More than 175 group travel planners and travel industry professionals scored a major victory for tourism’s comeback when they gathered in French Lick, Indiana, for the Select Traveler and Going On Faith conferences.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the annual events were merged into a single meeting. It was the U.S. travel industry’s first major conference since travel shut down in March.
A hardy band of travel industry buyers and sellers, all with faces masked, sanitizers at the ready and practicing social distancing, gathered August 19-21 at southern Indiana’s beautiful and historic French Lick Resort.
During the general session, Mac Lacy, a conference partner, asked all delegates to stand. Lacy then praised them for attending and for continuing to promote travel.
“Bringing the travel industry back from the worst health crisis in our lifetimes will require people with resilience and resolve,” Lacy said. “Those people are in this room right now. By coming, you have proven that you are such a person. You didn’t have to be here. A lot of our travel friends are not. But one day you’ll be able to look back and say, ‘I was there.’”
Charlie Presley, another conference partner, echoed the sentiment.
“This is the first travel conference of the year in the whole travel industry, and you are part of it,” he said. “That is absolutely wonderful. Thank you for doing that.”
Presley also commended the operators of French Lick Resort for accepting this combined conference with just 40 days’ notice after Cheyenne, Wyoming, and then Wichita, Kansas, had to cancel the meetings.
“We’ve had a relationship with Group Travel Family [the conference organizer] for 16 years, and when they needed us, we just said, ‘Yes, come on back to French Lick,’” said Joe Vezzoso, vice president of resort operations and sales. “It was an easy decision really. I think we’re all seeing improvement in the travel industry, and this conference is a great way to show that the industry is back in business.”
Delegates enjoyed the large resort property. Many could be seen in the casino, playing golf, hiking trails or just enjoying the wide and peaceful veranda on the front side of the French Lick Hotel. One night of the conference was designated a dine-around. Many delegates walked one or two blocks into the town of French Lick to sample a surprising range of restaurants.
Travel Wins, Virus Loses.
The Going On Faith Conference draws faith-based organizations that like to send their travel groups on tours of the nation and the world. All have felt the impact of the pandemic but are still plunging ahead, like Regina Sheu of Damascus Road Travel in Pasadena, California, who operates a new travel business.
“I prayed and said, ‘Lord, if you’re going to have your hands on everything, then I will go with faith,” Sheu said. “I prayed that everything would be safe and smooth. I’m glad I’m here so I can expand my network.”
Ralph Turney of Wings and Sails in Weldon Springs, Missouri, is determined.
“We’re planning for 2021,” said Turney. “What I bring back from this conference I will share with my staff, which I expanded. We’re going to hit it hard. We know people are pent up to get out and see things, and we’re going to be the ones who provide it for them.”
Some buyers, like Ann Anderson of Ann’s Adventures in Clio, Michigan, were testing the waters.
“My goal is to take the temperature of everyone else around the country in terms of travel and what’s possible in 2021,” she said. “Most of my trips were canceled this year, so everything will reschedule for next year, plus all the new stuff. So I’ll be busy.”
Joe and Lori Jackson of LAJ Tours in Fairfield, Pennsylvania, were researching.
“The big thing here is to find out what everybody else is doing with travel by smaller groups during this pandemic,” said Joe Jackson.
“The country is so divided,” said Lori Jackson. “Some people are perfectly willing to travel, and others wouldn’t travel if you paid them a million dollars. We need to figure out where to start and to let people know you can travel safe.”
Sue Sowders of Glenburn Travelers in Linton, Indiana, knew what she wanted.
“We are a Methodist-based facility, and I’m looking for good, clean trips,” she said. “No casinos or anything like that. We do some religious sites. We visited the Ark Encounter in Kentucky right before COVID-19 hit. We usually do 11 trips a year, often on motorcoaches.”
Meanwhile, Going On Faith travel sellers were pitching their clients. Laine Garner of the Louisiana Travel Association was one of them.
“I am here to represent Louisiana and to show what’s open and what’s happening, and how we are able to protect and sanitize and get people safely around our state,” she said. “We hope to inspire them to come next year and get out and see our sites.”
One hard-hit state seems determined to make a comeback.
“We want to bring groups back after this COVID-19 episode,” said Chris Richards of the Lewis County CVB in Weston, West Virginia. “It has been very hard. Our state closed down completely for weeks. It has been quite a process to get everything back open. It has been a very tough year, but we’re fighting.”
Joellyn Furmage from the Holiday Inn in Greenbelt, Maryland, craves a return to normalcy. “I’m trying to stir up some business and get ready to get back to work,” she said. “We’ve been shut down for so long, it’ll be nice when people feel comfortable about traveling again. We’re targeting 2021. We’re a full-service hotel that specializes in tour and travel markets.”
Sponsors Bring Positive Messages
Sponsors always bring great value to conferences, providing meals, events and travel ideas for delegates. Veteran travel guru Bob Buesing from CATours in Mason City, Iowa, appeared several times at the conference and, in one motivational pep talk during a buyer breakout session, explained the similarities between scenes in the baseball-influenced movie “Field of Dreams” and the current travel industry. In the film, the main theme was “If you build it, they will come.”
“If you build it right, the customers will come,” said Buesing. “You have to believe your inner voice and your passion for travel to make this happen. You are meeting travel suppliers, and so you have to choose and build your travel packages and get people out of their basements and houses and into your tours.”
Eddie Lutz, a breakfast sponsor, is from the Ark Encounter and Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. It’s a biblical attraction that is growing and changing every year. Lutz had big news.
“We’ll be holding the world’s largest Christian music festival at the Ark for 40 days and 40 nights, August 2 to September 10, 2021,” he announced. “Virtually every single major gospel group will perform at this event.”
Bob Cline of U.S. Tours in Vienna, West Virginia, was another breakfast sponsor. He always brings clever group tour ideas to the conference.
“We are a three-time winner of America’s most innovative tour operator because of some of the wild and crazy events that we produce, like our renting Graceland for a night,” he said. “Yes, Elvis Presley’s home, for what we call Blue Christmas.”
Jim Edwards of Collette sponsored a lunch and encouraged delegates.
“COVID-19 led to the cancellation of many of our tour departures this year, and now we are being very selective about what itineraries we operate. But our philosophy remains ‘We will travel again.’”
The conference’s keynote speaker wasn’t glued behind a podium during his presentation. Funny, inspiring and energetic, Jeff Koziatek delivered motivational messages on ways delegates can improve their personal and professional lives. He managed this as he juggled bowling pins or balanced large objects on his chin or remained upright on a large red ball while struggling to work out of a straitjacket. And he never skipped a beat with his rapid-fire chatter.
Koziatek stressed the human capacity in delegates’ business lives.
“You are the human being behind the human doing,” he said. “You support the travel business, but you are more than what you do. The work must define what you value personally, professionally and relationally. If you make decisions that don’t align with your personal values because you’re stressed and anxious and grasping for straws, you’ll go down the wrong path.”
Planners Compare Notes on Travel’s Most Disruptive Year
The collective responses of more than 60 group travel planners who attended the breakout session at the combined Select Traveler/Going On Faith conferences in French Lick, Indiana, August 19-21, is both a tale of woe, and a tale of “Go.”
The disruption of 2020 is measurable, but the determined optimism for seeing the world again in 2021 comes across loud and clear. Fundamental changes to group travel are coming as well, according to this collection of veteran travel planners.
“If you want to know where this industry is going, ask the people in the trenches,” said conference partner and Going On Faith publisher Mac Lacy. “These are veteran travelers themselves, and they have followers who trust them implicitly. When they say the coast is clear, their members will head to the airport. That’s apparent when they sit across from each other in masks and compare notes.”
The buyers in the session counted more than 300 group trips that have already been cancelled between them in 2020 due to COVID-19. For planners at smaller organizations, it was only two or three, but for planners with larger travel programs, the numbers were well into the dozens. One determined respondent replied that they had not cancelled any trips — only postponed them.
When the talk turned to 2021, those same planners ticked off destinations across America and around the globe for their return to travel. They all reported having a core group of travelers who are resolute and who will go as soon as they have a trip ready. Domestic destinations mentioned numerous times included favorites that seemed somewhat like comfort food — places like The Ark Encounter in Northern Kentucky; destinations such as Nashville and Branson; and baseball trips to favorite cities. International destinations that came up more than once also had a familiar ring to them — countries like Spain, Ireland, Italy and Iceland, as well as Caribbean and Mediterranean cruises and destinations.
The planners agreed on several structural changes that will take place in group travel as a result of this pandemic: Groups will continue to grow smaller and more familiar with one another; prices will likely increase as a result; fewer sites each day will be visited due to lengthier stays at each; fewer groups will be combined by tour operators because people will want to travel with those they know; and trips will sell out earlier due to smaller traveler counts.
This demoralizing year has taken its toll on many planners’ psyches. When asked how they felt about trying to run a trip or trips in what remains of 2020, many responded, “forget it,” but many others said, “full speed ahead.”
The political environment has not helped in 2020. Several responded they would sit tight until after the election in November before venturing out and several others mentioned governors in their states who had more or less brought travel to a halt.