Dominique Callimanopulos and elephants

This is another interview with somebody who has taken on making a huge change in the world while also creating a path for us to do the same. I met Dominique Callimanopulos in a simple desk-side meeting at my office where she had come to tell me a bit about her company, Elevate Destinations. I had been impressed for a while by Elevate’s website (even their tag line gets me in the best way: “Make Travel Matter.”), and even wrote one of my earliest blog postings, prior to any connection with them, in fact, Dominique didn’t know, about the company. I was immediately taken with how easy and comfortable she was in our conversation, and how lit up she was about the work she does. I wish that kind of passion on all of us… 

I have subsequently traveled to post-earthquake Haiti twice with Elevate, once as a client, and once as a trip leader, for their Elevate Haiti—Urgent Service volunteer program--truly life-changing experiences!

Elevate Destinations Mission Statement:

Elevate Destinations, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a philanthropic travel company that combines singular journeys with social good.  Every trip booked through them contributes (approximately 5%) to their Buy A Trip, Give A Trip program, which allows local youth in destination countries to see the sights usually reserved for tourists.  Elevate has sponsored Maasai student excursions in Kenya to national game parks to better understand the value of wildlife; youth from townships in Cape Town to see the sights; Cambodian students to visit Angkor Wat; Costa Rican youth to get into the rainforest, etc.  These sponsored trips expand they horizons and expose them to their own natural resources and heritage, sending a message that these are not reserved for wealthier tourists alone. Customized itineraries for clients feature community initiatives and volunteer opportunities as well as eco-hotels and lodges.  Elevate destinations also specializes in donor travel: organizing first class trips for donors and board members of leading international organizations.

[Dominique With Bedouin leader in Sahara Desert]

Dominique Callimanopulos, Founder and CEO, grew up witnessing the disparity between tourists and local conditions they visit and created Elevate Destinations to provide unique travel which cares for local people, wildlife, and natural resources.

Dominique studied the impact of tourism in the Seychelle Islands for her Anthropology thesis at Wesleyan University and has continued to explore global social and human conditions through 25 years of work with social change organizations in the fields of human rights, international development, environmental protection, and psychology before founding Elevate Destinations in 2005.

_______________________

Tell me a little bit about the genesis of Elevate Destinations. What possessed you? There must have been easier things to start—why this?

I have always been aware of the material inequities between tourists and host communities but equally aware of the cultural riches host communities offer travelers. Elevate Destinations was founded to disrupt and deepen the exchange between travelers and local inhabitants.

What obstacles along the way almost stopped you?

Ten years into our company's journey, I can safely say that nothing has stopped me.  With the help of fantastic staff and wonderful clients, we have unwaveringly pursued our evolving vision of meaningful travel.    Happily, the market has caught up with my initial vision for travel experiences that go beyond typical tourism.

When pulling it all together, did family and friends support you or think you were nuts?

I founded Elevate Destinations pretty much on my own, without much support from family or friends.  I was driven by my own vision of what I could create, and grew the company organically, learning as I went.  The best support has come from my staff/team and travel associates.  They have been second to none in their commitment, integrity, and support.  Our clients have also been terrific to work with.  Family and friends have played a more supportive role as the company has grown.

Did your youth/upbringing/family life seem to put you on this path, or did you come to it later? What were you doing before this?

My upbringing put me on many paths!  Growing up in a fairly wealthy international family, which traveled a lot to off-the-beaten-track destinations, I had the opportunity to explore a lot of different worlds, and always had a keen interest in people & cultures different from my own.  This led me to major in anthropology at Wesleyan University, looking specifically at the impact of tourism on social/cultural change.  Coming out of college, I worked for an organization called Cultural Survival, which defends the rights of indigenous people.  Later, after fundraising for many different non-profits, I pursued a degree and research in psychology.  I was working as a psychotherapist when I founded Elevate but I really enjoy working at an international level as an entrepreneur.

Any advice for others wanting to create a way to be of service or provide a structure (for others) for charitable work?

There are many opportunities to make a difference when you travel.  From participating in a donor trip that serves a well conceived strategy benefiting local communities, to taking your family on a volunteer vacation, the possibilities for getting involved in something you are passionate about are many.  The key is to educate yourself as much as possible about local conditions and challenges before and during your travel and if possible, to make a long-term commitment to growth as it is defined by a community.  These days that means empowering education and local entrepreneurship rather than more traditional ways of charitable giving.

While there won’t ever be a consistent across-the-board model, what is an example of a trip day for a participant?

Participants on a donor trip might spend the morning chatting with local grantees or visiting a project site and part of the day learning more about the region through participatory activities.  Here is a description from a recent traveler to Zambia:

We biked down the dirt roads, our bodies shaking violently as we plowed over rocks and dips in the path on the Buffalo Bicycles we built to get a small taste of the work World Bicycle Relief does in Zambia and around the world. The bikes spewed dust out behind them, but if we took a minute to look up and around us, the reward was worth the cloud of dust that flew into our faces.

Everywhere we went people welcomed us. Women carrying enormous loads on their heads smiled and waved, little children ran out to the street yelling, “How are you?”, and teachers and students prepared songs, dances, food and speeches for us when we came to visit. The warmth, generosity and hospitality every single local showed us was astounding. ~Alex Weyerhaeuser   

Travelers on a family trip will be staying in first class eco-lodges and learning firsthand about local flora and fauna while taking part in some fun activities--kayaking, rafting, cultural touring.  Many of the families that travel with us request short term volunteering as part of their vacation, to expose their kids to new ways of connecting with local communities.  All of our trips are facilitated by expert local guides--whether clients are exploring the Ecuadorian rainforest, playing soccer with kids in Nicaragua, or volunteering at a community trust in Kenya.  The purpose of our company is to nurture a sense of agency in both our clients and host communities. 

Is there an ideal client for an Elevate trip?

Travelers who are interested and curious about the world they live in and want to get below the surface, with local inhabitants and communities while experiencing imaginative and innovative dwellings and environments.  “Experiential Travel” is one recently minted term that is being used to describe such travelers.  The ideal Elevate client also wants to make a contribution–small or large—to the destination they visit.

If not this, what? (What might you be doing if not Elevate?)

I would be an explorer/traveler/philanthropist/writer/journalist based in Africa.

What has been the best reward for the work you do?

Amazing relationships with clients and partners and the knowledge of many global initiatives to improve life on earth.  I also enjoy the travel!

What has been the greatest disappointment along the way?

None.  I’m excited.

What’s next?

Continue to scale up our business so that we are serving our clients and partners to maximum effect and making a greater educational  and social impact.  We are currently launching a series of trips focused on women's issues. The first of these will be to Cuba in January 2016.  Another will focus on women's relationship to conservation in Kenya in June 2016.  

Increasingly, we are being asked to provide substantive content for learning journeys as well as design short-term volunteer experiences for families wanting to get their children outside their bubble and expose them to global issues firsthand.  We have been scouting worldwide for great opportunities of this kind!

 

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About The Author

Andrew Mersmann's picture

Andrew is the author of Frommer's global guide to volunteer vacations, "500 Places Where You Can Make a Difference" (Gold Medal Winner from Society of American Travel Writers: Best Guide Book 2010). He spent more than a decade on the editorial team of PASSPORT Magazine. He has volunteered and led teams on service projects around the world, and is honored to be on the boards of directors for the Alisa Ann Ruch Burn Foundation (AARBF.org) and Mentor Artists Playwrights Project (mentorartists.org). Mersmann has been a featured speaker, interview guest, or moderator on several travel talks, from the New York Times Travel Show, Smithsonian Associates, and the 92nd Street Y-TriBeCa to Oprah and Friends, Animal House, and The Focus Group on satellite radio as well as on NY1 television. Past participant at the Clinton Global Initiative and judge for Condé Nast World Changers Conference, he blogs about volunteering and service travel at www.ChangeByDoing.com. As part of the evox television team, he is dedicated to audience engagement, so if you're not engaged, he needs to be thumped on the head (gently)...or at least told (nicely). Twitter: /ChangeByDoing

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