How Sweet It Is: Voluntourism, Eco-Travel & Lesbians

How Sweet It Is: Voluntourism, Eco-Travel & Lesbians

You’re looking out over the ocean, cocktail in hand, a woman by your side, watching the sun dip beneath the blue green horizon. It’s been a good day… you've made some friends, gone for a swim, helped paint a school, had a massage and were kind to the environment….

Starting in 2009 that vacation itinerary will come to life with a new player in the travel market. But Sweet isn’t just another travel business… it’s targeted to lesbians and offers vacations with a purpose, combining travel, eco-tourism and volunteer opportunities.

Sweet founders Shannon Wentworth and Jen Rainin bring both travel and philanthropic experience to Sweet. CEO Wentworth was formerly with Care2, a social network that connects activists. Plus, she’s worked in marketing at PlanetOut Inc. and at lesbian travel competitor Olivia. Rainin runs The Kenneth Rainin Foundation, dedicated to supporting the arts, education and medical research.

So far, Sweet has two trips planned for 2009. Their Aug. 16-21 Salmon River Idaho rafting trip provides camping and rafting equipment, gourmet meals and nightly entertainment. A Western Caribbean cruise, November 8-15, leaves from New Orleans on the Norwegian Cruise Lines Norwegian Spirit and visits Mexico, Belize and Honduras. They’re also working on a resort trip and some small ship travel.

Sweet is into responsible travel. “We’re trying to be as green as we can be so we’re offsetting all the carbon for air travel, hotel stays and all the carbon created by the actual cruise for everyone onboard through,” Wentworth says. The organization supports renewable energy, energy efficiency and reforestation projects.

“We’re reforesting an area around the Tensas River [Louisiana]… the trees are going to pull carbon out of the air and are also going to help prevent erosion along the river bed… we are planting seeds for a cleaner and greener future,” Wentworth explains

Sweet also plans volunteer activities in the ports they visit, including beach cleanup, building projects and community gardens.

“We were born from that place of wanting to give back... and wanting to make the world a better place while we are having fun,” Rainin says.” Sweet is on the cutting edge… people are looking for what is going to provide meaning… what kind of positive impact they can have on this world and particularly in these times where travel is getting a little bit tougher … if people can feel good about what they are doing while they are on vacation, it’s a winning idea,” Rainin adds.

“What I found in looking at my own travel options,” Wentworth says, “were some environmentally friendly things... ecotours or voluntours… where the price point was just too high for me.” She also worried about whether she was going to feel comfortable as a lesbian.

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Statistics show that gay travelers tend to take more trips, stay longer and spend more than other travelers. And Wentworth and Rainin both feel there is plenty of room in the lesbian travel market for both Sweet and Olivia.

Experts agree. "I believe that the lesbian lifestyle market has strong potential and had been woefully underserved in the past,” says Larry Dessler, executive director of Niche Cruise Marketing Alliance. “Additional firms addressing the needs of that market can only increase its overall strength.”

Wentworth and Rainin believe the Sweet travel experience is distinct. They control costs by using the Internet and viral marketing. “We are more affordable,” Wentworth says. “We are all in one pricing... the price you see is the price you pay. There are no port taxes, gratuities, there are no other fees associated with cruising.”

“Our lowest price room is $1099 a person,” Wentworth explains, “but it holds four people and the third and fourth person are $399 each, so if four people split that room it’s $750 each… for the accommodation and food and transportation to all of these places.”

Sweet also has a no fee, no interest, monthly payment plan and an early booking credit. “If you pay at the time you book, you get a $50 on board credit, so you start with a drink tab,” Wentworth says.

While giving back is an important part of the experience, the Sweet cruise is first and foremost a vacation and cruisers can enjoy all that the 2,000-passenger Norwegian Spirit cruise ship has to offer including a grand casino, 11 restaurants and eight bars, a spa and fitness center and a pool.

Sweet’s Director of Travel Nicoll Quinn, another Olivia veteran, is tasked with planning the vacation details. “I build the trips from the inside out. It's kind of like putting a puzzle together, making it all fit with the time that we have.” she explains.

Four lesbian entertainers -- singer/songwriters Edie Carey and Jen Foster, and comedians Suzanne Westenhoefer and Erin Foley are working with the company and are set to be onboard for the inaugural cruise.

Westenhoefer is particularly enthusiastic about her relationship with Sweet. “It’s going to be awesome. They’re going to get to do really cool things. When you get to the Bahamas you can get off and snorkel or you can clean up a park. I would love to do that,” she says.

Sweet vacations offer something for both singles and couples. “We are going to have special opportunities for couples who want to celebrate milestones [anniversaries, weddings],” Wentworth says. “For singles we are going to have a lot a programming that will help them get to know one another, make friends and travel solo without feeling nervous and scared.”

The women are excited about the response to Sweet. “People love the pricing,” Wentworth says. “They love the politics. We call it a party with a purpose. They can make a difference while they are on vacation and still have a blast and be in a lesbian community.”

“We're really focused on leaving the world a better place than we found it,” Rainin adds. “We're having a great time ourselves creating opportunities to have fun while giving back.”

For more on Sweet, visit

Tags: Travel