Glenda Carr and husband
Even on the best days, insurance can be a dreary business. So when the opportunity arose to transition from policies and payouts to travel and tourism, Glenda Carr happily made the move.
“A friend and I had an insurance company, and we heard about another insurance company that offered travel,” Carr said. “We decided it sounded like fun, so we started doing it, too. It didn’t take long before it was apparent that travel was a more positive business than insurance. In insurance, you never saw your customers when they were happy. Travel is just the opposite.”
So 33 years ago, Carr left insurance to start her own company. Sometime later, she sold that company; then six years ago, she took over Friends International Travel, a tour operator her parents had owned since the 1970s. Today, the Oklahoma City-based company serves the travel needs of hundreds of churches and other regional faith-based organizations.
“We have a retail program, but 90 percent of what we do is customized for church group leaders,” Carr said. “Churches and large Christian organizations come to us at the beginning of the year and tell us where they want to go. We can offer anything all over the world. I have a group doing Europe next year. We do Alaska a lot, and we do a lot of cruising.”
With a wide array of products at home and abroad, Friends International is proof that faith-based travel is about much more than pilgrimage. Carr rarely offers trips to the Holy Land; she said because many churches regularly travel there on their own, her clients don’t show much interest in having a Holy Land trip set up by a tour operator.
Instead, Carr focuses on infusing faith elements into trips to places any tourist would enjoy.
“We are Christian-based, but that doesn’t mean that we’re only going to do faith-based attractions,” she said. “But we always try to include a faith-based attraction on our tours. We start every morning with prayer, and we have devotions on Sundays. We don’t apologize or compromise the fact that we’re faith-based.”
Destinations with a strong religious tradition still play a large role in the Friends International tour catalog. You’ll often find Carr’s groups visiting sites such as the Creation Museum in northern Kentucky; the Great Passion Play in Eureka Springs, Arkansas; or Sight and Sound Theatre in Branson, Missouri. The company also hosts an annual event in Oklahoma City called Gospel Fest that features Christian musical performers and entertainers such as Carl Hurley.
At least once a year, Friends International takes a mission trip, during which participants help with church construction and other service projects in remote areas of New Mexico, Arizona and California. On every trip, the tour director takes up an offering on Sunday and then stops the bus at the first small church they encounter along the way and gives the money to the congregation.
After 33 years in the business, Carr believes that faith-based travel makes a difference in the health of her churches.
“The church benefits just purely from all of the fellowship time,” she said. “Hundreds of churches offer travel programs, some of them for several groups, like seniors, youth and middle-age groups. The church benefits any time people are together for fellowship.”
Today, Carr travels four to six times a year, often on familiarization trips for group leaders. She’s most likely to make a trip to some of her favorite spots, such as Alaska, New England, Nova Scotia and Mackinac Island. But the highlights of her job are not always the destinations; rather, they are the marks they can make on her customers.
“I love it when someone steps off the coach and says, ‘This has been the highlight of my life,’” she said, “or when I receive a letter from a traveler that says, ‘Because of the experiences on the trip, my life has changed, and now I’m back in church.’”
Glenda’s Top Tip
With more than three decades in the travel business, Glenda Carr can offer volumes of wisdom to church travel planners. So what’s her No. 1 tip? Don’t limit yourself.
“The biggest mistake people make is to think that they have to have a large group,” she said. “If you have eight to 10 people, and I put them with another group or two of eight to 10 people, then we have one big, happy group, and everyone gets to travel. The sky is the limit.”