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The following is a conversation between Tara Russell, Founder and CEO of Fathom Travel, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: There has been a growing interest in “voluntourism” in recent years, whereby vacationers seek to have a social impact when they travel. And perhaps no one has done this any better than Fathom Travel, which is part of Carnival Corp. And here with us now to explain how it works and what the impact has been is their Founder and CEO, Tara Russell. Good evening, Tara, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Tara: Hi there, Denver! It’s good to be with you. Thanks so much for having me!
We’re a different kind of a travel company. We believe that travel is something that uniquely connects, unites, and inspires people already, and so we’ve essentially built robust programming and robust experiences that really heighten that and allow people to unleash their greatest potential.
Denver: Tell us a little bit about Fathom Travel and exactly what you do.
Tara: So Fathom Travel really got started on this journey with the idea of “How do we take people who love the idea of travel, but want to go a little bit deeper, want to potentially grow themselves, connect to a bigger story, and really make a meaningful difference in the world?” So, we’re a different kind of a travel company. We believe that travel is something that uniquely connects, unites, and inspires people already, and so we’ve essentially built robust programming and robust experiences that really heighten that and allow people to unleash their greatest potential.
And yet what travel does for any of us is: travel reminds us that as human beings, we essentially have this shared “ubuntu,” as Desmond Tutu would call it. But we have this humanity that’s intertwined with the lives of others.
Denver: Oh, that sounds wonderful. Well, I’m going to have you walk us through one of these experiences. And I know that you go to both the Dominican Republic and to Cuba, and you’re going to some other places. But let’s talk a little bit about this voyage. It’s about a week long, and it takes two days of travel each way to the Dominican Republic. What goes on during the time passengers are taking the trip down to the Dominican Republic?
Tara: So our Fathom Dominican Republic sailings are seven days in length. They spend about a day and a half between Miami and the Dominican Republic at sea, and then we have part of four days on the ground in the Dominican Republic, before sailing back another day and a half to return to Miami. So, the Fathom experience is built holistically. Our onboard experience is quite different than what people might imagine in a traditional cruise. Our onboard experience includes workshops like Ashoka’s “Unleashing the Changemaker Within You.” It includes things like Stanford’s “Storytelling Workshop.” It includes things like “Design Your Life” and Curiosity Atlas workshops. We have “Superpower Parties” and help people unleash their own personal gifts, passions, talents, abilities in fun and creative ways.
We have really impactful content and experiences that are really fun, but quite different than what someone might imagine. We don’t have a casino on our ships. We don’t have some of what traditional cruisers might be used to, but we do have a lot of the other benefits. You get to have this unique neighborhood within this village-feel on this small ship. We have a very small ship that we’ve repurposed. However, part of building this experience was essentially building “software experiences,” so to speak, that we could really take anywhere in the world.
So when you get to the Dominican Republic on that sailing, you can do anything you want. You can adventure and explore at a 27 Waterfall Adventure. Or you can go and learn more about making organic chocolate and come alongside a group of Dominican women in a cooperative that we’ve partnered with, and you can assist and support their chocolate cooperative. You can also learn to make recycled paper and how the Dominicans are repurposing waste and the ways that we’re serving and supporting that social enterprise. You can come alongside some of the environmental efforts and be part of the reforestation and planting efforts that we take part in. You can learn to make clay water filters and bring access to clean water to Dominican families, as there are about two million people on the island of only about 10 million to 11 million people total that still don’t have access to clean water.
So everything about the Fathom experience is what we call a “participatory experience.” We essentially invite our travelers to not just to be a spectator, but to get in the game. And so we believe there is this emerging trend and hunger for more than just seeing what’s happening in a place. Our travelers want a role on the team, and so we have made that really easy and convenient and safe and fun. A big part of it is education and exposure to different ways of thinking, different ways of living, and really to new friends and new partners all over the world.
So I think we’re living in a time, Denver, where the world seems to be quite heavily divided, even in our own country. And yet what travel does for any of us is: travel reminds us that as human beings, we essentially have this shared “ubuntu,” as Desmond Tutu would call it. But we have this humanity that’s intertwined with the lives of others. And I think what’s powerful about the Fathom experience is that people have a very visceral reaction, and that feeling is very, very strong when they have the Fathom experiences because we help really weave the stories of the lives of our travelers to… whether we’re in the Dominican Republic… we weave them to a Dominican. If we’re in Cuba, it’s weaving those traveler stories to the stories of the Cuban people.
Denver: And you eliminate so many obstacles for people. Because I know so many people who want to help, who want to have a volunteer experience overseas, but it is so hard to get started. They don’t know where to begin, and you pretty much just clear those things out of the way and allow people in a very hands-on and meaningful way to get involved in this fashion.
Tara: Absolutely! When we started on this journey, one, we believed there was a hunger for meaningful, purposeful travel that was unmet as well as we could see in the space that we’re in. So there is volunteerism; there is a bunch of fantastic, mission-trip travel. There are great things happening in the world. But for many people, those things are even too hard to access. For many people, they can’t spend $3,500 per week to do a service learning trip or a mission trip at their church. For many people, they need it to be so easy and thought through, and yet authentic, incredible, and trusted. And so we spent an enormous amount of time and really, I think, have built this very special, impactful intellectual property in the sense of how we enter a community and take travelers into the heart of a destination.
Now, people think of us as this service cruise and, unfortunately, that’s an inaccurate statement. What I would tell you, some people don’t at all get involved in service while they have a Fathom experience. And yet it’s a transformative, change-their-life experience. And so we’ve been a bit misunderstood. What we believe is this idea of “participation” means you connect; you can engage; you can learn; you can grow.
You might be a part of assisting with something or not. But at the end of the day, the reason we do this all is because we believe each traveler and each human has a unique potential. We also believe that sometimes life is so busy and fast and furious, that people don’t take the time to really think deeply and process: What is it that they are uniquely made to do? What do they care deeply about? And how do they really want to spend their time and days? Because, as you know, we’re all reminded too frequently “Life is just too short,” and my belief is that we deserve to live our best life lived.
And so we invite people into living their best stories, and we give them the tools, the resources, and really support them in that journey as we build this tribe around them, and as we try to carry the Fathom experience forward. So our experience lives on the ship. It also lives off the ship and after. We want to serve and support our travelers ongoing because we don’t think this impact journey we’re all on is a seven-day one. We think you can’t change the world in seven days, and you can’t change a traveler in seven days necessarily. But we have actually found now, we have people who come back seven times in seven months.
We have had people voice that they’ve had the most transformative week of their entire life. Now, I would tell you, it’s a catalytic week. It’s a week they become deeply connected, deeply empowered– which feels really good. But I also think the most important steps in anyone’s life will happen after the trip. And we’re there to be an experience that serves that journey, hopefully.
Denver: That’s impressive.
Tara: We have had people voice that they’ve had the most transformative week of their entire life. Now, I would tell you, it’s a catalytic week. It’s a week they become deeply connected, deeply empowered– which feels really good. But I also think the most important steps in anyone’s life will happen after the trip. And we’re there to be an experience that serves that journey, hopefully.
Denver: Let me ask you this, Tara. How have you gone about creating a high-impact program– which is just as fulfilling an experience for the travelers– but really has an enduring, positive impact for the community… which is sometimes missing in these ventures?
Tara: I think that there are so many worthwhile initiatives happening globally. We studied intimately this kind of purpose-travel, impact-travel, volunteerism-travel space, and we know it very well. What I would tell you is there are trips that cost $500 a week. There are others that cost $6,000 a week. And there are people that go for a week, and some that go for a month, right? And what we found is that people have different strategies and approaches. I personally had been building social enterprises around the world over the last 20 years and have been fortunate to bring travelers into some of that work– whether it was in Bangkok or in different parts of the world. But what I find is: it’s really difficult to bring somebody into an experience for seven days and then imagine it to be sincerely beneficial.
Now, having been on the other side and in Bangkok: How do you equip someone, educate them quickly, get them prepared– whether language-wise, body-wise– so that they can genuinely be positively supportive? Well, it’s difficult. And yet what I tell you is that’s part of the value of: one… doing it on a ship. On the way down we have a day and a half to prepare people for what experience they’re going to have on the ground in the Dominican Republic. And then the other benefit is: we are there 365 days a year, whether the ship is there or not. We have six brands within our corporate family who come in to the Dominican Republic. And so Amber Cove for us is one of many places that we serve and support travelers globally.
So, just to give you a sense, we have roughly half-a-million to a million travelers that will be coming in to the Dominican Republic over the course of 2017. So it isn’t about just Fathom travelers. To give you a sense:yesterday, we had a group of travelers from Holland America, one of our sister brands. We have six other brands right now who are coming alongside these activities and operations week after week. And we believe that that systematic, consistent, enduring kind of infrastructure, resources and support are a big part of genuinely sustaining the impact. So we have been extremely thoughtful about architecting what we haven’t seen done in many parts of the world, If at all. We try to build a cohesiveness that allows there to be ongoing, enduring positive impact, if that makes sense.
I believe that half the joy of work is who you work with, and all that you can learn from them.
We invest a lot in our people. We believe that they’re our greatest asset.
We believe a lot in gratitude. We think it’s a secret weapon.
Denver: That’s great. Not a hit-and-run operation but really continued support all the way around. Let me ask a question about the Fathom team. I know by all accounts, you have created an exceptional corporate culture at Fathom, built around authentic connection. Tell us about the work culture there and some of the things you’ve done to make it so.
Tara: Well, I think a lot about our team, our culture, and the work experience we all share day-to-day because I really believe life is too short to spend time and energy on things that don’t matter. Also, I believe that half the joy of work is who you work with, and all that you can learn from them.
So we do fun things, and we try to do work and life a little differently. We start our meetings with “wins of the week.” We share positive things we’re grateful for, or great things going on to kind of boost people’s morale and remind them of all the great stuff happening. We celebrate all kinds of moments in unique and creative ways. We encourage and invite our staff members to go and have their own Fathom experiences, as well as other impactful experiences, in their day-to-day and outside work lives, and we support that.
We invest a lot in our people. We believe that they’re our greatest assets. We do our best to serve and support people, whether they want to be here at Fathom, or whether it’s time for them to move into a new season. I think part of our nature is we try to make sure we really understand the unique gifts and talents of our team so that we can help them both grow themselves, obviously grow and support the Fathom objective, but also be in the right and the best place for them at that season in their lives.
So, we believe a lot in gratitude. We think it’s a secret weapon. We use it a lot. We like to surprise and delight both team members and our travelers in fun and surprising ways. We connect our team with a lot of unique social enterprise experiences, and through a surprise coffee or chocolate that just shows up.
A startup is never finished, and you’re never there… wherever “there” is. The goal in startup is to learn fast and to drive forward smarter.
…our hunger and ambition is really to take travelers into the heart of a place… It’s also to deeply unite and connect travelers to other travelers, as well as to our staff on board… as well as to the places they visit, and really to ensure that we equip and inspire them to live their best lives lived.
Denver: Those little things make a big difference. They really do.
Tara: My job is to serve and support my team, and it’s also to make sure they have the tools and resources to be successful, and part of that is that they have the support. Startup is not for pansies and it’s been a goat rodeo in many ways, like they always are. But we’ve also worked hard to create organizational health that is innately intentional, with a startup culture. And so we have built a mentorship program. We have done some things to really create space for people to think about and to grow themselves.
It’s been really fun. I think the work that we do is a journey of learning. A startup is never finished, and you’re never there… wherever “there” is. The goal in startup is to learn fast and to drive forward smarter. And so I think what’s exciting for us now is we’re essentially taking the Fathom experiences to any of our sister brands, as well as any place in the world we travel. And our hunger and ambition is really to take travelers into the heart of a place, whether they’re in the Mediterranean, or in Northern Europe, or in the Caribbean, or in the South Pacific. It’s also to deeply unite and connect travelers to other travelers, as well as to our staff on board, as well as to the places they visit, and to ensure that we equip and inspire them to live their best lives lived.
So it’s fun. In the coming few months, you’re going to see some exciting ways and other places that you can find us. We’re obviously continuing to deliver extraordinary experiences to Cuba and the Dominican Republic, and people are still loving those. We’re proud we’ve had some of the highest satisfaction scores in the corporate history in terms of our customer satisfaction. People really love what we’re doing, and we’re proud of what we’ve been able to build together.
Denver: Well, it sounds wonderful and quite uplifting. Tara Russell, the Founder and CEO of Fathom Travel, I want to thank you so much for being on this evening. Now, if people want to learn more about these cruises to the Dominican Republic, Cuba, or some of the others you have planned, where can they get that information?
Tara: There’s a lot of ways you can find Fathom. I’d encourage people obviously to talk to a local travel agent. We have great travel agent partners and supporters. They can also find us online, just at fathom.org. So it’s really simple. And they can contact us directly or work with a travel professional. We enjoy the partnerships that we have and are grateful for lots of people who are also selling the Fathom experiences on our behalf.
Denver: Well, thank you so much, Tara. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.
Tara: Yes. Take care! Thanks, Denver. It’s great to be with you!
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter and at facebook.com/business of giving.