Fast Facts About Thomas Smith
Thomas Smith plans trips for Educational Opportunities Tours.
Founded in 1974, Educational Opportunities Tours offers faith-based trips for all denominations. More than 400,000 people have traveled with the company. Based in Lakeland, Florida, the organization has served a wide range of groups, among them a pastor traveling with a couple of members and a megachurch with several hundred people.
Favorite Bible Verse:
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Hopkins County, Kentucky
Smith’s favorite domestic destination is Alaska, which he has explored extensively over the years. His top international destination is the Holy Land. His preferred mode of transportation is by European riverboat. He is booked as the speaker on a Christmas markets Danube River cruise in 2021.
Smith loves exhausting himself while working on his farm.
When Thomas Smith first noticed the expression on a fellow traveler’s face during his third trip to the Holy Land, his life changed.
“My first trip to the Holy Land was in 1984, so I’ve been going to the Holy Land for a long time,” said Smith, executive director of travel ministry for Educational Opportunities Tours. “It was on my third trip when I quit being so enthralled with seeing things through my eyes and I began to see the Holy Land through other people’s eyes. When I saw their light-up moment, I began to realize the Holy Land can make a big difference for some folks.”
His revelation made him an advocate for faith-based travel during his time as a pastor. He noticed that when people visited biblical sites, they came back more passionate about their faith.
“The Bible becomes a pop-up storybook,” said Smith. “You listen to the Scriptures differently because you can see the places in your mind’s eye. I have found that these people are more engaged with the sermon and with worship. They are more willing to join church groups or step up their leadership. They have deepened their faith because of their experience.”
After Smith had spent 37 years in pastoral ministry, James Ridgeway, the CEO of Educational Opportunities Tours, asked him if he would serve as the company’s executive director of travel ministry. Ridgeway wanted Smith to help ensure that the quickly growing travel company didn’t lose its roots in the church.
“It took me less time than it should have to decide that I wanted to step into that role,” said Smith. “That was a big change. Last year I traveled to 17 countries. My little map has grown. It has been kind of surreal. I am just a country preacher from western Kentucky. I’m visiting places I would have never dreamt of. I know it has transformed me, so I hope I can find ways to transfer that to other people.”
Educational Opportunities Tours is one of the country’s largest faith-based companies offering trips to the Holy Land. It began as a United Methodist ministry and has since grown to include all denominations and destinations around the globe.
Smith travels with groups to make sure the pastors have everything they need and to help provide quality control. About 50% of the tours are customized, so Smith can help facilitate the group’s individual needs of included prayers and scheduled worship services.
“Our tours let groups know that if you want to walk where Jesus walked, you have to embrace and engage the local people,” said Smith. “Unless you have done that, you haven’t walked where Jesus walked because he was always embracing people. We partner with 14 different Christian ministries so guests can see the living people.”
Although current COVID-19 travel restrictions have slowed down Smith’s travel, he looks forward to more pilgrimages in the future. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by his travel schedule, Smith looks forward to each trip and the impact he will be able to see in the lives of his fellow travelers.
“I have even seen travel make people more generous,” said Smith. “I had one gentleman tell me that all the youth in the church should be able to go to the Holy Land because this could change a teenager’s life forever. He gave me a check for a scholarship that helped 30 youth and their parents go to the Holy Land last year. They will be different from thenceforth.”
1. Relationships are important. You can see people as clients or you can see them as guests. That can make a difference in the long term.
2. Mind the details. Remember you are the expert. Your guests are counting on you.
3. Develop long-term partnerships with providers. I need providers that I know will be there in any situation.