Building Community During COVID-19: An Interview with Kelley Louise of Impact Travel Alliance

Updated: May 13, 2020

Communities are so important, especially during this time. In this blog series, we spoke to three leaders who build communities around travel and sustainability. They gave us their insight on what they are doing to change the way they build community during this time.

This interview is with Kelley Louise. A travel entrepreneur passionate about storytelling and sustainability, Kelley is the founder of Impact Travel Alliance, a nonprofit and community aimed at teaching travelers how to spend their money mindfully so that they have a positive impact on local communities and the environment. She also runs Elsewhere Agency, a boutique creative agency for clients in the travel/impact space.

Kelley has built her career through carefully selected opportunities in the United States and abroad, including leadership roles in entrepreneurial endeavors, social impact projects and media strategy. A content creator herself, Kelley is an avid photographer and writer. Kelley is a passionate connector and has an innate ability to build loyal and diverse communities.

In all of your work, what have you learned about the importance of building community?

Kelley Louise: Community is at the heart of our organization, and always has been. Impact Travel Alliance represents an inclusive group of curious travelers passionate about sustainable tourism – a type of travel that is far too often considered a niche within the industry.

I wrote this in a letter to our local chapter leaders recently, and it rings true to our focus on community: We are often considered the underdogs, but we are the innovators and the pioneers. We are the ones who have the courage to imagine a better future, and to push forward with the vision to build it.

By joining a community of 20k+ travelers around the world, our network offers a space to know that you’re not alone, and there are others by your side to lift you up. Sometimes, that reassurance is all you need to change the world.

How did the coronavirus impact your organization and its plans for 2020? What changes do you anticipate for 2021 and beyond?

K.L.: At Impact Travel Alliance, we’re fortunate that we’ve always been very connected digitally. In-person events are a huge part of our organization, but on a deeper level, knowing that you’re a part of something bigger than yourself is what really fuels ITA.

At the beginning of 2020, we had mapped out our core events for the year, and our big event for May was slated to showcase ways travelers could support local communities. Perhaps serendipitously, that theme is now more relevant than ever, and it was an easy decision to transition that event to focus on how travelers can support locals today in an era of digital travel (visit our Facebook page for updates on all of our upcoming events).

Have you changed the way you build community right now? How have you responded? How do you plan to respond?

K.L.: In many ways, I’ve felt a sense of returning to my roots over the past few weeks. I launched ITA with a mostly digital team of volunteers, meeting in person only on a bi-weekly basis (and five years later, that’s still how our organization runs). With some of our larger-scale events, I’ve joked that my cat is an honorary team member because I’ve organized so many logistics from my couch with him by my side. We’re in the midst of strange times, but at least for me, there have been some little work habits that have been a comforting reminder of the ways in which I started ITA in the first place.

A digital focus on engaging our community has allowed us to bring our network together from different corners of the globe. In building ITA, we’ve invested so much into developing local networks at in-person events, and it’s been a really cool experience to help facilitate international connections for the first time.

There are opportunities everywhere, and I’m grateful for the creative problem solving we’ve had to do during this time to create those moments. That type of programming is something we’ll keep doing even in a post-coronavirus world.

What has been the impact of the coronavirus on your community’s members?

K.L.: The travel industry has been thrashed, and my heart aches for my peers within the industry. I don’t know of a single travel company that hasn’t been forced into layoffs and hard budget decisions, and the part that’s really difficult to grapple with is that there’s no finish line in sight for when travel will resume.

I wrote an article in mid-March urging travelers to stay home, despite the fact that my livelihood depends on the industry. Within two weeks, I lost 95% of my income. I’m sharing my story not because I’m looking for sympathy, but because I know that it’s not unique.

Our world is hurting, and community is needed more than ever. I’ve focused my energy on bringing our network together, and a huge part of that is just reminding myself that if I need some resources or support, my peers are probably seeking it as well. Shifting my perspective to focus on ways to support others is what has led me to spearhead some efforts like our webinar on best-practices for financials. We've focused a lot of our projects on community efforts like these and you can read about some more of our programming in one of our latest newsletters.

What advice do you have for everyone under quarantine, and in particular, travel lovers?

K.L.: First and foremost, take care of yourself – both mentally and physically. A quote that’s really resonated with me is the reminder that you’re not working from home; you’re working at home during a crisis. I’ve made a commitment to myself to focus on productive habits, such as a daily yoga practice, eating healthy and even little things like making my bed every day (this article offers some peace in navigating the roller coaster of emotions from life at home). For those of us with an insatiable wanderlust, remind yourself that quarantine will not last forever, and travel will return. Until then, you can keep dreaming – and the travel industry is getting creative with creating ways for you to experience the joy of travel from home. Whether it’s a workshop with an artist from the other side of the world or an opportunity to connect with new friends, the industry is reminding us that just because we can’t cross borders right now doesn’t mean that we can’t connect with the world around us.

When you look to the future, what are you hopeful for? What challenges do you foresee?

K.L.: If I could imagine the best possible scenario from what we’re going through right now – at least for travel – it’s that the industry would wake up to the harm tourism has inflicted on our world.

Travel has this beautiful potential to empower locals, protect our environment and transform us into global citizens. But mass tourism is plagued with exacerbating climate change, overcrowding destinations and creating generic and boring experiences.

Shifting our perception to value quality over quantity is so important, and perhaps the coronavirus could offer the industry a chance to reset the traditional approach. But as all good things are, it’s easier said than done, and a more sustainable travel industry requires buy-in from stakeholders all across the sector, and that’s a big undertaking for an industry that accounts for 10% of the world’s GDP. It’s a long road, but that’s why Impact Travel Alliance exists. What resources can you share?

K.L.: If you find yourself asking what you can do to help, remember that sustainability is a lifestyle that starts at home. Familiarize yourself with what sustainable tourism looks like, get really curious about the world around you and never stop learning. If you’re in need of some inspiration, you can always connect with our community of fellow travelers. If you’re interested in learning more about Kelley’s work and Impact Travel Alliance, visit: