OG at WITS: Paving the Way for Ethical Travel & Responsible Volunteering

Operation Groundswell was proud to speak at the Women in Travel Summit this year! Our session, “Backpacking with a Purpose: Paving the Way for Ethical Travel & Responsible Volunteering”, aimed to uncover the pressing ethical issues surrounding the voluntourism industry while also highlighting its potential for true cross-cultural exchange. Our Communications & Marketing Director, Justine, writes about the experience.

It’s already been two months since the Women in Travel Summit but with all the buzz still happening between all the attendees, you’d think we were all still right there in sunny Irvine, California!

Speaking of Voluntourism

This was my very first WITS experience and, as if that wasn’t enough of a thrill, I also had the unique opportunity to speak and share a piece of the travel industry that’s so important to me. On behalf of Operation Groundswell, I ran a session unpacking the complexity of the voluntourism industry – both its pitfalls and opportunities – while also sharing some concrete tools on how to critically assess a volunteer travel organization.

In case you didn’t already know, WITS by Wanderful is the premier event for women bloggers and influencers, global explorers, and travel industry entrepreneurs. Now, we at OG have done speaking engagements before, but this was an entirely new audience for us. What was the travel blogging community like? Who were these influencers? Would anyone even be interested in what we had to say? Did they care?


Connecting with A Diversity of Women

I was so pleasantly surprised to meet and engage with such a diversity of women who are genuinely interested in taking part in ethical travel experiences for themselves and/or promoting such opportunities to their networks. During my session’s Q&A, I was glad to hear critical questions on my experiences volunteering abroad, what else is being done to create more rigorous standards within the industry, and how to continue learning about responsible international volunteering opportunities.

All throughout the weekend, I connected with women who had such thoughtful questions and insights to share with me. I ran one-on-one mentoring sessions with women who were planning on volunteering abroad in the near future. I had a chance encounter with Kelley Louise, Executive Director of Travel+Social Good, which turned into a much deeper, more fruitful partnership (more on this later!). There were also the guys (yes, guys!) from Vayando working to facilitate a different, more immersive experience by connecting travelers with micro-entrepreneurs in emerging economies. I even got the chance to meet Stephanie, a volunteer for Ghana Medical Help, an organization founded by an OG alum!

I was also glad to see another speaker addressing a crucial aspect of the whole travel experience: the stories we tell when we return home. Delia Harrington‘s session on responsible travel writing and photography was powerful and especially important given that we were in the midst of bloggers, videographers, photographers, and storytellers, in general. In her talk, she addressed our responsibility as travelers and storytellers to the places we travel to, the people we meet, and our own audiences. She brought up key questions that OG tackles on programs – what is our role as a visitor? Who gets to tell the story and whose stories do we choose to tell? It was refreshing to see someone from our  ‘tribe’ adding a crucial piece to the ethical travel conversation.

This summit was jam-packed with badass women who were influencers in their own way – online, in their home communities, and in different niche markets. The mix and balance of marketing/PR how-to’s and sessions addressing social justice and other aspects of women’s issues in travel provided a pretty sweet jumping point for these women to use their influence for good.


What’s Next?

WITS is way more than a travel conference, it is a vibrant community. Everyone told me this before going into WITS, but I’m seeing it for myself now. The summit is long over, but I’m feeling as connected as ever. Introductions are still being made, ideas are being hatched, and collaborations are underway. At Operation Groundswell, we’ve made some pretty awesome partnerships that we can’t wait to share! Sit tight for that.

In the meantime, you can get ahead of the game and register for WITS 2017! And if you’re interested in learning more about our session on ethical travel and responsible volunteering, just click below for our presentation. Video coming up soon!