By Dan Dickson
Published March 23, 2016
The 2016 Select Traveler Conference in Little Rock, Arkansas, brought together 125 travel program directors representing banks, chambers of commerce, alumni groups and other high-end travel clubs. They were joined by 240 travel industry representatives from convention and visitors bureaus and travel companies for two and a half days of hard work and free-flowing information.
Personal six-minute Marketplace meetings between program directors and industry reps were the backbone of the conference. Organizers scheduled three sessions over two days to give everyone opportunities to meet, greet and book business.
“There’s so much we try to pack into several days’ time,” said Joe Cappuzzello, president and CEO of Group Travel Family, which along with Select Traveler magazine, sponsored the annual conference. “We are cognizant of our group’s time, so we have got to get it all done. It’s action packed. A lot goes on here at the Select Traveler Conference.”
Benefits for Buyers
Several alumni group leaders were newcomers to the conference and were impressed by the quality of the schedule and the personal contacts they were making.
“It’s my first time, and I’m really enjoying this,” said Wanda Campbell from the Athens State University Alumni Association in Athens, Alabama. “I’m learning a lot about travel, especially how to pick travel.”
Alison Taylor of the Arkansas Tech University Alumni Association in Russellville, Arkansas, agreed.
“I’m new to this game and started in January,” said Taylor. “I’m hoping to gain experience and see what’s out there. We want to get away from going to the same places, like we’ve done the last 13 years. I want more weekend travel and to create new experiences around the world.”
All program directors seemed to have an agenda and specific goals for the conference. Danielle Jenkins with Carrollton Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts in the city of Carrollton, Georgia, wanted fresh ideas.
“My goal is to meet people and find out about new destinations and exciting itineraries to help me plan my group travel for seniors 55 and older,” she said. “I’m open to any suggestions.”
Karen Rice of Park National Bank in Newark, Ohio, was busy.
“The meetings are going well,” she said. “I’m looking for ideas for trips for 2017-2018 and unique domestic destinations for our 50- to 65-year-olds.”
Program director Cheryl Walter of Norwin Express Tours in North Huntington, Pennsylvania, was soaking up ideas.
“We’re here to develop new markets and places to take people,” she said. “We’re looking to take people to Alaska and down South. We’ve done some international trips but want to improve our domestic side, too.”
“I love all the camaraderie, all the informational booths and meetings,” said Trudi Bocott from the Puyallup Activities Center in Puyallup, Washington. “I’m always looking for something different in trips to send my seniors on. It has to be affordable. Many of my people are low income, but they love to travel; so it’s all about them.”
From the seller side, the travel industry representatives had a wealth of information, ideas and itineraries for program directors.
“We have customized trips to China and Southeast Asia,” said Max Chew from Ritz Tours in Alhambra, California. “That is our forte. We want to connect with bank groups and possibly alumni organizers, both totally new markets for us. This is our first foray to the conference to build relationships.”
Todd Stallbaumer of the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department said he’s trying to “build business into our state and create awareness. Many people don’t know what Oklahoma has to offer, and I’m here to share that,” he said. “For those who do know, I want to finetune details and get down to some thematic tours that could come into Oklahoma. There are both new things in the state and people putting new twists on existing attractions.”
Grand Denali Lodges in Anchorage, Alaska, may be on people’s bucket lists, and Dee Dee O’Brien wants to help travelers get there.
“We’re hearing from people that Alaska is on fire,” she said. “People love coming there. There are so many TV reality shows on Alaska that brought us to the forefront,” said O’Brien. “It’s a safe destination. No matter what’s going on in the world, people still need to travel. And you don’t need a passport.”
One of the conference’s first activities was a breakout session for buyers. Buyers met informally in ballrooms. Everyone was pitched 30 current travel-industry issues and trends to discuss. Among them were the impact of lower gas prices, terrorism concerns, the popularity of national parks, and city, river and marketing trips.
Breakouts produced interesting comments.
“The economy is bad in our area,” said Donna Adams of American National Bank and Trust in Wichita Falls, Texas. “Oil prices are down, affecting travel. Our travelers are also getting younger. For years, it was the 70-and-older crowd, fully retired. Now, boomers want to travel while they physically can and have money to do it. That’s great for us.”
Jill Ball at Southwest Bank in Fort Worth, Texas, worried about international news.
“The media plays a strong role in international travel,” she said. “They’re in our faces every five minutes about terrorists. People are afraid to travel to some areas. At our club, domestic trips are soaring; international travel, not so much.”
Sam Burrell of Preferred Travel in Ellijay, Georgia, said, “It’s the fear of traveling overseas. Carriers should help by lowering prices and making better deals.” Burrell also said banks that put young people in charge of travel should realize that not all seniors want to book travel on the Internet or on smartphones. “They’re reluctant to change,” he said.
The next Select Traveler conference is February 5-7, 2017, in Ontario, California. Denise Daves of the Greater Ontario CVB attended the conference. “Ontario is the gateway to all that southern California offers: Disneyland, Hollywood, Palm Springs, the beach and the mountains,” she said. “We’re right smack in the middle of them.”