Maui -- Here at the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua luxury rules the day. In total seclusion between two sprawling championship golf courses on Maui’s northwest shore resort guests can be seen wiling away the hours. Some prefer the age-old custom of lounging by poolside reading (these days it’s Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers) while others idly nurse their tropical cocktail beneath a shady umbrella preferably in stark view of the al fresco bar.
But amid all this luxury, (the property recently completed a US$180-million overhaul), the newest guest activity is digging out weeds. It’s not even 9am and here I am, bug sprayed and ready for a weed wacking morning at the nearby Maunalei Arboretum. The mission: to dig out non-native plants, gather native seeds for replanting to eventually renew Hawaii’s largest private nature preserve known as the Pu’u Kukui Watershed Preserve.
“We have a crew of six people and we manage 8,000 acres so the Pu’u Kukui Watershed Preserve which has five full-time staff mainly building fences to keep out invasive species like pigs. They are also monitoring the native plants. Currently we have almost 300 native plant species in West Maui and some occur no place else in the world but West Maui,” says Megan Webster, the Makai stewardship coordinator of the Pu’u KuKui Watershed Preserve and adds, “This is a very special place with some rare and endangered species and we’re still finding new species as we go to areas in the upper watershed mountain areas.”
Welcome to the newest theme in luxury travel: upscale voluntourism. At a time when many ordinary travelers are choosing budget trips, guests at four- and five-star destinations are increasingly rolling up their Izods to assist in worthy causes – in activities from ecological work to rebuilding homes in hurricane ravaged destinations like New Orleans. As with other aspects of travel, luxury hotels are delivering carefully branded programs, partnering with A-list organizations along the way.
In the past year, the growing trend of volunteering while you vacation has reached into luxury travel territory, says voluntourism travel expert, David Clemmons, founder of the non-profit organization voluntourism.org. Clemmons suggests there are two main causes: the current economic conditions and a number of big names engaging in charity. “Extremely wealthy individuals like Bono, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, Richard Branson, Warren Buffett, and Bill Gates are putting humongous sums of money into social causes,” he says. That’s translating into a “consumer consciousness” around social responsibility, he says “and a movement within the luxury market to [create] social purpose within their offerings.”
In New Orleans, for example, Pitt’s work to rebuild the city after Hurricane Katrina has helped draw a wide range of volunteers – including luxury hotel guests. The Marriott and Renaissance Hotels recently renovated its downtown New Orleans Marriott four-star property and is inviting guests to sign up for hands-on community involvement. The Big Easy Spirit to Serve Voluntourism Getaway lets guests sign up to join the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity on a project in the city: to spend a day rebuilding a home in the Musicians’ Village in the Upper Ninth Ward.
The hotel prepares a boxed lunch, and donates $50US from the package price to Habitat for Humanity. “This package offers a really high value way for any of our guests to express their desires to serve,” says Mark Barton, New Orleans Marriott’s director of sales and marketing.
“Hotel guests that volunteer with New Orleans Habitat may do a variety of jobs such as framing, painting, siding, interior trim work --- all the tasks that are necessary to build a home. Volunteers are pre-registered for the day of work. They arrive by 7:30 am and receive a welcome along with the safety speech before they get to work. They usually break for lunch from 11:30am until 12:30pm. Their day is completed by 3:00 pm. This gives them an opportunity to clean up and rest before they enjoy the sights and sounds of New Orleans. Volunteers need only commit to one full day of service. Many volunteers come for multiple days,” says Aleis Tusa, communications director for the New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity.
In Winnipeg, the Fairmont Winnipeg offered a Home Sweet Home package, part of the Fairmont Hotels and Resorts Community Conscious Vacations packages that had its guests work on a house for the local Habitat for Humanity. Candice Craig, a police officer from Regina, never signed up for a Habitat build before and has no regrets. “I'll never forget walking into the lobby of the Fairmont wearing my hard hat and steel-toed boots in stark contrast to my surroundings. I had the privilege of putting my hands to work for a family in need who had suffered things I will likely never have to experience. It's hard to explain the effect being involved in such a project has had on me. I came home tired, sore and at the same time feeling a great sense of elation and satisfaction,” she says of the hotel’s recent Home Sweet Home package and has since participated in two other Habitat builds and plans more.
These hotels are meeting a new and clear customer demand. “If you want to maintain your relationship with your consumers which is what the luxury market relies upon,” Clemmons says, “then it is imperative to be developing products and services with a social purpose.”
While not a hotel company, Butterfield and Robinson is a luxury active travel company that just launched a new program entitled Destinations at Risk, focusing on traveler awareness in destinations with environmental and cultural risks. “In February Celine Cousteau will be leading an expedition through the Amazon, teaching about environmental protection while she conducts studies there,” says Joanne Clark, marketing and planning director for Butterfield and Robinson of the exclusive getaway that she says is more educational. For other high-end voluntourism trips, Forbes Traveler listed top 10 voluntourism trips last summer which included the annual Aruba Reef Care project and volunteering in Yellowstone Park with luxury tour company Tauck as popular among the high-browed set.
The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company saw the social purpose clearly in its hotels. “We saw… guests asking our concierge teams for information about local non-profit organizations,” says vice president of Community Footprints Sue Stephenson. The result: In April, the chain introduced Give Back Getaways. It offers 30 different projects at hotels mostly in North America, Europe, Asia-Pacific and the Middle East which have drawn over 500 guests to take part so far. From music therapy for disabled children in Istanbul to the blue iguana recovery program in Grand Cayman, the luxury hotel chain’s list of charities reads like a Who’s Who. The Friends of the Florida Panther Refuge is one and Habitat for Humanity is another.
In Hawaii the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua opened the newly created Jean-Michel Cousteau Ambassadors of the Environment Center and partnered with the Maui Land and Pineapple Company that manages the Pu`u Kukui Watershed Preserve that includes the Maunalei Arboretum and the endangered local watershed that supplies nearly all the water on West Maui.
Iokepa “Kepa” Nae’ole, director of Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ambassadors of the Environment fondly recalls as a kid watching the TV series about Cousteau and the explorers aboard the famous Calypso. Armed with branch clippers and sunglasses, Mr. Nae’ole led our group of do-gooders on a half-day trek into the Maunalei Arboretum high up in the hills overlooking Honolua Bay.
Today, this land is rife with foreign plants encroaching the indigenous alahe’e trees and ama’uma’u fiddlehead-like ferns. “This is no good,” Mr. Nae’ole points to a guava plant and explains how the non-native plant interacts with native plants by using them as an infrastructure to grow on it and in the process killing the native plant. “Love thy enemy. Guava and lilikoa. Guava is very invasive and lilikoa or “passion fruit” can also be invasive too,” he notes surveying these plants attacking the native koa tree.
While nibbling on guava plucked from a nearby branch Sarah Ceccarelli, a senior brand manager for the pioneering health food company Kashi says, “I had no idea you could eat all these wild fruits. As a nutritionist it just shows how much you can really live off the earth,” and adds, “listening to Kepa describe these plant species just reinforces the value of protecting the environment and how we all need to play a role.” She turns back and separates some koa and akia seeds harvested during the hike and slips them into a plastic bottle for storage until the seeds will be replanted in the area.
This sort of ecological work proves most popular among the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua guests. So does the Fairmont Hotels and Resorts where guests are also feeling the eco vibe. Their Community Conscious Vacations program provides guests with environmental possibilities among 15 properties participating in the program. High-browed holidayers can replant endangered Bermuda Cedars in Bermuda, help restore turtle habitats in Mexico and take a guided kayaking excursion through Puget Sound all the while learning about local waterways and sustainability.
“The impetus behind developing Community Conscious Vacations was the understanding that many guests share our commitment to the community and planet and are looking for ways to volunteer or take part in something that truly makes a difference," explains Mike Taylor, public relations manager for Fairmont Hotels and Resorts.
But are these programs really doing any good? Ms. Ceccarelli and her friends Allison Walwyn and Kristin Mann think so. “We always knew this island was paradise but now after experiencing this half day hike through the Maunalei Arboretum there’s even a greater appreciation for the natural beauty that Hawaii is known for,” nods Ms. Walwyn, a Chicago native who learned of this program while staying at the luxury property.
Back in New Orleans, Ms. Tusa concurs. “These programs are doing a lot of good. The Marriott’s program gives the traveler the option to volunteer without having to do a lot of the groundwork of setting things up,” and adds, “based on the Marriott’s reputation, the traveler knows that the organization for which they will be volunteering is reputable and organized to accept volunteers on a daily basis. In New Orleans, New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity has received tremendous support from the Marriott.”