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O'Notes - Women in Travel Summit 2017

I attended the Women in Travel Summit 2017 (WITS) for the first time approximately two weeks ago, and even though I was hit by a tsunami of work as soon as I returned to Austin, the memories and learnings ring clearly and joyfully. That’s saying something for a gal whose short-term memory is less than reliable; probably due to taking on more than I should every day (except Sundays – the good Lord takes priority along with brunch, family and anything to rejuvenate).

WITS is the creation of Wanderful, a global network for women travelers.  This was year four of the Summit and from what I gathered, it’s getting stronger every year. This year’s event took place in Milwaukee, a city I knew for its beer, Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley – two TV shows that many at the conference may have heard of in passing.  Like many, I often decide if I’ll attend a conference based on location. Frankly, I wasn’t very intrigued at first. But, what a fun discovery!  A blog for another day, but hats off to you, MKE

One of the main reasons I wanted to attend was to learn more about players in the sustainable travel industry.  This included support of the executive director of Travel+SocialGood (TSG), Kelley Louise, who was moderating a panel on the boom in impact travel.  One of my passion, volunteer projects is leading the Austin hub of TSG, so I’ve had the pleasure of working with Kelley regularly. Check out one of our upcoming programs!

WITS had a number of sponsors who provide impact travel opportunities to a wide range of audiences.  Greenheart Travel, Spark Ventures, Purposeful Nomad, Unearth the World and Vayando were all on hand to tell their stories and excite conference-goers about trips that combine adventure and leisure with giving back.  Travel, when done right, provides transformative experiences at some level. These organizations ensure the traveler will participate in unforgettable experiences, whether volunteering with an elephant conservation organization in Sri Lanka, or learning to cultivate an organic cocoa farm in the cloud forest of Ecuador.  

 Taking in the wonderful world of WITS. Photo: Jason Seagle

Taking in the wonderful world of WITS. Photo: Jason Seagle

The range of experiences and destinations are vast and incredibly exciting for today’s traveler. Many of these programs are connected to education or used for group teambuilding efforts, so there are applications well beyond the leisure traveler. Had any of my previous jobs taken me on a team-building or appreciation trip like this, I might have stayed with the company forever! All involve personal growth and the opportunity to make a positive impact within the community you visit.  Talk about a win-win!

I spent a few minutes on the phone with Stephanie Denzer, the marketing manager for Chicago-based Spark Ventures.  Formed 10 years ago by three friends who experienced a life-changing trip to Zambia, the organization was created to help strengthen and sustain NGOs that help children living in extreme poverty. Over the years, Spark begain providing impact travel trips to share the transformative experience of cultural immersion and volunteering with others. More than 500 people have traveled with Spark thus far to serve -- and enjoy some fun and relaxation -- in either Nicaragua or Zambia.  Check out their website for some impressive statistics on what a powerful program they’ve created.  Photos from Nicaragua & Zambia courtesy Spark Ventures. 

Stephanie, who has been with Spark more than five years, has seen a growing interest in travel that's culturally sensitive and immersive. These trips are sought out by people of all ages, from millennials to late-career professionals and families. Spark takes groups of eight to 22 people on impact tours in partnership with local organizations such as Hope Ministries in Ndala or Las Tias in Nicaragua. Reading to children, preparing and serving meals, visiting a coffee roasting facility, working on a farm, taking a safari and seeing other natural wonders are all part of their week-plus adventures.  Spark also ensures the powerful connections formed during the trip continue well after the traveler-volunteer returns home.   

Unearth the World was promoting its Wanderful 10-day group trip to Zambia and Botswana in late August.  This organization, founded by a married couple who were inspired by their around-the-world experience, also curates travel programs that combine service work, cultural immersion and pure fun.  Special pricing for members of Wanderful makes this an amazing opportunity and avenue to learn about a part of the world that can’t be matched by reading, virtual reality, or a top-notch documentary.  

What I find so exciting is that, with these extensive provider options -- and there are certainly more that were not involved at WITS -- there is practically no obstacle for anyone, from single gal to high school student or family of five, to embark on a journey of a lifetime. And, do it repeatedly! Sure, money and time can be major roadbumps, but some of these groups also offer support with fundraising for your social impact trip.

What an exciting time to travel! There’s always room for the pure getaway-and-pamper yourself travel experience, but for my money, these sustainable travel adventures are the best way to make a lasting difference not only in the communities you visit, but in yourself. You can rest when you get home or at a spa getaway.

Kudos to Wanderful for pulling together a highly diverse group of women (and the ocassional man) to a great midwestern city with education and connections that will inspire for years to come.  Perhaps I'll see you at the next WITS in Quebec City next May!