Religious travel planners came to Grand Rapids, Michigan, to search for new travel ideas and destinations at the annual Going On Faith Conference, which took place September 4-6 at the beautiful and historic Amway Grand Hotel in the downtown sector of Michigan’s second largest city.
Faith-based travelers have left their mark around the U.S. and the world.
“Faith-based travel in this country represents $300 million with 20 million travelers going to faith sites and on other vacations,” Mac Lacy, a Going On Faith Conference partner, told the delegates. “When you consider world faith-based sites like Jordan, Israel, Rome, the Vatican, Egypt, Turkey and more places, it is really a remarkable industry.”
Conference attendees received a warm welcome in Grand Rapids
“What makes our community so special are the people who love Grand Rapids and who give back in so many ways, like Visit Grand Rapids, our convention and visitors bureau,” said Mayor Rosalynn Bliss in her welcome to all attendees. “When you’re here, I hope you sense that feeling.”
“It’s a great destination and centrally located,” said Joe Cappuzzello, president and CEO of Group Travel Family, the conference organizer. “It’s an up-and-coming city known for music, arts and craft breweries all over town, so it is young and hip with a great vibe. There is a religious component here also and our members saw that over three days.”
Frederick Meijer Gardens event highlights a robust sightseeing experience
One highlight of the conference was a tour and dinner at the amazing Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park. Delegates boarded trams and saw some of the 158 acres and 180 sculptures spread around the grounds. Delegates viewed the 24-foot-tall sculpture called “The American Horse,” created by famed animal sculptor Nina Akamu. After the tour, attendees enjoyed a dinner and entertainment from a lively musical trio.
An afternoon schedule of sightseeing tours kept delegates busy.
One tour included the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum and the Grand Rapids Public Museum. The Ford museum is the presidential museum and burial site of Ford, the nation’s 38th president and his wife, Betty Ford. Another tour option was to Ferris Coffee and Nut, a local coffee and nut roaster and distributor.
A third tour highlighted art and architecture and included the Grand Rapids Art Museum and a stop at a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home completed in 1909 and located in the Heritage Hill Historic District. The last tour was to two breweries and focused on beer tourism. Grand Rapids, known as Beer City USA, has a lively and booming craft beer industry.
Ray Hendon of the Great Passion Play in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, appreciated the tours.
“What they have to offer in Grand Rapids is absolutely unbelievable,” he said. “I talk to a lot of group leaders who always look for places to go and I’d recommend Grand Rapids. The Meijer gardens and sculptures tour and dinner were wonderful. The food and musical entertainment were nice. My city museum tours were interesting.”
Sandi Stewart of Stewart’s Fun Adventures in Hemet, California, concurred. “I think the tours were very informative and enjoyable and gave us ideas for future group tours to Grand Rapids,” she said.
Global faith-based travel planning takes center stage
As always, the cornerstone of the three-day Going On Faith conference was the two marketplace sessions. These featured scheduled meetings between planners seeking ideas for their religious traveler groups and travel industry representatives offering their sites and activities.
Most planners came with agendas, like Peggy Watson of Paseo Baptist Church in Kansas City, Missouri.
“We started doing mystery trips and I want more of those — on trains or anywhere, as long as they’re less than a day from Kansas City,” she said. “We’ve also taken groups to the Holy Land and to London and Paris and on cruises.”
Suzanne Taskowitz of Faithful Travels in Islamorada, Florida, had goals.
“I’ve handled the travel ministry for the Archdiocese of Miami for the last 10 years, and I want to increase the number of spiritual journeys I schedule and work more with the churches,” she said.
Loretta Persyn of Main Street World Travel in San Antonio, Texas, wants the best for her clients. “My goal is to help people have the best travel experience possible with other people they travel with,” she said. “You come to this conference to learn about new places to go.”
Tom and Stacy Kellam of Kellam Road Trips in Liberty Center, Indiana are newbies. “We’re a new tour company doing motor coach trips,” said Tom. “It’s our first conference and we’re excited,” said Stacy. “We just had our first two meetings, and I already have a bunch of good information.”
Juel Fitzgerald of Viviano’s Cruises and Tours in Bedford Heights, Ohio, felt a spiritual longing.
“I’ve always been interested in taking tours with people to see more of God’s glory,” she said. “I really want to go to Israel. I just returned from Indonesia, and I believe God sent me there. I wonder where he will next send me.”
Travel sellers come prepared
Roxanne Ward of Broadway Direct Group Sales in New York City had excitement to sell.
“Our parent is Nederlander Producing Company of America,” she said. “We’ve been around over 100 years and produced tons of shows from ‘Hamilton’ to ‘The Lion King,’ and we own nine theaters on Broadway. I can streamline everything for a group tour to our theatres.”
Paul Sadaphal of Bird-In-Hand Family Inn, Restaurant and Stage in Pennsylvania Amish Country pitched nostalgia.
“This is a very unique destination,” he said. “We serve a cornfield banquet, literally in an Amish cornfield. We have guest rooms and a theater under expansion. We can personalize any group visit. We want to make sure people have that nice, peaceful, tranquil Amish experience.”
Trisha Cook of iCruise in Delray Beach, Florida, knew where to look.
“There are many groups represented here who love to cruise so I’m here to meet group leaders to build more business,” she said. “I’ve gotten good leads.”
Rebeca Perez of Crowne Plaza Dallas Downtown offers accommodations and more.
“It’s our first time attending this conference,” she said. “Our hotel hosts many religious groups, and it’s great to be here getting to know everybody and finding out about their needs.”
Sonya Harchaoui of the Dayton Convention and Visitors Bureau in Ohio is a pro who knows her job.
“I’m new to the CVB but have been in the hospitality industry for years working for hotels and an airline,” she said. “My goal is to meet people and create relationships and friendships and see if Dayton is a good match and to present us in a good light.”
Speaker and Sponsors offer worldwide travel options
The conference’s keynote address was delivered by Bob Pacanovsky, an expert on hospitality in the marketplace. It was a perfect theme for travel planners and travel representatives.
“You simply must give hospitality,” he told delegates. “You know what it is. You’re all consumers and when a service provider or business does something great for you, you naturally say ‘I can’t believe they did that for me.’ That’s hospitality. Now go do that for your own customers. It‘s all about how you make them feel.”
Frequent conference attendee Greg Nahmens of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration issued a friendly but serious reminder to planners who book ground transportation for their travelers.
“Before you pick a carrier for your passengers, you need to ‘Look Before You Book,’ every trip, every time,” he said. That means researching the government’s website for safety information and records for the carriers you are considering.
Sponsors brought great travel information to the delegates as they enjoyed delicious meals. The second day’s breakfast was sponsored by Globus, represented by Diane Wilhelm.
“We want to make it so that when you step out into that destination, you say ‘Wow,’” she said. “We want to put smiles on your faces and chills up and down your spines.”
Lunch that day came courtesy of Wayne Peyreau of MSC Cruises, which is aggressively adding new ships, upgrading others and pushing into the North American market.
“MSC Cruises visits 45 countries around the world, so I need your help filling up all these new ships,” Peyreau said. “I want your business.”
The last day’s breakfast came by way of Eddie Lutz and the Ark Encounter and Creation Museum in Hebron, Kentucky.
“Videos and pictures are helpful,” Lutz said of the massive re-creation of Noah’s Ark. “But you can’t imagine its size unless you’re standing next to it. It is the largest single frame structure in the world. It is 510 feet long, 85 feet wide and 51 feet tall, the same dimensions as in the Bible. When people pull up in buses and see it for the first time, they gasp.”
Jim Edwards of Collette told attendees they might be able to still get into next year’s Oberammergau event, but almost all their trips are filled. He suggested several other 2020 options for active faith-based groups. Pete Smith, with US Tours, encouraged attendees to join one of his company’s many Southern gospel events or special event trips for the coming year.
The closing luncheon was provided by Visit Wichita, which will host the next Going On Faith Conference, August 19-21, 2020.
“There is a lot of growth happening right now in Wichita, and we can’t wait to get these religious travel groups there to see everything going on,” said Jessica Viramontez, Visit Wichita’s convention sales manager. “Everyone who comes to Wichita and who hasn’t been there before comes away saying they are pleasantly surprised.”