Holidays for Humanity CEO Aaron Smith is fired up about purposeful travel

Aaron Smith shakes his head as he recalls downing 250 millilitres of industrial-grade hot sauce. “What you do for sea turtles,” the CEO of Holidays for Humanity says of the dare that raised nearly a $1,000 and enabled a Costa Rican organization to buy a van. “I felt like a six-year-old boy continually pinching myself with this intense burning sensation.”

Aaron SmithBased in Vancouver, Holidays for Humanity is an online booking agency that includes four other websites connecting vacationers with “purposeful travel experiences.” Over hummus and mekali cauliflower wrap (minus, notably, any hot sauce) at Jamjar restaurant on Commercial Drive, we’re meeting a year after Smith made the unusual move of buying back the sites he originally sold to Flight Centre Ltd.

Having worked with the Australian conglomerate since it acquired his startup within the first six months of operation in 2012, the East Vancouver resident says his sites suit a more “long tail” approach, based on a much wider offering of smaller projects than mainstream tourism’s focus on fewer but better-known accommodations and destinations.

Keen for everything from fresco restoration projects in Italy’s Puglia region and building orphanages in Guatemala to wellness retreats and active adventures, experiential travellers are also usually more “high touch,” Smith explains. Their detailed questions require greater knowledge from suppliers—something else that jarred with Flight Centre’s emphasis on more commonplace travel requirements.

“Perhaps I have egg on my face for trying a model that didn’t work out, but now whatever we can control, we will control,” the 2013 BCBusiness Innovator of the Year finalist says of the low-profile decoupling. “Flight Centre is a public company, responsible to its shareholders, and great at what they do—I’ve no regrets, learned so much and have a laser-like focus now.”

Today, along with a staff of seven in Kitsilano, East Vancouver and Whistler, Smiths business has “tens of thousands” of people booking through pay-to-play sites. Roughly 70 per cent of traffic comes from the U.S. (especially via the 2016 acquisition of SEEtheWILD, a Portland-based group that specializes in wildlife conservation tourism), with Canada and the U.K. each accounting for about 15.

Smith’s conversion to this growing breed of traveller, which includes so-called voluntourists, came after a decade in tourism, an industry now worth more than US$7 trillion annually. He previously worked for Flight Centre as Western Canada marketing manager and VP of marketing from 2002 to 2005 before becoming director of marketing and operations at B.C.’s Adventure West Resorts for five years.

But after “bellying up to the bar far too many times” on vacations to typical resorts in places like Mexico and Hawaii, Smith took a trip to Kenya and Tanzania in 2010 while studying commerce at Royal Roads University. That visit “blew the door open” to how different and beneficial travel could be, he remembers.

“I certainly wasn’t an environmentalist back then,” says the 42-year-old. “But seeing how  microfinance and entrepreneurship can better a local community, I felt I could take my privileged environment and my background in tourism, and help tell these stories.”

One of Smith’s personal drivers is whether his two daughters, aged seven and 10, will be proud of what he did. He often takes them and his wife, Erin, a planner with the Vancouver Park Board, to more challenging spots in countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam. No matter how the Holidays for Humanity sites work out, Smith says, “We will always be able to say we saved thousands of turtles, we audited 500 great white sharks, and a few people even started their own not-for-profits because of our introductions.”

Three things about... Aaron Smith

1. The travel junkie is obsessed with YouTube videos on how to survive in the wild, watching hundreds of them, especially before going to bed. “I’m particularly fond of building homes out of mud.”

2. After damaging his shoulder and ankle “alley-surfing” on a skateboard, Smith was recently told in Burnaby General Hospital’s emergency room that, at 40, it was perhaps time for him to grow up and stop the sport. “When you’re 16 you just rebound; now I go down like an anvil.”

3. Echoing his childhood on a farm on the Niagara Peninsula, Smith’s yard is divided between his vegetable garden and his wife’s flower-centric patch. “I still fantasize about having my sweet, sweet plot of land in the future and doing my thing. There is something to be said for a big day of manual labour.”