Buu Mon Buddhist Temple, courtesy Beaumont CVB
When a group travel planner decided that she wanted to take her religious group on a mystery tour of Beaumont, Texas, the first thing she did was turn to the Beaumont Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) for help. The CVB took this vague idea and help turn it into a reality for the faith-based group.
“We helped her put the tour together and come up with clues,” said Elizabeth Eddins, director of tourism for the Beaumont CVB. “The tour was called ‘The Biggest Sites in Texas,’ and we had clues around that theme.”
Some of the clues hinted toward the Fire Museum’s fire hydrant, the largest in Texas, and the giant Spindletop Gusher.
CVBs such as Beaumont’s can help religious group leaders figure out their travel logistics and learn about unknown opportunities.
“So many of the group planners out there are ignorant of what a CVB is and how to use them,” said Ross Powell, director of sales for the Gwinnett County CVB near Atlanta. “A CVB is a free service that can save hundreds of hours of research and phone calls to help planners find what they are looking for.”
A CVB can customize a tour from start to finish by recommending hotels, restaurants, attractions, transportation methods, tour operators and other details.
“These planners are experts on their groups, so they know what they are looking for on a tour,” said Jackie Boos, group sales manager for Visit Eau Claire CVB in Wisconsin. “We are the experts on our location; so we work with them to provide a smooth transition into our area during their time here. We can help them with where they lay their heads, where they can eat, where they can play, as well as with other aspects of their plans.”
Who are you?
When contacting a CVB, a planner’s first step is to give the bureau information about the group.
“We ask the group leaders some questions to figure out what are the demographics of their group — be it church families, youth groups, senior groups or married groups,” said Sharon Altland, director of sales for the Hershey Harrisburg Regional Visitors Bureau in Pennsylvania. “The second thing we ask is their budget. Are they looking to stay in a campground or hotels? And if it’s hotels, do they want a full-service hotel or a limited-service one?”
Once the CVB staff know the type of group with which they are dealing, they can make suggestions catered to the group’s needs. Travel bureaus like the Gwinnett County CVB would rather work with planners than force them into a one-size-fits-all tour.
“I just came back from the Going On Faith Conference, and every group had a different demographic; so it’s not like your recommendations would be the same from one group to another,” said Powell. “When we find out the size of the group, the type of group, the interests of the group and how long they are staying, then we can help them find the right sites and attractions in Gwinnett County.”
A group leader organizing a trip to an unfamiliar city alone might have to research every hotel in the area and determine which cater to groups. Alternatively, a group leader could turn that work over to the experts.
“One of the main things we do is all the legwork with the hotels,” said Eddins. “We can put leads out and get back the hotel rates, amenities and group tour offerings they have, whether it’s a welcome reception or a group discount. We are the liaison between them and the hotels to get the planners the best deal possible.”
Not all hotels can accommodate a group looking for bus parking and 50 rooms all at once, so the CVB’s hotel-finding service can prove a huge timesaver.
Building your itinerary
To put together a tempting itinerary for potential tour participants, planners have to know which of the area’s attractions would appeal to their groups. When a faith-based planner calls the Rapid City CVB, the bureau staff know just the place to refer the planner.
“Our biggest religious-themed attraction in the area is the Chapel in the Hills,” said Michelle Thomson, tourism director for the Rapid City CVB in South Dakota. “We can customize this into their tour. We can make contact with the caretakers of the property to help organize a personal tour based on the group’s needs.”
A planner who knows Rapid City’s proximity to Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills National Park may not have heard of the Chapel in the Hills. However, the Scandinavian-style chapel can add a desired religious element, as the site has prayer walks through the woods.
A CVB can suggest faith-based sites like the chapel, as well as contact the sites directly and make the travel arrangements for the planner.
“We basically play the middleman in how we assist the planner, by contacting the attractions they will need,” said Boos. “We can help get them discounts and group rates. We are also able to assure them of finding the quality places that they need.”
A travel bureau can also provide other assistance, such as suggest the best motorcoach parking locations, give step-on-guide recommendations, inform the planner about special events that will be happening during the group’s visit. In the case of Hershey, Pa., the local CVB can even plan an entire tour around a faith-based event.
“Joyce Meyer is a huge evangelist that comes to the local center once a year,” said Altland. “Every year we have groups come and see her. At the Going On Faith Conference, that comes up often. We can help them plan a group trip to see her by finding hotels, restaurants and other things that will help bring the group to our region.”
The extra mile
Even smaller details, such as delivering custom-made welcome bags into each group member’s room, can be handled by the local CVB. Some bureaus have even come up with their own ways to make visitors’ stays memorable, such as the Beaumont CVB’s photo post cards.
“We take a group picture of the group in front of one of the Beaumont landmarks, such as the Spindletop Gusher or the Dalmatian Fire Hydrant,” said Eddins. “The photos are a great conversation-starter that we hope reminds them of a fun memory of when they were here. We send them that picture after their tour as a photo post card with a recipe of an item they ate on the back. That way they can take home a little bit of the taste and flavor of Southeast Texas.”
Other specific activities can be arranged for a group on an individual basis. For example, a planner bringing a faith-based group to one of Eau Claire, Wisconsin’s wilderness retreats could coordinate a craft demonstration into the tour.
“If a member of our bureau did pottery outside of an attraction, they could come and do a night of hands-on activities with groups at a hotel, or we could set up a facility for them,” said Boos.
After hammering out the itinerary details, CVBs also have the resources to assist planners in selling the trip to potential travel members.
“We have many photographs we can provide for planners to help them promote the trip,” said Thomson. “We can give them videos, information packets and anything else that they need. We try to help in any way that we can to get their group accommodated.”