The 2023 Select Traveler Conference drew 258 upscale travel planners, industry members and vendors to Branson, Missouri, March 27–29, where both the host city and attendees confirmed the robust return of travel across the globe. In a city almost unrivaled for tourism vitality, buyers and sellers alike spoke of 2023 as a record year in the making.
Branson is one of America’s greatest tourism success stories of the past 50 years and draws more than 10 million visitors annually to southwest Missouri. Home to more than 100 live musical, comedy and faith-based shows, Branson also features a thriving outdoor scene that draws fishermen, golfers, hiking enthusiasts and others to its Ozark Mountain foothills.
“Branson wowed our delegates for three days and showcased many venues and activities for Select Traveler groups to enjoy,” said conference partner Charlie Presley of the Group Travel Family. “Chateau on the Lake Resort was a superb host, and our four sightseeing options arranged by Explore Branson were entirely filled. What a beautiful afternoon we got for showcasing the area’s vast entertainment scene and heralded outdoors.”
Delegates dined one evening at a local favorite, McFarlains, with live traditional music; enjoyed an offbeat performance by Buckets ‘n Boards Comedy Percussion Show; were treated to a personal audience with the Haygoods entertainment family following their show at Clay Cooper Theatre; and relaxed at the chateau overlooking Table Rock Lake.
Bud Geissler of GroupCollect delivered a keynote address on new technology for tour management, and two marketplace sessions offered travel destinations and tour operators appointments with tour planners who are traveling again throughout America and the world.
Major meal sponsors included Collette, which offered a program around its worldwide travel destinations and held a drawing for a trip to Northern Italy, won by Margie Zieber of Farmers State Bank in Cameron, Missouri. U.S. Tours hosted a breakfast to introduce new European itineraries and their well-established domestic programs for groups. 2024 Select Traveler Conference host Visit Buffalo/Niagara sponsored an interactive event at its breakfast hosted by step-on guide service Buffalo Double Decker Bus Tours.
“Excitement for going to Buffalo/Niagara next year is really high,” said Presley. “Our day of arrival is St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, and the city has a nationally known parade and celebration for that international Irish event. It should be an exciting Select Traveler Conference in that great city.”
Breakout session energizes buyers
“Please continue showcasing independent travel companies and bus companies at this conference — don’t Walmart travel.”
That was one of many comments turned in during this year’s buyer breakout session at the Select Traveler Conference held in Branson, Missouri.
Many travel planners who attend the conference are regular participants in this popular session, a longtime fixture on the first day of the three-day meeting. More than 40 planners made time to attend this year’s session, which was moderated by volunteers Lisa Passley of Southwest Missouri Bank in Joplin, Missouri, and Margie Zieber of Farmers State Bank in Cameron, Missouri.
“Once we get everyone settled in at tables, the conversations flow,” said conference partner Mac Lacy. “This is the only time all year that these influential planners can let their guards down and share ideas with one another in a noncompetitive environment. They will share their best ideas with one another and not think anything about it. It’s a pretty cool couple of hours.”
A couple of telling survey statistics jumped out from the session this year:
• 79% of travel planners said their program membership is growing again after the pandemic.
• 75% of planners are either very or extremely optimistic that new members will join their groups in the next three years.
“We email the summaries of the breakout session to all the attendees as a benefit of attending the conference, and the document serves as a credible gauge for travel activity in the year ahead,” said Lacy. “I think this session energizes a lot of planners and reassures them that they aren’t alone in navigating the challenges they face as global travel generators. Our thanks again to Lisa and Margie for moderating this year’s meeting.”
What delegates are saying
“The leisure group market is changing. It’s not just older travelers anymore. It’s students, performance groups, special interest groups and more. The future looks great for groups here in Branson. We devote a lot of dollars to this market, and the Select Traveler Conference fits our interest in quality over quantity.
“We’re emphasizing nature and health now. People of all ages want to be physically and mentally whole. It’s a mindset people have had since COVID. It plays well here, and once people come to Branson, they come back.”
— Samantha Gutting, Senior Vice President of Group Sales
“Branson is back. Last year, we surpassed 10 million visitors. We are not your grandmother’s Branson anymore. We’ve beaten that. In addition to all our shows, we have the outdoors and Table Rock Lake. We have the boating life, fishing, championship golf courses, Big Cedar Lodge nearby and lots of first-class hotels to enjoy.
“Groups have always been some of our best ambassadors. When they go back home, they tell everyone about Branson. We want them to be completely satisfied while they’re here because they create word-of-mouth awareness that cannot be bought.”
— Anthony Stacy
Branson’s Imax Entertainment Complex, Branson Restaurants Inc.
“Prior to COVID, we were doing two major international trips each year. Our members became concerned about getting stuck somewhere overseas during COVID, but they are feeling better about traveling internationally now. We have a river cruise on the books for next year, and I expect to bring Europe back into the picture fully in 2024. We’re traveling again in the U.S. this year. Our trips here at home are great.”
—Joyce Lechtenberger, Vice President, Gold Club Director
First Security Bank, Mountain Home, Arkansas
“We’ll run three trips this year, including Mackinac Island this October. I think our program will continue to expand. People realize now that life is short, so they want to travel. Last year, I took 10 members on a river cruise on the Rhone River in France, and that sold me on river cruising. We’ll probably do the Danube next. I’m sure everyone who did the Rhone will come on that one, plus a lot more.”
— Cheryl Finley, GO Club Coordinator
West Plains Bank, West Plains, Missouri
“I started working with our bank group six years ago and became director in 2020. Our club has been around a long time; some say it’s 60 years old. Last year, we did two Alaska cruises with land tours. In 2016, we took 180 people on the Rhine and had the ship to ourselves. In 2024, we’re doing a Danube River cruise with Mayflower, and we’re hoping to do the same thing. We’re also doing Autumn in the Adirondacks, a Tennessee Christmas, and just got back last week from doing Florida’s National Parks.”
— Beth Hubbard, Vista Club Manager
First State Bank, Mendota, Illinois
Travel Companies & Destinations
“People know now that we are not guaranteed time. They are buying all the extensions we offer, and many are buying itineraries back-to-back. Some will do our Alaska 12-day trip and then add our nine-day Vancouver trip. The demand we’re seeing is remarkable. Our infrastructure throughout the world took a century to build and now it’s paying off. I come to the Select Traveler Conference because I like to see things for myself. I want my finger on the pulse, and your conferences allow me to do that.”
— Jim Edwards, Vice President, U.S. Affinity Development
“This is the first time I’ve attended the Select Traveler Conference in several years. We’re seeing the potential of this market for Savannah. My division targets groups of 10 rooms or more, so I also work closely with travel agents and home-based agents who can deliver groups of that size. Savannah markets to upscale groups like those represented here, and this is an introductory approach for me.”
— Anjuli King, Director, Domestic Group Tour and Entertainment Sales
“We’re expanding into international destinations, and it’s a great avenue for us with Select Traveler buyers. I’ve traveled internationally and can make suggestions about companies we use overseas, so I’m pretty involved in this expansion. We’re creating tours in western Europe, Israel, Egypt and Greece. We specialize in customization, so a group can work with us on what they want to include. As a longtime breakfast sponsor, we’re pretty invested here.”
— Tish Knudsen, Business Development Manager