GoAbroad Interview

Anne Smellie - Destination Manager

Anne is slowly working her way around the world, finding amazing animal welfare and conservation projects that Oyster volunteers can help with. From bears in Romania to elephants in Sri Lanka, from lions in South Africa to turtles in Costa Rica, she has had some incredible wildlife encounters. She loves to get others involved too!

She started her travelling and volunteering journey back in 2005 when she started studying Modern Foreign Languages at university - she has been hooked ever since!

What does a typical day at work look like for you as Destination Manager?

I get in to work at about 8:45 a.m., put the kettle on, empty the dishwasher and water the plants. We are a small team so we all muck in to the general running of the office. The first few hours of my day are usually spent handling emails that came in overnight and answering people’s questions - both people who are new enquiries and people who are already on their way to their adventure. A lot of my role involves speaking to people on the phone, answering questions about animal welfare and conservation projects and helping people through their planning. I also do a lot of blogging, updating the website, choosing new pictures to use and generally trying to keep things fresh. The day always is full to bursting, and I usually manage to get out of the office between 5 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.

Petting a young elephant

What attracted you to work in volunteer travel?

I am really passionate about travelling, and I think that it is so important that people can shake off their nerves and embark upon seeing some of the world. I genuinely believe that we are all citizens of the world, and we need to learn from other countries and cultures. The best education that I ever got was through working, travelling and holidaying overseas - I learned far more about history, politics, people, language and society than I ever would have done in school or university.

I think that volunteer travel is fantastic as it really allows you to get under the skin of a country and live like a local. It enables people to travel solo, gain independence, meet like-minded people and to make a genuine contribution to the world. What’s not to love?

My journey into this job was through volunteer travel too - I spent three months volunteering in a bear sanctuary in Romania in 2009. It is now 2018 and it is still one of the best things I have ever done.

How does Oyster Worldwide differentiate itself from other conservation travel companies?

Our core mantra is care, commitment, passion and experience. We genuinely deliver on all of these promises throughout our daily work. We all genuinely love what we do - we have all travelled and, most importantly, have first-hand experience of the projects that we run.

Holding a sea turtle

Our projects are all hand-picked, through a process that can take several years. We only partner with projects that have high ethical, safety and care standards. We fully assess the quality of all of our conservation and animal welfare projects, and I have volunteered personally on almost all of the projects that we run today.

We know our projects inside out and back to front, and it is a genuine pleasure to be asked a question that we don’t know the answer to!

What kind of international experiences have helped you in the role you play currently?

The most important thing for me is the experience that I have had volunteering on animal welfare and conservation projects. My knowledge about these complex issues has really grown, which really helps me to hand-pick new fantastic projects. Actually getting stuck in and mucky on the ground with the volunteers is invaluable to helping future volunteers get prepared for their upcoming adventures too.

Finally, as I have travelled as a volunteer myself I can fully relate to the people that go away with us. Nerves? Yep, I had those. Homesickness? Tick. Culture shock? Totally. This means that I can prepare people for the unexpected and enable them to make the most of their time away.

Selfie with animals

What do you love most about your job?

The greatest pleasure that I have in my work is hearing amazing life-changing stories from the people that I have enabled to go overseas. I have received phone calls from parents to say that they had dropped off a scatty child at the airport, and gone back to collect an independent and confident young adult. I have received emails from people who have totally changed their study or career paths based on their amazing experiences. I have had people who were struggling whilst they were away come back to me and say that they could never have asked for a more incredible trip. Photos, videos, phone calls and one line emails of thanks and enthusiasm make it all worthwhile.

What is your favorite travel memory with Oyster Worldwide to date?

To date I have 8 years of them, so this is tough! I have been blessed with the places that I have gone, the people that I have met and the animals that I have encountered. Maybe one of the most special was when I went to Costa Rica for 5 weeks in 2010. It was my first time outside of Europe and I ended up on this stunning golden sand beach, patrolling it at night time under the glow of the Milky Way, looking for mother turtles giving birth.

The first bear that I ever saw at the bear sanctuary in Romania, and then swiftly realising that there was another, and another, and ANOTHER was also something I will never forget.

What is the best destination for eco-friendly travelers in your opinion? Why?

The Galapagos sets an excellent example of how to conserve delicate ecosystems. Tourism is very well managed, as is the general running of the islands. This is quite hard to do considering the wildlife there is totally tame - I have never seen anyone petting a sea lion or an iguana for example, even though you can get close enough to touch. I think that the ethos on the archipelago is fantastic, and really spreads amongst travellers who go there.

Photo with the students

If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would it be? Why?

I am very much someone who likes to go off the beaten track, and always have been. My fascination for the world started young, and when I was a little girl my parents subscribed me to a penpal scheme where I could meet other children like myself from all around the world and write letters to them. I loved it so much, that at one stage I was writing to ten or so other children from far-flung countries around the world. It was amazing! 20 years later and there is still one person that I keep in touch with. She is from Zimbabwe, and when we were 14 she became an orphan. Her situation became so bad that my parents were sending her clothes and we were having to send her money so that she could continue to write letters back to me. She opened my eyes to the beauty and the sadness of her country, and I have wanted to go there ever since.

How do you support clients throughout their time abroad?

We get in touch with our participants before they go away to make sure that they are ready to go. We then check in with them once they have been away for a week, and then when they come back too. There are staff members on the ground with them who provide most of their support and knowledge, but we are always here in the background too.