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The Group Travel Leader Small Market Meetings Going on Faith

Select Traveler Conference Chills out in Panama City Beach

America’s travel industry is emerging from the pandemic and starting to meet the pent-up demand for travel of all types. The recent Select Traveler Conference, held at the Sheraton Panama City Beach Golf and Spa Resort in sunny Panama City Beach, Florida, was proof that group travel leaders are eager to hook up with those selling travel destination opportunities.

“You have to love being in Panama City Beach in late February,” said Charlie Presley of The Group Travel Family, the conference organizer. “The weather is beautiful. But what is most important is that you have got an attitude here that says ‘Open for Tourism.’ We did not choose Panama City Beach; it chose us. Local leaders said they wanted Panama City Beach to be better known among travel clubs for banks, chambers of commerce, alumni members and other preferred travel groups, so they asked us to come. And here we are.”

Presley emphasized the importance of travel planners attending the Select Traveler Conference. First there are the networking opportunities. “You are included in every seminar to ensure great networking and exposure for your company,” said Presley. Next is the marketplace, where travel buyers have appointments with travel sellers. This is their all-important face-to-face time that is used to build business relationships that last. Meal functions are another way to strengthen those relationships and to load up on new travel information. And then there are the fun times, such as sightseeing tours, which are a wonderful way to add camaraderie to the mix.

Buying Bonanza

A total of 52 elite travel planners representing banks; chambers of commerce; and college, university and military alumni groups came to Panama City Beach for the Select Traveler Conference. They worked hard to re-establish their talent for finding new destinations for their travel groups, skills that were greatly stunted during the yearlong pandemic. 

Tricia Turner of Expeditions by Tricia out of Mountain Home, Arkansas, saw this conference as an opportunity to help change momentum for the tourism business.

 “My goal is to help with the restoration of the travel industry,” she said. “I love to travel, and I share that love with many others. Group travel is important for people, but the pandemic has given us challenges. I want to show that there are safe and responsible ways to do it. I want to end travel shaming.”  

Jackie Crutchfield of Jackie’s Travel and Tours from Lenoir, North Carolina, was intrigued by the host city. 

“I know nothing about Panama City Beach, so I want to learn more because I am always looking for new venues to bring people to,” she said. “I just want to get heads in buses and get traveling again. It’s been a bad year.”

Nancy Harkey of Sunshine Vacations in Huntsville, Alabama, was flexible. 

“I want to achieve more travel and great destinations for my clients,” she said. “I lost a lot last year. I will take people anywhere, domestic or foreign travel, including weddings, honeymoons, cruises. I do it all.” 

Laura Barker of Citizens Tri-County Bank in Dunlap, Tennessee, wanted guidance. 

“I want to brainstorm with other people and see how they’re adapting to the challenges that COVID-19 has presented and how-to restart safely,” she said. “Personally, I need enthusiasm and to get excited again about travel because I’ve missed it.”

Karen Noble of Good News Travels from Sullivan, Indiana, was an eager shopper. 

“It’s so nice to be around people who are supportive of travel and to get tips, ideas and advantages from destination providers, places I had never considered before,” she said.

During the conference, group travel buyers attended a breakout session at which they discussed a handful of pressing travel industry issues. One discussion question was, “Do you see your role as a travel planner differently than you did prior to the pandemic?” Connie Wells of Preferred Travel in Ellijay, Georgia, responded in the group discussion. 

“Absolutely,” she said, “like what I can expect from my travelers and what they are able to do or not do from now on, or what the coach companies will require of us or even the cruise lines. I never faced these kinds of issues in 2019.”

Travel Sellers Pitch

Travel industry representatives came to the conference to pitch ideas to group travel leaders. Tiffany Gerber of Ohio Amish Country in Millersburg, Ohio, offered travelers an assurance of safety. 

“We want to remind people that when you get into rural Amish Country, you will have safe and healthy environments for your group experiences,” she said. “We are educating group tour leaders on that.” 

Shelley Gutta of Stonewall Resort in Roanoke, West Virginia, extended a welcome. “I want to promote to and connect with travel buyers about our resort and all of the things there are to do in northwest West Virginia,” she said.

Maria Miller of Medora, North Dakota, Convention and Visitors Bureau offered assurance. 

“I want buyers to know that Medora and all of North Dakota is a safe place and has actually stayed open for tourism over the past year,” she said. “We are nestled in the Badlands and were named one of the Top Ten Towns Where History Lives.” 

Wendy Dobrzynski of Circle Wisconsin, based in Milwaukee, made an offer. 

“I represent the entire state of Wisconsin and am telling tour operators that Wisconsin is open and ready to welcome them back,” she said. “So, get your people on buses and come to Wisconsin.”

Gloria Jasper of Rentyl Resorts in Reunion, Florida, offered ideas. 

“Our resort is just 4 years old, and it’s a different way to visit the Kissimmee area,” she said. “A family can travel to the resort and be safe in a home with a pool and can also easily visit all of the attractions in central Florida.”

Positivity from the podium

Motivational speaker Johnny Campbell, known as the Transition Man, urged audience members to transition into new ways of doing things in order to increase their share of the tourism market. He admitted that it was hard but necessary for their customers. 

“In the end it is about memories, the places they go, the things they see with friends and family,” he told delegates. “That is what we call a wealthy life. You can offer your people this: joy. You can make a difference in their lives.”

Jim Edwards of travel giant Collette sponsored the opening day’s lunch and offered his services. 

“We are the most experienced travel company in the world, 103 years old,” he said. “In uncertain times like these, you probably want to work with someone with that much experience. We have thousands of travel professionals who sell our products in four countries. We like to say to people, ‘We travel not to escape life but so life doesn’t escape us.’”

Michael Lundquist of Mayflower Cruises and Tours hosted a breakfast and addressed the delegates. 

“We have not operated a thing since COVID-19 hit,” he said. “Most of you have told us that domestic tours are going to be the first kind of trips to take off for you, followed by international programs. We want to be the partner that helps you do either kind of trip.”

Bob Buesing of the American Queen Steamboat Company sponsored another breakfast and touted one of his outstanding ships. 

“On March 15, the American Duchess became the first cruise ship to sail in America, and it sailed with only 80 people, Fifty percent below capacity,” he said. “Everyone will be health tested before they get on the boat. We are making sure your travelers are safe.”

 Tish Knudsen, with U.S. Tours, greeted delegates as their first breakfast sponsor.  “U.S. Tours has a long and successful relationship with many of you,” she told them.  “Banks and other upscale travel programs represented here are some of our very best clients.  I’m so glad to see so many of you in person here this week.”

Eddie Lutz with the Ark Encounter in Kentucky also brought a personal invitation to the delegates to bring their groups to his colossal venue. “We’re a family-themed site that is adding major new facilities every year,” he said. “This summer, we’ll host the world’s largest Christian music festival when we offer 40 days and nights of gospel music starting August 2.”

Zach Sayles, a longtime presenter to this group with Go Next, reminded delegates of his company’s long track record with alumni organizations and other affinity groups.  “We’re ready when you are, whether it’s by land, sea or air.  We work with the very best travel partners, and when it comes to your clients’ health, we make no compromises,” he said.

Jim Walter of Visit Cheyenne sponsored the closing lunch, and his city will be the host for the next Select Traveler Conference, scheduled for March 28-30, 2022. 

“It’s an exciting time to be in Cheyenne, Wyoming,” he said. “We want to bring travel industry delegates in to show off the cool things that are happening in our city. We are all going to be at the famous Little America Hotel and Resort, which is an absolute oasis on the plains. We also plan to treat delegates to a real rodeo.” 

Relax  and Unwind

Delegates had a delightful time on the opening night of the conference with a buffet-style meal served on the Sheraton Resort’s rear patio overlooking beautiful St. Andrews Bay. It featured seafood caught right off the nearby Gulf Coast. A lively musical trio and an open bar relaxed the crowd, and many delegates danced the night away. 

The second afternoon was devoted to a trip to popular Pier Park, Panama City Beach’s premier shopping, entertainment and restaurant destination. Travel planners got to visit the area and envision their own future tour groups wandering the streets and having fun. The complex boasts 125 stores, dozens of eateries of every kind and an Imax movie theater, laser tag and other interesting amusements. There are numerous indoor and outdoor live music venues. Perhaps most impressive of all is the enormous SkyWheel, which gives riders an unparalleled view of the city, the coastline and the gulf.

After visiting Pier Park for their dine-around, travel planners returned to the Sheraton to enjoy old-fashioned s’mores and drinks before calling it a night.