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GoVoluntouring takes flight

February 6, 2012

One Friday, Aaron Smith was running his business out of his home. The following Monday he joined hundreds of new colleagues at the downtown Vancouver offices of Flight Centre.

The Royal Roads University Bachelor of Commerce alumnus is the founder of GoVoluntouring.com, an online company that matches volunteers with opportunities to help communities around the world. With more than 100 partner organizations paired with 400 volunteers since September, it should come as no surprise to those following Smith's work that he is happily announcing the acquisition of his business by Flight Centre, one of the world's top travel companies.

"It's a massive change, and it's great," Smith says. "It's the best thing for GoVoluntouring."

Smith made the first move with Flight Centre when he initially contacted them about a booking API for the website. The widget would allow people to book hotels and flights directly, making GoVoluntouring a one-stop shop. The intent was for Flight Centre to provide the software and Smith would provide all customers, but the travel company saw a bigger opportunity.

He got a call from Greg Dixon, president of Flight Centre Canada, asking him to come in for a meeting. They were interested in working with GoVoluntouring, but the travel company wanted to own the concept outright. As part of that, Smith secured a five-year contract with Flight Centre to manage the continued development of GoVoluntouring.

The conversation left Smith holding a "bag of emotions," he says. He felt validated in his work, nervous about what it would mean to sell and generally just overwhelmed. The business was growing so fast, and Smith had never imagined it would reach that stage so quickly. He had talked to business partner and fellow Royal Roads alumnus Wes Tyre about exit strategies, but they never expected an offer to appear less than a month after launching the business.

Smith looked at the opportunity through three filters: what was best for his partner organizations, what was best for the business and ultimately what was best for his family. "This was the answer to all of those," he says. It was clear Flight Centre was the obvious choice to help Smith achieve his objective of making better volunteer travel opportunities more mainstream.

"At Flight Centre, we take our role as a positive corporate citizen seriously, and we are dedicated to leading our industry in responsible and sustainable travel practices. The acquisition of GoVoluntouring reflects our commitment to work with like-minded organizations to fulfill this promise," Dixon. "It is as important to us, as it is to you, that we continue to build upon its founding principles."

For the 120 volunteer organizations Smith partners with, the deal with Flight Centre has opened up the world to them in a new way. "Flight Centre has 2,200 shops around the world. Having access to that distribution channel is unheard of," he says. "By virtue of being involved with us, they are involved with one of the top travel agencies in the world."

For the business, the move brings long-term stability. There are deeper resources all around, Smith says. He now has access to scores of IT professionals, and experts in marketing, human resources and more. "All of these systems are well worn," he says. "It saves me from having to develop them."

That takes pressure off him at work, but more importantly it opens up his time to his family. There have been sacrifices on his time and missed activities with his wife and children, he says, but now there will be more time to achieve the work-life balance he strives for.

"It's great. It's very overwhelming still. My wife and I walked to the SkyTrain station together this morning, which has never happened before," he says.

Reflecting back on how GoVoluntouring developed, Smith is most impressed by the change his idea underwent. He originally pitched "Holidays for Humanity" for a class assignment. The business would see tour guides leading volunteer experiences around the world. He was struggling with the business model though, and it wasn't until Royal Roads professor Salvador Trevino offered some words of advice that he found his path.

"He said, 'If you build a community you build a sales channel. If you build a sales channel you build revenue.' It was that community word he said that stopped me in my tracks. My community should be all of these partners, not just helping one at a time. That's when GoVoluntouring started to evolve."

Now, on his first day in the new office, Smith prepares to head upstairs. He has a budget meeting to attend, but not before he checks in on GoVoluntouring's social media channels. With the flurry of online activity around the announcement, Smith wants to stay on top of the conversation and ensure his partners feel secure.

"I have a very personal relationship with all of them. I know about their birthdays and their kids, so it's important that I carry on."