GeoVisions Blog

Measuring Innovation In Volunteer And Teach Abroad

Posted by Randy LeGrant on Thu, Jun 12, 2014

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,
    AND
* 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?

Tags: Volunteer/Work Abroad Industry Updates

How Volunteer Abroad Reviews Are Supposed To Work, Part 2

Posted by Randy LeGrant on Tue, Oct 02, 2012

Volunteer Forever LogoThis Blog post (part 2 of 2 parts) was written by Steve Weddle, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Volunteer Forever.  Steve Co-Founded Volunteer Forever after his volunteer trip to India.  The experience was life-changing.  Upon returning to the U.S. and realizing there are significant information and financial barriers that keep many people from volunteering abroad, Steve hatched the idea for Volunteer Forever.  There you can create a profile and start fundraising for your trip right away.  Find trips and review your experiences.

In Part 1 of this series, I began to tell a story of how a volunteer organization wanted a bad review from one of their volunteers deleted from Volunteer Forever. In an industry that has been plagued with allegations of fake reviews (see Randy LeGrant’s three-part series here), the deletion of real negative reviews is an analogous problem.

As a volunteer, I had my fair and honest review (6/10 rating) deleted on another volunteer abroad reviews site. I shouldn’t have been surprised - there was a giant banner ad of the organization I was reviewing right on the site. The organization I was reviewing also happened to be a “verified organization.” At the time, being a “verified organization” meant the organization paid $500 to be listed as such and had their email address/phone number verified. I suspected some sort of relationship between this reviews site and the volunteer organization; I assumed being verified meant that organization could request that reviews be deleted. After talking to some of the heads of the major volunteer abroad organizations, it seems the relationship may be much, much closer.

Now back to my story:
Ultimately, the organization decided to refund the program fee of the volunteer and apologize for the misinformation. The volunteer subsequently deleted their review (volunteer’s prerogative) off the organization’s page. Here’s the response I got back from the organization:

“I contacted the volunteers that wrote that and apologized for their experience and offered to refund their enrolment fee back as compensation and it worked!! They have removed the review in return so I am very grateful for your help and in moving forward I will ensure I have better communication with the projects and make sure I'm aware of any changes to the projects for volunteers”

thumbs up to an online reviewWith volunteers having the power to edit/delete their reviews and organizations able to respond to reviews, volunteers are now much more empowered in the marketplace and organizations have an incentive to engage dissatisfied volunteers without resorting to deleting reviews or posting fake reviews to counter a negative review. We hope these features will contribute to greater transparency in the industry and provide a mechanism to resolve complaints.

The simple mechanisms I described above are just the first wave of features Volunteer Forever has developed for volunteer abroad reviews. We’re also developing a patent-pending reviews verification system that leverages our integrated crowdfunding and reviews platform to determine the credibility of a review and weight that review appropriately. The idea is to use crowdfunding, which will help tackle the high costs associated with volunteering abroad (particularly challenging when most participants are under age 25), to provide verifiable data about a user on our site.  The more credible the user is, the more weighting their review will have in the marketplace. And because a user’s review (not just number of reviews) shows up right on their profile page, a user with malicious intent cannot simply “grow” a seemingly credible user to post multiple fake reviews.

I hope my story illustrates that there is a way to resolve bad reviews without resorting to deleting the review without the reviewer’s permission or writing fake reviews to lessen the impact of the negative review. With the right technological features in place on a reviews website and educating volunteer organizations on the proper recourses to take, we can tackle the growing problem of fake and deleted reviews in the volunteer abroad industry.

 

Do you have a comment to make on fake reviews, online reviews or Steve's 2 part series.  We would love to hear from you.

Tags: Program Reviews, Volunteer/Work Abroad Industry Updates

How Volunteer Abroad Reviews Are Supposed To Work Part I

Posted by Randy LeGrant on Mon, Oct 01, 2012

Volunteer Forever LogoThis Blog post (and the one that follows tomorrow) was written by Steve Weddle, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Volunteer Forever.  Steve Co-Founded Volunteer Forever after his volunteer trip to India.  The experience was life-changing.  Upon returning to the U.S. and realizing there are significant information and financial barriers that keep many people from volunteering abroad, Steve hatched the idea for Volunteer Forever.  There you can create a profile and start fundraising for your trip right away.  Find trips and review your experiences.

A few weeks ago, one of our partner organizations on Volunteer Forever received a terrible review (one out of five stars). The volunteer claimed they were given inaccurate information about their placement. As such, their pre-departure preparation and the materials they brought for their placement added little value to their trip. The volunteer made the best of the situation with the new placement, but seriously questioned the need for paying the intermediary organization.

This partner organization of ours is very new to the marketplace, so this negative review was devastating. In what I’m sure was a moment of panic, the director of the organization sent me an email asking me to delete the review. To be honest, I was pretty disturbed when I got this request, but was completely expecting it at some point. Those of you who know my story know that I started Volunteer Forever after my fair and honest review of a volunteer organization was deleted on another volunteer abroad reviews site (disclaimer: the other reviews site was NOT Go Overseas or Rate My Study Abroad).

The email looked something like this:

“I am trying to market my idea and have such good intentions and so I asked them to write a review and they did so and gave me a terrible review and only 1/5. I think this may destroy my opportunity to market. Can I please request from you 1 freebie and tell me how to remove this review off my page or tell me how to do it? I have made appropriate changes to ensure this will not happen again in moving forward! please (sic) do me this 1 favor if you could and I will never ask this sort of thing again.”

Marking online reviewsI have to assume the volunteer organization’s primary intention was not to engage in fraud. They claimed to make changes to their program and to better work with their in country partner organization to provide more reliable information to their volunteers. But, they still had this bad review to deal with. The organization perceived their future was in jeopardy and they probably didn’t clearly think through what the options were. Here’s what I wrote back:

“Thanks for reaching out and sorry to hear about your unsatisfied volunteer. Unfortunately, I'm not going to be able to delete that review. I actually started Volunteer Forever after I posted a fair and honest review of my volunteer abroad experience on another site and had it deleted the next day. To delete this negative review for you would undermine everything I believe in regarding honesty and transparency in the volunteer abroad industry.

Even though we can't delete the review for you, we have built in some functionality to handle situations like this. First, I encourage you to address the negative review publicly, by replying to it. Acknowledge your volunteer's dissatisfaction and pledge to improve your service. Lay out what you are doing to improve your service for future volunteers.

Second, I encourage you to reach out to this volunteer privately and offer some sort of consideration. I read their review and they indicated that the service you provided was not worth the program fee they paid. Perhaps you can refund their program fee as a way to make amends?

The reviewer has the capability to either edit their review (including the numerical rating component) or delete their review. There is a way for you to remove this negative review, but it will have to involve you directly engaging the volunteer and convincing them to remove or improve it.

In the end, directly addressing this unsatisfied volunteer is the best option for you to pursue. Even if I did delete the review, there's nothing preventing them from coming back and writing more negative reviews (and seriously questioning your integrity). You can recover from one bad review- recovering from a questioning of your business ethics is much, much harder.”

Stay tuned for the next post to see how the situation was resolved.

Tags: Program Reviews, Volunteer/Work Abroad Industry Updates

GeoVisions Wins The Work and Travel Video Of The Year

Posted by Randy LeGrant on Wed, Sep 26, 2012

GeoVisions is so very proud of one of our Summer Work and Travel students from Malaysia.  And we were suprised at the WYSTC (World Youth and Student Travel Conference) conference last week in San Diego.  Abby, who hails from Malaysia had just won the Video of the Year award and US $2,000.  Her job was to produce a video along the theme of "Expand Your Horizons."  She did an amazing job.  Her video was judged by people all over the world.

Each year, WYSE Work Abroad, through WYSTC, invites young people to submit a video that shares their unique experience of working or volunteering abroad. One lucky participant can win US $2,000!  So, if you're a great video producer, why not enter for the 2013 award?  It will be awarded in Sydney, Australia in September, 2013.

Kevin Morgan and Randy LeGrant of GeoVisionsThe video must celebrate the many benefits of the work abroad experience through the annual "Expand Your Horizons" video contest.

A GeoVisions student, Wai Kuan Lam (Abby), is this year's winner. Abbey is from Malaysia and worked in Cape May, New Jersey last year.  Randy LeGrant and Kevin Morgan from GeoVisions accepted the award in San Diego on behalf of Abby.  (But Abby gets all the money!)

We hope you will take a look at this 3 minute video that won "Best Video Of The Year" and see why her four months in the United States was so meaningful and you will understand how the Summer Work and Travel experience and going through GeoVisions "expanded Abby's horizons.


Tags: Make Something Happen, Working For A Better World, Volunteer/Work Abroad Industry Updates, Work and Travel

Is Voluntourism Really A Compromised Industry?

Posted by Randy LeGrant on Tue, Nov 29, 2011
On 24 November, cnngo.com ran an article by Richard Stupart entitled "Voluntourism does more harm than good."  The tag line read, "Orphan-huggers create a market for orphans; well-builders take work from locals; and other things ethical travelers should know."

I'm going to approach Mr. Stupart's article from two perspectives:
  1. He's right.
  2. But the focus really should be on "The result has been a boom in tour companies offering voluntourism opportunities in a wide range of destinations, catering to all levels of commitment."
cashing in on voluntourismI have noticed that everyone is cashing in on Voluntourism (including the press) and I wish some great writer out there would do an article on the damage THAT causes.  Bugger the "goodie-two-shoes" articles. Those people are just there and will insert themselves into a situation abroad and at home because they simply have nothing else to do.  Resorts, cruise lines and hotels offer 2-3 hour voluntourism projects and call it sustainable tourism.

Mr. Stupart sums it up nicely and as accurately as I've ever seen it put.  "There can be no easy decisions when attempting to weigh up how to volunteer, or whether to volunteer at all.  Nevertheless, there is a world of difference between ill-considered decisions taken for the purpose of stroking a traveler's ego, and subjective decisions to volunteer after properly considering as much of the moral and practical detail of your engagement as possible."

For quite sometime, GeoVisions has provided a document, "Where Does My Money Go" in answer to that exact question by some of our volunteers.  And on many of our program pages, we actually provide a list of items that get paid with a volunteer's money.  This activity came with trying to be "all things transparent."

How wonderful would it be if all of the responsible voluntourism providers (really, there are a few) wrote their own document explaining why volunteers participate on their projects and precisely (measured objectively) what good comes from it.
  • How will your work be more beneficial than sending money?
  • If you and your friends invested money in a project abroad (after doing research and interviewing project directors), would that be more sustainable?
  • On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the highest, how much of wanting to go abroad is all about your ego?  Or that you had horrible parents?
  • Why aren't you voluntouring in your own country?
  • Why are you taking a tax deduction on volunteering abroad? Why aren't you spending money in your own country, and giving up the tax deduction to pay your fair share?
  • How much research did you do about where you're going and why you should even be there?

Those are questions we have been asking ourselves here at GeoVisions over the last year.  And what are the answers? 

When we answered these questions we closed 50 of our voluntourism projects.  We have only a few now and most of them are hands-on medical for people going into or already in the medical field.  We have a last few remaining "long tails" and most will be fading away over the course of 2012.

But GeoVisions is in business, right?  So what are we doing instead?

two people communicatingGlad you asked.  We invented programs that focus on cultural exchange first.  Then, if you want, you can do some volunteering like teaching a family conversational English or helping kids with their homework.  Something that first of all exchanges two cultures, something that then focuses on communicating with one another.  And finally, something that allows for a little local volunteering and sharing.

Of course our most innovative programs were copied.

Last year I even saw 8 volunteer abroad senders providing the same program in India, all sending to the same receiver.  All of the programs were packaged differently, all charging different prices.  Never let it be said that some of my friendly competitors have but one brain shared between them all.

2 years ago GeoVisions could market our programs with two online search engines (we refuse to participate with Google Ad Words).  Now we have a minimum of four additional search engines for volunteer and teach abroad.  There are a multitude of online review sites…mini TripAdvisor sites trying to ratchet up online traffic and therefore dollars.

GeoVisions has double the competition we did from 2009.  Double the senders, and probably more than double the receivers.

There are operators who start their Google Ads with, "Volunteer Abroad For $160" and "Volunteer Abroad - $180. American volunteers wanted for affordable volunteer trips abroad!"

When we all cash in, we ethically bankrupt ourselves.

When you look for ways to make money from an industry rather than looking for ways to serve that industry, you add to the problem.  What am I writing?  You ARE the problem.

holding the world in your hands

When you use price to round up self-serving volunteers to attend flim-flam projects, you add to the problem. When you copy programs and other people's ideas, you add to the problem.  When you don't belong to global organizations focused on building best practices, you add to the problem.

I have heard a few of my competitors say, "More volunteer abroad senders?  Great, that means more volunteers out in the world."  To that I reply, "Hogwash."  The industry is watered-down because of those who have piled on and thought this might be an easy way to prey on well-meaning people and cash in.  And on this, I am being very kind.

I continue to read publicly that "Voluntourism will likely always remain a compromised industry."  Mr. Stupart even wrote that last week.

I do think it is interesting to note, as I end this post, that Save The Children does not allow volunteers on their projects.  That is to say they do not allow you to call up, and explain that you want to go volunteer in Ethiopia on one of their end child hunger projects.  You can volunteer in their Westport, CT or Washington, DC offices in marketing, finance and social media.  But you're not allowed on a Save the Children project as a volunteer.

I hope, if you're reading this, you are not asking yourself, "why"?

Tags: Responsible Travel, Volunteer Locally, Why Do I Have To Pay To Volunteer, Tax Deductions, Volunteering Abroad, Volunteer/Work Abroad Industry Updates, Randy LeGrant

Spotting The Fake Volunteer Abroad Reviews

Posted by Randy LeGrant on Thu, Nov 03, 2011

Talk about irony.  While I was writing this 3rd Blog post about online reviews I received an email about a brand new volunteer abroad online review site.  Online reviews must be the fastest growing online business in the world.  The new site will be called Volunteer Voice and soon you can find them at volunteervoice.org.  All this industry needs is another online volunteer abroad program review site. I didn't provide a link, because the site is not live right now.

Call outsSo...moving on to the point of this post.  If you take an hour and go to 3 or 4 of the current online review sites and take time to read reviews, you will clearly see that some of the reviews are fake.  While there are no studies on exactly how many online reviews are faked, it’s clearly happening. Companies hire out review writers to flood popular services like Yelp, TripAdvisor, Google Places, and company pages on Facebook with glowing reviews. Others hire people to leave bad reviews for their competitors. How can you tell which reviews might be fake?  And why does GeoVisions think this is important to Blog about?

You can't stop fake reviews.  You CAN take a stand against the online review sites publishing them and having no system in place to verify that the reviewer is indeed a former volunteer with that organization.  And that is what we intend to do.  We are not going to do business with people who have no verification process in place.  Will this impact our bottom line?  Yep, it will.  But if you don't have integrity, you really don't have a sustainable business, do you?  And we think fake reviews hurt good businesses.  Hit an organization with enough fake, negative reviews and you can put them out of business.  Flood the review site with fake positive reviews about your own organization and you are doing a disservice to the public.  You're lying.

But the key is most consumers have no clue this is happening, and most consumers believe what they read.  That is why it is so important for the online review site to put verification services in place.  If you don't, you're passively encouraging fake reviews to mislead consumers.

Given our use of social media these days, someone needs to tell me how anyone can trust a review from someone you know nothing about?
   
My New Best Friends

Cornell ResearchersThis photo is copyrighted by The NY Times.  In the photo, from left, Claire Cardie, Myle Ott and Jeff Hancock are among the Cornell University researchers studying fake reviews.

These researchers from Cornell recently published a paper about creating a computer algorithm for detecting fake reviewers. They were instantly approached by a dozen companies, including Amazon, Hilton, TripAdvisor and several specialist travel sites, all of which have a strong interest in limiting the spread of bogus reviews.

The researchers have developed an algorithm to distinguish fake from real, which worked about 90 percent of the time.

Also, research shows that humans are 5 times more likely to remember (and therefore write about) our negative experiences rather than focussing on promoting the good ones.  This leaves good organizations in a pretty poor state. They need people to see at least 5 times more positive reviews than negative, yet we are psychologically programmed to be five times more likely to leave negative reviews than positive ones. Is it really surprising, therefore, that business owners have had to resort to dishonestly writing their own good reviews as a way to try to even up the balance?

What do the comments on a review site actually mean if you know nothing about the person leaving them? If an 18-year old college student says she paid too much for her program to go work with orphans in Cambodia and you're 50 years old and you're going to China and teach English, do you really care that the student thought the program was too pricy? The fact is, if you don’t know even a little about the person leaving the comment, then how do you know if it is relevant for you?

Sandra Parker
Ms. Parker is a professional reviewer.  She wrote hundreds of fake reviews for companies in order to create a buzz.  While the companies didn't require her to write lies or tell her exactly what to write, if the review wasn't five star, they didn't pay the typical $10 to $20 fee.  And Ms. Parker is only one of thousands of people, who, everyday write fake reviews.

"Each of us was tasked with writing and posting a five-star review in order to create the appearance of having many satisfied customers. Having too many five-star reviews is a surefire clue that something is amiss."

"When I was paid to produce a review, I was usually given a deadline of 48 hours for completion. The same held true for the other reviewers assigned to the same project. This meant that what we reviewed would have anywhere from 10 to 50 or more reviews posted within a 48-hour period. If you find a bunch of reviews posted around the same date/time, be wary."

5 star reviewsOther Ways To Spot A Fake Review
Look at the language of the review: does the reviewer use the actual company name? If they repeatedly say “GeoVisions” [insert your company name here] when they could just say volunteer abroad, they could be trying to game the search engines.

If numerous users all left reviews around the same time, and there hasn’t been much activity since, they could all be the same person or company leaving reviews under different names.

Steer clear of user reviews that read like a sales ad.

User reviews are a valuable tool that you can use to gauge whether a program will work for you. The main thing to remember when reading them is to trust your instinct. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is, no matter what the reviews say.

Ignore reviews that focus on details rather than value.

Be skeptical of totally positive reviews. While there are hardcore fans of certain programs, most of us don’t have an incentive to write glowing reviews just because a organization does what we expected (and paid for) it to do. Rather, people usually write reviews to vent their frustration against a company, warn people against problems, or assess pros and cons.

Watch out for super-negative reviews too. In addition to praising their own products, fakers will also knock competitors’ programs, especially their terms and conditions. Simple claims of “the program cost too much,” “I'm leaving this as a warning,” or “beware!!!!” are empty adjectives.

So in sum
Look for ratings a couple notches below perfect, with some details that don’t sound like copy-paste work. Pay attention to reviewer names and their history, and Google anything suspicious. Follow that advice, and you have a good idea who to trust.

Monday
We finish up our posts on online review sites by going to four of them.  We'll give our own review of each and show you a few things about each one you didn't know.  Our reviews won't be fake, we will leave our name and contact info, and they will be tough.  And no, we won't remove them.

If you have time, check out our first two posts in this series on volunteer abroad online review sites:

Volunteer Abroad Organizations And Those Online Reviews

Did You Volunteer Abroad?  Are You Sure?

Tags: Program Reviews, Volunteering Abroad, Volunteer/Work Abroad Industry Updates

Did You Volunteer Abroad? Are You Sure?

Posted by Randy LeGrant on Mon, Oct 31, 2011

On October 27, USA Today reported that a $10 million lawsuit has been filed against TripAdvisor"Our complaint is that TripAdvisor went too far. Instead of just reporting what people said, they made a flat-out statement that the hotel was the dirtiest," the Grand Resort Hotel's attorney, Sidney Gilreath, told USA TODAY.

"Are the reviews from guests, or from former employees? We're going to look behind the curtain to find out," said Gilreath.

Volunteer Verification
The biggest question out there is, who verifies the reviewer is a traveler?  I spoke with two online review sites after our first post on this subject.  When I mentioned SPG's decision to come out with their own online review system, both owners of the online review sites told me no one will believe them, since SPG would post only the "good" reviews and leave the bad ones out.

Verified seal"How do you verify that the reviewer traveled on that program or didn't receive a gratuity for a good review," I asked?  "We don't," was the reply from both.

And that is all SPG is saying, and their motivation behind their own online review system.  SPG is saying they can easily verify if the reviewer stayed with them or not.  And if they did, and if the review is positive or negative, they will post the review.

Until online review sites come up with a verification of the writer, any review can be termed a fake.  Not one of the online review sites for volunteer abroad publishes an email address or a verification that this person actually participated on the program and the reviewer was not compensated in anyway.  If I wanted to teach my 13-year old daughter how to lie, she could go online and write a review about one of our programs.  No one would ever know.  She can write glowing remarks and she can pick a funny online name, and the review us up and it sticks.

Spotting fake reviewsMany Online Reviews Are Fake
On October 27, the New York Times reported that "As online retailers increasingly depend on reviews as a sales tool, an industry of fibbers and promoters has sprung up to buy and sell raves for a pittance."

“For $5, I will submit two great reviews for your business,” offered one entrepreneur on the help-for-hire site Fiverr, one of a multitude of similar pitches. On another forum, Digital Point, a poster wrote, “I will pay for positive feedback on TripAdvisor.” A Craigslist post proposed this: “If you have an active Yelp account and would like to make very easy money please respond.”

Sandra Parker, a freelance writer who was hired by a review factory this spring to pump out Amazon reviews for $10 each, said her instructions were simple. “We were not asked to provide a five-star review, but would be asked to turn down an assignment if we could not give one,” said Ms. Parker, whose brief notices for a dozen memoirs are stuffed with superlatives like “a must-read” and “a lifetime’s worth of wisdom.”

The problem is serious enough that researchers at Cornell University are developing an algorithm to detect fake reviews.  Had the two owners of online review sites I spoke to heard about this?  "No."  The Cornell researchers tackled what they call deceptive opinion spam by commissioning freelance writers on Mechanical Turk, an Amazon-owned marketplace for workers, to produce 400 positive but fake reviews of Chicago hotels. Then they mixed in 400 positive TripAdvisor reviews that they believed were genuine, and asked three human judges to tell them apart. They could not.

Getting paid to write a good reviewWhat Would You Pay For A Great Review?
Then, when the online review companies finally figure out how to verify the traveler as a "real" traveler on the program, something they may never do but we can always hope…there is the issue of the organization paying for the review.  One owner confided that he knows one volunteer abroad sender pays $25 for each great review.  Still, he publishes those reviews.

Trevor J. Pinch, a sociologist at Cornell, found in his research that just about all the top reviewers in his study said they got free books and other material from publishers and others by soliciting good notices on Amazon.com.

If you run a review site and you don't allow reviewers to remove their review, after they have had time to think about it, or you don't allow reviewers to change their review after they have heard from the organization, then what you have is organizations peppering the system with fake reviews.  The research proves it, and if you take the time to read the reviews, you can spot them.  Professor Pinch concludes, "A courteous response to a negative review can persuade the reviewer to change their reviews from two to three or four stars,” said Main Street’s chief executive, Andrew Allison. “That’s one of the highest victories a local business can aspire to with respect to their critics.”  Unfortunately, the current list of online review sites for volunteer abroad does not allow this.

In Our Next Post...
On Thursday I'm going to provide you with two tools:  One, I'm going to share details with you from reviewers who posted fake reviews and others who were paid to post fake reviews.  Two, I'm going to give you a ton of links to read if you have any interest at all in this subject, or if you would like to join us in pointing out that fake reviews do little to help consumers and the guys who own online review companies do nothing to help consumers make the right choices if they have no way to verify that the reviewer is a former traveler with the company they are reviewing and they received no gratuity at all for the positive review.

Tags: Program Reviews, Volunteer/Work Abroad Industry Updates

Volunteer Abroad Organizations And Those Online Reviews

Posted by Randy LeGrant on Thu, Oct 27, 2011

I don't know how many of you have a subscription over at Travel Mole.  If you do, you can click the link to see the article I'm Blogging about today.  If you do not have a subscription, I'm pasting the entire post below so you can read it.  I've provided the URL and the author's name.

GeoVisions' view about online reviews is that the current system doesn't work.  We have good ones and bad ones.  Over on GoOverseas we rate a 95%.  On AbroadReviews we rank 7.2 out of 10.  But do online reviews, the way they exist today, really provide unbiased information about a program, from a verified participant?  We don't think so.

It is our feeling that these sites exist mainly to make money.  This is done by creating links to their review sites (today's Internet currency), and by driving traffic to the site so they can charge more for listing services and ads.  And, in one case, AbroadReviews is charging organizations who send volunteers abroad an annual fee of $500 to be able to refute the online reviews.  If GeoVisions pays a fee, we can get the review deleted or we can refute the review.  If we don't pay, it has to stay just the way it is.  It is impossible not to feel "fleeced down" by something like that.

Seriously?  Do you really want to trust those reviews?  If you're wanting information about what program to go on, don't you want something from a real participant that's recent, verified that the reviewer actually participated?

This is a tough process to present to consumers in only one or two posts.  So I'm devoting the next five posts to explain why GeoVisions a hard stand against online reviews as they exist today.  And some of you will think it's because we don't want negative reviews.  You would be right about that.  We want "fair and balanced" reviews where the reviewer is verified to have participated on the program and actually wrote the review.  And that the review is no older than 6 months...because a lot can change at a project in 6 months.

Here is what we consider to be a great review template:

What is your name?

What is your email address?

What company did you go with to vounteer abroad?

What was the specific program/country?

When did you go?
(The reviewer at this point will be told the company they went with will verify they were a participant and that no reviews can be older than six months.  At six months, the review is automatically removed from the site.)

Leave your review of the program.

Is this a sustainable project and does it have a positive impact on the host community?

Then the volunteer abroad company will verify the participant and the review will be automatically posted.

Company note:  This is a spot reserved for the organization to comment.  If the review is bad, it provides an area so the organization can explain what they are doing to do a better job, list the improvements, etc.

CHANGES:  The original reviewer can change the review anytime.  Negative reviews can be changed to a higher review later on, for example.  This encourages both the organization and the volunteer to actually communicate for the good of the whole.

And...do people who trash organizations online really want a resolution to their pain?  Or do they just want to trash a company because they're hurt or disappointed or simply mean-spirited?  Are those the reviews you really want to read just before you shell out thousands of dollars?  Or do you want to read the "real-deal?"  A verified review that is recent and posted to help others make a decision.

Here is the Travel Mole Blog post as it appeared yesterday online.  The New York Times did some research into online reviews, and we are posting the results of that research on Monday.  In the meantime, we think consumers who want to volunteer or teach abroad, and who rely upon reviews would appreciate this post:

Travel Mole HeaderReaction to controversial TripAdvisor reviews: do it ourselves

It’s getting to be “review turnabout time” as more tourist-oriented providers attempt to dilute the influence of TripAdvisor in an effort to take more control of reviews. Two examples:

---Lodging Interactive and Social Media Marketing Agency announced their own “Guest Review System” designed for hotels, restaurants and spas.

---In a move that could be emulated by others, Starwood announced it is launching its own first-ever review site that is in-house.

The Guest Review System enables hospitality companies to manage and display consumer reviews on their own websites and blogs,” says a press release.

Founder and President DJ Vallauri said:

“The time has come for hotels to take control of their guest reviews and to stop sending potential guests to third party review web sites where they may never return or worse, book a competitor’s property.”

He said market research supports the fact that over 75 percent of online travel buyers who consider consumer reviews prior to making an online purchase.

“This trend is not going away and hoteliers have told us they need more control over the guest review process,” he said
 
Special feature newsThe Guest Review System (www.GuestReviewSystem.com) is a web based review management system that empowers hotels to collect their own guest reviews and post management responses on their web sites, he said.

The system lets consumers post their comments and score their hotel experiences based on service attributes.

Additionally, consumers can share their guest reviews on Facebook and their network of friends. Hotels are notified in real-time of new guest reviews and have the ability to validate guest stay information before reviews are posted on their website, says the new site.

The New York Times recently reported on individuals and offshore companies established to post fake reviews…in some cases negative reviews about competitors, it’s just getting out of hand,” said Vallauri.

The company says its service is low-cost and it offers a free trial.

In the case of Starwood, the chain’s Sheraton, Westin, W and other Starwood properties can assess their stay directly on the chain’s web sites.

Anyone including non-hotel guests will be able to read the reviews and share them via social media channels, such as Facebook and Twitter.

None of Starwood's biggest rivals such as Marriott and Hilton have attempted to post customer reviews. “Doing so, after all, could be risky if reviewers expose weak points, such as a nasty hotel staffer, broken air conditioning unit or inadequate Wi-Fi connection,” writes USA Today.

By bypassing the world’s most popular review site, TripAdvisor, Starwood is counting on its repeat customers to be satisfied. Under their review system, ratings will only be published after a writer’s stay has been checked and validated.

A spokesperson says that is no problem because of the chain’s confidence in its product.

He said any complaints will be followed up at individual properties.

By David Wilkening

Tags: Program Reviews, Volunteer/Work Abroad Industry Updates

Two Steve Jobs Quotes That Help Us Do Volunteer Abroad Better

Posted by Randy LeGrant on Fri, Oct 07, 2011

The Guilford GreenHere in our Guilford, CT office we look out onto a town Green that was established in 1639.  Same Green, same foot paths for 362 years.  At the North end sits the traditional New England white church with the clock tower and required bell that tolls at Noon.  On the other 3 sides of our Green sit buildings dating back to the 1700s.  Our office is in a building built in 1750.  We are surrounded by rich history.  All of us here are deeply attached to this place and we feel proud to be here.

We have four rooms in our office...and I wish every volunteer and teacher could visit us.  I'll make a video one of these days.  In these four offices are 7 desks and a conference table.  And on top of each and every desk is a stunning Apple iMac.  On 3 of the desks sit iPhones.  1 iPad.  And we have 3 MacBook Pros and 2 MacBook Airs.  We are an all-Apple office.

A photo of the Mac ClassicI bought my first Macintosh computer in 1984.  I drank the kool-aid then, and I've been drinking it ever since.  Our staff loves their Apple devices and some of them have bought Apple for their homes, having used them at GeoVisions.

I'm sorry Steve Jobs died, and at such a young age.  But more than that, I'm glad he lived.

GeoVisions invested in Apple to the point that we only use their equipment.  But we also learned something else from our association with Apple's products.  Their vision.

It is no secret, our global financial condition puts a strain on business growth.  The money people have to spend to volunteer or teach abroad is less each month.  We rely heavily on host families abroad, and times are tough for them also.  They might have an extra room and a desire to host.  But do they have the extra cash to feed another person for 3 months?  It's harder all the time.

I see a few of our competitors try to fix things by lowering their prices.  I was at a meeting in Barcelona, Spain a few weeks ago and talked to some people from volunteer projects in South Africa and in Asia who have been told to lower their fees and accept more volunteeers or these big guys said they would stop sending volunteers to them.  That's shameful.

Photo of an iMacOthers are cutting costs and downsizing to cope with our global economy.  In my opinion, what this does is promote fear at work and has a negative impact on customer service.

At GeoVisions, we have always used Apple technology and Steve Jobs quotes to help guide us to the forefront of creativity.  When Apple was struggling, Steve Jobs remarked, "The cure for Apple is not cost-cutting. The cure for Apple is to innovate its way out of its current predicament.”

We have not cut our prices, we raised them to make sure we can pay all of our bills.  We have not cut our staff.  We hired more so we can deliver stellar customer service.  We also added amazing projects in Israel, Italy and we came up with how to get spending money for some of our Conversation Corps members in Spain, and invented the most unique Conversation Partner program in France...something no one can do without us.

Photo of Steve JobsSteve Jobs was right.  Innovate your way out.  Come up with inspiring ideas that make people say, "Wow!"  We want people to look at what we have to offer the world and try to figure out how they can be a part of it.  Do we strong-arm our overseas partners?  No!  We provide them better service, screened applicants, on-time payments, excited and committed volunteers.  We deliver remarkable volunteers and teachers.  We offer innovative and unique programming.  We will continue to invest in Apple products, and we will continue to innovate our way to number one.

In a May 25, 1993 Wall Street Journal interview, Steve Jobs said something I'll never forget. It has stayed with me and guided me each day.  "Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me … Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful… that’s what matters to me.”

Tags: Make Something Happen, Working For A Better World, Volunteer/Work Abroad Industry Updates, Randy LeGrant

Voluntourism Certification: The Financial Risk Makes It A Bad Idea

Posted by Randy LeGrant on Tue, Aug 16, 2011

holding the world in our handThere is an interesting debate going on over at Voluntourism Gal's Blog.  It concerns Tourism Concern's launch to "certify" travel organizations involved in voluntourism.

In short, this is very ill-timed, but perhaps very well-meaning.  It is, ultimately, "much ado about nothing" and 5 years from now will not even rank as a distant memory.  What they will do does little to move the voluntourism needle forward, which is truly needed when thinking about communities, sustainable projects, locals and volunteers.  I've been doing this for 36 years, and I've seen these debates come and go over the years, and I've seen them go as often as they come.  What this will do is provide some guidance in the short run, it will take the minds off operators who refuse to get involved and how they will market against the effort, and as voluntourism changes again (it has gone through massive metamorphosis in even the last 3 years) the guidance will be so out of date to render it all meaningless.

I am uncertain as to why people think "regulation" and "audits" are the only way to clean up a global mess.  And that is exactly what we have with voluntourism right now.  I guess, here in America (and certainly the UK) where colonialism is a part of our DNA, we want to make sure the rest of the world follows our direction and divine guidance and that we know best.

IVPA (International Volunteer Programs Association) which is essentially a closed membership protective association at least has a very stringent set of Best Practices and to be a member, one must adhere to those Best Practices and Standards.   The Building Bridges Coalition (BBC) has spent 3 years developing a set of Best Practices and Standards for this industry.  WYSE Work Abroad has a global set of Best Practices and Standards for their membership.

In other words, almost everywhere you look there are Best Practices and agreed upon industry standards.  And now we're going to be faced with Tourism Concern.  And what will be different?  Tourism Concern will still set up the guidelines, Tourism Concern will collect fees, but will they also accept the risk involved in verification or certification?

Best Practices and Standards are a dime a dozen in volunteer abroad.  You can find them anywhere you look.  But no one has accepted the risk of verification and certification.  If Tourism Concern actually takes the next step and verifies…they assume a global financial risk no one else has ever dared.  That means, if I send my daughter on a program that has been verified by Tourism Concern, and it fails to deliver as the verification process suggests, I can sue them.  Because that's what we do here in America.

jar for donationsWhat Tourism Concern wants to do is what IVPA, BBC, WYSE Work Abroad and many others have done already.  It's just more noise.  But if they back their guidelines and standards with real verification and stand behind it, now they have my attention.  Because they will have to pony up the incredible financial system to protect themselves and others when things go wrong.  I wrote WHEN, not IF.  And that's why you do not see verifiable standards out there today.  So I am interested in seeing if Tourism Concern will put their money where their mouth is.  All it will take is one American voluntourist who goes on a Tourism Concern verified program, and report that the standards are not being met and then sue to get their fees back.  I live and work here.  Yes, that will happen.  I will bet my lungs on that.

So verify up, Tourism Concern.  I'm old, and I'm set in my ways.  But there is a first time for everything, and this I want to see.

Go on over to Alexia's Blog and weigh in if you have an opinion.  Or comment here.  I'd love to know what you think about verification of standards, rather than having a dozen best practice booklets out there that everyone says they follow.  But keep in mind that verification...true verification and certification comes with great financial risk.  Otherwise, it's just another set of standards everyone can promise to attain.

Tags: Volunteer/Work Abroad Industry Updates