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Charity Challenge hits 15: An interview with the BOSS!

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June sees Charity Challenge proudly celebrating 15 years of inspirational fundraising challenges! HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO US! So we thought it would be nice to interview the boss, Simon Albert, about Charity Challenge’s journey over the last 15 years.

What was the inspiration behind setting up Charity Challenge?

Simon-trekkingAbout 18 years ago I signed up for one of the first challenges of their kind with about 120 other people. I saw an advert to trek Petra which was somewhere I had always wanted to go to. We trekked through Jordan and it was really quite inspirational. Then the charity asked me to climb Kilimanjaro and I did that the following year having never climbed or trekked at altitude and I managed (with some difficulty) to get to the top. There were only three people in their 20s including myself. Most of the people were more or less of my parents’ generation and I felt there wasn’t anyone who offered inspirational challenges for young people to raise money for charity.

So over the next two years I travelled with Jeremy Gane, a very respected tour operator who later became my business partner, first to Tanzania to design a trek with the Maasai through the African bush, and then to Cuba to trek the trail of Cuba’s revolution. Jeremy organising the tours and I became the tour leader with a view to take a group of around 40 people to do each challenge.

At the time I was doing a graduate training role and a very respected business person gave me some sage advice that I have never forgotten. It was that if you want to be successful at something you should do something that excites you and that you are passionate about. I realised then that I could combine my love of travel with organising events to raise money for good causes. A few months later I came up with the idea of Charity Challenge.

I discussed it with Jeremy and with his valuable input, and from my initial experience of the trips I’d been on as a client and then leader, certain elements stuck with me. The first was that we should stick to small groups which were more environmentally responsible and would give the participants a much better and more genuine experience. Secondly, the pricing should be completely transparent and include everything that could be included, and the third was to launch open challenges where anyone could go and raise money for any charity. We were the first people to do that.

That has been a fundamental part of our business over the last 15 years. The initial trips made me aware of a number of other audiences who might also be interested in these kinds of challenges. I’m proud to say that some of the first organisations that we were involved with 15 years ago are still clients today and that includes CLIC Sargent, who were the charity supported on our very first trek up one of the world’s highest active volcanoes, and the NSPCC, who did a Kilimanjaro climb and a trek with the Maasai.

How did the business develop during the early years?

The early years were tough, as with any new business. When I started the company it was me Sumatra-blog-13on my own in a box room that someone had provided me with. Jeremy was working from his own established tour operator. Although the romantic dream had been to travel the world, I was pretty much stuck in a tiny office, 13 hours a day, seven days a week – sometimes for three or four weeks without a break. But the hard work paid off and from the initial portfolio of five or six challenges we have greatly increased the number of activities that we offer, the number of countries that we go to, the number of participants that we have engaged with and the number of charities that we have raised funds for. The portfolio now includes treks, bike rides, runs, mountain climbs, dog sledding, snow shoeing, sledge hauling, white water rafting, kayaking and horse riding. We travel to the North and South Poles and every environment in between including deserts, rivers, jungles, mountains, volcanoes, oceans and rainforests.

Describe some of the highs and lows of the last decade-and-a-half

During the last 15 years we have had to deal with a multitude of unforeseen situations including bird flu, SARS, terrorist attacks, cancelled flights, strikes, tsunami, hurricanes, the Arab Spring and the eruption of an Icelandic volcano. Pretty much every significant world incident impacts on our business. As an example, the Women’s Great Walk of China in 2004 was a walk 300 women across the entire length of the Great Wall of China over a seven month period. It consisted of 24 back-to-back challenges starting in the Gobi Desert and ending at the Yellow Sea. But by group three the impact of SARS meant the government threw out all tourists and refused to let any others in. So at a moment’s notice we had to organise for hundreds of clients to do different treks of the same length but now in Peru, Thailand, Mexico, Tanzania and India. It was a massive undertaking and learning curve, but one that enabled us to respond quickly to other such incidents.

CC-IND-Shovelling-GravelIn 2004 we decided to create a new type of challenge called Community Challenge which would involve our clients going to a number of developing countries and working with local NGOs to build houses, schools and community centres. We were due to launch it in January 2005, but a few weeks earlier on Boxing Day 2004 the Asian tsunami occurred. I remember sitting in my hotel room on holiday glued, day after day, to the TV and finding it hard to comprehend the sheer scale of the devastation and the number of lives that had been lost.
We had never worked in Sri Lanka and had no ground handler or charity partner. We had never worked with the national airline but we knew that this was something where we could have a positive impact and, driven by this desire to help, we set up and launched a programme with Habitat for Humanity GB that took us to tsunami-affected communities in Sri Lanka and India in order to rebuild hundreds of houses.

I myself went on the very first group and worked with a local fisherman who was out in his boat at the time that the tsunami struck. The boat was destroyed, but he managed to get back to land –  though it took him three days to finally reunite with his wife and two young children. I worked with a team of 16 people and we helped him rebuild his house. This was one of the most powerful experiences I have had and I still have a photo of him and his family and what was left of his fishing boat, framed on my wall. It reminds me every day that we can make a difference.

In the year after the tsunami we sent more volunteers to Sri Lanka than the UN. We were personally thanked by the minister of tourism in Sri Lanka and managed to raise over £1.1million for the rebuilding process. In the years that followed the programme expanded to India, Tanzania, Nepal, South Africa, Mexico, China, Cambodia and many other countries. The majority of the participants were part of corporate teams taking part in corporate responsibility programmes or HR-led team-building challenges.

These challenges accounted for a third of our business at the time that Lehman Brothers went bust and the world became aware of the global economic downturn. We (literally) lost a third of our business. Not only did this have a drastic impact on the commercial side of Charity Challenge, but it meant that we couldn’t follow through with what was happening in many of those developing communities.

Celebrities Climb Mount Kilimanjaro For Comic Relief - Day 7Soon afterwards we were approached and appointed to organise the Comic Relief BT Red Nose Climb which involved Gary Barlow, Cheryl Cole and a host of other celebrities climbing Kilimanjaro. It was my business partner Jeremy Gane who successfully organised and escorted a team and crew of 34 participants to the top of Kilimanjaro with 100% success. This included a huge BBC crew, a team from Radio One, the celebrities, photographers, journalists, charity representatives and support crew.

I reached the summit side by side with Jeremy and when the last of the celebrities had reached the summit we hugged and Jeremy broke down in tears. The stress and workload of organising such a high profile challenge had been immense and it was a massive relief. What’s more, the trip went on to raise more than £3.32million for fighting malaria in Africa.

There have been many highs and many lows, but in the process we have helped raise over £40million for 1,670 UK, Irish and Canadian charities. I couldn’t be prouder!

What would you consider the company’s biggest achievement to date?

Over the 15 years there have been numerous achievements that I’m particularly proud about.
In 2007, after we launched our Community Challenge programme we were highly commended by the Queen’s Award for sustainable development and highly commended in the Virgin Holidays Responsible Travel Awards, which was run globally. We were the second best in the whole world for the category of Poverty Reduction.

Simon meting the Prince of Wales!Although I initially thought it was someone playing a joke on me, I received an invitation to Buckingham Palace in 2011 to celebrate 100 years of British adventure and was honoured to meet the Queen and Prince Philip, as well as a number of other members of the Royal Family and famous adventurers including Michael Palin, Bruce Parry and Ben Fogle. There was a second brush with royalty when I was introduced to Prince Charles at an event which connected business with worthwhile charitable causes.

However, the one achievement that makes me the most proud was being nominated as one of the 100 people who make Britain a happier place in the Independent on Sunday Happy List

We have been the first to introduce a number of concepts and have always driven best practice within the sector. Most recently we have been recognised in the Partners in Fundraising awards which are run by the Institute of Fundraising and voted for by the charity membership of the Institute. The awards launched in 2013 and we were voted the Best Challenge Company both in 2013 and 2014. It’s great after 15 years of hard work, developing the business and doing our best to represent the charity sector, to receive this kind of recognition.

I once had advice to only ever do business in a way that I could look back on it at the end of the year and be proud of how I handled the decisions I had made. Sometimes there could have been easier decision or more profitable options, however I have always stirred to focus on what I felt was right by the developing communities where we run our challenges, the charities we support and the individuals who take part in the challenges. After 15 years as I look back, I am very proud of where the business has come.

What direction to do you see Charity Challenge taking in the future?

It’s an incredibly exciting time as we move further into 2014 and out of a five-year economic Holi1_WC30395downturn. It has been hard for people to commit their own funds and to raising thousands of pounds for other people when throughout the UK people have been having to tighten their belts. But almost as soon as it turned to 2014 there seems to have been a massive upturn in confidence and we have just had our best first quarter in terms of the number of people booking on to challenges since the start of the recession.

We are currently reviewing our entire business by taking a step back and assessing how we operate and how we can make it a better experience for everyone involved. We hope to be launching a new and improved Community Challenge service before the summer is out. We have recruited a number of new members of staff from the charity, travel and entertainment sectors who are bringing lots of new ideas. As well as new countries and new activities, we are redesigning our website and have lots of new and exciting ideas to launch.

I hope this is a new sustained growth period for the entire charity sector and Charity Challenge intends to be at the forefront, driving innovation and best practice.
We introduced Charity Challenge in Canada two years ago and this is an area which we are continuing to develop. We launched a huge range of UK challenges in 2013 and I am pleased to say that most are selling out this year.

We have also established a number of worthwhile partnerships to be able to deliver some mass participation UK events and to restart a number of our Community Challenge school builds around the world.

And now for a few thank yous…

PeruFirst and foremost to the man who inspired me about the world of adventure travel but more specifically about the ethics of responsible travel and responsible business! Long before the buzz words of responsible business became hip, Jeremy Gane was running Gane & Marshall International in a way which looked after its staff, porters, guides and entire crew like a big family. I was privileged in the early years to travel with Jeremy to Cuba and Tanzania and to develop the first itineraries. It was this experience of the way that Jeremy did business that has given me a model that I have stuck to with Charity Challenge. Jeremy became my business partner in 1999 and has been my best friend ever since and I’m grateful for his ongoing support, guidance and very valued input.

Thanks to Simon Lester for the inspiration to do something I am passionate about. I am so pleased I followed his advice!

Thanks to Rita Eker from the One to One Foundation who gave me my first shot in the charity world. I am forever grateful.

Thanks to all of the incredible people have worked for Charity Challenge over the years and who have contributed to the ideas and operation of our expeditions.

Finally, and by no means least, a huge thank you to my wife Lianne, and to my sons Benji, Gadi and Nathan, for putting up with me. I`m privileged to love what I do, which means I find it hard to switch off at nights, weekends and holidays! I can’t wait until the boys are old enough to join us on some challenges around the world!

www.charitychallenge.com

 

Our Charity trekkers tie the knot on the Great Wall of China

Abbie Ross was not expecting the charity trek on the Great wall of China in April 2013 to be such a memorable experience in more ways than one when she signed up to fundraise for Stroke Association with her boyfriend James Dennis. Departing the 6th April 2013 a group of 18 led by Penny Knight embark on the 9 day challenge on the Great Wall Discovery Challenge…

This is what Abbie has to say about her experience of a lifetime with an unexpected surprise like no other…….

Going to China was a dream trek and unforgettable experience in more ways than one for us this April!

On our third day after hours of trekking the magnificent great wall at Jinshangling Great Wall, our legs were killing and we were all looking forward to a good meal and a hot shower.
We all made our way down the mountain side chattering amongst ourselves and full of good spirit after another successful and challenging day.

Very unaware of another life changing event about to take place I persuaded James to sit with me beneath a traditional oriental pavilion and have some pictures.

The moment James pulled a box out of his favourite pair of trekking socks (Clean and in the pocket of his rucksack!!) and went down on one knee was the best moment ever-  further more when he popped the big question and all the amazing friends we made let out a huge cheer was so amazing!
We will always hold this trek and our group close to our hearts and can’t wait for a Charity challenge honey moon!!

Charity Challenge would like to congratulate Abbie and Congratulations to James on their Engagement. We would also like to Congratulate all our trekkers on their amazing dedication to the charities they support and the challenges they overcome and complete.

For more information on our Great Wall Discovery, please click here. If you have any questions on this challenge, please contact us on info@charitychallenge.com. To see more information about the array of amazing challenges we have, please visit our website at www.charitychallenge.com. To keep up to date on all our challenge news, please subscribe to this blog. You can also enter your email address into the adjacent box to subscribe to our mailing list.

Leaders wanted…could it be you?

Charity Challenge often needs to recruit enthusiastic, experienced leaders to lead and manage overseas expeditions; mountain climbs, treks, bike rides and house-building community based challenges.  Expeditions are run all over the world in aid of UK & Irish registered charities.  The challenges are of varying degrees of difficulty that enable people from all walks of life and abilities to make a difference to someone’s life by pushing their personal boundaries.

In your role as a challenge leader you will have a set itinerary to manage and will be working with a local ground handler and support team to run this in a safe and efficient manner.  You will be the main point of contact for the clients and will need to liaise with the ground handler over any client problems, changes to the itinerary and generally efficiency of the expedition.

You will be given a handbook detailing all that the role entails on completion of a successful interview.

what we are looking for

  • We are of course looking for someone with the relevant group expedition leading experience (preferably overseas) with a larger adventure tour operator and/or within the charity sector.
  • Personal travel experience to the developing world is a requirement and high altitude trekking experience is desirable.
  • You will also possess relevant wilderness and remote rescue and emergency care qualifications (or be prepared to acquire them) – the minimum requirement is REC Level 2 but higher levels of rescue and emergency care training is advantageous. You may possibly also possess mountain leader qualifications
  • In addition, we are looking for someone who is highly organised and with a good level of attention to detail to manage these busy expeditions and ensure they run smoothly.
  • Specifically, you should be able to manage your time efficiently with a high level of care and attention all at the same time.
  • You should also have and the ability to take the initiative and be a confident and competent communicator with clients and overseas ground handlers.
  • You should have a good knowledge of overseas health and safety issues and be a diplomatic and effective problem solver who can keep calm in a crisis

For further information or to apply for this job please contact kathryn@charitychallenge.com and enclose your CV.

Supporting SOS in Ape-ril!

Unfortunately I can’t claim praise for the ingenious pun found in today’s blog title; it seems that the Sumatran Orangutan Society have already staked their claim on it as they promoted last month’s ‘Ape-ril’ campaign, which encouraged supporters across the world to grow a beard in solidarity with our orange relatives. We actually share a huge 96.4% of our DNA with orangutans, but we are pushing them to the edge of extinction due to the boom in palm oil plantations and other agricultural expansion across Borneo and Sumatra, the only homes left now to these iconic animals that were once widespread throughout the forests of Asia. Through their Ape-ril campaign, SOS is raising awareness (and money!) to make a lasting impact on the survival of the orangutans and the conservation of their rainforest home.

I’m pleased to say that Charity Challenge has also been able to support SOS throughout April, with 3 groups going out to Indonesia to take part on our Sumatran Jungle Expedition. Because of the huge presence of the Sumatran Orangutan Society directly in the area that we trek in, we make a donation of £50 for each person on this challenge, and we’ve just had the amazing news that we were able to make a humungous donation of £1400 for our 3 April groups! SOS rely principally on donations to carry out their work, so this money will go towards the campaigns, projects and other incredible work that they are already carrying out.

Our Sumatran Jungle expedition is not just a physical challenge, but also a learning experience as the group treks through the Gunung Leuser National Park, home to hundreds of our orange friends, and learns about their plight and the conservation efforts taking place in Sumatra to try and protect these endangered animals. The Sumatran Jungle Society plays a massive part in supporting the reforestation of the national park, promoting conservation among villages and communities who depend on the Gunung Leuser National Park for their livelihoods, and helping these communities to live sustainably and without animal-human conflict. If it wasn’t for the continued effort of SOS, we would not be able to run this challenge with a clear conscience, but because of them we are able to send groups out in the knowledge that they will be contributing to the protection of the Sumatran wildlife.

I think our participants can express their thoughts better than we ever could:

“To actually see the palm oil industry moving in and hearing the chainsaws while walking in the jungle was a strong reminder that we need to stop this deforestation and destruction of the orangutans’ natural habitat. If you think life is hard when you struggle with climbs and descents – think about the orangutans that get killed every day”.

“To have the opportunity to experience an adventure like this whilst doing good, with an amazing group of people was an honour. It was tough but when we all got back to the Eco Lodge and thought about what we had done and what we had achieved, from the fundraising to the trek itself, it left you feeling incredibly proud.”

To learn more about the Sumatran Orangutan Society and their conservation efforts, go to http://orangutans-sos.org/. Or alternatively, why not take the opportunity to visit Sumatra and see for yourself! For each person on our trip we donate £50 to SOS, so you can go in the knowledge that you are not only supporting the charity of your choice, but you are also helping to give back to the people, wildlife and environments you will be seeing during your time in Indonesia.

You can also find out more about our Sumatra Jungle Challenge by clicking here. If you have any questions on this challenge, please contact Jo, our Ops Manager on jo@charitychallenge.com. To see more information about the array of amazing challenges we have, please visit our website at www.charitychallenge.com. To keep up to date on all our challenge news, please subscribe to this blog. You can also enter your email address into the adjacent box to subscribe to our mailing list.

Chinese New Year: Year of the Snake

Charity Challenge veteran team leader, Trevor Gibbs gives us his personal slant on the Chinese New…

A time for feasting, families and fun, the Chinese New Year is the longest and most important of China’s traditional holidays. Also known as the ‘Spring Festival’, the 15 day celebration ends on the second new moon after the winter solstice, which this year falls on the 10 February 2013. Celebrated in Chinese communities throughout the world, the new year festivities can trace their origins back to the legend of a voracious beast called the Nian, which once devoured livestock, crops and villagers across mainland China. In reality though, it is more likely that these colourful (and loud) celebrations evolved as a means of heralding the arrival of spring and the end of winter.

In Chinese communities across the world pigs, ducks, chickens and sweet delicacies are sacrificed  to a celebration of family, thanksgiving and reunion. The spirits of the ancestors, along with the living, are believed to come together as one great community on New Year’s Eve, to honour the past and the present. The Chinese probably consume more food during these New Year celebrations than at any other time of the year, with huge quantities of fish, dumplings, rice and vegetable cakes joining the feast. The abundance of food, the obligatory firecrackers and the fiery red lanterns that adorn every house are all believed to trace their origins back to the mythical legend of the ferocious Nian.

As you might expect with a people as traditional and superstitious as the Chinese, New Year brings with it many customs and taboos. Chinese houses should be cleaned before New Year’s Day, as it is believed that to clean or dust on the day itself could sweep good fortune away. All debts should be paid and nothing should be lent, and everyone is discouraged from using foul language or ‘unlucky’ words. Even crying is discouraged, as it is believed that if you cry on New Year’s Day, you will cry throughout the year. This is particularly good news for unruly children, who tend to be tolerated by their long suffering parents for fear of burdening themselves with a snivelling offspring for the coming year. It is also believed that appearance and attitude during New Year sets the tone for the rest of the year. Red is considered a particularly auspicious colour to wear and red envelopes, often filled with money, are given out to young and old alike.

Visually, Chinese New Year is a blaze of colour, with lanterns, flowers and decorations joining the exuberant displays of dragon dances, drums and clashing cymbals across the globe. It is also a time of hope for many Chinese, with the deafening pops of thousands of firecrackers driving away the evil spirits for another year. As the Chinese themselves say…迎春接福 (Yíngchúnjiēfú)

…“Greet the New Year and encounter happiness”

China is one of our most popular destinations and we have three fantastic challenges in which you can see the country. You can now trek, cycle and now even run and see China at its very best. Our challenges in China are:

Great Wall Discovery
Great Wall Cycle
Great Wall Run

To keep up to date on all Charity Challenge news, please enter your email address into the adjacent box to subscribe to our mailing list.

For more of Trevor’s view on the world, check out his blog at:

http://alizardwandering.wordpress.com/

<Images taken from Google>