Did you know that you could enjoy a luxury vacation in South Africa, Thailand or Mexico, while having authentic interactions and giving back to the locals? Perhaps build a house in a nearby village, serve in a soup kitchen, or help with wildlife conservation efforts? Christopher Hill of Hands Up Holidays specializes in providing luxury vacations that combine sightseeing and hands-on volunteering.
Q: How did you come up with the idea of providing luxury vacations while at the same time allowing families the opportunity to volunteer?
A: It came about from a trip that I took when I was working in finance, back in 2002. It was a trip down to South Africa where, in addition to going on safaris and exploring all the wonders that South Africa has to offer, I also helped to build a house for a family in one of the townships. That just enriched the whole travel experience for me, and I got to thinking, “Wow!, I’ve learned lots of business skills. Why don’t I utilize those skills that enable others, including families, to have similar experiences.
And I thought, “Wow, yeah.” Again, “Let’s use my skills and put them into something which I find more meaningful and rewarding,” and, at the same time, enable families to not only have a fabulous luxury vacation, but also for their children to really appreciate how fortunate they are, and just to understand the privileges that they’ve been brought up in, when they get to interact with people who are less fortunate and make a difference in their lives.
Q: You just mentioned children, and I’m assuming, particularly children of more so affluent families?
A: Yes, absolutely. Again, because we do specialize in luxury travel, our clients by definition, really, are more affluent. Because we specialize in families, then it tends to be that the children are of affluent parents.
Q: Understanding that you help the children of affluent families grow, into responsible citizens, what are the types of vacations that are offered, and how, in particular, are they tailored to, say, the family’s preference?
A: It’s kind of limitless, the way that they’re tailored and customized to the family’s preferences, but just as a starting point, we pride ourselves with consulting with each client and finding out what their preferences are, how they like to spend their leisure time, if they have any skills they’d like to use in their volunteering. We drill down into that, things like the time of year they’re thinking of traveling, how long they’ve got to travel, can influence our recommendations in terms of weather and proximity. You know, because if they’ve only got a short amount of time, then we will more likely propose a vacation that’s closer to home, for example.
As a rule of thumb, when we have our family clients, we tend to divide it into the ages of children. It’s a rough rule of thumb, but for twelve and under, we tend to steer families to wildlife and environmental conservation projects. These can range from elephant conservation in Thailand or India, to helping at a wildlife rescue center in Costa Rica, or a turtle conservation project in Baja, California, Mexico, for example. These projects really work fabulously well for animal-loving children of all ages.
If it is a family with teenage children then they have the option of getting involved with one of our house-building projects, or building projects more generally, but they’re quite often house-building projects. Which is fantastic for family bonding as well. That’s where the team can really give an impact into the lives of other people in other cultures, and get to interact with those cultures in a meaningful way, as they contribute in a hands-on way to providing something which is very basic.
Just to give you an example, let’s say we do have a family that has teenage children and they want to build a house as part of their vacation, then we would tell them about the countries they could do that. For example, they can do that in Mexico, in Guatemala, in Belize, in Brazil, in Cambodia, for example. Let’s say they’re happy to spend five days doing that, and they’ve got ten days in total, then we would work with them to find out … Are they more “beachy” people, or they’re interested in more culture, or if they want a really active part of the rest of their vacation, then that will influence where we recommend that they travel to. It’s fully customized in that way.
Q: I’ve read that you also work with corporate organizations who are socially-conscious, as well as with schools. Can you discuss your work with these two very different demographics and the outcomes you’ve seen with them?
A: Sure. We have three divisions. The first one, is what I’ve been talking about, is the Hands Up Holidays division, which is for consumers, and primarily families, but not exclusively. Even within the Hands Up Holidays division and website, we help honeymooners who want to make a difference on their honeymoon, or retirees, or even solo travelers, as well. That’s our first division.
Then there is the second division that you mentioned, which is the corporate division. That’s our Hands Up Incentives, and in that division, and on that website, HandsUpIncentives.com, as you pointed out, we focus on helping companies reward their staff and motivate their staff and engage employees, by including an element of giving back as part of a reward trip. It might be a trip to Costa Rica, for example, or Hawaii, or the Caribbean. There’s limitless options, but let’s take Costa Rica, for one example. They may help to renovate a school for a couple of days out of the, say, four or five days that they have on the trip, and the rest of the time can be more conventional incentive activities: gala dinners and relaxation. In that time, the beauty of including this element of giving back through renovating a school, is you also get team-building benefits, with everyone working together to renovate that school.
It’s a very powerful thing, to make a difference in people’s lives, when you are contributing as a group of employees, together. It’s great for employees to know that they are working for a company who cares and shares similar values to what they share. It can be a very motivating experience and help with loyalty, with retaining staff and that’s lowering turnover costs and the costs of hiring new staff. It’s win-win on many counts, from the client’s perspective, but also they get to help communities and they can get great publicity for that, as well, which can also result in higher sales from consumers wanting to purchase their goods from companies that are doing good.
The third division is our schools division. It’s essentially the concept of a trip that blends sight-seeing with an element of hands-on giving back to that destination. Where it’s a little bit different in the schools context is that we draw out other things that are important for schools. For example, experiential learning and cultural immersion, and there may be some aspects of curriculum they want to develop in a real-life context.
Examples of trips that we’ve run with schools have been to Bali, in Indonesia, where schools have helped to install the disabled-accessible bathrooms for paraplegics in different villages that otherwise they would be really just left to languish. The disabled are not cared for at all, in Bali, and if you are born with a disability it’s a sign of bad karma, and you are, to a large extent, shunned by society. These bathrooms can help with giving the paraplegics a sense of identity, a sense of independence in something that, previously, many needed assistance for. With the school’s assistance, they can actually do on their own, and so it’s life changing for those individuals.
Families can do this as well, but talking specifically about schools, the trip also involved cultural interaction, cooking classes and dance lessons in the local Balinese dances, and tours of the island, taking the students to look, particularly, at the cultural dimensions, temples and artisans that Bali is rightly proud of, and getting, as I say, really very much immersed in the culture. In addition to giving back, there is this hands-on experiential learning at the same time.
Q: Can you talk more about the time commitments and the costs involved?
A: Sure. Dealing firstly with the time commitments, the beauty of our model is that it’s what I call a philanthropic-volunteering model. What I mean by that is that the main benefits our client bring is the funding to get a project accomplished, for example, the houses to be built, or the disabled bathrooms that I’ve mentioned, or classrooms to be renovated. That funding goes not only to materials, but also to hiring local people, and so far from taking away jobs from the local population, our model is the opposite, and it actually creates employment in the destination.
How it helps with the time constraint is that it means that clients can get involved in whatever amount of time that they have available, ranging from as short as an afternoon … If that’s all they have, but they’re bringing the funding to get the whole project done, then the local people can, for example, do most of the work before they arrive, and then the family or the company can spend potentially as little as an afternoon in doing the finishing touches on the house or the classroom or the library, whatever the case may be.
They still, by applying these finishing touches, get that sense of satisfaction of completing it and handing it over to the recipients who are very grateful. Also, really crucially, they get to get a measure of interaction with the people, which is hugely important, and it’s really vital that they do get that. But even an afternoon can get those insights that I spoke about, in terms of for a family, into another way of life, and an appreciation of just how fortunate the children and the whole family is. That deals with the time constraints. As well, because we customize the trips, we can work within whatever time frame our client has.
On the price issue, the trips are not cheap by any stretch. One of the main drivers of the cost is the contribution that our clients are making to make a difference, as well as the luxury accommodation. We make no bones about that. We do focus on making volunteering accessible to those people who don’t want to have to rough it and perhaps are on a limited time-frame. The trip’s not cheap, and if you want to find a non-luxury option there are others out there. But if you do want to retain your creature comforts and have somewhere very comfortable to return to at the end of each day volunteering, then we’re the place to come to.
Pricing can be potentially more of an issue for schools, but we work mostly with private schools, international schools, which have the affluent parents to pay for this. At the same time, a wonderful thing that a lot of our school clients get involved with is fundraising, or the students get involved with fundraising, which has its own benefit in terms of helping foster creativity and initiative, with the students. With schools, the potential obstacle of price can actually be an advantage, because, as I say, it can foster and encourage the students to get creative and use their initiatives to raise the funds necessary to go on the trips.
One final thing, in the context of pricing for corporate: the beauty of an incentive trip is that it only takes place if the company’s doing really well, i.e., if your staff are hitting their targets. You can build the price of an incentive trip into your targets so that those employees that hit their targets get to go on the trip, but they’re paying for it by hitting the targets. Then, obviously, you’re structuring the target so that, not only are you paying for the trip, but you’re making much more in the way of profits. If no one hits their targets, then the trip doesn’t go ahead and the clients pay nothing, so price really isn’t an issue at all in that context of corporate incentive trips.
Q: I want to focus on a specific aspect of your service, and that really is the socially-conscious part of it. How have you found your clients to embrace that, and, in turn, how have those they’ve served been impacted?
A: People only come to us if they are socially conscious, and this is our whole point of difference so to speak. If they want a regular luxury vacation there’s no reason to book with us, but if they want to have a luxury vacation that includes this socially-conscious element, then that makes sense for them to approach us. They’re not going to be caught by surprise, It’s not like they go on vacation and we say, “Oh! Actually, today you’re going to be helping build a house! We didn’t tell you about it before!” I’m being a bit facetious, but you get my point that guests come to us because they want to do this.
Coming back to what I said earlier about consulting with our clients and finding out if they have particular skills that they want to use. For example, they may be doctors, or they may have business skills that they would really like to apply, and we’d really love to make that possible for our clients. Looking at the impact on them, we have to go back to the feedback we get, and it’s hugely positive. The responses we get from our clients traveling with us. They love the fact that they are able to have a vacation, a luxury vacation, and they can do some of the sight-seeing they want to do, plus they get to make a difference and they get to interact with the people who are quite often an overlooked, hidden treasure of a destination. All too often, people can, for instance, book a resort stay and potentially never even leave the resort, and don’t get that interaction and insights into the lives of the people in the destination they’re traveling to.
By offering that, and particularly by offering in a way that the client can make a difference in their lives is hugely gratifying for them, and can be a wonderful family bonding experience and great for families who, as I say, may be concerned that the children really don’t appreciate how fortunate they are. By getting involved in a hands-on way, they can get these insights, and return home more grateful and not take everything for granted. And potentially also live more contented lives, when they see people who have nothing being happier than perhaps they are. Very powerful life lessons can be learned.
In terms of the impact on the communities, our model has always been to consult with the communities and find out what their needs are. It’s a simple model, but it’s a beautiful model in that sense, because we are only meeting needs that the community tells us that they have, and so because of that, and because of our model being a philanthropic volunteering model, the main benefit is the funding that’s brought and employment that’s brought to the community. By employing the local people to do the bulk of the work, or it may be as overseers. Obviously, ninety-nine percent of our clients don’t have building experience, and so for them they’re going to get involved giving a hand, leaving the bulk of the work or the tricky parts to the local experts.
Q: Can you describe for our listeners a typical vacation, say it’s a family of four… a husband, a wife and their two kids, fifteen, sixteen years old … to South Africa? What might that vacation look like for them?
A: Sure. With those ages of the children, typically the options are very much open, which is often a great thing.
In South Africa, we offer a selection of the volunteering projects. It could be helping to renovate a daycare center in one of the townships near Cape Town. It could also be assisting with newborn babies that have been either orphaned or abandoned by their parents…and assisting the permanent caregivers with helping to play with the children, plus helping with feeding them and changing them and essentially just supporting the caregivers and giving these babies the best possible starts in life. Or we have some sports programs, if the family and the teenagers are interested in, for instance, teaching sports activities to children, and that can be done. There’s a range of opportunities that families can get involved with in South Africa, and so the family can choose from them and then they’ll let us know how many days they want to travel for. Let’s say it’s a ten day vacation and they want to spend four of those days volunteering, let’s say, it’s renovating the daycare center. Then we’ve got another five to six days to play with.
There are so many different possibilities in South Africa, but one of them could be having a few days around Cape Town, perhaps a day out in the wine lands, wine tasting and enjoying the spectacular scenery just north of Cape Town. Another day might be going out to the Cape peninsula area, which is one of the most southerly parts of South Africa, and the subcontinent. Perhaps doing some kayaking around there. There’s a popular area where there are penguins that you can kayak to. They can do that attraction with then penguins and on another day, perhaps visit Robben Island. Where Nelson Mandela was a prisoner for eighteen years and get to hear the stories of the guards, who are now the tour guides, at the island. That’s another fascinating experience. Then, perhaps finish up with a luxury safari. South Africa is famous for its safaris and there’s lots of options, from Sabi Sabi to Kruger to Madikwe, if you’re looking for a completely malaria-free option.
If people may have a bit more time; they may want to travel down the garden reefs and, if it’s in season, they can spot whales, and they can ride an ostrich, and, again, enjoy much more spectacular scenery. There’s fabulous hiking to be done there. Or they may push into the Drakensberg for even more hiking. There’s loads of options.
Again, if they had even more time, they might add another country. They might go head up to Zambia and visit Victoria Falls, which is spectacular, or into Namibia, and see the deserts there, or head to Mozambique for beautiful beaches. Again, it all comes down to how long the family has and what they want to get out of their trip.
Q: Christopher thank you for joining me today. What’s the best way for people to learn more about you and what you do?
A: Thank you. It’s a real pleasure.
If it is a family or a couple or even a solo traveler looking to have a luxury travel experience with a difference in it, then it’s HandsUpHolidays.com.
If it’s a company, then it’s HandsUpIncentives.com.
And if it’s a school group, it’s HandsUpSchoolTrips.com.