AA is an independent adventure tour operator started in 1991 by adventurer, mountain climber and entrepreneur Gavin Bate. From its inception the company has been characterised by a strong ethos of “doing good” and “giving back” to the communities where AA clients visit. This strong ethos is also firmly rooted in the principles of sustainable development and responsible travel.
AA was originally created to provide protection to vulnerable children in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya. Capitalizing on the skills of the entrepreneur, a tour and expeditions company was created to provide income streams to support projects dedicated to the protection of these children and their families. Projects included: schools, orphanages, clinics, rescue centres, family support centres and community centres amongst others. Twenty-five years later, the initial beneficiaries of the projects have received the necessary education and stability to allow them to actively participate and contribute to society. Many beneficiaries are currently working for both AA and MM, in the tour and expeditions company. As part of their contract they volunteer time to MM on various development projects.
AA runs a range of adventure packages which include trekking, wildlife safaris, family adventure, volunteering, medical electives and high end specialist climbing expeditions. Key destinations include Africa (mainly Kenya, Tanzania and Morocco), Nepal, Russia (Altai mountains and Kamchacta peninsula) and South America (Andes, Argentina, Bolivia and Chile).
AA’s business model operates alongside its sister company, the charity MM, another organisation set up by Gavin in 1991. MM’s primary aim is to provide poverty relief and community development through activities such as education and vocational training, medical treatment, sport and employment.
AA and MM function on a relatively unique and highly synergic operational structure highlighted in Fig. 1. This figure only shows the relationship between AA and MM UK and AA and MM Kenya but similar structures apply to the organizations in the other destinations covered by AA.
AA UK is an outbound tour operator generating clients (mainly from the UK/Ireland but increasingly from USA, Canada and other parts of the world) for the independently owned inbound AA travel companies in the destinations. This ensures local ownership, commitment and responsibility for the host destination. In several cases (e.g. AA Kenya) the local company is mainly run and staffed by previous MM beneficiaries who have received the education and training to operate a travel company. The young managing director of AA for example used to be a street kid in the markets of Nairobi and was “picked up” by Gavin Bate following an attempt to pick pocket him. MM Kenya has funded his studies and subsequently AA Kenya employed him as a staff member in the tour operating company where he worked his way up to the Director’s position.
The operational and funding model for MM is also decentralized: MM UK receives the fundraising revenues from activities organised by volunteers and groups/individuals traveling with AA and local MM operations. These activities are run by trusts formed at the local community level. They can apply each year for funding from MM UK based on their forthcoming yearly development plans. The links and synergies between AA and MM lie at the heart of this SE model and have been key to the success so far. MM has worked alongside AA as a charitable organization that collects donations for capital costs and education, health and social welfare projects. Its status means tax relief can be claimed on those donations. Another success has been its provision of seed funding for organizations and enterprises that have gained independence through the revenue from tourism.
Fig. 1 Operational structure and synergies between AA & MM
As the years have passed, the company and the charity have become inextricably linked, and the collaboration has development at its heart.
AA aims to incorporate social and economic responsibility into its destination management at all times and believes that this provides a competitive advantage in the long term. This is done through long term organic investment in local operations, and a long process of training and development in business skills. The aim is to incrementally reduce the investment to a point where the local inbound operator becomes financially independent and sustainable with a loyal client base. Fundamentally the competitive advantage for these local suppliers is based on quality through equality and social responsibility. The company policies have been altered and developed in each country to accommodate and reflect each cultural background. But the essential policies of equitable partnerships, fair working conditions, joint decision-making, consideration for the environment and shared profits are the same for all.
The aim of the synergy between AA and MM combines good business practice with effective development. The charity provides capital investment while the company develops revenue streams. Crucially local needs translate into a viable SE through tourism, thus rendering the need for ‘aid’ obsolete. By harnessing an entrepreneurial spirit and building an equitable relationship that empowers people, communities can become architects of their own success. It also teaches and encourages tourism stakeholders to embrace stewardship and careful environmental management because developments are planned sustainably. Conservation is more local in its nature because local people are involved.
Both AA and MM have grown slowly and organically, taking into account the cultural characteristics of each country where a local company has been set up and an investment has been made. The issue of trust is important because the financial investment time spent training and building took many years to implement. Local suppliers were not tied to a contractual obligation to pay back the money; instead they were trusted and grew together in friendship with the organization.
The company ensures that all staff can multi-task and are flexible and knowledgeable in all aspects of the tourism journey, from product development to accounting, leading trips, organizing budgets and even cooking. Importantly, if they wish, clients have access to all staff in the supply chain involved with their holiday from the start. Staff members travel to other countries to learn about tourism in different contexts, and are encouraged to take responsibility for all aspects of the holiday including the impacts on the destination. They are also encouraged and expected to learn and develop their career with the help of the company.
Both AA and MM measure success in terms of social capital spread over decades, continually deliberating with the stakeholders about the effects of tourism and how it can be improved. Financial indicators are important but not to the extent that a destination is ‘dropped’ if the indicators do not meet certain targets. In fact, the opposite is true. If a destination suffers a setback, for example political strife or terrorism (e.g. Kenya), earthquakes (e.g. Nepal) then the company will maintain the investment to keep people in their jobs and work hard to inform the public about the destination as a safe place to travel.
The company requires all staff to provide a flow of information and feedback on all the areas and locations that clients visit. As a result, a vast and detailed picture that has built up over the last two decades. It includes details of communities such as changing demographics, or changes in crops and style of living. These details create a story that the company shares with its stakeholders as the story of their lives. AA staff regularly attend weddings and watch families grow; they become friends and share their lives.
In 2014 AA received the award for “Best for Poverty Alleviation” category at the World Travel Market’s World Responsible Tourism Awards. In 2009 Gavin Bate won the “Personal Contribution” category at the same event.