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Give Back Getaways

October 12, 2009 By: Michael Grisafe Travel Agent


Travelers are increasingly taking an interest in the people and the environment of the destinations they visit


Has this ever happened to you? You’re on a trip to an exotic locale checking out the wildlife when your guide says something like, “With increasing encroachment, there may not be many of these majestic trees left for future generations to see.”

On the way back to your hotel you notice villages with shanties made of misshapen boards and tin. Your tour bus kicks up a fine layer of dust that billows in a cloud before settling on people lumbering by with heavy loads on their backs.

As the bus stops at the hotel, a group of little children runs up asking for money. Thin and malnourished, they clamor for attention as your tour guide shoos them away. Although the walk to your scheduled 5 p.m. dinner is quiet, your head is humming with thoughts, and you silently wish you had given more to the children than the $3 you dropped into their hands.

Increasingly, travelers are taking an interest in the people and environment of destinations they are traveling to—which could be a result of globalization, increased coverage by the media or individual bouts of conscience.

Responding to this philanthropic spirit, The Ritz-Carlton Hotels & Resorts company has developed Give Back Getaways, under the umbrella of Community Footprints—its social and environmental responsibility program—that allows guests to volunteer for half a day and assist communities around its properties.

By registering for the program online at, or through their travel agent, guests can volunteer to do everything from collecting food for endangered Blue Iguanas in Grand Cayman to providing music therapy for disabled children in Istanbul. Guests are provided with everything they need to assist in these programs that focus on hunger and poverty relief, environmental conservation or the well-being of disadvantaged children.

Developed after guests expressed an interest in assisting communities of the areas in which they were staying, and building on Ritz-Carlton’s own efforts to unify its charitable initiatives, Give Back Getaways is now offered at each of its hotels.

“For over 18 years, Ritz-Carlton employees in Cancun were assisting a local organization in protecting sea turtle eggs,” says Sue Stephenson, vice president of Community Footprints. “When the guests at our hotel learned about this, they often asked how they could [get] involved, and so we started developing programs in which our guests could volunteer and really assist these nonprofits.”

Charity at Home

Relief efforts in a number of natural disasters also motivated the development of Give Back Getaways. “In the wake of Hurricane Ivan in 2004, the area around our Grand Cayman hotel in Jamaica was devastated,” says Ezzat Coutry, senior vice president, Ritz-Carlton. “Together with the SOS Children’s Villages charity, we helped rebuild a school in the area and provided children with supplies.

“After our work there, we decided to form a more unified and streamlined way to reach out to the world. So we formed Community Footprints, and under that, Give Back Getaways. Each of our hotels was already involved in charitable giving of some sort, but we wanted to unify it all and form partnerships with nonprofit organizations that were already in place,” adds Coutry.

Instead of corporate heads choosing which nonprofit organizations to work with, Ritz-Carlton left the decision to the employees at each individual hotel. “We believed that it was important for the people who actually live in the community and know the needs [of its] people to decide,” says Stephenson. “Our only requirements were that the activity had to speak to the unique nature of the location, had to be an authentic volunteer experience and had to have a genuine, positive impact.”

Give Back Getaways has caught on mostly through word-of-mouth and, since its inception in April 2008, more than 16,000 individuals have volunteered their time and money. “I think much of this has to do with the type of guest that this experience attracts,” says Stephenson. “Many of these individuals are very active in philanthropy involving their own community, and so Give Back Getaways is just one extension of that while they are on vacation. We’re also seeing a number of families participating. The Give Back Getaway gives them a chance to do something meaningful together.”

Ritz-Carlton reports that responses from guests have been incredibly positive so far, with many even making sizable donations to the nonprofits they had assisted after they returned home.

“In a way, everyone makes a donation because we give all of the money charged to guests participating in the program to the nonprofits after deducting travel costs,” says Stephenson. “We make absolutely no money off of this.”

Beyond the scope of Give Back Getaways, Ritz-Carlton has been active with community charities for some time. Two years ago, when its Palm Beach hotel was closed for four months, the company relocated most of its employees to available jobs at other hotels. However, this still left them with nearly 250 employees without available staff positions. Instead of laying them off, Ritz-Carlton kept them on salary while volunteering their services at local nonprofits that worked with youth, the elderly and support services throughout the town.

“The employees at Ritz-Carlton really did good things there, and to this day the community at Palm Beach remembers this,” says Coutry. “Many of our employees who were involved with this still volunteer on their own time at those nonprofits.”

Employee Involvement

It’s one thing for managers to assign volunteer work exclusively to employees, and quite another for the managers themselves to volunteer and get their hands dirty with a little manual labor (and perhaps as rare as some of the endangered species being protected through Give Back Getaways). However, as a rule, each corporate meeting for employees at Ritz-Carlton has a nonprofit volunteer event on the sidelines similar to Give Back Getaways.

“For our last general managers’ meeting held in Cancun, we adopted a school located in the jungle,” says Coutry. “All of us came together for a day and helped erect a wall to protect the school from animals. We also painted the walls, made a shed for the children and even constructed a playground. The children were delighted because many of them hadn’t ever seen a playground. We’re committed to this sort of service as a company, and it’s this spirit that we try to capture with Give Back Getaways.”

Ritz-Carlton has not started collecting data on whether Give Back Getaways is motivating guests to choose their hotels. However, with other companies using symbols such as the (Red) AIDS/HIV relief logo and the National Breast Cancer Foundation pink ribbon, and numerous other nonprofit associations to boost their public image and obtain business, the allure of such synergistic, mutually beneficial campaigns seems implicit.

“This program is really not meant to be self-serving in that way,” responds Coutry. “This is about giving and helping the communities in which we have hotels.” But, Coutry concedes, the company will begin including this question on surveys distributed to guests participating in the program in the future.

So what’s next for the Give Back Getaways program? “As we volunteer and help, we’re learning about many other nonprofits in our communities that need our assistance,” says Stephenson. “In the future, we will offer even more volunteering opportunities and continue to expand our program.”


Each individual Ritz-Carlton hotel ensures activities under its Give Back Getaways program address the unique nature of the location


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