Aaron Smith discusses Flight Centre acquisition, plans for responsible travel
03-06-2012  By: Amanda Stutt
Aaron Smith, founder, GoVoluntouring
Aaron Smith, founder, GoVoluntouring
When Aaron Smith’s new business GoVoluntouring went live in Sept. 2011, he never imagined the company would be bought by a major corporation just five months later.

But that’s exactly what happened when Smith approached Flight Centre to see if they could provide an API so clients could book flights on the site. Flight Centre not only said yes - they also said they wanted to buy the business.

GoVoluntouring, an online company that matches travellers with humanitarian projects all over the world, has garnered a lot of attention since its inception for it’s focus on "holidays for humanity".

When Flight Centre announced the acquisition last month, Flight Centre Canada President Greg Dixon said that with an increased demand for volunteer-based travel worldwide, Flight Centre sees a responsibility to proactively contribute to that emerging sector.

As for Smith, he said GoVoluntouring is “an interesting little East Van business that got snapped up.”

Smith, who was Flight Centre’s former vice president of marketing, North America, took a brief hiatus to earn a degree in commerce at Royal Roads University, and the idea for GoVoluntouring evolved out of an assignment to start a company that was socially and environmentally responsible - in the absence of any capital.

While Smith has sold the business to Flight Centre, he is contracted to run GoVoluntouring for the next five years, and doesn’t expect that there will be a lot of change, although he is in the process of redesigning the company logo.

“[Flight Centre] bought it because of how responsible we’d set out to build this, and it was the evolution of where they were going as a business,” said Smith.

GoVolutouring is a social enterprise, but they do have for profit model, such as Teach English in Asia,  and companies will pay to have a profile listed on site to make the business model more sustainable. They also share market research and focus group results with partners.

Smith said that GoVoluntouring is starting to build more relationships with travel agents, as the year one objective was to get people familiar with the site.

“Down the road, we’ll definitely [be] working with agents on bundle deals and programs that have a volunteer component by adding airfare, and other stays," he said.

"One of the interesting things we’ve been seeing is for every week of volunteering they add another week to their stay to do a tour. So there’s opportunity there for a more comprehensive experience,” Smith said. 

Voluntours are customizable, with flexible time frames, choice of countries and nature of projects.

While GoVoluntouring has an international presence, 48 per cent of users are Canadian, and 60 per cent are from British Columbia.
A GoVoluntouring construction project in Costa Rica

Out of west, the most popular tours are in Mexico, Costa Rica, and Belize. The most popular is sea turtle conservation in Costa Rica, and the Chinese Panda Program received over 200,000 shares on facebook.

GoVoluntouring currently has tens of thousands of humanitarian projects worldwide and the concept leverages huge public interest- there were two million responses on Google to an inquiry about volunteering in Costa Rica alone.
“There’s a constant need for volunteers,” Smith said.