Amy Merrill has spent the past decade in social impact: helping 90-year-old jazz musicians survive in the modern music economy, elevating a survivor/activist rescuing thousands of sex slaves in Cambodia, and scaling a crowdfunding platform that raised $4m for projects benefiting 200,000 people around the world. Amy is cofounder and Chief Impact Officer of Journey: a public benefit corp creating impact-driven travel experiences that transform both the communities they visit and the travelers they engage.
How do the experiences you offer at Journey give guests a unique perspective on the history, people or culture of the places you travel?
Our trips are all impact-driven, and the social projects we dive into put us side by side with families and members of the local community. Often, it’s in some of the most economically challenged regions of a city otherwise known for tourism (Cartagena, for example). This gives our travelers a wildly different perspective of a culture or destination, one infused with with local food and music and rich with the history of the particular local region and its complex challenges. It also gives the chance to form real human connections with local families, so travelers leave with new friends, and not just their fellow travelers.
How have the experiences that you offer evolved since their inception?
We started out by building 100+ homes on Journeys with a two-day build and three days of integration (with partner techo.org). From there, we expanded our impact work to school renovations, skate parks, refugee relief work, women’s entrepreneurial collectives, environmental action, and soon clean water.
What is one detail of an experience you provide that may go unnoticed by guests, but which you feel is important?
We intentionally start the integration portion of the trip with an open morning and physical activity—yoga, surf, hikes. This is to get the traveler back into their body and encourage physical release after what can be an emotionally (and physically) challenging build experience. Before we process in other ways (through conversation, workshops and talks, meditation) we encourage regrounding and reconnecting with your body. Travelers may not know this is intentional, and may think it’s just because we’re in a cool surf spot.
What do you wish every guest knew as they consider participating in a trip with Journey?
We go to serve the world, not save the world. My Experience Director Ansa shared this quote with me recently, and it represents how we think about the balance of these trips and the opportunity to do the work: it’s an entry point, and opportunity to show up in service and share it with others, then listen to the questions that arise for you and things you notice about yourself along the way. We tackle complex issues with our work, and there is no quick fix or easy answer: but we show up, and it makes a deep impression on the families and children who realize that they are not forgotten and there is a collective and conscious effort to include them in progress, as well as on our Journeyers who see the world through a slightly new frame of teamwork in humanity. In our experience, having the right expectations going into the week makes a world of a difference.
What is one unexpected piece of clothing or equipment guests should have to maximize their enjoyment of the experiences you offer?
Good question! Two thoughts: if there’s one small costume or accessory that makes the traveler feel extra beautiful or superhuman, this comes in handy at late-night campfires or spontaneous dance parties. And I’ve had a lot of fun bringing flash tats (metallic tattoos) to put on kids in the communities—with their parents’ permission of course. On a practical level, powdered green juice and supplements are nice to have after days of beans & rice.
What is one travel trend that really excites you?
Service! And learning trips. Everyone’s getting out there and doing something. The days of all-inclusive beach resorts where you come home with only a sunburn and a hangover to prove for it are over.
How do the work project and cultural immersion components of your trips combine to be more than the sum of the parts?
I’m not sure I can describe it here—that’s our secret sauce. 😉 Simply put, the days of impact work open people up, and the immersion and integration connects them to one another and themselves, on an arc of an experience that allows for a range of emotions, reflection and examination, and new friendships.
What is one insider’s tip to getting the most out of an experiential travel vacation?
Be present. Obvious I know, but it can be hard in an age of cell phones and infinite options to not be constantly thinking, what’s next? Am I hitting all the “best” spots in this town? And have I represented myself in every powerful moment to my friends on social? Immersive means: put the phone down, listen to the locals and what they’re sharing with you, forget what you’re doing later, and look up.
What is one personal habit that has helped you to be successful?
Being a good listener.
Please share one instance where a guest had a moving or emotional reaction to the experience you provided to them.
There’s honestly been so many. I had a stern, possibly ex-military traveler come on a Journey last year, and for the first day or so, I wasn’t sure if he and his wife were going to connect to the experience. They hadn’t stayed in a hostel for decades, they were used to controlling all parts of their vacations and not to being in groups. They spent two days on a Guatemalan build site filled with kids and teens, digging holes for foundation posts on their stomachs and erecting walls in the hot sun. After the final key ceremony, when the roof was up and the family entered their new home for the first time, he came up to me and told me it was one of the most powerful experiences of his life. He called it not life-changing but life-expanding; he’d never expected to connect with the locals, but a 17-year old Guatemalan teen and he had bonded over their shared love of the band Fallout Boy. That moment had changed everything, and for just a flash, he and the boy were the same.