Before our donors and volunteers depart on trips with our organization, it is important to adequately prepare them. Doing so mitigates potential risks and increases the likelihood of a positive experience.

I used to think that handing out lengthy guidebooks was essential to preparing our visitors. Many of them will also do their own research, read Wikitravel, and perhaps pick up a Lonely Planet guide. Wouldn’t it be great if we could consolidate all that information into a giant PDF?

After years of doing things this way, my thinking has changed. Not everyone appreciates pre-work or has the time to read a 20-page PDF. Sometimes the guidebook creates more questions than answers. Even if travelers read it in its entirety, much of it may be forgotten before arrival.

My change in thinking is informed by socio-psychological research indicating that knowledge of the destination culture is the least important factor in determining successful intercultural encounters. More important than knowledge is a participant’s capacity for empathy. Even more important than empathy is the reduction of anxiety. If people are experiencing anxiety, no amount of knowledge about the other country or culture will help as they flounder in their interactions and have a suboptimal experience.

The question is, should we still provide a guidebook and if so, what should it include?

The answer is yes: provide a guidebook with content that helps to reduce visitor anxiety. Some people will feel comforted to know a few words of the local language so as to avoid an awkward encounter. Others will feel relief learning about safety and security issues so that they can mentally prepare for any possibilities. In reading the guidebook, some will envision themselves on site and begin the mental process of adapting to the new environment. Others will forego the reading, but take solace in knowing the resource is available if needed.

A note about what doesn’t belong in the guidebook: pre-departure tactical preparations. This information is critical and needs to be given to people before they sign up for the trip. This includes the following:

  • Visa requirements (www.state.gov)
  • Travel insurance
  • Immunizations (www.org)
  • Packing list (provide a downloadable attachment on the registration page and resend the document one week and one day prior to departure)
  • Technological considerations (outlet converters, sim cards, etc.

What to Include in an Effective Guidebook

1. Site and Program Overview

If you have selected the appropriate people for the trip, they will already be familiar with your organization and mission. This section puts that knowledge into the context of their specific experience.

  • Organization History and Mission: Up to one paragraph summarizing your organization and mission.
  • Program overview: Need(s) your program addresses, how it tackles the larger structural issues, and how the program is sustainable
  • Site overview: Why you chose this particular location, what services are being offered, and who works there
  • Visitor Overview: Why you’ve chosen to bring visitors to this site at this time, what they will offer, and how they will be expected to participate
  • Agenda/brief itinerary

2. Contacts

Profiles of the people whom your visitors will meet

  • Hosts: Provide names, titles, brief bios, cellphone numbers, email addresses, and photos of the people from your organization who will lead the trip. If you are hiring an external tour manager, include his/her/their information.
  • Participants: Provide names, titles, and brief bios (they will enjoy learning about one another before meeting in person!)

3. In-Country Logistics

Every element of the site(s) during the trip

  • Money: Currency, credit card usage, and average costs of commonly purchased items
  • Language (no more than ten phrases): Salutations, expressions of gratitude, culturally specific phrases and their context, etc.
  • Meals: What is and isn’t available, dining etiquette and protocol, and allergies
  • Lodging and Accommodations: Locations, special features, or considerations
  • Transportation: Arrival and departure, primary methods during trip, and transportation options during off-hours
  • Dress and Clothing: Culturally and environmentally appropriate attire, special requests (i.e., suits if meeting with government officials, sarongs for visiting temples, etc).

4. Safety and Security

All countries have risks and many people are concerned with safety. It is important to clearly state how your organization has mitigated the risks associated with your trip. Remember, the purpose of the guidebook is to reduce anxiety to help prepare visitors for the reality they will encounter.

  • Risk Level and Key Threats: Current political, environmental, and economic climate and issues, how the organization has taken these factors into consideration in planning the itinerary, and ways that individual travelers can mitigate personal risk
  • Incident Reporting and Protocol: Instructions, procedures, and contacts for reporting and responding to incidents
  • Emergency Contacts: Phone numbers of the tour manager, organization staff, local police and ambulance, and if appropriate, the travel insurance provider

5. Health Considerations

It’s important to do everything we can to help our travelers stay healthy and comfortable on their trip and mitigate the risks of preventable ailments.

  • Communicable Diseases: Current health issues in the travel area, necessary vaccinations, and methods to mitigate risk
  • Water and Sanitation: Hygiene protocol (don’t drink the tap water) and advice (carry your own toilet paper)
  • Hospitals, Clinics, and Pharmacies: Should a traveler need medical attention, what they can reasonably expect and access within the vicinity
  • Health Incident Protocol: Similar to safety and security protocol, phone numbers of the tour manager, organization staff, local police and ambulance, and as appropriate, the travel insurance provider

6. Cultural Considerations

Be concise and focus on the specific site(s) where participants will travel. Instead of providing a sweeping history of the country, report on how the country’s history impacts modern relations among visitors and local people.

  • Key Factors: What historical factors influence modern relations, particularly those evident in anticipated interactions? E.g., religion, values, economy, etc.
  • Protocol: Identify and explain behaviors that will be observed by visitors while on site; include any rituals or practices observed on site to which visitors will be exposed.

A key thing to remember while preparing your visitors for intercultural encounters is to not overwhelm them prior to departure. Culture is better addressed by incrementally building awareness of protocol and expectations. Start each day with a concise briefing and continue to narrate any differences in situ. For deeper learnings, conduct an informal debrief at the end of the day for visitors to reflect on observations and learnings.

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