It’s a growing trend across America: Delegates to a meeting or convention go to the host city to take care of business and to give back to that community through voluntourism.
Hundreds of nonprofits benefit from the generosity of those temporary visitors to meeting destination cities. They leave the town better off for having visited.
“In today’s meeting market, that’s something being asked,” said Debby Goedeke, convention services manager for the Albany Convention and Visitors Bureau in Albany, New York. “When planners pick a city in which to meet, they also want to give back. Not all of them, but many, are very socially conscious.”
The CVB actively promotes the voluntourism option in its brochures and on its website. In 2013, the New York State Parking Association, a statewide collection of parking professionals who manage parking lots and structures, met in New York’s capital.
“They all made pledges of distance and then did a walking tour of downtown Albany in the pouring rain,” said Goedeke. “We mapped out the route and organized it for them. They raised $1,000 for the Mohawk Hudson Humane Society, an animal shelter operating on a next-to-nothing budget.”
Another meeting group partnered with a regional food bank and worked in its community garden doing “dirty work.”
“They hauled rocks, cleaned out gardens, hoed, lugged pails of dirt and helped plant, all for the food bank,” Goedeke said.
If delegates want to help the needy but don’t have time during their stay, they can donate unused bottles of shampoo, lotions and soaps from their hotel. It adds up. The CVB has collection bins at meeting venues and contents are given to local homeless shelters, missions or organizations that aid victims of domestic violence.
“It’s simple but easy to do, and it makes them feel good,” Goedeke said. “We set it up for clients so they don’t have to do it; the easier, the better.”
‘Leave a Legacy’
Amy Cabe, director of convention services at Visit Spokane in Spokane, Washington, has seen the volunteer trend rising among meeting attendees during the last five years.
“They want the community to see that conventions are a positive thing and can leave a legacy behind with impact,” said Cabe. “We know they’re spending money on food, transportation and shopping, but they also make a kind gesture.”
Cabe believes that Washington State is progressive, and it seems natural for residents and visitors to embrace the movement. In some places around the country, meetings and conventions have developed bad reputations for excesses. Some think delegate volunteerism combats that image.
Church groups often volunteer. The Women of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America is based in Chicago. Spokane won its 2,000-attendee conference in a bidding process. The group supports programs for poor women.
“They made a big deal of collecting donations, like 800 bags of socks, 58 clothing support kits, $10,500 in gift cards and phone cards,” Cabe said.
All resources went to women’s support groups. The church publicized the drive in advance, and some attendees even went shopping in Spokane to donate items. Others made quilts to bring and donate. About 2,000 prayer shawls were given away.
“That was the best example of an enormous volume of resources and money collected from a single conference,” said Cabe.
The Convention Industry Council hosted its 2013 Certified Meeting Planner Conclave in Spokane.
“They did a nice thank-you to the community for hosting them,” said Cabe. The council backed an organization called Transitions, which assists women and their families in ending their poverty and homelessness.
“Real hands-on work was done by their board of directors in advance of their conference,” Cabe said. “They mowed lawns, painted fences and more.”