s outside your accommodation.”
Lane says the experience has been enriching on a personal level too. “There’s a sense of fulfilment and satisfaction that you’ve contributed to the local area, and by doing so I can encourage others to do something similar.”
Azra Swaine, homeworker and owner of Swaines Travel, taught English in Mexico with Original Volunteers.
“I loved being able to give something back to society, it was really rewarding and touching to feel so valued,” says Swaine of her time volunteering.
“I’d love to do something like that again,” she adds. “It’s important to recommend these experiences, especially to young people. My son also volunteered with Original Volunteers. We’ve both changed since our trips; it changes the way you think. I’m less materialistic now,” she says.
Azra’s friends were inspired by her experience, and she has since booked similar trips for them.
“I also met people while travelling, and some have become clients,” she adds.
STA Travel sells various volunteering experiences to clients. The agency also offers two or three volunteering agent fam trips a year, to highlight the projects it is partnered with, from rural school renovations and working with elephants and their keepers in Thailand, to turtle conservation and beach cleans in Indonesia.
“These fams allow our agents to experience the products they’re recommending to clients, to see first-hand the differences our partnered projects are making worldwide,” explains Hannah Marwood, volunteer product manager at STA Travel.
“Volunteering may not be a natural addition to many customers’ itineraries – not out of not wanting to try, but rather not knowing it’s an option. The fam experience ensures that our agents will suggest that a customer volunteers.”
Marwood says the agency is careful to choose ethical volunteering partners. “All of them meet the principles of volunteering stated in our STA Travel Volunteering Statement of Commitment, which outlines our responsibilities to the project and the volunteer, and also our greater economic, socio-cultural and environmental responsibilities.
“We only collaborate with experienced partners, who accept and sign our STA Travel Volunteering Partner Checklist to confirm they adhere to guidelines on ethical volunteering.”
Volunteering can be one of the most worthwhile and rewarding things you’ll ever do, but only if it makes a real, tangible difference to the people and places you’re trying to help. With far more “voluntourism” holidays available, it’s important to be clear on what’s expected from the volunteer and how the project will positively affect the people and places they aspire to help.
It’s becoming clear that the “anyone welcome” approach that has been prevalent in volunteering holidays is not the most helpful and, instead, matching the skills of the volunteer to the local need is vital.
The best way to understand if the project makes use of your skills is to ask questions – any truly ethical organisation will welcome interest from potential volunteers, as it shows they’re genuinely concerned about making an impact. Ask to see reports and data of the impact of past volunteers’ work. The very best organisations will have externally verified data, not just their own. Also ask to speak with past volunteers about their experiences.