The RISE Traveler: Unpacking Conversations of Sustainable Travel

Emerald Isles, Mindful Travels: Laura Kelly's Insights

December 18, 2023 The RISE Travel Institute Season 3 Episode 9
Emerald Isles, Mindful Travels: Laura Kelly's Insights
The RISE Traveler: Unpacking Conversations of Sustainable Travel
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The RISE Traveler: Unpacking Conversations of Sustainable Travel
Emerald Isles, Mindful Travels: Laura Kelly's Insights
Dec 18, 2023 Season 3 Episode 9
The RISE Travel Institute

Laura Kelly is a sustainability advocate with Brendan Vacations, a tour operator focused on Ireland and Scotland. In this interview with host Amy Hager, Laura shares her journey from growing up in an eco-minded household to her current role evaluating and crafting sustainable travel experiences.

Laura's background in European Languages and Medieval History, coupled with her experience guiding tours in Ireland, prompted her realization of the necessity for a shift in travel practices. This realization ignited her interest in reforming unsustainable tourism habits prevalent in the industry. Discussing her participation in the RISE Flagship Program, Laura sheds light on voluntourism and on the challenges of fostering more meaningful and slower-paced travel experiences.

In particular Laura shares the importance of responsible tourism in Ireland, and advocates for smaller, more authentic experiences that benefit local communities. She highlights the role of tour operators in steering towards a more sustainable future, and encourages a collective shift in mindset toward sustainability in various professional domains. Laura's insights offer a pragmatic approach to redefining travel practices, focusing on tangible changes that can positively impact the industry and the communities it touches.

Host: Amy Hager - Social Media Manager at The RISE Travel Institute
Video and Audio Editing: Kate Mulvihill - Video and Podcast Producer at The RISE Travel Institute
Graphic Design: Shirley Wong - Freelance Art Director
Music: "On My Way" Kevin MacLeod (License

Show Notes Transcript

Laura Kelly is a sustainability advocate with Brendan Vacations, a tour operator focused on Ireland and Scotland. In this interview with host Amy Hager, Laura shares her journey from growing up in an eco-minded household to her current role evaluating and crafting sustainable travel experiences.

Laura's background in European Languages and Medieval History, coupled with her experience guiding tours in Ireland, prompted her realization of the necessity for a shift in travel practices. This realization ignited her interest in reforming unsustainable tourism habits prevalent in the industry. Discussing her participation in the RISE Flagship Program, Laura sheds light on voluntourism and on the challenges of fostering more meaningful and slower-paced travel experiences.

In particular Laura shares the importance of responsible tourism in Ireland, and advocates for smaller, more authentic experiences that benefit local communities. She highlights the role of tour operators in steering towards a more sustainable future, and encourages a collective shift in mindset toward sustainability in various professional domains. Laura's insights offer a pragmatic approach to redefining travel practices, focusing on tangible changes that can positively impact the industry and the communities it touches.

Host: Amy Hager - Social Media Manager at The RISE Travel Institute
Video and Audio Editing: Kate Mulvihill - Video and Podcast Producer at The RISE Travel Institute
Graphic Design: Shirley Wong - Freelance Art Director
Music: "On My Way" Kevin MacLeod (License

Intro 
Hello and welcome. Wherever you are in the world today, thank you for joining us for The RISE Traveler, unpacking conversations of sustainable travel. We are here to talk to eco minded and socially conscious travelers, diversity and inclusion specialists, wildlife conservationists, environmental activists, and anyone using travel as a way to uplift and inspire. Together, we will go a step beyond the Instagram-ready world of travel, and take a look at how travel can be a source of growth and development for all people in all communities.
This podcast is an extension of the RISE Travel Institute, a 501c3 nonprofit committed to empowering young travelers through educational programs, research, study tours and scholarships. Visit risetravelinstitute.org to learn more. And now, here's your host, Amy Hager.

Amy Hager     
And today, I am super excited to have Laura Kelly, who is joining me from Dublin. So Laura, welcome.

Laura Kelly     
Thank you. Thank you for having me. And greetings from Dublin.

Amy Hager     
So I think we should start our conversation today. Tell me a little bit, well tell us a little bit more about what you do at Brendan Vacations and what you all are all about. Because I think that's really, really a great place to start.

Laura Kelly     
So I have been working for Brendan Vacations for about five just over five years now. And I've grown through a few different roles. But right now I am working with our contracting team. And I work with all of our suppliers to contract our experiences into the system. And then I also load everything into our booking system as well. So it's, it's, it's usually quite busy. And aside from that, I also am part of our sustainability team, where we work to evaluate experiences using the Sustainable Development Goals. In order to evaluate, I suppose, if they're sustainable, so we call them “Make Travel Matter Experiences.” And that's to do with as well, our foundation that is related to our parent company or as such, we are part of a family of brands called the Travel Corporation. And we have a nonprofit foundation called Treadright, which helped us with all our sustainability efforts as well.

Amy Hager     
Okay, and so then talk through a little bit more about well, so that's what you do now. But I think what is also interesting is some of your past life, so how did you get into the whole tour operator, tour guide industry and, and what really got you started down this career path?

Laura Kelly     
Well, from an environmental point of view, I started as a child, I have always grown up in a sustainable household, as we like to say, and my father, he's retired now, but he was a geography teacher. And he was always involved from the very first year that it began in Caretakers of the Environment International. It's an organization which is all about environmental education, where we host a conference on your leave for high school students and for teachers as well. And the students will come and they present projects on activities they've undertaken in their hometowns. And they will listen to each other. They have workshops, talking about sustainability, and the future of sustainability. And also, they share their culture with each other in a cultural month, and things like that, as well. But I would have been, my first conference was when I was only six years old, because my dad hosted the conference in Ireland in 1998. At the time, it was actually a cross border conference between the north and the south of Ireland. And it's nice because it's come full circle now. Because in 2021, my father and I both co hosted the conference online. The online conference was for something like 500 people. So it was a big undertaking. But that's all aside from my work that's in my spare time to say or not so spare time.

Amy Hager     
Well, so you grew up traveling and in the environment and being I guess, environmental focused, but had you gone down that path? I mean, obviously, with the work you're doing, you're focused on the environment. But have you done other tour operating gigs or anything that led you to where you are now? Or did you go straight from college into where you are now?

Laura Kelly     
No. So interestingly, I didn't study anything environmental related to college, I actually studied languages and history followed by tourism. Okay. Yeah, fun fact, I have a master's in Medieval History as well as one in Tourism Management. So my interests are quite broad. And but what I used to do is when I was studying, I worked as a tour guide in the summer, where I bring two or three just around Ireland, German tour groups because I spoke, I speak German. And I suppose through that, I realized that tourism was really something I wanted. I was always interested in travel, but I hadn't ever really thought of tourism as a career path. But what I did notice when I was on these tours, I noticed a lot of problems as well as obviously a lot of benefits as well. And there were definitely some problematic experiences in terms of animal welfare. There was also just the idea of obviously, you know, you stop at a site for half an hour. And what you bring to the community in half an hour with a busload of German tourists, not very much is usually the answer, are usually outtake photos back in the bus. So there were definitely, I was definitely keen to get into the other side of the business, to be operator-sided, in order to, I suppose try and change some of those things. So I'm quite glad that these days I don't work with tour groups as such, I work with smaller groups. So that's under nine guests.

Amy Hager    
And so then you went through the RISE Flagship Program and talk me through a little bit because knowing that you grew up in environmental education, but even though you didn't really study that in school, and you do have, you know, you have a wide variety of influences what I absolutely love. But when you were reflecting a little bit when you took the Flagship Program, what came up for you, and what, what has really impacted or influenced your life as you're continuing to go forward with the work that you do?

Laura Kelly    
Yeah, so I decided to take this program, because I heard about it from someone else who was in Travel Corporation who had done the program and loved it. And I thought, what a better way to combine, combining suppose the two things I love the environment and tourism. But then what I liked as well was, obviously, there's the aspects that are something like that I would have never covered before, all of the things but ethical tourism, voluntourism, all of these things. They were very different for me, which was good. And they weren't topics I had ever thought I suppose to look up before. And one of the things actually with that was the voluntourism part, because I used to travel as well, because I was doing languages I would use to try and find something that I could do with languages, but that also linked to for example, history. So I worked a couple of summers with the German War Graves Commission to restore war graves. And but when we study voluntourism, I'd always tell it Oh, that was you know, that was a great thing to do. It's really brought benefit. But then voluntourism, that module made me think. But why did we have to travel from, you know, the different parts of Europe? We were and why did we have to travel there to do that? Why couldn't it be local people? Is there not a better way to do this. But it's always been a bit of a strange one because on the other hand, I could see the benefit from an educational point of view, because we didn't have things like workshops on war and conflict and different things as well. So it was always hard to see those now as fully positive things, but it's good to like look back and evaluate. I suppose the other thing then would be I thought, particularly I suppose the introduction module on sustainability, I thought, Oh, this will be stuff I've heard before. Like this is not going to be anything new. It'll be the three pillars of sustainability etc. But then we looked into things like the five domains of sustainability and that was something that was just totally new. It made me realize that maybe I suppose the way that we evaluate our Make Travel Matter experiences with the Sustainable Development Goals, maybe that's not enough. Maybe it's too narrow maybe we need to look at first I suppose things like the collective mindset when sustainability of our guests something that maybe we don't, we don't look at enough.

Amy Hager     
So then when you think about the work that you're doing right now, what are you doing that's really exciting, that may even relate to some of what you studied in the Flagship Program?

Laura Kelly     
Yeah, so, right now my, I suppose the thing I'm most proud of from the last year is I've been working a lot closer with suppliers. And, and one of those things has been, I suppose I can think of one supplier in particular, they're called Celtic Ways Ireland. And basically I worked with them to try and develop an experience, a sustainable experience because I knew that that is what they're all about, but they just needed some help with I suppose crafting something that that's going to work for our guests. And but the interesting part is how did I meet these people? I met these people because the main the main guy, Phil, he actually used to teach with my mother. And he went off and he did a master's in Spirituality. So something totally different again. So and then he decided because he, his partner used to work in hospitality, they went, maybe let's set something up where we can do things like walk the water for Camino Way. And we can encourage people to slow down when they come on holidays. To slow down to look at nature to really appreciate nature. So we work together to create three different experiences for our guests. But while they do work, because our guests tend to like half-day experiences, things like that, it'll encourage them to slow down and to just take, take a breath in. They're very, used to a very busy schedule, and just take the time out to be mindful of their surroundings. And also to just appreciate the stunning nature, obviously, that Ireland is so famous for.

Amy Hager
   
And so then you had mentioned that usually the groups that you're taking on tours are smaller sized groups and being able to get them to slow down, be more mindful, enjoy the walks and really getting them to appreciate the nature. Do you see this model working well with other tours that you that maybe you have now? That you can tweak or adjust and make more, I guess, sustainable and slow for the future? Is that kind of where you're going with us?

Laura Kelly    
Yes, that's what we're trying to develop. I suppose in Ireland, it's a little bit easier. We do have some other suppliers who I suppose particularly we have one in Northern Ireland, I can think of that we would do similar similar idea, he brings them to the Giants Causeway, and he tells them all about the communities that live there. And you know, again, people are slowing down, they're taking the time to really look. Not just hopping off a bus, taking a picture and leaving again. So in Ireland, that is a little bit easier. What we're really trying to develop, I suppose in the next few few years is to try and do the same in Scotland, because we work in Ireland and Scotland. And Scotland is just in general, I suppose a little bit behind when it comes to sustainability in comparison to Ireland, Ireland, I have to say they're pretty organized, I think has definitely been a topic of conversation with tour operators with the tourism ministry for many years now. Whereas Scotland more so kicking off that in the last year or so. So we're trying to also work with our Scotland suppliers to try and develop those sort of experiences. So that hopefully, people can also slow down and Scotland as well. And again, Scotland is known for its beautiful, beautiful scenery. So why not take the time to really appreciate it, not just, you know, drive through it and see it as the car window.,

Amy Hager     
Yeah, no, slow down and really, really enjoy it. And so then when you look at the, let's say, look at your crystal ball in the future of travel and tourism, he was specifically there in Ireland, you're talking about some of the changes and impacts that you've made? I mean, what do you see for the future, specifically there in Ireland?

Laura Kelly     
So, interestingly, if I think back to the paper that I actually wrote for the RISE program. Yeah, exactly my Capstone Project I wrote about can we, or should we, get rid of sort of that bucket list mentality? Should we try or should we try and adapt it, to try and see if that would help things in tourism to make, you know, so that we don't have these honey pots where all of the tourists go, and, you know, don't really bring benefits to the community. And so I suppose what I would hope for and what I think is starting to happen, and hopefully will start to happen more, in Ireland, at least, is that we look towards I suppose regenerative tourism, not just not just sustainable tourism, and that especially, we move towards those authentic smaller experiences that really benefit the local community. And like what, why just go to the Cliffs of Moher, pop in and take a picture when you could go to, to hike along the, alongside the cliffs and with a local expert who can tell you all about the cliffs, their heritage, you can learn about the myths and the stories from the people who live and work there as well. So that's what we're hoping that we move away from I suppose this mass tourism. And I suppose the other thing with that is that I hope that tour operators will take responsibility in trying to help make that happen as well, because they definitely have the power. That's what I discovered through my project that that is definitely something that they have a lot of power to do. Yeah.

Amy Hager     
And so then if the tour operator operators are willing to change their mindset, and again, going back to this slow tourism concept of instead of just doing drive bys and taking photos and going into the the major, you know, sightseeing or overlooks or whatever it may be labeled. And pausing and  really spending quality time in there. That's really where that shift is going to be coming from, it seems like.

Laura Kelly     
Yes, exactly. And I think one of the things that tour operators can definitely do, and it's something that we're starting to do as well, is definitely look towards changing itinerary so that, you know, if you have an itinerary that you feature on your website that you book for most of your guests, try and put a couple of those experience on there, test the waters, most of the time, you'll find that they come back, and they've enjoyed it more that they remember it more, that they appreciated it more. So that's what we're trying to do at the moment, but it's just a matter of hoping that other tour operators, I guess, follow, follow our lead and do the same as well. There are so many now in Ireland, but hopefully more and more will do that.

Amy Hager    
And so then when you think about the legacy you want to leave behind this world, what does that look like for you?

Laura Kelly     
Yeah, so I think it's, the whole thing is right sustainability in the environment. That doesn't have to be science, that doesn't have to be you go into a scientific career, that was always something that I suppose worried about when I was, you know, at these conferences, as a student, I was going, Oh, this is great. But everyone's going into science, my sister included, went into science. But I think it's about knowing that, and I suppose teaching the other young people around the world, which is what I've been attempting to do, I suppose since I've come back as an alumni to caretakers of the environment. I've been trying to get them to see that sustainability is more than science, it's the environment is more than science, you can bring your sustainability into whatever role you choose to go, whatever path life takes you down, you can just bring that into your role.

Amy Hager     
I like that. So sustainability isn't always science, and you don't have to have a science education to make sustainable change. And Laura, you are like proof proof in the pudding right there. Well, thank you for joining me and talking about your experience with the RISE Flagship Program, and talking about your experience in the industry. Because I really do I think the point that you're bringing up about slow tourism, being able to enjoy and really be in a space more and not just going and checking off that bucket list and getting the photo. I think I see it too. I think that's the shift that's really coming down. And I love that you're helping leading that charge. Thank you.

Laura Kelly     
Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Amy Hager     
And that brings us to the end of our journey today. And if you've liked what you heard, and you want to hear more, make sure that you subscribe, like or comment you can follow us at RISE Travel Institute on Facebook and Instagram, we are on all of your favorite podcast channels and even on YouTube. And here at the RISE Travel Institute, we do believe that travel is a powerful tool for positive transformative change. And if you are a maybe college student planning to study abroad or even a professional like Laura, who's looking to make a bigger impact in this world and to dive deeper into sustainability, or really anyone who is currently traveling and wants to understand how to travel in a more sustainable way, we do encourage you to head on over to risetravelinstitute.org for more information on our educational courses and our upcoming Flagship Program and we will be back soon with another episode. But until then, keep roaming, keep learning and continue to be a RISE Traveler. Bye!

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This podcast is an extension of The RISE Travel Institute, a 501c3 nonprofit committed to empowering young travelers through educational programs, research, study tours, and scholarships. Visit risetravelinstitute.org to learn more.