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January 28, 2009

Perilous Times for Philanthropy Travel?

Ski Green
Condé Nast Traveler reader Beverly
Orthwein volunteering at an eye
clinic in Kenya.

by Dinda Elliott

So here's the $64 million question: How much do you, as travelers, care about whether your hotel is trying to improve surrounding communities? Here's why I ask: This week, on the very same day, Bill Gates and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, two of the world's most generous philanthropists, reasserted their commitment to increase their giving, not decrease it, in light of the current economic downturn. This comes just at a time when we editors at Condé Nast Traveler are worrying about the future of corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects in the travel industry, a topic that has appeared regularly in the pages of our magazine--particularly in our annual World Savers feature. Travel industry heavies recently weighed in on this at an off-the-record brown bag lunch in the Condé Nast Traveler conference room. To find out what they said, read on. . .

The general consensus among top CSR honchos was that travelers care about hotels giving back to the community--but not enough to pay more to stay. The luncheon was part of a broad initiative on the part of Condé Nast Traveler, a commitment we made to the Clinton Global Initiative to engage the travel industry in a dialogue about social responsibility. We gathered top CSR officers from leading travel companies for a first-ever meeting on the topic. The executives stressed that their social responsibility projects will continue despite the economic crisis. Still, we wonder how the downturn will affect community outreach and poverty alleviation. Energy efficiency is one thing--wonderful for the environment and the bottom line. But what about community educational or water projects, for example? The travel industry has been slower to launch those types of initiatives. Will they be funded now, when hotels are struggling just to fill their beds?

Here's what Mayor Bloomberg had to say about his own philanthropy: "As the economy took a turn from bad to worse, I felt it was the right time--the essential time--for someone . . . who's been fortunate in my own life, to step up and give back even more." What do you travelers out there think the travel industry--worth some $8 trillion a year--should do?

Further reading:
* 2008 World Savers Congress
* We are now accepting applications for the 2009 World Savers Awards
* Make a Difference: How you can help
* Responsible Traveler every Wednesday on the Daily Traveler


It is disheartening, indeed, when panels show that the average traveler cares about giving back to the local communities where they are traveling--but only if it does not affect their wallet. While I understand its premise, I think it offers far too general a conclusion.

The question is presumably asked in a vacuum, if you will--and not directed at people who have actually seen the results of socially responsible practices. Vague promises of social responsibility can easily be ignored, but when a traveler has actually been moved by witnessing a successful CSR project in action, they are likely to be willing to pay more to support them. To put it simply, people are more likely to pay for a quality product they have actually seen.

As you know, I have firsthand experience in this regard. We at Micato Safaris do not generally ask for support for our in-house nonprofit, AmericaShare, prior to our guests' departure. If we did, I imagine many of our guests might balk at the idea, or give only a little. But the results after they have seen the work we do in the slums of Nairobi speak for themselves. I am happy to report that despite last year's troubling economy, giving to AmericaShare was up by over 60%.

You also asked a question in your article: "But what about community educational or water projects, for example?" Interestingly, we have actually seen some outstanding results in these specific categories, just in the last few months. For example, our partners in the recently-launched Partnership for an HIV-Free Generation include some paragons of corporate philanthropy, including Microsoft, Intel and Warner Brothers. The purpose of the partnership is to expand HIV prevention programs across countries that are severely impacted by the disease, with the goal of reducing the incidence of HIV/AIDS and improving the health status of youth in the coming years. Regarding water projects, the Rockefeller Foundation recently provided a grant that will allow AmericaShare to install an electric water pump at one of its buildings in the slums of Nairobi. This will provide the residents of a poor community with vital access to clean water.

As to what can be done on an industry-wide basis, I think Conde Nast has already provided a great template when they created the World Savers Partnership. The Partnership's three areas of focus--influence, explore and act--can be readily transferred to just about any tour operator, hotelier or other travel provider.

So, I believe that many responsible groups are following Mr. Gates' and Mr. Bloomberg's lead, in their own way. If we in the travel industry can expose our guests to pressing local issues and provide ways for them to help, I believe that the majority of travelers will choose to take action. But it us up to us to show them the way.

Dennis Pinto, managing director, Micato Safaris

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