The annual Going on Faith Conference represents an association of 3,000-plus religious group travel planners who, on average, travel on group tours twice as often as the population in general. And one of the best ways for these planners to connect is at the conference, scheduled this year for September 13–15 at the Sheraton Panama City Beach Golf and Spa Resort on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Panama City Beach is home to only 13,000 residents, and while located on the beautiful white sand beaches of the gulf, it is less mobbed and more affordable without any drop-off in quality.
“We like to promote ourselves as an alternative beach experience,” said Renee Wuerdeman, vice president of sales for Visit Panama City Beach, the area’s convention and visitors bureau. “Many people are learning we can host more complex events aside from family gatherings. Planners are often pleasantly surprised at the value we offer for group travel and meetings and conferences.”
The Going on Faith Conference will welcome faith-based group travel planners from across the country who have bravely weathered the pandemic and who are anxious to get back out with their groups. They are important because they are helping to reopen the group travel industry in their regions of the country. At the conference, they will be joined by a large contingent of destination providers who represent states, cities, accommodations, tourist sites and historic stops. Both sides want to stay up to date on all that is happening in the faith-based travel industry.
The main idea is for the two groups to interact as much as possible in the two marketplace sessions, during information-packed mealtimes, on sightseeing tours of the Panama City Beach area and during the conference’s off-hours. Planners are looking for new places to take their groups, and destination providers are pitching their sites as the best options to consider. It is travel networking and travel business give-and-take at their best.
Travel planners will occupy dozens of tables in the Sheraton’s ballroom and will host up to 50 six-minute meet-and-greet sessions with members of the travel industry. Though short, these meetings are a great starting point for the two sides to start or continue a relationship and to see if they can do business together. After all, the travel industry is built on relationships.
Sue Sowders of Glenburn Travelers in Linton, Indiana, has attended past Going on Faith conferences and is a typical example of a planner searching for fresh travel ideas.
“We are a Methodist-based facility, and I am looking for good, ‘clean’ trips. No casinos or anything like that,” she said. “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.”
The six scheduled meals at the conference are not just an opportunity for delegates to have a bite to eat but are also great networking opportunities. A travel buyer and a travel seller may sit down together at the same table and find they have things in common and may want to do some business together. Strangers become business associates and friends.
For the conference in Panama City Beach, the opening night’s dinner is always a welcome treat.
“We want to do an outdoor open reception on the Sheraton’s back patio with great food stations featuring tropical salads and others with meat and seafood and still others with desserts,” said the CVB’s Wuerdeman. “One will be a place where they will shuck your oysters right in front of you. We will watch the sunset near the water, see the boats coming in and out, and enjoy beer and wine, and live music. We will make it a real Florida experience for everybody.”
Plans are still being made for the second night’s dinner, which will also be held on Sheraton’s property but in a different setting, perhaps on the beach for a luau or maybe on a boat with a meal onboard.
Breakfasts and lunches are another great networking opportunity for delegates who will hear many speakers tout their travel companies and destinations from the conference podium.
The conference organizers and Visit Panama City Beach are still working on exact sightseeing tours but have decided on at least two themes: shopping and the beach.
Shoppers might enjoy a tour called Décor on Shore. People can choose to board a motorcoach and be driven to an area where there are about 25 unique “beachy” businesses, from consignment shops to high-end boutiques. This group of people will be handed a “passport” that they can have stamped at each location they visit. The last stop will be the visitors center, where they will trade their passport for a piece of swag.
Another option is a boat trip to popular Shell Island, which is a barrier island with a seven-mile stretch of undeveloped land. It is pressed between the Gulf of Mexico and St. Andrews Bay. People will get off the boat and spend an hour or so seeing the sights.
With so much to see and do, Visit Panama City Beach says it can easily create customized activities for any type of group that comes to town.
The CVB’s Wuerdeman has one wish for the visiting travel planners.
“We hope that the planners who come to Going on Faith will be impressed by what we have to offer and then bring some of their conferences here to the beach,” she said. “We have new hotels opening, one being an Embassy Suites with a beautiful new design and conference space, and it is located right across the street from the beach.”
There are also several large retreat centers in the area with complete facilities that can manage 800 to 1,000 attendees, whether they be groups of women, men or young people or a mixture.