The Travel+SocialGood Summit: Turning Ideas Into Accountability And Actions

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Networking is seen as a fishy business where I come from in Austria. Growing up, I learned that “networking” means rich friends helping each other outplay the system so they can avoid prosecution or paying taxes. Last Friday, at the Travel+Social Good Summit, I experienced the very opposite idea of networking.

Surrounded by 200 fellow attendees at the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York’s Upper West Side, I found myself feeling like I was lying on the back of a Tuk-tuk somewhere in Cambodia, chatting with eager dreamers and creators who are daring to change the world. And it kept getting better from there: talks by insiders, a hands-on workshop which finished with the announcement of three winning ideas (which will be implemented by JetBlue, the Ritz-Carlton and The Nature Conservancy!) and a perfect wrap-up during a gorgeous sustainable solar-led-light dinner. Yep, we are hippies.

What happened at the Summit?

The event started with an intro and a short travel-meditation led by founder and curator, Gilad Goran, and was followed by five talks full of inspiration, important facts and professional insights.

Here is a quick recap of their points and the three challenges posed to the audience:

Jennifer Barkley, Sabre’s Head of Global Corporate Responsibly, shared her view on “The State of Travel”.

Her summary of travel trends was mostly about tech in the following areas. 

  • Mobile devices are increasingly used for booking and planning.

  • Search apps and functions are becoming central in the way travelers explore their destination.

  • The data produced by online and mobile activities can be used to better understand the interest of the traveler and help direct them to experiences they otherwise might not have been aware of. This will allow for more targeted advertising and outreach.

Sophia Mendelsohn, Head of Sustainability at JetBlue, talked about innovation and transparency in the travel industry. In general, change and unproven concepts often meet resistance. Many innovators have struggles with this, as she highlighted by quoting Ford. 

“If I asked them what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." 

Mendelsohn pointed out that when we pave new ways, transparency is key to maintain the trust of clients. Transparency does not necessarily mean putting all your unfiltered data out into the cloud, but can stand for a lack of fear to share your information when asked—a sign of acting with integrity. Her challenge she posed is centered around finding ways to quantify the impact social initiatives have on business and for receiving communities. 

Geof Rochester, Managing Director at The Nature Conservancy, led our focus back to the basics. Tools such as apps, phones and the internet are great resources, but do they really fulfill their purpose to help us explore and create? Rochester showcased examples of how the Nature Conservancy uses their online presence to help people get back out in the woods, and asked for the participants to help him figure out how we can “preserve the human touch in the digital world?”.

Sue Stephenson, Vice-Director of Community Footprints at the Ritz-Carlton, explained how she and her team are creating experiences for their guests to connect with the local community by volunteering for half a day. Whether it is gardening with local farmers or moving sea turtles’ eggs, their projects aim to connect visitors with the host community to shift holidays into sustainable journeys. Stephenson’s quest for the crowd: How do we create a culture of social innovation within the travel industry?

Nancy Lublin, founder and CEO of Dosomething.org and key-note speaker at the event, rocked the stage sharing her creative, out-of-the box approach on leadership. In only 30 minutes (that felt more like 5) she made me laugh out loud, while at the same time convincing me why companies should let their employees create their own titles, pay them to travel and volunteer for a month, and regularly switch around the furniture in their office. Instead of a standard powerpoint, Lublin had one of her coworkers create live comments, which were invisible to her. Her go-getter attitude was the driving force behind her smart and informed points, which she conveyed effectively by showcasing her storytelling skills. Whoever is a young start-up CEO and looking for inspiration, you should definitely pick up a copy of her book Zilch.

Workshops

Equipped with big challenges and supported by a group of skilled facilitators, we went on to do some interactive brainstorming and troubleshooting. Cooperating in small groups of three to six people, we worked on the three challenges posed during the tasks. Within no time, the room was filled with passionate debates and diverse approaches. We discussed a number of angles. What are the actual problems behind the questions? Why do these issues matter? How can we approach them? Who are we, and who are they?

Thanks to the guidance and the dedicated participants, many ideas on how to tackle these big conceptual issues were born and subsequently pitched to the jury and attendees.

Q&A And Winner Announcement

While the jury took time to discuss the scalability and adaptability of the proposed solutions, Goran interviewed Raj Udeshi, founder of the Emerging Collective, and their artist in residence, Guo Jian. Jlan talked about his art and the connection to the Emerging Collective, but given the recent political events in his country of origin, China, he focused on giving an idea on what it means to be an artist in China and the challenges his colleagues and friends are facing there.

The main event was concluded by the announcement of the best ideas created during the workshop. JetBlue, Ritz-Carlton, and The Nature Conservancy vowed to implement the ideas in close collaboration with the awarded teams. 

My Take-Aways

The actual impact of summits like these is yet to be seen. The promises made, ideas created, and conversations held are definitely reason to be optimistic. Yet, is is up to the organizers and the community of the T+SG summit to follow-up and make sure that words be turned into actions.

What has stayed with me, almost a week after the event, is an ongoing flame of inspiration, a sense of calm, because I was once more reminded that we are not alone, that there are countless people around the world who are dedicated to triggering progress toward social justice and a whole lot of new ideas!

I feel that beyond the winning projects, a lof of potentially lasting cooperations and friendships were born last Friday. During the dinner that was hosted for a smaller group of about 50 guests, a group of us talked about something the whole world from the UN to each freelancer to the dweller in the slum seems to struggle with—accountability. 

From the very start, let’s be clear about what our tasks are, how we want to tackle them, and in what time-frame we aim to do so. We expect transparency from big companies? Let’s start with ourselves. This includes measuring our outcomes to find the most useful solution, justifying our actions to investors, and keeping track of what it is we are accountable for.

Thanks to Gilad Goran and his many co-creators and helpers, the speakers and facilitators, and the many wonderful peers and new friends for a fantastic event that really feels like a kick-off for something bigger. Looking forward to next year’s summit, including a summary of this year’s projects outcomes!

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