Travel: Why hit the beach when you can help strug­gling busi­ness own­ers in Detroit?

“So­cial-im­pact” va­ca­tions take off By Sheila Marikar

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - Contents -

When you think about a sum­mer get­away, Detroit might not be the first place on your list. But on June 10, that’s where Nathalie Molina Niño, 40, an ad­viser to fe­male en­trepreneur­s, will fly to from her home in New York. She took the same trip last year, pay­ing $1,500 along with 125 other bright, young, civic-minded in­di­vid­u­als to tour the city and talk to the busi­ness com­mu­nity. The high­light: a brain­storm­ing ses­sion with Amy Peter­son, co-founder of Rebel Nell, a com­pany that hires dis­ad­van­taged women to turn chunks of graf­fiti into jew­elry. “We spent close to three hours with her,” Molina Niño says. “We cre­ated a Face­book group so af­ter we left she could stay in touch.” At­ten­dees were booked at the Greek­town Casino-ho­tel and did a night­time bik­ing tour, Molina Niño says, but mostly they were there for one rea­son—to of­fer their opin­ions to strug­gling busi­ness own­ers.

It’s not a week­end on the beach, but ex­cur­sions like these are more and more pop­u­lar among a new gen­er­a­tion of mostly mil­len­nial trav­el­ers. Molina Niño’s trips to Detroit were or­ga­nized by Break­out, a lead­ing com­pany in what’s known as the so­cial-im­pact travel in­dus­try. Un­like “vol­un­tourism” pro­grams such as Habi­tat for Hu­man­ity, which ap­peal mainly to stu­dents, Break­out tar­gets pro­fes­sion­als age 29 to 36. A third of its 1,500 core mem­bers work in tech, a quar­ter in me­dia and cre­ative fields; 98 per­cent went to a four-year col­lege. Be­com­ing a mem­ber re­quires an in­ter­view. “We or one of our am­bas­sadors will have a sit­down to en­sure we’re get­ting a good fit,” says Michael Far­ber, 32, who founded Break­out with Gra­ham Co­hen, 31, in 2014.

The two met in New York in 2009 while work­ing for a com­mer­cial real es­tate com­pany. Break­out evolved out of their shared de­sire to “cre­ate a busi­nessbu where we spent all day meet­ing newn and in­ter­est­ing peo­ple,” Co­hen They started by comb­ing through “40“4 Un­der 40” lists for 100 scen­esters in dif­fer­entdi fields who might ben­e­fit from know­ingkn one an­other and in­vited them to net­workne in Mi­ami. Two Detroit res­i­dents who went on the Mi­ami trip per­suaded th the founders to host a re­treat in their city, an and since last June, Break­out has also de de­scended on Bal­ti­more, Nashville, and M Mi­ami again with dozens of do-good­ers.

Al­though it’s tiny, the so­cial-im­pact tr travel mar­ket is grow­ing. Last June, C Car­ni­val Cruise Line started Fathom, which lets pas­sen­gers at­tend on­board self-im­prove­mente sem­i­nars and par­take in on- the- ground “im­pact” ac­tiv­i­ties su such as mak­ing ce­ramic wa­ter fil­ters in th the Do­mini­can Re­pub­lic. “We spent an en enor­mous amount of time on qual­i­ta­tive, et ethno­graphic re­search, re­ally study­ing co con­sumers’ hunger for pur­pose,” says Tara Rus­sell, Fathom’s pres­i­dent. “We found this hunger. We quan­ti­fied it. We built the busi­ness model.”

What’s harder to quan­tify: Do these trips do any­thing more than make the peo­ple on them feel good about them­selves? There are no “next steps” af­ter a Break­out week­end ends; the onus is on each at­tendee to fol­low up with lo­cals. (Molina Niño says ac­tiv­ity in the Face­book group she set up with Peter­son is oc­ca­sional at best.) Some bri­dle at the pre­ten­sion in­her­ent in the mis­sion. Par­tic­i­pants para­chute in, like a oneper­son Mckin­sey MASH unit, and ask how they might share their vast in­tel­li­gence. “It’s pa­tron­iz­ing,” says a for­mer “Breaker,” who asked to speak anony­mously be­cause the founders are friends. Far­ber and Co­hen counter that they urge Break­ers to en­gage with un­der­priv­i­leged neigh­bor­hoods closer to home, too, in lo­cal chap­ters. “We have peo­ple in the net­work in Bal­ti­more, in New Or­leans, in Mi­ami, in Detroit, and even though we might not do as much pro­gram­ming as we like, they’re still mas­ter­mind­ing with us,” Far­ber says. Case in point: Ash­ley Sum­ner, 27, who lives in Los An­ge­les and heads Break­out’s chap­ter there. “I got to Detroit and was like, ‘What else do I need to see?’ ” she says. “I think I’m strug­gling be­cause I didn’t sleep last night. These peo­ple have been strug­gling all their lives.” <BW>


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