FTA sat down with Nora Livingstone, CEO and Founder of Animal Experience International, one of our newest members, to understand how she built her company’s itineraries and brand promise based on her personal family travel experiences.
Describe what AEI is and who you target primarily?
AEI is a small woman-owned tour company that sends people on safe, ethical and authentic animal volunteer programs. We started sending people on experiences in 2012 and focused on individual travel, gap year students and those looking to explore the world in a different way than resorts or multi-stop tours. Recently we have had varied and diverse families come through our programs and we want to highlight all the things we can offer travellers and their families.”
Is there a core demographic AEI attracts?
There is no set demographic. We find families of all ages and sizes are attracted to our tours. Some families who have already come on our trips are young millennial families with young children — as young as 6 (they have gone to Costa Rica to volunteer with sea turtles and Guatemala to volunteer at a wildlife rescue centre!) We also have had a family with a 15-year-old son who really wants to be a vet, travel with us to Nepal. During the days when he and his father volunteered, the mother and daughter visited stupas and temples.
And then we’ve had sisters come on trips because they realised they would never get time to sit down and really bond if their families were on the trip, too. We have had grandparents bring their grandchildren to Sri Lanka so the grandchildren can get a larger perspective on life, and the grandparents can finally have hands on experience with their favourite animals- sea turtles. And we’ve had grown up children take their parents to elephant centres in Thailand and wildlife centres in Guatemala to build memories together and to spend time together on neutral ground- helping them reconnect on an emotional level while caring for an animal and taking the focus off themselves.
How does having such a wide variety of potential clients impact your trip curation?
Since we are so small, we have already been able to work directly with solo travellers, students, families, honeymooners, zoomers and everyone in between to make the programs exactly right for them. Also since we have been to all the placements first and have really strong relationships with the local leaders there, we are able to make sure the travellers coming are perfect for the area. Not each program can be made suitable for families with young children, but ALL the programs can serve some definition of family!
Have you ever tested your product with your own family?
Most recently I went to Guatemala with my mum on a group trip that also had two sisters come along! We were able to make the trip 10 days, so we had 7 days volunteering with the animals and then an overnight trip to Tikal national park! I was able to share a private cabin with my mum and the sisters were able to share a bunk bed together- which they said made them feel like they were kids again (in a really good way). Building these memories together builds strong bonds between adult family members.
Parents tell the FTA through our annual research that travel is especially transformational for their families and their children. Have you experienced that with AEI’s programs?
Yes. We believe our programs help children and parents learn confidence and resilience. Parents have told us seeing how independent their child was helped them let go and trust their child a bit more. Of course, kids also learn empathy and a greater capacity for compassion when they volunteer directly with these animals, rather than reading extinction headlines at school and not being able to do anything to help.
The confidence that everyone gets from these trips is profound — knowing they can make a difference to these animals and the populations and ecosystems that these individuals live in. Parents have also remarked at these flashbulb memories and how they will probably not remember what resort was what when their children get older but they will always remember the time they cut up bananas for a toucan.
Other than curating these kinds of memories, how else does AEI seek to create value for travel advisors, travel partners, and their clients?
Since these trips are all-inclusive, from airport pick up to drop off, it really is the easiest way for a family to go away and help animals ‘care free’. We do all the logistical work from planning excursions to making sure all dietary needs are met! We have sent just over 650 volunteers to volunteer on our various programs and the phrase we most often hear is: life changing. These trips are life changing for whoever is on the program and that is pretty amazing.
You can see the family programs that we have available. Really all of them can be made into family trips but these are the ones that allow kids under 18 to volunteer with their parents.
Wildlife rescue in Guatemala, horse conservation in Mongolia, sea turtle conservation in Costa Rica, dog rescue in Mexico, there are a lot of wonderful places to see and a lot of amazing animals to help. We just want people to know they exist!
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