This Socially Conscious Booking Platform Helped Me Take a Vacation That Gave Back to the Local Community — Here's How

Using "Kind Traveler," a T+L Global Vision Award–winning booking platform, one traveler learns how to make an impact on vacation.

<p>Courtesy of Kind Traveler </p>

Courtesy of Kind Traveler

Years ago, Jessica Blotter was an earth science teacher, and as such, someone who regularly thought about the health of the planet and all the living things that call it home. Career moves brought her to media and marketing roles and the startup world, where she says she caught the “entrepreneurial bug.” But it wasn’t until she traveled to Belize in 2012 with her partner, Sean Krejci, that she understood how she might merge her interests and skills into something bigger.

“We were invited to go caving, and to see Mayan ruins, but there was this huge feeling of disconnect,” she told Travel + Leisure. “It was hard for me to experience joy and fun and fulfillment, and to go on with these experiences while ignoring [the poverty and pollution] I saw around me.”

En route to the ruins, she disembarked from her tour bus at a pit stop and was immediately approached by emaciated dogs. Without much thought, she and Krejci walked into a convenient store, bought a bag of kibble, and fed the dogs by the side of the road. Their fellow travelers followed suit, buying additional bags of food as more pups came to eat.

“We were all thinking the same thing, but we were ignoring it,” Blotter said. “We didn’t know how to help or what to do. But when we turned that concern into a very small act of kindness, the feeling of helplessness turned to help. We knew we hadn’t solved the problem, but we did something.”

Launching Kind Traveler

This Belize experience showed Blotter that she wanted to help others positively impact their destination while traveling. You can make eco-conscious and community-minded choices, such as avoiding single-use plastics, buying from local purveyors and makers, conserving water, offsetting your carbon footprint by walking or taking public transportation, and so on. But sustainable travel is equal parts environment and community, Blotter says, and when you don’t know the community well, finding the right ways to support it can be difficult.

This is the gap Blotter aimed to bridge with Kind Traveler, which she describes as “a socially conscious, give-and-get hotel booking platform that empowers travelers to positively impact the communities they visit.” Blotter and Krejci launched the platform — now a T+L Global Vision Award winner — in 2016 with about 20 hotels (today it has 170 property partners). When booking through the site, travelers unlock exclusive nightly rates by donating $10 or more to a local nonprofit that’s been vetted by the hotel and other members of the community.

For some travelers, just knowing their monetary support is going to a reputable organization is prize enough. But those who would like to forge a deeper connection with the destination have that opportunity, too, as Kind Traveler recommends “Travel Kindly Experiences” in partnering communities. To better understand the system, I took my two daughters to Monterey County, California, to try it out for ourselves.

Kind Traveler in Monterey

To reach the seaside towns of Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea, as well as the adjacent Carmel Valley and Big Sur regions, most routes cut through miles and miles of farmland. Strawberries, lettuces, spinach, celery, broccoli, and cauliflower spring from these fields, as does the mythical-looking artichoke — conical, edible treasures that rear up into the sky.

As my daughters and I headed to Bernardus Lodge and Spa and The Sanctuary Beach Resort, two of three Kind Traveler partner hotels in the area, we saw farmworkers hunched over in harvest, colorful specks in a sea of green. Living in this state for more than 40 years, I've learned enough about California farming to know the workers, though the backbone of the state’s agricultural economy, are historically underpaid for the labor they perform. I felt a tinge of what Blotter felt in Belize. If I had the privilege of visiting this region, was there also a way for me to give back to the community welcoming me?

Through the Kind Traveler portal, Monterey vacationers positively impact the destination via Rancho Cielo Youth Campus, an incredible nonprofit operation in Salinas (which is also where Cesar Chavez was jailed in 1970 for leading a lettuce boycott, fighting for field workers’ rights). Rancho Cielo supports struggling local youths through high school and teaches them valuable job skills — focusing on agriculture, auto repair, construction, and cooking — that will help them find employment in the community later. Whether a Kind Traveler user donates $10 or $1,000, every penny goes to Rancho Cielo.

I booked a fairly delicious Travel Kindly Experience: a pre-fixe dinner at the ranch. The dinners take place weekly on Fridays during the school year and are powered by the 40 or so students who’ve opted into Rancho Cielo’s Drummond Culinary Academy. We sat in the dining room while the culinary students worked in the kitchen, preparing and plating orders (pear and arugula salad, cioppino, and blood orange and olive oil cake were all on the menu). Other students worked the front of house, practicing valuable interpersonal skills as they took orders and handled customer inquiries.

<p>Courtesy of Kind Traveler </p>

Courtesy of Kind Traveler

“It’s so much more than how to be a server,” said Laura Nicola, an instructor and coordinator with Rancho Cielo. “We start from the ground up, teaching about making a good first impression, making eye contact, keeping your head up. A lot of these students come to us thinking they have no value, and no skills. They haven’t been told, ‘You can do this.’ We are instilling confidence in them, confidence they can take with them to any job.”

Most Rancho Cielo “graduates” look for employment right here in Monterey County – in fact, during my stay at Bernardus Lodge, director of sales and marketing Alissa O’Briant shared that the lodge has hired grads in the past. It’s a full-circle community effort, with the hotel supporting Rancho Cielo via Kind Traveler, Rancho Cielo guiding local youth, and community businesses like Bernardus Lodge employing them later on. It’s a synergy to applaud — and to replicate.

My kids and I loved our time in Monterey County. We reveled in the misty skies and rolling vineyards of Carmel Valley, and the stunning grounds of Bernardus Lodge; we gasped at the cuteness of sea otters at the world-class Monterey Bay Aquarium and hiked coastal trails at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve; and we devoured s’mores and chocolate fondue at The Sanctuary Beach Resort, set right on sand dunes facing Monterey Bay. But seeing Rancho Cielo in action, and knowing my donation would support its students, is something I won’t forget.

Traveling Kindly Beyond Monterey

Kind Traveler has partner hotels across the U.S., and in 24 other countries, including the Maldives and Switzerland. The give-get model is in place at all of them, and recommended Travel Kindly Experiences await.

In Sonoma, for example, 12 partner hotels support local organizations like Farm to Pantry and Charlie’s Acres Farm Animal Sanctuary. Should visitors want to connect with Farm to Pantry in person, Blotter says they can volunteer their time and participate in a three-hour excursion as their Travel Kindly Experience, during which they will gather fruits and vegetables in the community that would otherwise turn into food waste; the goods are donated to local food banks. At Charlie’s Acres, travelers might take a guided tour of the rescue, learn about plant-based eating, enjoy animal meet-and-greets, or participate in a goat yoga or sheep meditation session on-site.

And the inspiration continues abroad. In Switzerland, donations go to Arosa Bear Sanctuary, which travelers can visit. In the Maldives, traveler donations fund the Olive Ridley Project, and guests of partner hotel Coco Palm Dhuni Kolhu are invited to Olive Ridley Project's Marine Turtle Rescue Center for turtle feedings. There are human rights groups to support, arts and music organizations to back, community health causes to champion. If the original question was, “How can I help?,” Kind Traveler has delivered the answer, many times over.

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