How Collette’s Furloughed Employees Found Ways to Still Help Their Community

John Sutherland, Director of Corporate Social Responsibility 


Tell us a little bit about what Collette does, and how your company was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic on a business level?

Collette is a family-owned global tour operator offering guided travel opportunities to all seven continents. The entire hospitality industry, including the group leisure travel segment, was heavily impacted by COVID-19, and Collette was no exception. Months passed without a single tour departure. We are currently offering a few domestic tour departures at a greatly reduced capacity, but our ability to travel continues to be limited by outbreaks, border closings, and a lack of testing infrastructure. Our nearly 103 years of experience has allowed us to weather the storm and we will be ready to get our guests back out on the road when the timing is right. We know there is a demand for travel and that guests are just as excited to get back out there as we are to offer it.

Can you explain about the community efforts Collette is involved with now?

Collette has always taken an active role in the community, operating long-running philanthropy and volunteer programs as well as more recent responsible travel initiatives. Although much of that programming is currently paused, Collette is perhaps more involved in the community than it has ever been. In April, we joined an incident command structure at the request of the cities of Pawtucket and Central Falls, Rhode Island. These are two cities which have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. Since then, we have hosted and operated a multi-lingual hotline call center for residents. We schedule callers for testing in the community, coach them on CDC recommendations, and connect them to much-needed services to aid in their potential isolation or quarantine. Since May when the program started, we’ve answered over 13,000 calls and connected residents to over 10,000 tests.

What motivated the furloughed employees to join in and help out?

The call lines are currently staffed by a handful of active Collette employees and troops from the Rhode Island National Guard under a contract from the Rhode Island Department of Health. However, the initial six-week set up process of integrating the technology, programming the automated attendants for the phone lines, creating the operational framework and staffing the phones was completely comprised of approximately 20 furloughed employees volunteering their time to give back. I think they were motivated by a host of factors, but most people simply expressed a desire to actively help out people who needed it. I’ve been at Collette for over 6 years and the generosity of the employees has always impressed me, but this was exceptional. We even had an employee who is based in Britain taking calls in Spanish for our local residents. It was exciting to see Collette employees truly using their expertise to make a positive impact.

What lessons have you learned from this?

In the social responsibility field, we already know that our programs are more successful when they are highly collaborative and take the lead from the community, but this experience has been a perfect illustration of that lesson. There were many people and organizations involved in the local response to the crisis: medical professionals, mayors, city staff, non-profits, volunteer residents, members of the National Guard, and other businesses. Each had their own strengths and priorities, but none could act alone. We were united with the main objectives of serving the community and trying to decrease the spread of the disease. We communicated frequently and spoke honestly. By doing that, we were able to bring the community together and build a system that, although far from perfect, is meeting the moment and utilizing the resources at hand.

How do you think the pandemic will affect your CSR efforts going forward?

It may be some time before we are able to provide our non-profit partners with the same level of financial support that they need and deserve. At the same time, this experience has taught us that we need to constantly reconsider and reevaluate our role in the community where we work and in the places where we bring travelers. The needs have shifted. There are many efforts among travel providers to use this pause in travel to reckon with the power of the industry to bring harm but also good to local areas. The same lesson should hold for all businesses, including us. At some point soon, Collette will stop providing health-related services. But we will continue the practice of challenging ourselves to assess the actual needs of the community and respond to them in real time. We will focus on what we are good at. And we will continue to build strong, collaborative partnerships so that we know our efforts are having the right impact.

Please visit Collette’s website for more information on their corporate social responsibility initiatives.

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