Imagination has no boundaries
Women in Travel Roxanne Joyal
As a teenager, Roxanne Joyal spent a year abroad volunteering with mothers and children with AIDS in Thailand and starting a fair-trade program for women in Kenya to sell their beadwork to visitors. Although she went on to study international relations at Stanford University, earn a Rhodes scholarship and a law degree from Oxford, and clerk for the Supreme Court of Canada, her career eventually came full circle back to the transformative travel experiences of her youth.
“Little did I know then that those experiences working with communities would actually sow the seeds of what we have today, which is a travel company that is dedicated to providing people with the chance to discover the opportunities, joys and the challenges of living life in remote areas around the world,” the CEO of ME to WE and founder of ME to WE Artisans told Canadian Travel Press. “It’s amazing to see how travelling to Kenya 25 years ago has spawned today an opportunity to own and operate a lodge where people can come in and really understand what life is like in this area.”
The premise behind ME to WE Trips is for travellers to make meaningful connections in the communities where its charitable partner, WE Charity, operates, and to delve deeper into everyday local life than they’d likely glean from other tour experiences. The Bogani Cottages and Tented Camp on the edge of the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya led to further projects like the Araveli Cottages and Tented Camp in Rajasthan, India, and the Minga Lodge in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
“Today, as we run Bogani, which is our lodge, on the cusp of the Maasai Mara, but again nestled in communities where people live, our philosophy is that we want to provide families and groups with the opportunity to be very comfortable where they are, we love to call it a rustic luxury, so to say, where you have all the modern conveniences that one would expect, all the comforts that one needs, so that if you are well-fed, well-watered and well-rested, you’re then able to go to the communities during the day and really give it your all,” she said. “My philosophy for hospitality always was what would I want to do? What would I want to experience, and I felt that extending that incredibly personal element just created really great itineraries.”
Looking back, she said that even while law was her focus during the day, travel always remained in the back of her mind.
“Even as I had an opportunity to clerk for my judge, I was literally writing travel itineraries for clients at nighttime. As I was finishing up my clerkship at the Supreme Court of Canada, we opened our first lodge in Kenya, which I also had an opportunity to design, so my formal background and training is in law, but my passion is in hospitality,” she recalled. “I may have been better served going to school for hospitality, and creation and design. I love having an opportunity to craft itineraries, to craft jewellery, and that’s why I love being in the communities where we are because imagination has no boundaries.”
The art of giving back
As the founder of ME to WE Artisans, Joyal also leads social and economic empowerment initiatives by creating an international market for the intricate handiwork of women in Kenya’s Maasai Mara and Ecuador’s Amazon. The beading project near their Bogani lodge started with 25 women, and now provides fair wages to more than 1,600 women.
“From a product perspective, it’s an honour to be able to leverage the artform of beading with the women with whom we work in Kenya,” she said. “It’s not about appropriating the artform, but leveraging the skill so that they’re able to connect to the global market. This has been able to generate employment for the women, they’re able to earn four times more through this job than they would through local commerce, and we know from an international development standpoint that every dollar that a woman earns is a dollar that goes straight to her kids, her household and her community. It’s an honour to see that change happening on the ground.”
ME to WE products are now being sold in over 12,000 locations across North America through partnership with retailers, and there are now six million of the handmade Rafiki Bracelets out in the world.
While transformational travel is the buzzword of the day, Joyal believes it’s the continuation and evolution of what started out as eco travel.
“Our lodges have been open for 10 years, and it’s really amazing to see how our travel experience has really begun to resonate with more and more people. I think people are looking for a very curated experience, they really want an opportunity to understand what local life is like, and I think people really want to understand what makes a local place tick,” she said. “Today, the idea of sustainable travel, it’s not just being environmentally, but also socially sustainable. I’ve never heard anyone complain about being shown the sites by a local. I think everyone just feels like they’re getting under the skin of where they are.”
Joy to the world
Along with her husband Marc Kielburger, who along with his brother Craig co-founded WE Charity, Joyal said that travelling with their children has made up some of her favourite travel memories.
“It’s always important for us to reflect on how our lives can all be so different, but yet what is it that keeps us connected as people. Having an opportunity to have our children meet local community members and local children, and I think that would apply to anybody’s itinerary, this ability to be able to kind of take a look behind the curtain, so to say, to really understand what life is like, just really helps to keep us all connected,” she said. “So, whether it is travelling to Kenya, a country for which my children have a very deep affinity, or the Ecuadorian Amazon, that’s been an amazing adventure, as well.”
As a mom, she also enjoys designing itineraries for families to have tour options that transcend beyond Europe or all-inclusive resorts.
“The opportunity to embark on a ME to WE trip provides families with an opportunity to do something different all together,” she said. “What I really love is hearing from parents of teenagers because we’re in areas that are off the grid, so there’s an opportunity for everyone to put away their phones, and just talk as a family.”
As for what’s on her own travel agenda, Joyal said she’ll soon be travelling with the TTC to the Xigera Safari Lodge in Botswana and getting to see the Okavango Delta has been on her bucket list. Meanwhile, the next family adventure is a trip to India.
“When I’m in India, I’m just always reminded by how incredibly wondrous the world is and that’s something that I look forward to sharing with my kids,” she said.
Since 2016, ME to WE and The Travel Corporation have teamed up to offer travellers the opportunity to book ME to WE Immersive Volunteer Trip extensions in conjunction with a journey in India, Ecuador and Kenya with brands like African Travel, Contiki, Uniworld, Trafalgar, and Insight Vacations.
“It’s been really great to be able to bring this offering to a wider base of people and to have the brands engaged in what we do,” she said. “We’re really excited about our relationship with Contiki – Contiki does, of course, service travellers between the ages of 18 to 35 – and we think this type of travel that’s very locally geared and situated highly resonates with millennials as well as Gen Zers, so we’re seeing some great traction.”
Talking travel… agents
For anyone thinking of getting into the travel industry, her advice is to follow their passion.
“If you’re passionate about hospitality, if you’re very passionate about visiting new places around the world, if you are passionate about being able to keep innovating because travel is always changing, I think it’s just an incredible opportunity to have fun and to see different places in the world and to better understand it and the people who live in it,” she said. “My advice is to follow your passion for sure, and again, if I were to turn back the clock, if I knew then what I knew today, I would have taken a degree in hospitality. I had an opportunity to create cottages and these beautiful tents that are extremely comfortable, but it would have been great to have done a course in that first.”
As for the role of travel agents, she believes they are key to getting their product out to more travellers.
“We love working with travel agents especially as they continue to cultivate relationships and look and search for that new thing or something that will really interest their clients. We’re getting a lot of inquiries from travel agents whose clients are asking to take on a conventional itinerary, but they want to add on something that really plugs in locally, whether it be through community work, whether it be through cultural immersion, and they want to make sure that their itinerary is sustainable,” she said. “My advice is to keep reading, stay on top of the trends, and stay connected. I think that’s the secret sauce of what travel agents offer, which is insight knowledge that otherwise can’t easily be known.”