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An Iconic Conference: Select Traveler 2019

The Select Traveler Conference is the country’s premier affinity group travel event. So it seemed only natural that the 2019 edition of the event would be held in a premier destination: historic French Lick Resort, surrounded by southern Indiana’s Hoosier National Forest.

“This is America’s only international travel conference created for upscale travel groups like yours,” Mac Lacy, publisher of Select Traveler magazine, told conference delegates. “You’ll meet with the best tour companies with destinations that understand the standards you expect for your travelers. You’ll spend time with people who do what you do.”

Joe Vezzoso, an executive of French Lick Resort, said hosting the conference was easy.

“I’ve known the folks at Group Travel Family for years and thought this conference would be in the best interest of southern Indiana,” he said. “Our partners in the region were also very supportive of the idea.”

An Elegant Setting

French Lick Resort was created because of the medicinal benefits of the extraordinary salt springs in the area. The resort includes two famed hotels that are 125 years old: French Lick Springs Hotel and West Baden Springs Hotel, just a short distance down the road. Both are designed to bring a sense of European elegance to southern Indiana, and both feature world-class spas.

The two properties offer a total of 686 guest rooms. In addition, the sites boast the French Lick Casino, a wide variety of event and meeting spaces, exceptional golf courses and many family-friendly activities in the wider area that include everything from a local railroad to a wildlife refuge.

The resort sites had fallen into decay a decade ago, but thanks to the generosity of the local Cook family, known for its medical device manufacturing empire, along with state and federal grants, French Lick Resort was restored to its original glory to the tune of $600 million. Today, the site is visited by groups from around the U.S. and the world.

Planners Come to Buy

The conference included three marketplace sessions. About 100 group travel planners met with 195 travel industry representatives promoting destinations all over the country and a few foreign countries, too. Mining for travel ideas was common.

“It’s my first conference, and I haven’t felt intimidated, even though there’s so much activity,” said Jacquelyn Rohrer of Eagle Bank and Trust in Fairfield Bay, Arkansas. “I’ll meet new vendors and present new trips to my members for 2020 and 2021. I usually offer one larger trip and a few shorter ones.”

Nadine Mihaljevic of Destinations With Nadine in Mundelein, Illinois, loves the conference.  “Whenever I come, I search for lifetime partnerships with people I can trust and who share my quality customer-service goals,” she said. “I’ve found that year after year at Select Traveler.”

Cindy Salta of Bank of New Hampshire from Laconia, New Hampshire, agreed. “It’s an awesome way to network with vendors and sellers. They’re some of the top ones in the country.”

Rosie Mosteller’s Recycled Teenagers in Dalton, Georgia, has an impressive following. “My travel club has 2,500 seniors,” she said. “We’ve literally been around the world and have a full schedule of 12 trips this year. I’ve met so many great people here that I can travel with.”

Dan Stypa of Rice University in Houston is looking to expand his organization’s travel portfolio. “We’re trying to broaden the types of trips we offer,” he said. “Currently, we do long, extended international and domestic trips. Now we’re thinking of serving members who don’t have the time or money to take long trips.”

Travel planners gathered in breakout sessions to tackle several issues common to all buyers, such as how to accommodate both older and younger travelers.

“The only time I have young people along is if they’re guests,” said Emily Hart of Sterling Federal Bank in Sterling, Illinois. “I just focus on my members, and the guests just go along and don’t pay much attention to what I am saying half the time.”

Melody Beecham of Hometown Bank in Corbin, Kentucky, described how her Varsity Club is attracting younger members.

“We’ll make a ‘junior’ version of that for 40- to 50-year-olds with activities that are more interactive, such as trails and skeet shooting,” she said. “Those members will eventually feed into our older program.”

Travel Industry Ideas

Tara Walton of the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau came to promote her city. “My goal here is to promote travel to Birmingham,” she said. “We’re hospitality engineers and want to help travel leaders to promote us to their clients. We look forward to hosting them in our city.”

Erin Hoebbel of Meet NKY in Covington, Kentucky, invited groups to her region. “We’re new in the motorcoach group market and have gotten a boost from the nearby Ark Encounter,” she said. “We’re strong in faith-based circles but also get bank groups. I want to build on that.”

Many conference delegates represented individual attractions or hotels as well.

“I’m trying to grow my group business and bring everyone to Natchez to show off what we have,” said Valda Harveston of Magnolia Bluffs Casino and Hotel in Mississippi. “We’re a casino and hotel, so we work well for all groups and those who want culture and heritage.”

David Stephens offered Gandy Dancer Theater in Elkins, West Virginia. “We’re making people more aware of our theater, our town and West Virginia in general,” he said. “The theater presents musical shows from the 1940s to today and legend shows with live celebrity impersonators, like Elvis.”

Imani Dames of Warwick Paradise Island in the Bahamas enticed planners. “We’re spreading brand awareness of our all-adult, all-inclusive resort. We’re the closest Caribbean resort to the U.S. Hopefully, we’ll get new future bookings and create nice memories for travelers.”

Social Events Highlighted the Week

Mealtimes at the Select Traveler Conference are not meant just for eating. They’re ideal opportunities for networking with fellow travel industry professionals. Delegates did plenty of that at the opening night’s welcome reception at West Baden Springs Hotel, sponsored by French Lick Resort. Under the hotel’s dramatic 200-foot-tall dome over a beautiful atrium, delegates enjoyed a buffet dinner along with the sounds of a smooth quartet presenting classic pop music.

The next morning, delegates didn’t need strong coffee to wake up. A breakfast, sponsored by U.S. Tours, featured a pounding country band with a phenomenal fiddle player who seemed to get everyone’s fingers and toes tapping. Bob Cline told delegates about his company.

“We do things others don’t have the guts to do,” he said. “This year we’re renting West Virginia Penitentiary for a Johnny Cash prison concert, renting all riverboats in Louisville and racing them before the Kentucky Derby, and renting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland for Woodstock’s 50th anniversary.”

That day’s luncheon, sponsored by Collette, featured a return engagement by popular 18-year-old “American Idol” contestant Tristan McIntosh. During the luncheon, Collette also announced the winner of a contest in Select Traveler magazine that featured a free FAM trip for two to Italy.  The lucky winner was Catherine Lawless of Bradley University.

The buffet dinner that night was sponsored by Visit Cheyenne, which will host the 2020 Select Traveler Conference in beautiful and rugged Wyoming, March 22-24.

“It’s a chance for us to show off the growth in the community and to highlight attractions such as the world’s largest outdoor rodeo and Western celebration,” said Jim Walter of Visit Cheyenne. “We’re only 90 minutes north of Denver, so we’re accessible for the rest of the country.”

Another country band entertained delegates that evening, with a dance floor right in front of the stage.

The closing day’s breakfast carried a Hawaiian theme and was sponsored by Trips. It featured many beautiful leis and some funny, impromptu hula dancing.

“Normally, on Hawaii cruises, our tour conductor policy is one free trip for 10 booked,” said Brian Doughty of Trips. “The conductor flies and sails for free. But for a limited time, we’ll give a free trip for just seven bookings.”

Globus sponsored the conference’s closing luncheon, which turned mellow at the conclusion when a yoga instructor took the stage to guide delegates through relaxing stretching and breathing exercises.  Host Rachelle Hillebrandt Stoutt sent everyone away a little less stressed than when they arrived.

Speakers Addressed Bottom-Line Issues

The conference also featured educational and inspirational speakers in several sessions.

Keynote speaker Bob Pacanovsky urged travel planners to go beyond the obvious.

“I don’t think you are in the travel business,” he said. “You’re in the people business, first and foremost. You can also deliver an excellent customer experience, but something may be missing. It’s the power of hospitality and how we make our customers feel.”

Amber Selking, Ph.D., a sports and corporate mind-training expert, told delegates they must think like champions.

“Champions have a mind-set that what they say to themselves and how they carry themselves matters,” she said “For them, self-talk matters for their ability to be their best. Change and ambiguity are where champions get great. People who aren’t champions worry about what will go wrong and whether they can deal with it. They don’t handle change well. In your world of travel, you must deal with change. Forget distractions. Focus.”

Greg Nahmens of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration urged planners to “look before you book.”

“We ask that in your due diligence, you come to our website and inspect safety records for transportation companies you might hire,” he said. “Your customers put their lives in your hands based on decisions that you alone make.”