Magazine Online    The Authority On African-American Conventions, Incentives, & Leisure Travel
Issue: March/April 2011
Community Service Projects Add New Twist (And Credibility) To Incentive Travel Programs
By: Michael Bennett

The ripple effect of Wall Street abuses – its unfettered greed and lack of financial discipline unleashed an avalanche of ruin across the planet that wiped out entire industries and forced others into serious survival mode. It’s been 40 months (as of this writing) since the greatest financial collapse many of us will ever experience. Despite the meteoric rise in the stock market many governments, businesses and consumers teeter on the brink of collapse.

Most destinations are highly dependent on the travel industry for revenues, employment and infrastructure. Unfortunately, most businesses in the industry operate on wafer thing profit margins. A small hiccup across any sector of their business could easily lead to financial ruin. What we experienced was far more than a small hiccup. Many in our industry have gone out of business and the long-term implications on our local jurisdictions are just beginning as services we all took for granted and were supported by travel tax revenues are being gutted to balance budgets. The need for community service projects has never been greater.

Who in our industry will ever forget the public flogging American International Group (AIG) took from Congressional leaders, media and other watchdog groups back in September/October 2008.  Just weeks after receiving an $85 million bailout from the American taxpayer, AIG spent over $440,000 on what was billed as a corporate retreat with all the perks at the St. Regis Resort Monarch Beach in California.

This single well-publicized, and might we add over-hyped event marked the beginning of a full-fledged assault and public relations nightmare on incentive travel. Hundreds of companies pulled back or eliminated these programs all together to avoid the negative press surrounding such events. The words “incentive travel” represented a beehive of negativity despite all the positive contributions this form of travel makes to our economy both here and abroad.  It took a meeting with the President and a massive publicity campaign to convince others that incentive travel has many positive benefits not only for the corporations that conduct them, but also for the global economy, which brings us to 2011.

History is doomed to repeat itself if we don’t learn its many lessons and this is one lesson as an industry we should never forget. Perception is reality for many. When the general public, Congress and even some of our corporate leaders think of incentive travel its usually to far off exotic places in the Caribbean, Hong Kong, Australia or Hawaii. That perception is part of what got AIG in trouble with the public.

The word resort conjures up images of some swanky hotel in a tropical paradise. It’s incumbent upon all us to promote incentive travel and change that public perception.  One way to fix the negative perception of incentive travel is through community service programs. We hear about faith-based groups making countless trips to our bothers and sisters on the African continent to help in areas of food, medicine and education. It’s more than a donation of financial resources; it’s a hands-on experience that affects the lives of those who give and those who receive.

Corporations should follow the lead of these religious groups. Imagine if AIG had taken a group to Africa to help with famine or AIDS as opposed to the perception of a group of extremely wealthy individuals spending their days golfing, receiving spa treatments or frolicking on the beach with some exotic drink in their hand. We’re not suggesting incentive travelers not enjoy those activities, we’re suggesting becoming better corporate citizens for the good of us all and changing perception.

Here’s another perception problem, or myth that needs to be dispelled – incentive travel is only for the wealthy among us. Many corporations reward their employees and top sales people with trips as a thanks for a job well-done and of course to give an incentive to others to strive for excellence. Many of these people are not wealthy individuals; in fact, most live modestly and have earned such trips through performance.

In fairness, many companies have incorporated charitable giving into their business models. It’s a reflection of their overall social responsibility and something the general public, management, employees and even some investors see as valuable. When combined with incentive travel, community service can actually increase a company’s bottom line. Opportunities for combining incentive travel and community service are endless. A quick Internet search revealed numerous incentive travel packages to Ghana that combined sightseeing and relaxation with a few days at an orphanage teaching basic survival skills, growing crops, and providing medical services.

In Indonesia, we found a program where volunteers can teach English to a group of eager children at an impoverished school or work at a foundation for physically disabled children. We also found an animal welfare project in Indonesia in desperate need of assistance. The Indonesian trip combined community service with days spent white-water rafting, hiking, mountain biking, spa treatments and days soaking up the sun on local beaches.

Singing superstar Madonna doesn’t have to be the only one making a difference in Malawi. In addition to sailing on Lake Malawi or enjoying a luxurious resort how about volunteering with AIDS sufferers or orphaned children. If a particular corporation or group doesn’t like these they can start a community service oriented incentive travel package of their own.  Why does incentive travel always have to take place at some exotic locale away from our shores? We have tropical settings, luxurious resorts with golf and spa treatments and all the other trappings of the good life right here in the United States. The beauty of combining incentive travel with domestic community services is that the consumer can experience it. Nothing says I’m a good corporate citizen to a consumer better than firsthand knowledge.

One of the top destinations for travel of any kind, incentive or otherwise should be the state of Virginia. Think about that state and its proximity to Washington DC, which as readers of this publication already know attracts a tremendous amount of corporate and group travel, especially in the African-American community. The Hampton Roads area in southeast Virginia, which includes Norfolk and Virginia Beach, is one of the state’s most popular destinations. The combination of history, the scenic beauty of the Virginia mountains, the cosmopolitan feel of Richmond and the DC suburbs blended with beautiful beaches, water sports and other outdoor activities makes Virginia one of the most well-rounded tourist destinations in the United States.

The state recently launched an all out campaign to showcase their state, encouraging visitors to take advantage of all Virginia has to offer. Over half of all visitors to Virginia come for meetings, conventions and tournaments with ample opportunities to leave their imprint on the state through community service. One particularly popular destination is Virginia Beach. The CVB has won numerous awards for its product offering. The team’s attention to detail provides an enjoyable experience for all who visit. They have many beachfront hotels with a state-of-the-art convention center just a few blocks from the ocean.

The Virginia Beach CVB has partnered with the United Way of South Hampton Roads to provide convention delegates and other visitors to the region with an opportunity to give back to the local community. Go to the Virginia Beach CVB website and click on the link for Meetings and Convention. Once there you will see a link for Social Responsibility where you can download a list of agencies with volunteer opportunities. If you’ve never been to Norfolk, you are missing one of America’s best-kept secrets. Nestled along the Chesapeake Bay where it meets the Atlantic Ocean, Norfolk is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise. From boating to golfing the city has a little of everything. Norfolk is a family oriented destination with an abundance of hotels, museums, historical attractions and nightlife.

The Norfolk CVB has a program called “Voluntourism,” which affords organization or individuals an opportunity to incorporate community service into their travel experience. Through VOLUNTEER Hampton Roads, your group can learn about the opportunities to give back by connecting organizations with opportunities for community service. If you represent an organization with a desire to incorporate community service as part of an incentive program this is a great way to go. Greensboro, NC is a hidden gem for meetings, conventions and vacations. The city is home to North Carolina’s largest hotel with 990-rooms plus 88 other properties nearby and the 23,000-seat Greensboro Coliseum Complex. The city hosts world cultural exhibits including those geared toward the African American experience.

Students of history might remember the F.W. Woolworth Company, where a four college students from nearby North Carolina A&T University staged a sit-in and were refused service. The Greensboro sit-in on February 1, 1960 served as a catalyst for many to join the Civil Rights Movement. North Carolina has long been known as the cradle of college basketball. But there’s more to the region than basketball. On March 2, 2011, Greensboro celebrated the opening of the ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) Hall of Champions and its 58-year history. It’s a proud moment for the region and Greensboro has the honor of beings its home.

The Greensboro CVB is a great resource to find out the needs of the community and how your organization can contribute. Atlanta is a premiere destination for meetings and conventions. Its reputation is unparalleled. The city entertains some 37 million visitors annually putting it on par with some of the world’s largest and most popular locales. From the Martin Luther King Historic Site and the Sweet Auburn District to Underground Atlanta this city has everything.

There are a multitude of restoration projects going on in Atlanta at any given time that need volunteers. Organizations such as 100 Black Men of Atlanta can always use support. Contact the Atlanta CVB for these and other opportunities to give back. What can anyone say about the world’s best-known city that hasn’t already been said? When visitors to the U.S. think of America it starts and in some cases ends with New York City. From Broadway to Harlem the excitement of just being in the Big Apple is second to none. Not many places can truly say they have it all – this one can.

Volunteerism and social entrepreneurship is a way of life in New York City and there’s no shortage of places where a group or organization can make community service a part of their itinerary. In today’s tough economic climate the need for help at home has never been greater. Any meeting planner or organizer of an incentive group package who would like to add community service to their itineraries is encouraged to call on some of the destinations listed here. It would not only be well received, it could permanently remove the stain on incentive travel associated with the AIG scandal.