In the series “Off Duty”, various members of the InterNations team share personal stories about their global lifestyles and international experiences.
In this blog entry, Senior Content & Communications Manager Elena talks to Community Engagement Specialist Ben, who’s also one of the Consuls of our Munich Cycling Group.
How long have you been working at InterNations and what exactly do you do?
I have been with InterNations for just over a year now — 14 months, to be precise. I work in the Community Engagement Team and I’m responsible for a regional portfolio of InterNations Communities that includes countries like Turkey, Russia, and the Baltics, for example, Latvia and Estonia. As part of my job, I recruit and support Consuls and Ambassadors who organize and host our monthly events and activities.
Can you tell me something about your personal and professional background?
I’ve been in Germany for four years now, which comes as a shock and seems like a big milestone because I had initially intended to stay for just three. Before that I worked in the charity sector in the UK and managed a drug and alcohol treatment service in the southwest of England, basically supporting people going through problems with addiction and the myriad issues that come with substance abuse.
I look back fondly on that time because we were doing some very innovative work. We were, for example, the first charity in the UK that started to work with male perpetrators of domestic violence to help them change their behavior, and we also did a project with Housing First that put homeless people straight into their own accommodation. That’s my professional background in the charity sector.
And then I packed all of that in to move to Germany with my partner at the time and two young girls. There were a few reasons for that, one being that we thought the girls would have a better upbringing here in Germany. The school system has its pros and cons, of course, but we like that the early years are not as intense in Germany as in the UK. For example, one of the girls, who is about to turn seven, will start school this year. I think we both quite liked that idea. Back in the UK, she would have been in school for two years now, and those are long days at school.
In the few years I’ve been in Germany, I spent some time organizing cycling tours, including popular trips from Munich to Lake Garda, or to Venice, and we had customers from all over the world. I also opened an Irish pub in Kaufbeuren, my adopted hometown, which is still going strong. Although it was a good experience, I eventually sold my share of the pub to my business partner. Working every evening and every weekend when you have kids is just not ideal.
Is that how you found InterNations?
I actually became a member of InterNations not long after I moved here, but I didn’t go to any of the events. So, I was aware of it and looked at the site a couple of times a year, maybe. Then I saw my current position being advertised. I’d been thinking of leaving the pub at the time because it wasn’t really working for me anymore, and the volunteer and management aspects of the job at InterNations fitted in with my experience in charity work. So I thought, this seems like a good opportunity and I’ve got the skills and experience I need to do a good job. When you look online, we come across as a very fun place to join and I thought, I want some of that!
How did you get started as a Consul of the Cycling Group?
When I was thinking about applying for my job, I thought I’d see what it was all about, so I organized a cycling activity. It was a mixed success, if I’m honest. I had six people who signed up to come along; one actually showed up, and his standard of cycling was not as strong as mine. So, I could already see some of the problems the Ambassadors and Consuls have and that gave me an interesting insight.
Then, when I started my job here, we were really encouraged to get involved in our community a bit more, and I was looking at groups that fit my interests. I’d noticed that the Cycling Group, which had over 1,000 members at the time, hadn’t been that active. They’d had a total of six to eight activities in 2018. For such a large group — and, for the most part, such an accessible activity — that seemed low to me.
I thought I could commit to organizing something that I really enjoyed doing and that brings people together in a fun way. You can do some pretty serious cycling tours of 200 km or more, which is tough in anyone’s book, or you can just cycle for 10 km in the Englischer Garten, stop, have a picnic, and come back. So that’s what I did with the Cycling Group, and I enjoyed it and learned a lot from it. The group is quite successful: we raised the number of annual activities to more than 20 in 2019, which is really good!
It’s nice to hear members say, “Oh, I renewed my membership to come along to an activity” or “I upgraded to a paid Albatross Membership because I wanted to be a part of this”. And it’s nice to hear directly from members who are also Consuls about some of the things they like and about what they think could be better. I quite like that, and I also try to share that kind of feedback with the team whenever I have the opportunity.
What’s a typical activity of the InterNations Cycling Group like? What has been your favorite activity with this group so far?
The activities have been really mixed. We started off at the end of January 2019 with a couple of cycling-themed pub quizzes. It was pretty cold at the time, the weather was miserable, and we just wanted to get people together and get some ideas of what they were into. Then we had a cycling activity in the park, with around 50 people signing up to come along and about 40 actually participating, which was very enjoyable.
We have now formed a relatively small core group of members who will come along to everything. But it’s also really nice when people who don’t join our activities every month want to get involved. I quite like it when something appeals to a wider audience than just the usual crowd.
My favorite activity was a ride from Munich down to Füssen, about 110 km. There were some members who had never cycled that far and some who were concerned about how fast we were going to go, and we really took that into account. So, we designed a route that allowed people to drop off if they wanted to. In the spirit of our slogan, “Nobody stands (or cycles) alone”, everybody made it down to where they needed to go. Some people reached personal milestones. I remember one member saying, “This is the longest I have ever cycled; thank you for helping me reach this milestone!” I like seeing people reach a goal and getting feedback that they were nervous about coming and now aren’t anymore — that’s great to hear.
It’s a good sign that people feel so welcome at your activities!
But, you know, I’ve still had activities where I’ve come away thinking, “Okay, that didn’t go well.” It made me think about what I should do differently to mitigate that and keep it from happening again. Or if it happened again, how I would deal with it.
So, it doesn’t always go according to plan and that’s what I tell every Consul and Ambassador: You’re going to spend a couple of hours organizing something and, in the first hour, you’re going to think, this is disastrous, but you shouldn’t get disheartened by it. It is normal, and it happens to everyone. The important thing is to accept it and think about how you could deal with it differently. We’re all learning as we go along, and I’m sure if I’m still a Consul in three years, I’ll still be learning from certain situations.
That’s one thing I’ve actually really enjoyed about being a Consul — how certain experiences and aspects of the role have really helped me when talking to Ambassadors and Consuls about how to act in certain situations. I know how to deal with no one coming to an activity because I’ve been there! I’ve been at the Hauptbahnhof with my bike in the morning and no one showed up, so I can really relate to that.
Is that how your role as a Consul has affected your work at InterNations? It basically just gives you that insight?
It gives you that insight, yes. I think you’re really able to relate to some of the challenges and understand them better. When a Consul says, “I’ve made a reservation and one person turned up. I feel really down and demotivated, and I don’t want to do it again,” I know how that feels. Or when people say, “I hosted an activity, it didn’t go well, and people walked out”, I can relate because I had people leave my cycling activities halfway through. I’ve even experienced people arguing during an activity, because in any group, not everyone is going to get along.
Just sweeping it under the rug and focusing on the plan for next month’s activity is no good in a situation like that. Instead, I talk to them about what to do and how to engage members prior to the activity. I just give them those little tips that they haven’t tried, and that can give them a bit of encouragement. In the end, we’re all there to have a good time and being able to share that experience with people is useful.
Have you considered branching out and getting involved in other groups as well?
I have helped out a little bit with the Munich Veggie & Vegan Group and I’ve done a couple of activities with them. I’m also a Consul for the Community Team Group, a group specifically for Ambassadors and Consuls to create team spirit and provide them with skills and knowledge for their role, so I’m not just doing cycling things. I’m really interested in organizing more activities in other groups as well. We had a fortnightly quiz in the Irish pub I used to own, so I have a huge bank of questions at home that I would love to use for an activity with the Pub Quiz Group, for instance.
If you could explore any place in the world by bike, where would you go and why?
What I would really like to do — and I will try to do this at some point in the future — is to get on my bike and just see where I get to. I was on a cycling tour last year with some friends and we bumped into this young couple from England. They had just finished university and had set off, thinking they wanted to cycle to France, and once they got to France, they decided to go to Greece. I received an email from them a couple of months later from Iran, and they were still cycling. You need a lot of freedom to do this, of course, but it would be amazing.
Other than that, I would love to do some cycling in South America. Some of my friends have done trips from the bottom in Argentina, going all the way up to Mexico. Some of the scenery there is fantastic — cycling through the salt plains looks amazing. It’s also very mountainous in parts, and I quite like cycling up a mountain. One of those two would be my dream!
Image credit: InterNations / iStock / private (Ben McFarland)