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Church travel trends

Faith-based travel continues to grow in popularity. Destinations include decidedly Christian spots and entertainment, as well as places with family values and numerous activity options. Going On Faith asked four church group leaders to share details about their groups and programs: the itineraries they chose in 2013 and those in the planning stages for 2014.

Although destinations varied, the leaders offered unanimous consensus that day trips remain the most popular for church travel. Two- and three-night excursions help round out their programs. Most are experimenting with an occasional longer trip.


Meet the Leaders

Roger and Fran Beckner of Orlando are transitioning from 20 years of organizing trips for their motorcycle club to leading group travel for their local parish, Blessed Trinity Catholic Church. The church’s group has been dormant for some time. The Beckners hope to revitalize it with their enthusiasm and passion for travel. Approximately 30 seniors make up the group’s core. Those numbers expand in the winter when the “snowbirds” arrive in Orlando.

New Hope Baptist, a 6,000-member church located 20 miles south of Atlanta, has an active travel group headed by Nick and Diane Nichols. The Nichols plan approximately six day trips each year, and two or more overnight trips. They also collaborate with Line Creek Baptist Church, which joins them on trips, and vice versa.

“We use the Web and Going On Faith information for planning,” said Nick Nichols. “We try to get the word out to members six to 12 months in advance.”

Located in Albany, New York, Phil and Lonie Wielewinski’s business, Groups 4 Fun, specializes in outings for church and senior groups. Church groups fluctuate between a minimum of 30 people to 45 or more. Travelers are often from three or four different congregations. The Wielewinski’s plan six to 10 overnight church trips annually, most for three days and two nights. In addition, their half-dozen day trips are always a hit.

Blessed Byways Christian Tours, based in Iowa, has been owned and operated by Burdell and Charlotte Hensley for eight years. Their trips draw people from Iowa churches, as well as the surrounding states. The Hensleys lead four to eight church trips annually.

Their groups’ average age hovers around 70 to 75 years old. Burdell’s transition to group travel was a good fit after he retired as an athletic director, teacher and coach. He also works full time planning bank travel with Midwest One Bank in Oskaloosa, Iowa.


Popular Short Trips

All four leaders felt that day trips represented the core of their group travel. One leader summed it up: People are very cost conscious, and they like the less-expensive excursions. However, two- and three-night trips also remain quite popular.

The Beckners, with Blessed Trinity Catholic Church, have planned a December hometown Orlando kick-off for their parish’s new travel group. In collaboration with their travel agent, they’ve organized a dinner before viewing the holiday lights at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge and the Grand Floridian. The evening will end at the Gaylord Palms, where their agent, from Advantage Cruises and Tours in Lakeland, Florida, will announce a holiday surprise. The Beckners’ goal for that first official outing is to stimulate interest and provide feedback for future trips.

The Orlando group is considering a day trip to Fort Meyers and the Edison Museum for January. February’s jaunt will probably take them to Sarasota’s Ringling Circus Museum. Both will be planned through their travel agent, who is bonded and insured, which is of utmost importance to the Beckners.

New Hope Senior Adults recently returned from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The idea for that destination and their trip-planning contact both came from the Going On Faith conference. Approximately 50 people, ages 50 on up, opted for the Christmas-themed trip. Most appealing to the group was the variety of options available, from shopping to museums to relaxing at their beachfront hotel.

Last year, the group took another successful two-night trip to St. Simons Island, Georgia. Participants saw Jekyll Island’s Millionaires Row and the Georgia Sea Turtle Center and participated in a Brunswick-stew tasting competition.

Among the other 2013 New Hope day trips were a behind-the-scenes look at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre and a tour of the Georgia governor’s mansion. A trip to La Grange, Georgia, focused on the Explorations in Antiquity Center. Group members also participated in an authentic Seder meal.

“Our guides at the antiquity museum were very informative,” said Nick Nichols. “I learned things about the Bible I’d never known.”

Upcoming short trips for 2014 include a three-night jaunt to Savannah’s historic district. An excursion to the Creation Museum in northern Kentucky will include a dining stop at the original Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant.


Shopping and Theater

New Yorkers Phil and Lonie Wielewinski tend to concentrate on the Eastern and Southeastern states. Their most successful day trips have been shopping excursions and theater performances, such as Pennsylvania’s Sight and Sound Theatre.

In 2013, the Wielewinskis offered a Maryland coastal-themed trip. They stopped for two days on Baltimore’s riverfront before heading to Ocean City for the theater, beach and shopping. They also squeezed in several South Carolina flea markets. On another two-night trip to New Jersey, the Wielewinskis used the charming town of Wildwood as their base. From there, it was a short drive to Cape May, where they enjoyed Elaine’s Famous Dinner Theater and the town’s pedestrian area filled with quaint shops.

Phil Wielewinski also plans a Maine trip “at least every three years.” The most recent itinerary included whale-watching out of Kennebunkport, a visit to Bar Harbor’s playhouse and time to walk Ogunquit’s oceanfront path, called Marginal Way.

For 2014, Wielewinski is working on a variety of options. His group will head back to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for the new Sight and Sound show, “Jonah.” He’s also looking at some different themes, such as the historic battlefields in Maryland and Virginia. Plans are in the works to see New York City’s new Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, plus he’s planning a summer or fall outing to the Billy Graham Library and the Cove. And according to Wielewinski, Ohio’s Amish community is a perennial favorite, too.

“I plan to expand my day trips in 2014,” he said. “On trips that are several nights, I usually hire a step-on guide for at least one day. And I always negotiate with quality hotel and dining establishments to keep rates attractive.”


Music Destinations

Groups that travel with Blessed Byways Christian Tours also prefer shorter trips. The Hensleys offer three day trips annually, four if they add Branson, Missouri. Day trips include concerts and dinner theaters, such as the Amana Colonies’ Old Creamery Theatre. If the Gaithers are in the area, their performance goes on the calendar. The Hensleys sometimes dress in costume, depending on the destination.

“Every other year, we plan a three-night Branson trip, since it’s an easy day drive from Iowa. This year, we may sneak in Branson toward the Christmas season because I really want to see ‘Jonah’ at Sight and Sound,” said Burdell. “We always enjoy dining at the College of the Ozarks’ Keeter Center and at the Baldknobbers restaurant, plus shopping at Branson Landing.”

Each year, Burdell takes a motorcoach to the National Quartet Convention in late September; next year, the convention is in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. He also organizes an annual early January trip to Gospel Music USA in Jefferson City, Missouri.

“Last year, we took three motorcoaches to Jeff City, and so far, we’ve already got two full buses,” said Burdell, who attends Fellowship Bible Church. “Everything is right there in the hotel, and it’s a nice, relaxing weekend.”

Another successful destination has been the Colorado Springs, Colorado, area. The group visited Focus on the Family headquarters, the Olympic training center and the Navigator headquarters. They also ogled the spectacular scenery aboard the Royal Gorge dinner train.


Extended Excursions

Groups are testing the waters when it comes to longer trips. Here’s what three leaders have on the schedule for 2014 and 2015.

“We’re thinking about spending six or seven days in Branson next spring,” said Fran Beckner. “People like Branson because it’s a beautiful region, and you don’t have to travel far to see a variety of entertainment and shows.”

In 2015, Nick Nichols is planning a New Hope Baptist cruise to either the eastern or western Caribbean. He plans for New Hope’s ministers to lead a Bible study while on the ship.

Next summer, the Hensleys are offering their first lengthy, overnight trip. The final destination of the six-night trip will be the Billy Graham Library and the Cove. On the way, they plan to visit the Amish community in Shipshewana, Indiana. The town offers wonderful quilt and antique shops and the Blue Gate restaurant and theater, which puts on Amish productions. Next, it’s on to Cambridge, Ohio, for the outdoor Living Word Passion Play before heading to Charlotte, North Carolina. There the group will visit JAARS Mission Headquarters and see NarroWay Productions’ “The Gospel According to Tennessee.”

“I always scout my upcoming trips while I’m on vacation,” said Burdell. “I like to have firsthand knowledge about the area from the locals.”

Elizabeth Hey

Elizabeth Hey is a member of Midwest Travel Journalists Association and has received numerous awards for her writing and photography. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @travelbyfork.