Today, we meet Dominique Callimanopulos, founder and president of Elevate Destinations. Dominique is a lifetime world traveller committed to combining singular journeys with social good. She grew up witnessing the disparity between tourists and the local conditions they visit. From those experiences, she created Elevate Destinations to provide unique and enchanted travel for her clients while caring for local people, wildlife, and natural resources. We had the pleasure of meeting Dominique to talk about voyages for the awakened traveller.
Read our conversation below, or listen to the podcast.
Steep Magazine: Tell us a little bit about your beginnings. What compelled you to start Elevate Destinations?
DOMINIQUE: It was always clear to me when we were travelling to less materially-advantaged places that I was just mesmerized by the differences. It wasn’t really a question of inequality on both sides. It was more just differences and being fascinated by what each side had to offer. So we would, for instance, go into local communities, and I would be so aware of the warmth and the welcoming spirit and the systems that were operating very differently from what I saw at home growing up in New York City. And I think that that was really sort of the beginning of this interest in cultural difference, economic inequalities that translated into strong interest when I was in college and an anthropology major at Wesleyan University.
My anthropology department gave out tiny grants for field work, and I went off to the Seychelles islands to look at the impact of tourism on the local population at a time when they had just opened the airport, they were just inviting a lot of corporate hospitality interests into the islands. And I wanted to see how that affected the performance and authenticity of the local population that was not used to performing in hospitality roles dictated by a corporate, Western economy.
I went on to do various other things. Worked in human rights, worked in psychology. And then I finally found myself doing quite a lot of international consulting with non-profit organizations and realized that they really didn’t have an effective mechanism for showing their donors and their board members the work that was being done all over the world on the ground. And so Elevate Destinations was really founded with the idea of putting together donor travel to begin with, group travel that allowed donors and board members to see the fruits of their investment all over the world, whether they were investing in poverty alleviation, women’s rights, youth education, water issues, a host of things.
And so one side of our business, about half of our business, is a very healthy pioneered business around donor travel and organizing trips for non-profits and taking these VIP travellers everywhere to make a difference on the ground through non-profit investment. And the other side of our business is working with private clients, families, couples, individuals who want to travel but travel more sustainably and want to get under the skin of the culture when they visit, visit community and conservation initiatives, and really just have a more substantive experience. Everyone’s done the beach vacation, so we’re really engaging our travellers a little bit more, I think.
Steep Magazine: That’s very interesting. Now, do you find that this sort of sensibility comes from your youth when, like you say, you noticed this disparity?
DOMINIQUE: Well, I think those are the roots. And then, of course, my interest just sort of evolved and grew. I sort of continued to travel a lot as an adult. So I think those were the roots. I think one of the things I’ve noticed is that when I first started Elevate Destinations back in 2005, I would go to industry trade shows and try to explain what I was doing, and people would look at me with this blank stare and like, “What are you trying to do? What do you mean ‘engage communities?'” And now, really, every good travel company has to have some proper CSR and really has to walk their talk a little bit about how they engage the community, jobs they provide, the education they provide for the community, and how they take care of conservation. I think that in the years that I’ve been in business, we’ve all realized that tourism’s assets are natural resources and communities, and those have to be protected. So I think that’s a big shift I’ve seen in the industry.
Steep Magazine: That’s interesting. Tell us about your values because clearly, those values were on stage when you were at these shows back in the day. How do they connect with the way you run your company now?
DOMINIQUE: Well, everyone on our team has a background in sustainability, international development, or some related field. So I’m not drawing a staff from a typical kind of tourism, hospitality résumé. So everyone brings those strong interests around social impact and environmental impact to the table, so I think that that’s one thing that sets my company apart, is just exactly who’s working here and the work culture that we have.
There’s nothing more inspiring to the team than hearing about donors who donated millions of more dollars because they had been on one of our trips and seen the impact of the organization they’re investing in on the ground. We’ve also begun a sort of singular philanthropic corporate giving platform, which is called Buy A Trip, Give A Trip. So for every trip that’s booked through us, we sponsor an excursion for local youth to get to see the sites usually reserved for tourists. So we’ve done this all over the world for the last … since 2013 we really started this. So we’ve gotten youth out of townships in Cape Town to get to see Table Mountain and Robben Island, orphans in Cambodia going to see Angkor Wat, kids in Belize getting to see underwater and go snorkelling for the first time. So I think that kind of inspirational giving back is a big part of our work culture and just feeds our values as well.
Steep Magazine: What a wonderful way to really give back to the places from which we typically take a lot.
DOMINIQUE: Because there’s been so much interest from other companies in the industry following suit, we’ve actually started something called the One For One Travel Alliance and are now working to onboard other companies who want to do the same kind of programs for youth, which is just great.
Steep Magazine: So in what ways will a traveller using your services or travelling with you, how will they share their values when they’re on their voyage? And in what ways do you connect on that level?
DOMINIQUE: Well, I think that travellers are attracted to our brand because they resonate with our values. Those are right on our website, so everyone who comes in the door practically says, “I just love what you’re doing. I love your sensibility. I love the fact that you give back.” So they’re coming in the door wanting to bring their altruism on their trip. Where they need our help is in translating exactly the best way to do that. So to do that, we learn more about their interests. All of our travel is bespoke, custom designed, so we put them together with a kind of perfect project on the ground or a perfect community or a population where they can engage.
And we very much don’t have a kind of saviour complex. This is not about people coming in to save somebody. It’s really about a pretty equal exchange. One example of that is we have a tremendous demand from families that want to expose their kids to other cultures, want to get their kids outside their very micromanaged schedules and bubble. And one of the things I really observe and rejoice in is getting a family with several teenagers and maybe young ones over into an African community and having them learn just as much from African youth on the ground as the youth on the ground are learning from them. I think that American kids can bring a lot of confidence and knowledge to their African counterparts, and African kids bring a lot of resourcefulness, joy, and spirit to their learning.
So it really is just kind of, while people may come in the door feeling they’re going to volunteer and help a community that’s in trouble, yes, they do bring material resources in because we always make a material, financial donation wherever they go, but the human experience is equal and much more one of an exchange than one party helping the other.
Steep Magazine: That’s really interesting because one of the things I wanted to ask you was that mixing luxury and adventure travel can be a challenge. On one hand you want the comfort of the guests and their expectations of lifestyle, but then you’ve got the perception of the locals.
DOMINIQUE: Yes, I don’t think it’s a challenge at all really. Material inequality exists. I mean, we would be hypocritical and silly to deny that it exists anyway. A lot of the properties that are more high end, in Africa certainly and in many other places, tend to be the properties that are most concerned with conservation and community. They tend to have the best sustainability and ethical practices in place. So actually, the two go very nicely hand in hand.
And I want a family or a group to be taken care of when they travel. When they’re comfortable, they can be more open to sometimes the difficult experience that they’re witnessing in groups, for our donor travel groups, for instance. They’re sometimes seeing some very hard situations. Whether they’re traveling in India, Africa, South America, or wherever we go, at the end of the day, I want them to be back in their comfort zone to some extent and be taken care of sort of personally, so they can continue to learn and don’t feel compromised in terms of comfort. So they’re all busy with that and not open to the experience they’re having. So I actually don’t see a contradiction there. Maybe a bit of a paradox, but not a real conflict.
Steep Magazine: The beauty, though, could be to experience that paradox and perhaps walk away from that experience as a traveller with a whole new perspective, right?
DOMINIQUE: And one of the things we’re really working on is sort of working on those long-term linkages. Many of our travellers stay in touch with the groups, continue to give to the groups for many years afterwards, even on the sort of FIT, private travel side of our business. And many of them report changes they make at home after they return home, whether it’s conserving certain resources, sharing what they’ve learned with their community. So I like to feel that there’s a nice ripple effect even after the trip is over, and certainly in terms of the personal transformation of the individual family members or individuals on our group trips. That can be pretty profound.
Steep Magazine: That’s fascinating. Can you give us an anonymous example of one of those transformations that really stick out to you?
DOMINIQUE: It’s hard to think of a particular example because I feel like we get that feedback from just about everyone that goes on our trips. I mean, I can think of for a time we were running these volunteer trips to Haiti, and we had … This is kind of an extreme example, but we were running these trips on an island called Île-à-Vache, which had been pretty hard hit by the earthquake and still has a lot of troubles. They’d been hit by more recent natural disasters.
And we had a very well-to-do son of a well-to-do, name-recognition operative person from the States. The parents were real hoverers. They were really eager for their son to have this experience. The son was a little so-so about it. He went on the trip. They got him to go, and for the first three or four days, I was getting emails from the parents about their son feeling this or this or that discomfort or this or that and the other.
And finally, when he returned, his life was changed. He went back to Haiti with taking friends and relatives the next time. So he really went from being someone who was not well-versed in those kinds of conditions and really uncomfortable in the beginning to someone who became a real advocate for community work. And that doesn’t happen in one trip, but people do change, and where they take it, they take it far afield.
Steep Magazine: Tell us about your idea and your ethos behind proactive conservation. Can you tell us how it works and in what ways your clients support your mission?
DOMINIQUE: We are always selecting for lodges and camps on the ground that are supportive of conservation activities. Just to give you an example, in Laikipia, which is in northern Kenya, much of the conservation work was begun by private ranch owners converting their ranches to private conservancies that are now open to the public, have brought back various species such as black rhino, Grévy’s zebra, species that were endangered prior to these conservancies existing.
It’s part of our job to have conservation intel, so travelers going with us know that if they’re traveling with us, we’re going to choose lodges and camps that are supportive of regional conservation efforts throughout Africa, is what comes to mind most prominently, that’s the area I work in personally these days most of the time, but also throughout the rest of the world.
So we’re very aware of what’s happening in each region on a conservation level. And in that way, we’re very different from a typical, perhaps a travel agency that might just be more focused on booking you in hotels and getting the best price and that sort of thing. We really bring kind of the triple bottom line value to what we design.
Steep Magazine: I love it. And I suppose part of this is mixing in with the local people. It’s something you talk about on your website. Can you unpack that a little bit for us? What form does it take and how do locals come to appreciate your clients and vice versa?
DOMINIQUE: Usually families want to engage. I mean, I’m talking about the sort of FIT, private side of our business, not the group travel side. The group travel side, obviously they are going to visit many grantees while they’re on a trip. They may do a week in India and visit perhaps 13 different grantees, so they are constantly engaging with different community groups who have already received the benefit of their donations. On the private travel, FIT side of the business, we have folks asking for anything from a couple of days up to a week of community engagement. Sometimes they’ll be living in the community in a very simple guesthouse.
One of our most popular products is our Service & Safari itinerary, so people will go and volunteer for a number of days. Just to give you an example, in Tanzania, we partner with a wonderful organization called Make A Difference Now, and they sponsor education for orphaned youth. So when our clients go and live in the Make A Difference Now guesthouse for a week, which is very modest, they’re providing mentorship, special skills, and just working alongside youth to bolster their lives. And then after that, they’ll go on a great safari for a few days.
So we’re finding that people really like that balance. And we’ve sent so many travellers, for instance, to Make A Difference, just to choose one of our partners, we have many others around the world, that this really becomes a pipeline for them of support and a resource. As a result, they have donors from all over the world who are supporting their mission. So it works very well on a number of levels.
So in addition, there are systemic supports that we foster, and there are also personal relationships, of course, that are formed from one individual to another. Someone might choose to sponsor someone to go to art school locally, or there are all kinds of special, synchronistic, sort of individual connections that people make as well in addition to the more institutional ones.
Steep Magazine: I would imagine that there are friendships and individual bonds that are created between people.
DOMINIQUE: Very much so. I still see clients kind of sending packed backpacks over to some of the Make A Difference kids, for instance, as they start a new school year even though they may not have been there for several years. So it’s really touching.
Steep Magazine: So there’s so much potential and hope for our planet and environment right now, and we’re really at a turning point. Tell us about how you see bespoke, custom travel such as yours going into the next few decades and what sort of change for the better it can make.
DOMINIQUE: Well, I think that it’s a double-edged sword. Obviously, we’re all very concerned about the changes that climate change is bringing about, and we watch and experience the natural catastrophes that are taking place everywhere, whether from drought to tsunamis to cyclones and everything else that are affecting natural resources and affecting destinations. So that’s a great concern.
On the other hand, the population that does travel has become much more conscious of the urgency of needs on the ground and are very interested in helping. One of our most popular destinations is, as we get summoned to serve, is anywhere. We get so many people just submitting a contact form to us saying they want to help anywhere where it’s needed, so there’s a huge consciousness out there right now for the need and the urgency and the state of our planet, both its populations and its people and its natural assets. And so we’re kind of sitting in that space of wanting to try to do what we can working with a sort of awakened population of travellers and hoping that whatever we do in tourism can help make a difference and not make things worse.
There’s a discussion these days about many places being overtouristed, having too many visitors, and I know that’s a big issue in the field right now. But what I hope is that we will see, and certainly, in my business where we sit, we are seeing more and more interest in not just travelling but in people trying to make a difference and trying to help when they travel and getting excited about that and sharing it with their friends and families. So to me, that feels very hopeful for the travel industry.
Steep Magazine: Well, it just sounds so encouraging and hopeful, and I hope that you’re absolutely right, and it’s great to hear this term “awakened travellers” you’ve introduced me to. It’s a wonderful one.
Steep Magazine: I want to thank you so much for joining us today, Dominique, and we really look forward to connecting with you again down the road.
DOMINIQUE: Thanks so much, Greg. It’s a pleasure to speak about our work.
Learn more at Elevate Destinations.
Image: Adam Skalecki