Delegates at the recent Going On Faith Conference learned a lot about travel.
They heard from a “power of persuasion” speaker; the head of a new faith-based, social-impact travel company; a Holy Land travel specialist; travel experts promoting both a wildly expanding cruise line and a longtime industry leader; and another who encouraged trips to Ohio Amish Country.
It was a busy three days, August 8–10, at the Ontario Convention Center, located on the edge of the desert 35 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. It was the first time delegates had traveled that far west for a Going On Faith Conference. Most church and program directors felt the two marketplace sessions were quite productive.
Busy Travel Planners
About 130 church and travel program directors attended the conference. All arrived with specific goals in mind, whether it was their first time to the conference or they were veterans.
“We have members with all types of budgets,” said Joe Cappuzzello, president and CEO of The Group Travel Family, which staged the conference. “Sometimes it’s misrepresented that religious groups are always on a tight budget looking for lower room rates. They are people going all around the world to Israel, Italy and all religious sites. Our people will go anywhere if they see value in it.”
Darla Morgan of Southern Hills Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, was a new attendee. “I’m just starting out in this industry and was told this is where I need to be,” she said. “Getting the contacts and knowing what is available out there is necessary. There are wonderful resources here. I really enjoyed this.” Morgan’s group is called the BALL club, which stands for Be Active Live Longer.
“We met quite a few people we didn’t expect to see,” said Diane Nichols of New Hope Senior Adults of Fayetteville, Georgia. “This is our third time here, and every time we’ve found somebody and booked trips. We do day trips and overnights, cruises, and are talking about going out of the country.”
Howard Vandever of West Division Street Baptist Church in Springfield, Missouri, made a direct connection between travel and faith. “We took over the ministry from another couple and enjoy going out and seeing the things God made,” Vandever said. “On the way here, we went by the Grand Canyon, Painted Desert National Park and Petrified Forest National Park. Our groups are older, and we enjoy taking people out to see everything. It’s mind-boggling.”
Darlene McClure of O Happy Days Tours in Visalia, California, was one of many planners representing the Golden State. “I try to find out how to grow my groups and involve them in the faith-based travel community,” said McClure. “I’ve been to Israel twice, and my niche is religious travel.” McClure added that she received a business inspiration while on a religious trip. “I actually heard the song ‘O Happy Day’ while on the Sea of Galilee, and tears began to flow, and I knew that would be my travel company’s name,” she said.
One program director came from Nassau, Bahamas, but is looking for interesting stateside destinations. Delton Ellis of Mount Tabor Full Gospel Baptist Church said, “I try to discover what out there is new. We’ve done a lot of international travel over the last eight years, including Israel, Europe and the Greek Isles, but we’ve started coming back to America.”
Travel Industry Success
About 105 travel industry vendors attended the conference determined to attract new business with so many eager travel planners in the same room.
Francois Jean Viel of Quebec National Shrines came to Ontario to promote his region’s Catholic heritage sites. “We have five national shrines in the province,” he said. “My goal is to make Quebec’s shrines known and to attract as many people to them as possible. By visiting all of these Roman Catholic shrines, you get to see all of Quebec.”
Matt Scott of Durbin and Greenbrier Valley Railroad in Elkins, West Virginia, wants to bring visitors to his state’s beautiful mountains. “We hope to sign new bus groups,” he said. “Many of my appointments were from the Midwest and West, and [we] hope to grow those markets. I’ve had four bookings this year from folks in California. We’re stretching our wings.” The train excursions run from two to eight hours, with lunch included. “Groups travel up into unspoiled wilderness only accessible by rail. Riders step off the train and smell fresh mountain air and explore waterfalls.”
Stephanie MacCargar flew all the way from Florida’s Hilton Daytona Beach Oceanfront Resort. “It’s our first year at the conference, and it’s good to be exposed to new planners we haven’t seen before,” she said. “We have many unique resort features that people on the West Coast may not be aware of. Religious groups are a big market for us.”
Michele Renahan of Discover Gilbert in Arizona said her town is ramping up tourism. “We’re 20 minutes southeast of Phoenix and are exploring the group market,” she said. “I like the smallness of this meeting because it’s a great way to dip your toe in and see what fits.”
Michael Benton from Davey Coach in Sedalia, Colorado, was selling buses. “The church market is a big sector we service, as well as tour operators,” Benton said. “We sell many buses, new and used, with parts, service and graphics available. We have ABA-equipped and regular buses.”
Looking to 2017
The Going On Faith Conference will take a fresh, interesting turn in 2017 when it is held in Ohio’s Amish Country. “It will have a totally different feel,” said Cappuzzello. “We all will go back in time, so to speak. We’ll be in a giant church with not one hotel, but four smaller ones serving us.”
“Given that we are the No. 1 Amish population in the world, we have people come there to experience the slower pace of life,” said Codi Mast of the Holmes County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau in Millersburg, Ohio. “You can unplug. We have many faith-based groups visit and, overall, have so many authentic experiences to see and participate in that are part of the community and culture.”