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Measuring Innovation In Volunteer And Teach Abroad

Posted by Randy LeGrant | Jun 12, 2014 10:15:00 AM

The Lean Startup book imageI'm reading The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, who defines a startup as an organization dedicated to creating something new under conditions of extreme uncertainty.  I think we would all agree that changing currencies, wildly fluctuating airfares, political instability, a glut of competition in a small space are a few examples of conditions of extreme uncertainty.

An area of the book that hit home to me was Ries' thoughts on innovation.

If you are a stakeholder in the volunteer abroad or teach abroad space you are seeing a time when it is easy to open your doors, find some programs you like, and copy them.  If you are a traveler and you've done research on a few organizations offering these types of programs, you have to scratch your head and wonder how there could be so many programs that offer host families in France, sustainable projects in Peru, or classroom jobs in Thailand.

How can there be so many aggregated search engines offering the exact searches, like GoAbroad, GoOverseas, StudyAbroad, TransitionsAbroad and Abroad101 to name just a few?

Unfortunately, this is an industry as Pooh would say, "of very little brain."  Very few of us seem to be innovating for the customer ... we seem to be copying only what we like and slapping that on the Internet and in essence, building it and hoping they will come.  Or expecting they will come.

I was at a conference a week ago where 75 representatives of organizations who do exactly what GeoVisions does met to talk about marketing, online technology and how to attract more travelers.  It was good ... don't get me wrong.  But I walked away at the end of two-days wondering why we never focused on innovation.  I've been in this space for 39 years and can safely say there is simply a given number of people drawn to volunteer and teach abroad experiences.  That isn't your everyday traveler.

I live in a house where the favorite pie happens to be peach.  Homemade crust.  Fresh-picked peaches.  There are four of us in the house.  3 of the 4 love peach pie.  So when a cooked peach pie is on the counter, unguarded, there are 3 of us trying to get in there to grab a slice.  There isn't a second pie.  And the pie is always the same size.  If my in-laws pop in, we now have two more people wanting a slice of that pie.

Well, you know where I'm going with this.  I do not belong to the camp that says "build it and they will come."  And I don't belong to the camp that suggests more and more people are eager and waiting to volunteer or teach abroad.  That ship sailed, pun intended.

Those travelers are 20-30 years of age (mostly) and they now have real jobs, real vacation periods, student loans out the wazoo, and rent.  In 2008 and 2009 those people could not find work and had moved back in with Mom and Dad.  This pie is the pie is the pie.

Yet, we see a few organizations who are adamant about competing on price.  "$10 a day volunteer programs."  "The lowest cost volunteer programs anywhere."  And that isn't innovation.  When GeoVisions invented the Conversation Corps (living with a family and tutoring that family in English for free room and board) no one was doing this program.  And now there are at least 10 players in that specific space.  Copying programs is not innovation.

According to Ries, we can measure innovation in our small little travel space this way:

* The number of travelers on programs that didn't exist anywhere 3-years ago,
* The % of revenue coming from those programs against total company revenues. 

Once again, if all you do is set up a project in Africa that already exists elsewhere and you manhandle your overseas partner to give you a rock-bottom deal to operate it ... that isn't innovation.  Taking a program that GeoVisions provides in Malta and making it your own isn't innovation either.  But coming out with a new program that didn't exist before (anywhere) ... that's innovation and it's something I'd like to see more organizations do.

Confused by all this?  OK.  Below you will find the Coca Cola 2nd Lives video.  This is a highly innovative program in Asia run by Coke, and of course I hope it catches on elsewhere.  But it's the kind of innovation we need in our unique little travel space.  Something that didn't exist before, championed by an industry leader ... copied by none.

Enjoy the video and if it sparks some innovative ideas ... why not share a few of them in the comments section?

Written by Randy LeGrant

Randy is the Executive Director of the GeoVisions Foundation. He has spent the last 44 years managing organizations that send people abroad on cultural and educational exchanges.

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