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The Group Travel Leader Small Market Meetings Going on Faith

Select Traveler Conference Has Wings

Nearly 200 travel industry delegates, hosts, speakers and guests converged in Buffalo, New York, for the 2024 Select Traveler Conference. Held March 17–19, the conference was a spirited gathering that kicked off on St. Patrick’s Day and celebrated a growth year ahead for domestic and international travel destinations.

Two busy marketplace sessions provided several hours of group travel meetings, as buyers and sellers met to discuss itineraries for the remainder of 2024 and future years.

“We have about 20% new buyers this year, and our travel industry delegates have full books of appointments,” said Select Traveler Conference general manager Jennifer Ferguson. “Buffalo is a very easy city to enjoy, and Patrick Kaler and Michael Even have led an enthusiastic Visit Buffalo/Niagara team as our hosts for this superb event.”

“Buffalo’s greatest asset is its people,” said Kaler. “We are truly a city of good neighbors. Over the past 12-15 years there has been a renaissance here on our waterfront, canal side and inner harbor. Arts and culture in Buffalo have been revitalized, and our culinary assets have grown immensely. From our famous beef on weck and Buffalo wings, to fine dining in notable restaurants, Buffalo has grown foodie fans throughout the world.”

The signature event of the conference was Buffalo’s reception, plated dinner and entertainment by youthful Irish dancers from Buffalo on St. Patrick’s Day evening at its Admiral Room at the Marin. The resplendent Buffalo venue hosts dozens of weddings, corporate outings and gala events each year.   

Major meal and event sponsors included Collette, James B. Beam Distilling Company, U.S. Tours, Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino and Explore Branson. A dozen additional sponsors promoted their companies or destinations at gatherings in the conference theater or on branded conference items like apps, phone chargers or name badges.

Nearly 40 travel planners for banks, chambers of commerce, alumni groups and other upscale organizations attended a two-hour breakout session designed to identify trends and marketing ideas for buyers. The session was managed by Donna Olson of Partners Bank in Spencer, Wisconsin, and Pam Cox Previte of Tumbleweed Tours in Spring, Texas.

Olson summed up the travel activity represented at the conference well.

“Next month, we’re headed to Savannah, Charleston and Asheville with 25 travelers; we are looking at a trip this summer to Branson and Eureka Springs; and we’ll take 30-35 this September to Nashville for the 100th anniversary of the Grand Ole Opry. I’m also making plans to take a group on a Switzerland rail trip very soon.”

Consider a reboot

In many cultures, deserts are considered spiritual places. Jeff Wozer could probably get onboard with that. In the desert of Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, Wozer realized his life was more cluttered than calmed by his preoccupation with his laptop.

“I was admiring a desert vista and realized how liberating that setting was,” he said. “I realized that I had lost my focus. I was a comedy writer and freelance writer, and I was missing my deadlines for the first time in my life. I realized my laptop had become more a distraction than a work device.”

Wozer began clearing away the digital fog around him and started sharing his revelation with audiences across the country, as he did in Buffalo, with Select Traveler Conference delegates.   

“I’m no doctor, but I think it’s fair to say that conditions like attention deficit disorder, obesity, sleep disorders and other health problems aren’t helped any by our constant attention to our phones and computer screens,” he said. “I believe shutting them off and getting outdoors regularly is a great remedy for most of us.”

A few thoughts Wozer shared:

• We now, on average, spend three hours and 54 minutes on our phones per day.

• We now, on average, spend two hours and 22 minutes per day on social media.

• Wear a watch.

• For better sleep, get your phone out of the bedroom and use an actual alarm clock.

• Use gray scale on your phone for less jarring interruptions.

What delegates are saying

Travel planners

“We just got back from Iceland, and our group loved it. We had a few diehards who got up at 2 a.m. to see the Northern Lights, but I didn’t. What an amazing place Iceland is. We’re doing a trip called Bluebonnets and Painted Churches in Schulenburg, Texas, next month.

“We’re doing Washington, D.C., in June, and we’re sharing a coach with another group and taking 32 between us to Montana in August. We’re going with Go Ahead Tours for a Paris City Stay trip right after the Olympics this summer, and in November we’ll take a group to Asheville Christmas in North Carolina.”

— Pam Cox Previte, Tumbleweed Tours, LLC

Spring, Texas

“I was a middle school teacher and started my student travel company in 2022. We work with Bud Geissler of GroupCollect and use his company’s technology. I specialize in four-day, three-night student trips for eighth-graders. We started with groups from the Dallas/Fort Worth area, but we’re also handling groups in other states now.

“More parents come along now since COVID. Since COVID, close to 25% of our passengers will be parents. Some of my tour guides joke that the parents now are more trouble than the kids, but it’s not a problem. We do a lot of Washington, D.C., New York and Boston trips.”

— Otto Verhulst, TripsU

Fort Worth, Texas

“We’re taking a group to St. Joseph, Missouri, next month. We have 18, and that trip is still growing. We’re taking 20 to Eureka Springs after that. We budget for 15, and after we reach that number, we generate some extra money we can use at Buccee’s or somewhere else for fun with the group.

“We’re taking 36 to Iceland with Mayflower in the fall, and that trip will grow until August. We’re taking at least 15 on a Blue Danube river cruise with Viking this summer. We’re doing a Tulip Time trip with U.S. Tours in 2025 that includes a river cruise on AMA Waterways.”

—Ingrid May/Fran Sylvester, Putnam City Retirees Travel Club

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma  

“We’re going to the Outer Banks and the Virginia Beach International Tattoo in April. We’ll take about 30. We’re doing that with Country Coach, a company I met at the Going On Faith Conference. In June, we’re taking about 32 to Mackinac Island with U.S. Tours. We spend two nights on the island and go up to Sault St. Marie.

“We’re going with U.S. Tours on a Blue Moon Over Kentucky trip in July with 25 people. And we’re taking 25 with Amazing Travel Tours on their Inns and Coves of New England trip after that. I’m taking 27 to Ireland and Scotland with Go Ahead Tours in the fall, and then taking 14 to Iceland in October with Mayflower Tours. I love your magazine and your website, too. You offer great resources for planners.”

— Alice Ortiz, Our Place Tours

Greenwood Springs, Mississippi

Travel Companies & Destinations

“2023 was our best year ever at Collette, and we’re running 30 percent above that in 2024. Our refund policy during COVID earned us a lot of goodwill. We just cancelled the rest of our Israel trips for 2024 due to the conflict there and we’ll refund those payments, too, unless the customer wants to re-book on another trip. Our Footsteps of Paul trip featuring Ephesus has been a popular alternative for many of those customers.

Our small group itineraries for 18-24 travelers are the fastest growing segment we have. I like to say those are small tours with big experiences. They are for our travelers who have done it all.”

— Jim Edwards, Collette

Pawtucket, Rhode Island

“Colorado is our number one seller, and we run an upscale trip. We’ll run 5-6 of those this year and take maybe 200 travelers. We stay at the Cliff House in Manitou Springs. Another popular trip for us is our Mountain Rails and Appalachian Trails. We go to Pittsburgh, West Virginia, and Washington DC.

We’re running a Switzerland trip this year that includes Zurich, Lucerne, Mt. Pilatus, and Lugano. We use trains and first-class coaches. We’ll take 25 on that trip this year. Our trips are immersive – we like our customers to fully enjoy a city or region instead of just hitting the highlights and moving on.”

— Mark Warther, Amazing Travel Treasures

New Philadelphia, Ohio

“We’re making groups a priority at James B. Beam Distillery. Anywhere from 25 to 250 works well for us.  We can custom curate something for a group if that’s what they want. Our restaurant, The Kitchen Table, is a very popular option, so 70 percent of our groups will come in for a drink or a meal there.

We’re already a staple for bourbon trail packages from nearby companies like Mint Julep or Pegasus, and we’re here at Select Traveler to offer our services to major tour companies that attend this conference. We sponsored a luncheon here to gain the visibility we’re looking for.”

— Jason Betts, James B. Beam Distilling Company

Clermont, Kentucky

“We specialize in European itineraries, and our hallmarks are superior value and personal touch. We like to use smaller, family-owned hotels across Europe and we have European tour managers for our trips. We use customer reviews to enhance our trips and tweak itineraries. We sell to tour operators and group leaders, not to the general public.

I’m at the Select Traveler Conference to learn as much as I can about these buyers because I know many are traveling internationally.  Europe is what we do and the demand for it right now is very high.”

— Patrick McIntyre, Image Tours

Grand Rapid, Michigan

“Groups spend the whole day in Eureka Springs and come to our show in the evening. They visit the Christ of the Ozarks statue, the Tabernacle, and do the Holy Land tour. Many of them come over from Branson. We’ll double the number of groups this year over last year, up to 300. We draw groups of all ages — youth, seniors, Amish and Mennonite groups. Our older groups come when school is back in – September and October. We get lots of youth groups in the spring and summer.”

— Ray Hendon, Great Passion Play

Eureka Springs, Arkansas

“Our group business to Savannah is strong — we’ll do 1,000 coaches in 2024. We’ve gotten very good response from the FAM we did with you all last year.  Three attendees have already booked trips with us.

We’re a high-end destination, so Select Traveler and Small Market Meetings make sense for us. We also do a lot of bachelor and bachelorette groups. We’re strong with groups in their 30s, with the LGBTQ market and with older groups as well.”

— Anjuli King, Visit Savannah

Savannah, Georgia

“We have six coaches coming for the eclipse in April.  We’re here to sell to Select buyers our tour packages for Prestonsburg with Paintsville and Pikeville in Kentucky.  We have four/five day packages that include Jenny Wiley State Park and the Mountain Arts Center. They showcase Kentucky’s Appalachia region and Highway 23, our country music highway.”

— Jennifer Horsley, Prestonsburg Tourism Commission

Prestonsburg, Kentucky