Before she owned her own travel agency, Donna Zeigfinger had been the subject of articles in the Washington Post and the Vegetarian Times, thanks to her work with vegetarian and vegan travelers. Zeigfinger said she was astonished at the response she received -- up to 30 calls a day initially -- and at how long readers kept the clips. She said she received first-time calls from readers as much as five years after publication.
The stories were printed in 1994, when Zeigfinger was a counselor at All Ways Travel in Bethesda, Md.
She is a vegetarian and, she said, her vegetarian friends "wanted to support me" once she became an agent in the 1980s. The result was a subset of clientele facing the same issue she faced: determining where to eat while traveling. Zeigfinger did the research -- "this was before the Internet era" -- for her clients; besides, she needed to do the same thing for herself.
In another made-to-order match, Zeigfinger handled business travel needs for a number of animal rights organizations, including the Animal Welfare Institute, the Humane Society of the U.S., People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and United Poultry Concerns. She was also the official agent for the March for Animals in Washington in 1990 and 1995, she said.
Due to these connections, she handled personal travel for the business travelers and for some of the animal rights groups' members, but it was the vegetarian niche that grew to the point that Zeigfinger could strike out on her own.
In 1997, she launched a home-based business called Green Earth Travel to make the link with vegetarianism and ecotourism.
A former volunteer at an animal shelter, she also wanted to establish a focus on travel for animal lovers, but that was slower to fall into place. Zeigfinger said she was hatching plans for a group tour to England built around the history of animal rights, but the attacks on 9/11 ended those plans.
In 2006, she traveled with friends and neighbors on a personal camping and hiking trip to the Grand Canyon, with Canyon Rim Adventures as the operator. The guide told Zeigfinger about Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, which offers a voluntourism option of caring for animals while vacationing on the grounds.
That connection resulted in Zeigfinger's first custom package tours, which debuted last year. Her tours include time volunteering at the sanctuary and either a camping itinerary or time relaxing at a spa, depending on which departure the client selects.
Today, Zeigfinger said, her vegetarian clientele account for about half of her $350,000 to $400,000 annual volume, and animal lovers account for about 15%; she particularly wants that slice of the business to grow.
She said her clients are mostly U.S. residents. Their demographics "run the gamut" in terms of age and budget.
To reach her existing database and new prospects, her marketing runs the gamut, too, from traditional media -- particularly print versions of special-interest publications for vegetarians -- to email and the Web. She also gets attention for the animal rights itinerary -- called Love Animals, Love Yourself -- with press releases to likely outlets.
Green Earth Travel has three websites, one devoted to Ireland (she is an Emerald Isle specialist).
The other two, www.greenearthtravel.com and www.vegetariantravel.com, are similar and will soon be consolidated into one site. The agency does not offer online booking but aims to provide an appropriate resource for clients, she added.
The Love Animals itinerary is posted at her sites, along with other operators' tours that are "vegetarian-friendly." The sites also list B&Bs that cater to vegetarians, and they provide links to sites where clients can buy relevant goods such as vegetarian guidebooks and vegan-approved hiking boots.
The agency advertises at www.vegnews.com and at the sites operated by a number of vegetarian societies, Zeigfinger said.
Zeigfinger has continued to suggest vegetarian restaurants, but if a customer asks only for places to eat but doesn't book any travel, she charges fees per city.
As for the animal rights trips, Zeigfinger is planning another itinerary closer to home, bringing her volunteers to an animal sanctuary farm outside of Washington, followed by sightseeing time at a "certified green hotel" in the heart of the nation's capital.
As a result of these trips, she said, the sanctuaries get some income, publicity and the possibility of adoptions. Her first three trips to Best Friends in Utah produced two adoptions, she said. Therefore, her trip descriptions now include a warning: "Sleepovers have been known to result in adoptions."
Care for animals, and some pampering for clients
The following itinerary, called Love Animals, Love Yourself, was created by Donna Zeigfinger, owner and CEO of Green Earth Travel in Cabin John, Md. The next trip is on Oct. 6.
Day 1: Arrival in Las Vegas. Transfer to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah. Spend the day caring for resident animals. Guests can keep animals overnight. Dinner at the sanctuary.
Day 2: Full day caring for animals, with breakfast, lunch and dinner on site. All trip meals are gourmet, vegetarian choices.
Day 3: Full day caring for animals, with breakfast, lunch and dinner on site.
Day 4: Morning animal care, followed by lunch on site and transfer to Flanigan's Inn/Deep Canyon Adventure Spa in Zion National Park. A guided walk or spiritual group activity is followed by dinner and time to browse the shops and galleries.
Day 5: Optional Pilates classes, followed by breakfast and time for individual spa treatments. Boxed lunches are available to take on hike. There is a guided walk or spiritual activity plus time for individual spa treatments. Dinner is followed by more time for browsing shops and galleries.
Day 6: Yoga classes are offered before breakfast. There is more time for individual spa treatments before guests check out and transfer to the airport.