Vicky Smith is the Founder of Earth Changers
Vicky is a sustainable tourism expert. She's worked in tourism for over 20 years, and sustainable tourism for over 10: Abroad, in UK head offices, in game reserves, developing countries, tours, web development, ecommerce and marketing. She's a Masters-published academic with high integrity, business instinct, marketing creativity, and a passion for wildlife, wilderness and adventure. She strongly believes in the powers of the Internet and tourism for connecting communities worldwide for positive impact and sustainable development. Vicky's a trustee for charity SEED Madagascar, organises responsible tourism meet-ups, international Facebook forums, is on the global council for SUNx, to build climate resilience through Impact-Travel and is the founder of Earth Changers.
Here’s her story.
"Born in London but growing up from the age of nine in Yorkshire, I loved the outdoors and nature, and got the ski bug with school. But even if my ambition from the age of 4 was ‘to go to every place in the world called Victoria’ (pretty big!), I never intended to pursue a career in the travel industry. In the final year of a dual honours degree in French and International Business, I wanted a year out, much to the horror of my management professors who couldn’t understand why an intelligent and diligent pupil would not want to go through endless recruitment rounds for unappealing corporate graduate job programmes (“You’ll ruin your career!”). I didn’t want to be in a rat race, and I didn’t want to be in London where I appreciated moving away from! I wanted to use my (by-then fluent) French, ski, and work a winter season in a resort, and travel the following summer; it just felt like the right thing to do. And, it meant I could focus my final months of university on study, not interviews, and take a break – I never understood why people are expected to go from one thing to another immediately. My time, choices and life were my decision.
So I ended up as a ski resort manager in the French Alps for the UK’s largest ski tour operator, Crystal Holidays (since part of Tui), somewhat more responsible than intended in a small resort (versus my desire to be a lowly rep in a big resort). It was fun, hectic and damn hard work. I learnt more in that time managing a business unit operation for a major holiday brand, than I probably would have done in any graduate recruitment scheme. I worked like crazy for 6 months, and afterwards the world was my oyster for 6 months in Australia, Thailand and Indonesia.
So long as I was learning and enjoying it, I carried on working seasons, to bigger and bigger resorts each year, with more guests and the associated challenges of staff, logistics, accounts, suppliers, chalets and childcare operations. Everywhere I went I developed more efficient and profitable operations. I had some time to learn to snowboard, though there was less and less time for that, skiing with clients or socialising and certainly no days off regardless of organisation and efficiency when dealing with client accidents, insurance, issues, even death. One summer was spent managing resorts for the lakes and mountains holidays – wonderfully calm and serene, with older, kind guests – another in helping recruitment efforts for the winter staff.
Then, one horrible day, tragedy struck. On the same day, my oldest friend’s partner was hospitalised with terminal illness, and another friend was in a car accident, left in a coma and put on life support. I’d always been strongly aware through childhood of the finality of life. My friends were my rocks, and my priorities switched immediately, working for a few months in hospitality catering while I visited two hospitals most days. And as one friend miraculously pulled through (she's a walking miracle and true survivor), the other deteriorated and died.
A change in my life had been forced, but I also realised I had to have something ‘serious’ on my CV: Unfortunately many people think of tourism just as nice holidays, and not as serious in professional terms, nor the complex and extensive sector of economy it is, supporting 10% of the world’s jobs and GDP. Really, I had to move to London and determined that my skills – in sales, marketing, logistics, accounts, partner and supplier management and team building - were transferable to running international conferences. I wanted to use my brain more than I had at the coal face of tourism, and be more strategic, but I was also aware I needed to travel often to keep my itchy feet at bay. Meanwhile in Yorkshire, my network engineer step-father had the house set up with the Internet – a new phenomenon to me. (In the mountains even a pager wouldn’t work, and as yet there was no such thing as mobile phones. Nor even The Spice Girls for that matter - I missed that whole thing!). The Internet was exciting. I discovered an innovative company called First Conferences, the only company in the UK looking into the impact of web technologies for business. I decided that was who I wanted to work for.
I quite liked researching and writing conference programmes, recruiting speakers, negotiating sponsorships, exhibition sales and overseeing venue logistics. It was great to be disruptive and deal with cutting edge companies and technologies. With a colleague, I ran the world’s first conferences on Ecommerce in the Aerospace industry – with Boeing, Airbus and other aviation companies (mostly), kicking the conservative trade events up the backside. Although, things got a bit close for comfort when sponsors brought un-named Defence industry contractors with body guards. So we stopped that!
It was amazing to work in a company with what would now be recognised as a start-up culture, and a bunch of people intentionally recruited for being smart, non-conformist and having done interesting things in life. We worked long and hard together. We played hard and travelled together for work. We practically lived together. It was a special time with fun and crazy memories with special people, many of whom even now are more like family than friends.
I travelled the world with different colleagues putting on conferences, away every three months or so to cities, such as Seattle, Toulouse, Oslo, Brussels, Paris, Las Vegas, San Francisco, LA, New York and more. Some of these were handy locations for an intentional blast for work, some I probably wouldn’t have considered visiting for leisure but pleasantly surprised me. But at the end of the day (or five), one conference hotel interior looks much like any other, so it was the random travels after an event with colleagues that made the trips. I’ll never forgot jumping on a train across the mountains in Norway and ending up in a (now Lonely Planet-famous) traditional sheep’s head festival; or great California road trips with the girls, although it was more A Team van for work than Thelma and Louise.
But what I came to like more than creating the offline conferences, was developing and marketing the vertical industry websites, the year-round online communities. We were original social networks for vertical sectors. Whilst initial dotcom bubble brands like Yahoo! and LastMinute.com had just about appeared, this was years ahead of Google, paid search advertising, or Facebook, and I taught myself to make banner adverts using photoshop and reciprocal link building for marketing before SEO was even heard of.
However, although I was travelling, I missed working in the travel industry. I missed the people. There’s something that unites us, and not just that absolute passion for travel which means we work in it despite its mostly terrible pay and conditions. It’s something in the character of the people and the informality of the way we interact. We’re people people, open-minded and love to share the enjoyment of the amazing world in which we live. We’re global citizens who get each other.
So although I initially resisted for 6 months out of divided loyalties and desires, being approached about a job for a large UK media organisation to create their first holidays website, responsible for ski , was too good an opportunity to turn down. It also meant a higher base salary thus the ability to get a mortgage and buy a house in London. I’d had a house savings account since the age of 9 (! - actually I first bought a bike from it, aged 11 for my paper-round - independence was clearly a driver!), and swollen coffers from well over-target ski season resort profits needed a sensible outlet: Rent was money down the drain, especially when at the same cost as a mortgage payment. Some people told me I was mad, that the London property market would burst. I’m cautious, but take calculated risks. There was ultimately more demand than supply and even thinking carefully about interest rate, inflation and market swings, I figured I couldn’t go too far wrong even if I sold after a year. (I didn’t, I still have it - best investment ever made!).
The job turned out to be for Teletext, and although considered a bit of a dinosaur analogue media, it was a great organisation and well in advance of any other holiday company at the time, with another set of great people. The TV text service meant behind the scenes was all set up with advertising sales teams, editorial, technical development, project management, great structures and processes – it was just a matter of creating a digital platform instead. My job was to mash together those elements, along with the requirements of advertisers and desires of consumers to create a commercially viable web channel, initially for ski and later all overseas package holidays. And follow through the product development curve to operations, becoming more involved in web marketing and conversion optimisation as time went on. We were an autonomous digital start-up team within the UKs’ biggest media platform. “It’ll never make any money” said the analogue sales boss (later moving to Google…). By the time I left, we were the source of over 10% of all UK ski sales and not far off for summer sun package holidays, although the market got very competitive from then on as ecommerce exploded. And likewise, it was the source of some good friends.
But a couple of trips during my time there opened my eyes: One to New Zealand, back to my love of mountains, nature, wilderness and space (I just love the open road!); the other to Kenya, and a stay in a mass market all-inclusive resort as a cheap way of getting to a wedding. But where the hotel advised no going outside the walls (“for safety”), I went to the shebeen or beach to connect with the community. Where most other guests stayed by the pool, I was enthralled to connect with raw nature on safari. And where holiday makers had no insurance, anti-malarials or manners to staff, I connected with my integrity in horror.
I witnessed the negative impacts of mass market tourism, and the much-ignored positive potential for sustainable development. It brought shocking perspective, guilt for what I was working on, and for what I wasn’t. I think it was at that point deep-down I knew my vocation.
So having decided I wanted to learn more about web marketing and ecommerce, and be more involved in sustainable tourism, there was probably only one major tour operator at the time involved with the opportunity of both, an innovative cool brand whose values matched mine. Serendipitously, they then advertised for an ecommerce sales and promotions manager - that was my job!
Except. Reality can sometimes let you down. My new boss quit in my first week. It was old fashioned tech, horribly top-down, controlling, unsupported, processes and systems not apt for dynamic web dev… I worked terribly long hours to cope, with a long commute outside London either side, leaving the house at 6.45am and back at 10pm if I was lucky. I was exhausted at the weekend with no energy to do anything apart from necessary chores. I had London costs but out-of-London income. It was certainly not fun. One fantastic interim manager who knew what he was doing sadly didn’t last long, replaced by a horror who did. I couldn’t take much more, needing balance in life. I said to a friend,
“I just want to go back to Africa”.
“Why don’t you then?” she replied.
Good point I thought. So I did.
I first volunteered on a private game reserve in Northern South Africa, on a lion monitoring project (think Big Cat Diary), following a pride of lions and researching their impact on the ecosystem and balance of predators and prey, before potentially introducing a tourism operation. We were just 6 volunteers and 2 rangers living in an unfenced staff house in a 300 square kilometre conservancy. An incredible experience! A lot of work was fairly monotonous data recording and entry, with early early mornings and late nights. Attuned to nature, I loved tracking and telemetry! And I never felt so alive. Especially forgetting a torch and walking back into a proper pitch black room at night from the braai, given any animal could wander in or out at any time… there were a few heart stopping moments when a sudden noise and movement just turned out to be a wart hog! Often we woke to the sound and feel of Jurassic Park outside, our windows shaking, and would have to stand back from startling the elephants.
But a deep, life-changing, transformation then took place in me, exposed to the rawness of living in the bush, the travel through South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zambia that followed, and volunteering in community development and HIV related projects. I appreciated ‘dark tourism’ places like Robben Island, District 6 and Soweto that teach us so much about how horrible humans have been in history, and so how not to be in the future.
Another penny really dropped in Botswana, visiting at the age of their average life expectancy for a woman at that time: If I had been born there, I would have had several children, my husband would have multiple wives, most HIV positive, should be on anti-retroviral drugs if accessible and not taboo, and quite possibly dead or dying.
I could try and do something about this, or I could not. It’s a choice of responsibility for all of us, in our own ways. To me, in tourism, I feel it's my duty.
But that was a gentle awakening compared to my most significant culture shock. That came in a flash, literally rooted to the ground unable to move in wide-eyed paralysis of what surrounded me: Oxford Street before Christmas, upon my UK return, full of people battling through irrelevant presents and packaging. Never did anything feel so utterly superficial. I couldn’t cope, called Mum, and in total overwhelm had to go home. It was probably then that life-changing trip really hit home. I resolved to only work in sustainable tourism from then on.
I touted myself round the consumer travel shows, working cheap days for voluntourism organisations as a means to an end of meeting the right people in the industry. At the time, real sustainable tourism organisations tended to be smaller, owner-managed, with few roles available, let alone in marketing and none were really developed in ecommerce. So my skills were ahead of the sector, with jobs that unlikely paid enough for a London mortgage. I was approached by an old boss for a new mass market online travel agent/aggregator start-up but declined the job opportunity, fixed on my calling.
Again serendipitously, a new charity challenge and volunteer tourism organisation (Different Travel) set up to support post-relief tsunami Sri Lanka were expanding and gave me a lucky break. Marketing for a small tour operator, I got to work from home and tour lead client charity trips, including a dream trip working on a conservation programme in The Galapagos. It was nearly all the things I loved rolled into one.
Gratefully, I have volunteered for the company and its charity groups for over 10 years since, giving up personal holidays to tour manage mountain treks like Kilimanjaro, Machu Picchu, the Himalayas, desert treks in the Sahara, river kayaks like down the Lower Zambezi and volunteer projects in developing countries – keeping me in touch with the coal face of customer demands, and seeing how tourism operates with local people in iconic sustainable tourism destinations worldwide. And I've had the great fortune to meet, bond and be in awe at every day people overcoming adverse situations - in their personal lives even more than the physical challenges we're undertaking. It's an incredible privilege to see people go through those journeys with your own eyes, and witness their joys interacting with local people. You know who will never be the same again as you see their perspective change. That always stays with me.
But back then, finances got tricky, so I went back to the mass market start-up boss, who still had a job for me! I was selling out on my own commitment, but I had to pay the mortgage. The start-up strategy and business plan done, it was a matter of implementing and launching in 6 months – hard work, with a small team of 4 and endless hours. But we made it and it was to be worth it with shares. Sadly only to launch on the day Lehman Brothers went bust and the UK headed into recession, so freezing our 2nd round of development funding. The trouble was, we’d created such an automated clever site, it could practically run itself. So 3 of us were made redundant 2 months after (on my birthday!), save the developer to keep the site live and working. What happens when you go for money - I got redundancy!
But, given unexpected money and time, I know the best thing for me is to go away, travel, gain perspective and return fresher and happy. And I knew exactly what I wanted to do, I just didn’t know how: To be back on a reserve in South Africa and train to be a safari game ranger. In the meantime, I applied for a few jobs. A potential ecommerce/online marketing manager job at Inghams was a natural fit, back to ski and lakes and mountains holidays.
I found how I could organise my safari ranger training through the Field Guides Association of South Africa, and at which reserves the Southern Africa-recognised FGASA level 1 qualification was possible. You have to have the same qualification if you want to be a ranger or work in conservation on a reserve. There was no question I wanted to train at Shamwari, a high-end game reserve which had won the World Conservation Awards for 10 years running. As well as training, I wanted to understand the difference in conservation standards and what made one place more sustainable than another. Unfortunately Shamwari had such a great reputation, as a reserve and for the quality of its training team, the programme was over-subscribed for the next 18 months – but I had the time and money now, aware I’d need to be back earning the mortgage before too long.
I carried on with the job interviews for Inghams whilst I considered alternatives. Unable to decide, I emailed Shamwari to ask their advice on the next best training place option, then had a final interview with Inghams.
Shamwari replied, they’d had a cancellation in 2 weeks, did I want to take the place?
An hour later, Inghams offered me the job.
I honestly did not know what to do. Except I probably did in my gut. I had a rare job offer online marketing ski and mountains for one of the best reputation tour operators, which would pay my mortgage and the house would be fine. Or, I had a serendipitous offer of a training place cancelled at one of the world’s top reserves, but I didn’t know how long I’d want to stay working for, and what I would do about my house if I wanted to stay.
I called Inghams and let them know I’d decided to take the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of training as a ranger. I figured I may never have the time and money again, and there would always be other online jobs in London to pay the mortgage, even if they weren't in ski. Incredibly, Inghams said they’d hold their job open for me for months. It was a new role and they wanted someone who knew what they were doing. Would I commit to come back after training? I figured it was a no-brainer, I could always change my mind later. Amazing.
So off I went to South Africa for a few crazy months. I loved it, but definitely found it hard keeping up with the young local brains! The volume of information, the style of teaching (to be remembered not explained), the sheer numbers of birds to recognise when I hadn’t grown up with them, unlike the others. And living without being able to just walk around outside (for safety), sharing with 5 fellow students some quite young, early mornings and evenings out in the jeep, intensively studying books by day, under pressure for tests – it can get a little wearing. Thankfully, trainer Taryn was much-needed fun, and laid back. Plus, being in nature and its forces for such a length of time offers an extraordinary revitalisation as your perspective changes to become more aware of being such a small part of a powerful ecosystem.
We probably also let off a bit of steam rifle training in the baking hot old quarry (in case needed for self-defence of predators – animals and poachers), had a good laugh when the near-verticals on the 4x4 driving range challenged our mental capacities more than the vehicles, and even had a couple of nights out in a local cricket club. It’s such a privilege to work on a reserve, especially to see the behind the scenes operations and what really goes on! Tip: Driving a jeep before getting the lights on after a couple of beers nearly into a hippo is not the best idea.
We all qualified and I got to spend a good few months in South Africa, including travelling to parts I’d not previously visited, and some eye opening stays with locals. I seriously considered packing up my house and moving there. But I knew that would be a life commitment, and between politics, finances, health, education, even water access issues, I appreciated just how fortunate I was to live in the UK. I adore South Africa, but living on a reserve is pretty isolating and insular, and at the age I was, I felt there would be too many challenges if I ever wanted to have a family or return. So I came home.
Returning to the Inghams job and confined to working in London, I decided to apply for the part-time Masters in Responsible Tourism Management with Professor Harold Goodwin I’d had in the back of my mind for some years. I was concerned over the financial and time commitment whilst working full time, but my vocation was my priority. It took 3 years of sacrifice of study 9pm to midnight most nights, and most the weekends after Inghams (more challenging than expected) full time job. But it enabled me to learn about destinations, many I had personal experience of visiting, from an academic, objective, sustainable, perspective. I also had the great fortune of sacrificing any holiday time off to voluntarily manage the charity challenges– getting the vital practical reality side to balance the academic ideal.
Inghams relocated right when I was due to write my thesis and I couldn’t again face a long out-of-London commute for full-time work again, whilst having study and time pressures on top, so I pressed for redundancy. Again! I chose to take some time out to do the volume reading for my literature review, interspersed with sunny days and the London Olympics – it was the best 2 months not to be in work! Thereafter, working part-time for an online tours and activities reservations platform while I completed my masters.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I brought my conservation, community-based and volunteer tourism passions together with my online knowledge for a world-first thesis on the online marketing and greenwashing of voluntourism, with a distinction and (a top 10 of all time downloads!) publication in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism to great acclaim, which took an extra year in itself, supported by my supervisor professor Xavier Font. But I couldn’t see a viable way to work in volunteer tourism: Do it responsibly and there’s not much money; decent money only made by those who exploit communities and/or volunteers and I wouldn’t do that. So when I spoke at a conference on the subject, met the incredible SEED Madagascar charity (renamed from Azafady), and, after some months voluntary support, was invited to be a Trustee helping their volunteer and marketing initiatives (pro bono), I was thrilled to use that knowledge for the best purpose.
Then finally, after 8 years, I was free to work full time in sustainable tourism! Except there still weren’t really the jobs, so freelance consultancy on marketing responsible tourism the main option. I preferred to get my teeth into longer projects, so first worked for a few months on marketing strategy with Green Tourism, the world’s largest sustainable tourism accreditation scheme. I really enjoyed working with MD Andrea, always keen to develop, listen and learn. From there, I moved to another accreditation scheme, this time The Long Run global NGO with its standard for worldwide private protected areas, dealing with all things community, culture, conservation and commerce. That was crazy hours on a 3 day a week freelance contract, juggled with other projects like the twitter chats and conference presentations for the Responsible Travel and Tourism Collective, SEED Madagascar work and international travel every month for about a year and a half – with no time for myself, zombied by time zones. However, I revisited some of my favourite places like Costa Rica and Kenya, met amazing people - and saw a gap in the market.
But then I blew out my knee ligaments (skiing), confined with immobility and requiring reconstruction surgery. I was going nowhere fast, not able to work, and certainly not do much-loved pastimes such as yoga, swimming, cycling and hiking! I helped out with some charity campaigns, for responsible volunteering (#StopOrphanTrips) and conservation but needed to get my teeth into something. I’d thought about doing something myself for many years, but it had never been the right time, for one reason or another. Life had never stood still for long enough I guess, but now I was forced to stop.
And so came Earth Changers, official conception: 23rd June, 2016 – Brexit - when disheartened, but rallying, I posted,
“RT [Responsible Tourism] friends. Let this be the day we resolve more than ever to take responsibility to connect communities, support sustainable development, steward our environments and promote cultural exchange and positive impacts through tourism around the world. Let this be the opportunity.”
Officially launched: 1st March, 2017 with a prototype 1st November, 2016.
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