The Going On Faith Conference is typically held inside large convention halls in midsized cities across America. But in 2017, the gathering happened in a delightfully different place: Holmes County, Ohio, the centerpiece of Amish Country.
Delegates met for three days, August 22-24, inside a large church, but enjoyed plenty of the sights and sounds of the surrounding Amish community. Amish people dressed in their simple daily wear, horse-drawn buggies, and attractive farms and Amish businesses dotted the green countryside.
Locals opened their arms and extended a warm embrace to 135 church travel directors and 130 travel industry professionals who represented 28 states, the District of Columbia and nine foreign countries. Everyone seemed to come away a little better for the experience.
Amish Country has existed since 1809, and the residents make up the largest Amish community in the world. Delegates to the Going On Faith Conference numbered but a fraction of the more than 4 million visitors to the area each year.
“We first visited this site three years ago and found it to be a unique venue,” said Joe Cappuzzello of Group Travel Family, the conference organizer. “It ties in greatly with the Going On Faith Conference, which was held in Grace Mennonite Church. For the church to open its doors to our people was too good to be true. We love the inspiration and welcome feeling they gave us.”
Laurie Judson of the Holmes County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau saw a distinct advantage to having so many travel planners visiting. “We’re so excited to showcase our area,” said Judson. “In Holmes County and surrounding counties, we believed that if we could get people here and show them our hospitality and beautiful scenery, they’d come back on their own. We’d love to host everybody.”
Buyers and Sellers
The chief purpose of the conference was to connect travel buyers with travel sellers. That was accomplished in two busy marketplace sessions.
“The marketplace is where travel industry members can meet with church and program directors about great destinations for their groups. It’s very important,” Mac Lacy, a conference partner, told delegates in his opening remarks.
Larissa Vieira, from Champions of the World Resort in Kissimmee, Florida, attended for the first time.
“We look to bring new business to the property,” she said. “The religious business has really grown in the Orlando area. We’re reaching out to this church conference.”
Many convention and visitors bureaus sent representatives to attract groups to their communities. Kathryn Henning from Manitowoc, Wisconsin, was one.
“Many haven’t heard of Manitowoc,” she said. “My goal is to educate people about what we offer, such as the SS Badger car ferry taking passengers on four-hour trips across Lake Michigan from Manitowoc to Ludington, Michigan. The maritime museum has a submarine tour, and there’s a small family-operated cheese factory producing large wheels of cheese.”
Another was Jessica Smith from nearby Beechwood, Ohio.
“We’re located 80 minutes north of the conference,” she said. “You begin to leave Amish Country and get back closer to the city with our many parks, restaurants and hotels.”
Representatives of attractions across the country also attended.
“We’re so excited about the work our theater does,” said Barbara Reid of the Drury Lane Theater in Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois. “Our productions are Broadway quality. We take great pride in our dining, and we have a conference center for trade shows. We want to invite new groups to come to our theater to look us over.”
Church and program directors came with their agendas, too. Linda Bensen of Trinity Lutheran Church in Oak Lawn, Illinois, was thrilled about what she was learning at the conference. “We came to interact and hear about new destinations with their hotels, restaurants and tours. I’ve gotten some wonderful ideas.”
Two Southern church programmers enjoyed learning. One was Bill Highsmith of Tusculum Hills Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee.
“I try not to repeat trips, so I look for new venues that our folks will enjoy,” he said. “This conference really helps because I get ideas [about venues] I never knew about.”
The same was true for Alice Ortiz of Our Place Tours in Greenwood Springs, Mississippi. “I’m trying to learn about Amish Country,” she said. “I’m unfamiliar with Ohio and was excited to learn about it and other places to visit around the country. Coming here has been successful.”
Yvonne Emmanuel of Williams Temple CME Church in Philadelphia found herself in somewhat familiar surroundings.
“I love our Amish community back home in Pennsylvania,” she said. “The Ohio Amish community has always interested me. Whenever I do this conference, I get fantastic information and discover places I never knew existed.”