Giving Back: How volunteers shape a destination

I’m visiting a branch of my family tree for this post about the role of local volunteers in shaping a visitor’s experience.

Today’s post is about my mom, Patricia Fraser.

Born in Vancouver, and raised in Grand Forks, mom returned to the city in her 20s and hasn’t looked back. With her recent retirement offering up more spare time, and an enthusiasm for our hometown that can’t be beat, she was recently selected to be part of the Tourism Vancouver 200-volunteer strong visitor services team. I asked for her thoughts on the contribution she’s making to our industry.

TN: How did you become a Tourism Vancouver volunteer? 

(Before she can answer, a British couple come up the Skytrain escalator. Initially they say they aren’t looking for anything but after a moment it becomes clear they’ll need to know how to get to the airport.)

“This whole process started two years ago, when I was first getting ready to retire. I applied but it was the wrong time of year. The intake is in March, then you go for interviews, train in April, and you’re out here in May. This time I applied at the right time, with my resume and cover letter, and I was called in for an interview.  I also had to complete some short tests.

The season for us is pretty short, May to October.”

TN: What would you say is your motivation for doing this kind of work?

“Well, I live here and I like to see Vancouver do well and I think Tourism is a fantastic industry and I want it to succeed. Certainly being down here greeting people gives you an appreciation for the tourism business — and it is a business.

Plus it gets you out of the house, and you get to meet people from all over the world … and stand out in the rain (laughs).

You also get a cool jacket and a shirt and a hat.”

TN: What are the biggest perks of being a volunteer?

“Outside of the jacket and the hat? No, I’m kidding. The best and most surprising thing is this perk I didn’t even realize existed, something called the privilege card which gives you access to events and attractions. So, if I want to take my grandkids to Playland I can get in for half price. To get the card, volunteers and staff have to visit at least 15 attractions and two neighbourhoods and some hotels and things like that in order to complete their passport and get their privilege card.

Next year when I don’t have grandkids to babysit as often I want to get all 40 stamps!

And the whole idea of treating your city as if you were a tourist is so great, the 15 things I’ve done, I probably wouldn’t have done in five years let alone a few weeks. I thought the perks would just be giving back and doing something for the city, which certainly is happening but I didn’t think I would be rewarded in this way.”

TN: What’s the weirdest question you’ve gotten from a visitor?

(Laughs). “Just before my break I had a nice couple come up asking how much it costs to take the ferry to Vancouver Island. So I said ‘do you mean, to drive out to the ferry terminal outside the city and take the ferry for over an hour to get to Victoria?’

And of course no, they meant the Seabus to North Vancouver, which they thought was Vancouver Island.

Also people frequently gesture over to Stanley Park and say ‘oh, so that’s Vancouver Island?’ Which, it’s not (and also it’s a peninsula), but you can see where they might think that.

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Good old fashioned metrics.

TN: How do you think Tourism Vancouver’s visitor services team shapes the guest experience?

I only see my end of it but I know there are wheels within wheels because of the whole tourism challenge, which is brilliant. All the different businesses and organizations that belong to Tourism Vancouver, all of the coordination, to get everyone involved in visiting others’ attractions, it must be quite the undertaking.

And the city is going to welcome 1.5 million visitors just through the cruise terminal this year, so to have us on the ground, waiting … you once told me about someone from Tourism Squamish saying they had to be like eagles, scooping the tourists up … well we’re kind of like that. Perched here, just waiting for people who have a need.

This morning there was a man grumbling about how ‘signage here is terrible’ and it was really affecting him, he was frustrated. Certainly the city has some challenges, some weaknesses and we’re the team on the ground filling in those weaknesses and solving the issues as they come up.

The volunteers themselves are always trying to find a way to spot things to address with guests. Today someone on my team said ‘make sure you stop people with suitcases on their way into the station’ because in their experience those visitors think this is the entrance to the Canada Line to the airport. I can redirect them to a better entrance.

And if someone has an hour you can send them to Flyover Canada and if they only have 15 minutes, you can send them down to Harbour Air to watch the float planes take off. Things like that.” 

TN: It’s 2019. No offence, but why couldn’t a kiosk offer what you do?

I just don’t see how it would be possible because what we do is proactive, rather than reactive. A lot of times we see people and they don’t know what they want. So we see people taking selfies and offer to take their photo together. We see someone who’s older with a walking difficulty like I have and I tailor the recommendation so they can avoid stairs. You see people who look confused and offer help.

And this is locals as well — today it’s a bunch of families looking for the dinosaurs which is over at VCC West. So a friendly face to recognize them and say “oh, are you looking for the dinosaurs?” on a rainy grey day, with all this congestion down at the terminal, it makes it better for everyone.

It’s great to be proactive where we can. One of the issues with cruises, sometimes people are used to being accosted with salespeople as they disembark in other ports, things like time shares, so I have to tell them I’m a volunteer right up front. 

On our lunch break these two ladies saw our uniforms and asked about changing money and we had a list handy, as well as letting them know how to withdraw Canadian cash from an ATM. We also mentioned to them that the currency exchanges might have limited hours or be closed — we know it’s a holiday, but they don’t.

(At this moment mom spotted a couple looking at the transit map. She directed them to the Seabus terminal and gave them a tip on how to watch the city spring up around them from a particular seat.)

So there’s an example of a couple who thought that this was the entrance to the Seabus when it’s much better to walk around to the main station entrance.

People don’t know when they’re taking the bus they can use their credit card, but it’s one card per person and you can proactively tell them these things you pick up along the way.

And ultimately we can direct them to the full service Visitor Centre around the corner where there are many languages spoken, they have salaried staff there ready to help and even offer them ticket purchases and deals on attractions.

So I think that kiosks and technology can play a part but there’s nothing like have a person, a resident, who’s giving of themselves for free, explaining the best way to get something done.”

That’s my mom’s take on the role of volunteering in the visitor experience. For more info on Tourism Vancouver’s volunteer opportunities visit https://www.tourismvancouver.com/about/volunteer/ 

Does your community use volunteers to enhance the guest experience? Share your feedback in the comments. 

Drinking the Airbnb Kool-Aid

One of my lesser-known tourism hustles is the Airbnb I run in my basement. My TV room, to be exact.

This little space is comfortable, clean, centrally located, and a great way to offset the fact I’m a single mom carrying a Vancouver-sized mortgage. It also doesn’t displace any long-term rental inventory since, seriously, it’s a TV room in my basement.

So imagine my delight when our dean suggested that faculty and a handful of students attend a Greater Vancouver Board of Trade luncheon featuring Chris Lehane from Airbnb. Chris is the senior VP for policy and, frankly, a dynamic and cool speaker.

It’s clear that, in his own words, Chris has started drinking the Kool-Aid at Airbnb, and as a host I’ve been enjoying it for some time. Here are some of the points raised during his presentation.

We live in a time of significant global challenge. 

The first challenge Chris mentioned was that of economic inequality. Today the 26 richest people on earth own as much as the 3.8 billion poorest … a divide that is growing as we see the emergence of AI and the loss of up to 40% of jobs to automation.

The second challenge he addressed was that of conflicts, whether intra-state (Venezuela, Syria), through cyberattacks, the online polarization of people and viewpoints through social media, and the displacing of billions of people due to unrest.

The last challenge he mentioned was that of global climate change, which in the last four years has seen the hottest temperatures on record, and closer to home (both ours in BC and his down in California) has contributed to annual ravaging wildfires.

It’s no wonder, according to Chris, that the world is now sinking to a ten year low in happiness.

Travel has a a role to play in addressing these challenges. 

Chris explained that travel has a rich history of contributing to migration and immigration and cultural exploration. He shared a picture of Burnaby-born hockey hall-of-famer Joe Sakic explaining that the movement of people has real benefits (in this case helping the Colorado Avalanche win the Stanley Cup, twice).

He then shared the Confucian quote that “Wherever you go, go with all your heart”. Bonus points for going from Sakic to Confucius! This part of Chris’ presentation resonated with me — as some of you might know my father is an immigrant and I’ll spend part of this summer going back to the town of his birth.

Chris talked about historical names for travel and its impacts including the Ancient Greek “philoxenia” – the opposite of xenophobia, a love for strangers and an eagerness to be hospitable.

This is where Airbnb comes in.

Airbnb’s mission is that anyone can belong anywhere. Chris was quick to address the fact they’re a disruptor and that new technologies always lead to disruption. And he was clear that in this new digital era we’ve seen the emergence of platforms that are larger than any one country in terms of population and yet, at times, highly unregulated.

He presented different platform models — hierarchical, ad-based, the short-term labour model, and finally the community-based model (people to people) that tracks back to the original model of capitalism, in his opinion.

Chris shared the story behind Airbnb, of a couple of students offering air mattresses on the floor of their San Francisco apartment to pay their rent. In his view, the core of Airbnb has always been about disrupting FOR humans, not being disruptive TO humans. He credits the founders’ art student backgrounds in that they wanted to build something 100 people would love instead of something that 1000 people would like.

I’d say, in that regard, they’ve been successful. Today on Airbnb:

  • Six guests check in every second 
  • There are over five million listings
  • They’ve seen 15% growth over the last year in Vancouver alone

Their future, according to Chris, is as an end-to-end travel platform that facilitates how you get somewhere, and where you stay, who you spend time with, and what you do while there. The ‘Airbnb experiences’ catalogue alone has grown to 20,000 experiences in 1000 cities since it was launched.

It was the transportation vertical (how you get there) that got my attention. Airbnb is proposing to use existing infrastructure to help legacy businesses tap into wider consumer markets (e.g. rail travel) while encouraging innovators to bring their ideas to market.

Another passion of mine is destination development policy. Chris’ particular area of work focuses on exactly this — Airbnb’s commitment to help evolve policy, pay their share of taxes, and share data.

He says their next focus will be the office of healthy travel. Tourism already makes up 10.4% of Global GDP, so why not grow the industry sustainably? Chris spoke about Airbnb contributions including:

Investing in community development, like in Maharashtra India, where they partnered with government to help locals start up immersive homestays in the region.

Enhancing experiential authenticity while increasing spending in neighbourhoods —44% of which stays in the micro community where guests spend the night. In 2017 that meant an increase of  $107 million in spending to Vancouver restaurants.

Supporting diverse experiences by providing guests an opportunity to stay in non-hotel districts and rural areas.

Being inclusive, where currently 55% of hosts are women, and the fastest growing cohort of hosts are seniors.

Creating traffic to underserved areas through initiatives like their Cape Town partnership, and working with the NAACP to develop hosting capabilities in urban communities.

His final words were on the ways in which Airbnb is creating sustainable options simply by using existing buildings (millions of empty homes), in the place of new construction. For example massive events like the Rio Olympics saw an increase in hosting, which diverted the need to build up to 257 new hotels for the event.

Chris Lehane clearly “drinks the Kool Aid” on Airbnb. Vancouver is drinking it too. In 2018 the City and Airbnb signed a historic agreement to recognize and regulate home sharing, which was shortly followed by an announcement of a first-of-its-kind partnership in Canada with Tourism Vancouver.

I’m starting to drink this Kool Aid too. Are you? Share your thoughts in the comments.