Tourism Cares: Bruce Beckham’s Legacy
Volunteering is fun. Really! Doing basic physical labor for no money is a kick. The word “fun” is an understatement. Volunteering brings a kind of satisfaction that goes “fun” one better. That’s something many people in the travel industry have learned as a result of the efforts of Bruce Beckham and his work with Tourism Cares over the last decade.
Beckham will retire from Tourism Cares on June 30 after creating the organization and building it for a decade. It is a unique group with no real precedent. When Beckham first announced his retirement, Tauck Chairman Arthur Tauck asked him what he thought his greatest accomplishment was.
At first, Beckham reeled through the history of Tourism Cares and the many events in which volunteers helped restore Ellis Island, New Orleans, the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Gettysburg, Mount Vernon, San Francisco and many other places. How could you rate one as more important than the others? No, Beckham reflected, the biggest accomplishment of Tourism Cares was that it brought the travel industry together in a way that had never happened before.
“People go to conferences and glad-hand each other, say nice things about each other,” he says. “They just touch each other on a business level, not a personal level. If you think you learn about somebody on a golf course, you really learn about somebody when you are side by side digging a ditch. You learn a lot. You realize everyone puts on pants one leg at a time. And I don’t care if you’re in the hotel business or a meeting planner or anything else, you’re all in tourism. We created unity with this organization.”
Beckham was ideally suited to the job. Indeed, he is one of a kind. He is a total travel industry organism, born into the business and totally focused on it in a unique way that enabled him to make major contributions. He started at his father’s tour operator/travel agency when he was 12 in 1958.
Bruce’s father died in 1971 and Bruce took over the business at age 25. The next year he attended his first NTA conference and started hob-knobbing with tour operators like Arthur Tauck, learning that there were many ways to do things besides the way his father had done them. Ten years later he became NTA president, the youngest ever.
Beckham sold the travel agency in 1989 and focused full time on the tour business. In 1993 he had open-heart surgery and decided to slow down. He sold the tour operation and focused on consulting and educational workshops. In the early 1990s he started running the U.S. Tour Operators Association’s annual golf tournament. In 2000 the USTOA asked him to lead its Travelers Conservation Foundation (TCF) to take it to the next level.
Then came 9/11. The travel industry went into a dizzying downward spiral. No one was able to focus on anything but survival. USTOA wanted to put TCF on the back burner. But Beckham was not ready to throw in the towel. In the wake of 9/11, President Bush issued a call for volunteerism, saying each person should give 4,000 hours in a lifetime to volunteering.
Beckham seized on the idea. TCF had just given Ellis Island a grant and he knew the place was in dire need. He started the ball rolling for a volunteer cleanup project to be called Tourism Cares for America and drew 300 travel industry people to the site to help clean up, paint and restore it, providing hundreds of hours free labor to a grateful National Park Service to do the things that only hand labor can accomplish.
The idea resonated throughout the industry. NTA got on board and merged its National Tourism Foundation into the organization. Later ASTA and IATAN merged their philanthropic organizations with Tourism Cares as well. More and more companies joined in and the momentum continued to grow.
Last week, on May 30-31, Tourism Cares held an event on Coney Island and Jamaica Bay that attracted 600 volunteers, the most ever. Though Coney Island had taken a beating from Hurricane Sandy, it looked fantastic in its colorful, colossal motion. There was a festive energy as thousands of New Yorkers gathered on the beach and at the park. As for the volunteers, a great deal of work was accomplished and they shared the special transcendent joy that can only be gained through common service.
That’s the secret to the success of Tourism Cares. Bruce Beckham dedicated all his energy and experience to building the organization, but it only worked because of the principle at the heart of it. After decades of living in a culture that dictated that everything should be based on self-interest and personal gain, many people who “have it all” in terms of material wealth and worldly success find that they still hunger for something more.
Through Tourism Cares many have discovered that no life is complete without service to the community. The organization has provided a vehicle through which travel industry professionals can meaningfully channel their care for the world, the resources on which their livelihoods depend on along with the welfare of future generations. Hats off to Bruce Beckham. Job well done!
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