Voluntourism: A Silver Lining

New Orleans’ voluntourism phenomena ripples across the world. More than a few CVBs have special sections on their websites these days dedicated to voluntourism, from Seattle to Fort Lauderdale. A host of international tour operators sell voluntourism packages globally, and in 2007, Lonely Planet published “Volunteer: A Traveller’s Guide.” The bulk of this type of vacation has been spurred because of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

“Voluntourism has become such a national movement, which is wonderful,” says Mary Beth Romig, spokesperson for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau, and a driving force behind the city’s official volunteer vacation platform. “We were a sort of petri dish for all that.”

Having volunteered along the Gulf Coast numerous times since 2006, this journalist has seen the city slowly rebuild. The main tourism areas were spared major flooding due to their higher ground. But when you travel into the Faubourg Marigny, Bywater, Lower 9th and Chalmette communities down river, there are still decades of work to be done.

“When people venture outside the tourist areas they get to experience our front porch culture, where they’ll hear music they’ve never heard before,” says Romig. “Our neighborhoods are so important to New Orleans, to who we are as a city. You know, people always ask why is it taking so long to repair everything, but when you see the scope of the damage, that’s why it takes so long.”

The immediate impression many people have about volunteering is rebuilding homes with Habitat for Humanity and similar organizations. And thinking they can’t participate due to a lack of skill or it’s dangerous. As someone who has worked alongside many, many grandmothers and 10-year-olds, this simply isn’t true.

Anyone can paint, help clean up, use a hammer, measure sheetrock, or use a household drill. And the rewards will surprise your clients. The camaraderie among strangers, an undeniable sense of satisfaction, and meeting locals who you’d never typically meet on vacation are the big, and lasting, payoffs.

The New Orleans CVB lists other non-profits on its website if light construction isn’t your clients’ first choice. All of them have had more than enough experience at making people feel comfortable and joining them up with other volunteers. Just some of the half- or full-day volunteer activities include rehabilitating public schools, assisting at food banks, youth outreach, landscaping public parks, and wetlands restoration in the Mississippi Delta.

how to book New Orleans’ hotels have hosted over two million volunteers to date, so agents have highly organized partners to take care of their clients. We went and visited a couple.

“Voluntourism is an opportunity for savvy travel consultants to package together groups like families or fraternal organizations,” says Eric Janecke, director of sales & marketing at Hilton New Orleans Riverside. Asked if the amount of volunteers has waned over the last few years, he says not at all. “In the beginning there was tremendous demand but not the organization to handle it. Now, we have all the resources in place to get people plugged into our non-profit organizations, and travel consultants can be the intermediary. It’s a huge market and it’s a growing market.”

Hilton is located next to Harrah’s Casino near the French Quarter with quick access to the Warehouse/Arts District, the trendiest up-and-coming area in New Orleans.

On the edge of the Quarter, New Orleans Marriott offers a Big Easy Spirit to Serve package. Ranging $139-$299 per night dbl (code P54), it includes room, a $50 donation to Habitat, a Care Concierge to coordinate with local volunteer organizations, and breakfast in bed for two.

But here’s the thing to remember, don’t just sell your clients on an experience they’ll never expect. Sell them on New Orleans. Sell them on a Black Angus filet with remoulade and a glass of Stag’s Leap cab at prices that can’t be touched elsewhere.

“We already had our recession with Katrina,” says Mark Barton, director of sales & marketing with Marriott. “So we’re feeling a lot of optimism right now because we’re coming back, and you know what, people want to eat well in good times and bad.”