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The Group Travel Leader Small Market Meetings Going on Faith

The Industry Rises Up in French Lick, Indiana

More than 175 group travel planners and travel industry professionals scored a major victory for tourism’s comeback when they gathered in French Lick, Indiana, for the Select Traveler and Going On Faith conferences.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the annual events were merged into a single meeting. It was the U.S. travel industry’s first major conference since travel shut down in March.

A hardy band of travel industry buyers and sellers, all with faces masked, sanitizers at the ready and practicing social distancing, gathered August 19-21 at Southern Indiana’s beautiful and historic French Lick Resort.

During the general session, Mac Lacy, a conference partner, asked all delegates to stand. Lacy then praised them for attending and for continuing to promote travel.

“Bringing the travel industry back from the worst health crisis in our lifetimes will require people with resilience and resolve,” Lacy stated. “Those people are in this room right now. By coming, you have proven that you are such a person. You didn’t have to be here. A lot of our travel friends are not. But one day you’ll be able to look back and say: ‘I was there.’”

Charlie Presley, another conference partner, echoed the sentiment.

“This is the first travel conference of the year in the whole travel industry and you are part of it,” he said. “That is absolutely wonderful. Thank you for doing that.”

Presley also commended the operators of French Lick Resort for accepting this combined conference with just 40 days notice after the cities of Cheyenne, Wyoming, and then Wichita, Kansas, were forced to bow out due to state or local health mandates.

“We’ve had a relationship with Group Travel Family [the conference organizer] for 16 years and when they needed us, we just said: ‘Yes. Come on back to French Lick,’” said Joe Vezzoso, vice president of resort operations and sales. “It was an easy decision really. I think we’re all seeing improvement in the travel industry, and this conference is a great way to show that the industry is back in business.”

Delegates enjoyed the large resort property. Many could be seen in the casino, playing golf, hiking trails or just enjoying the wide and peaceful veranda on the front side of French Lick Hotel. One night of the conference was designated a dine-around. Many delegates walked one or two blocks into the town of French Lick to sample a surprising range of restaurants.

Travel Wins. Virus Loses.

The Select Traveler Conference brings together travel groups for banks, chambers of commerce, and colleges and universities so that they can engage with travel providers and choose what trips they might want to take when restrictions are lifted.

A dedicated and optimistic Brenda Hall of NightMark Travels in Red Bay, Alabama, couldn’t be kept away.

“This is my 20th year at Select Traveler Conference,” she said. “I want to learn what I can and cannot do in travel these days. I also enjoy meeting people who love to travel. There’s such a wide world to see.”

Burdell Hensley of Blessed Byways Tours in Oskaloosa, Iowa, loved being at the conference.

“After what happened this year, we had to cancel 15 of our tours,” he said. “It’s been a year of inactivity, but it’s wonderful to be back with old travel industry friends so we all can restore the mojo. I’m fired up for next year.”

For many travel buyers, the conference was educational.

“People are ready to travel and by next year will get over the cabin fever and want to get out,” said Glenda Hills of HH Luxury Travel in Uniondale, New York. “I want to meet new people and find out from my peers what they’re doing now and will do differently in the future. There’s so much that’s unknown. I can learn from them because they’ve had different experiences where they live.”

“I’m here to learn how to sell travel in this new day and age, especially small groups, because some of my large groups don’t want to get on a motorcoach right now,” said Teri Gordon from Rejuvia Travel in South Bend, Indiana. “We used to go to Chicago a lot, but not everyone wants to go these days, so I’m searching for new destinations that aren’t too far away.”

“I need ideas for domestic trips that are maybe two or three states away,” said Gini Dolence, whose travel group, Misfits, is based in Salem, Ohio. “I want to get people who are timid back out with day trips, and then possibly work up to two to four night trips. We have to build it back.”

The travel destination providers in attendance have had just as rough a year as the travel buyers but all look for a more prosperous 2021.

“We hope to book some people for the rest of this year,” said Shelley Gutta of Stonewall Resort in Roanoke, West Virginia. “We’re always optimistic about that but we are also looking hard at 2021 and 2022. I love that people are so resilient and really want to be together, and even though we’re in tough times, we’ll be back better and stronger.”

Julie Hardy of Hardy Flying Reindeer Ranch in Rantoul, Illinois, operates an unusual attraction.

“We’re the same as everyone else here,” she said. “We want to get people moving again. My Alaskan reindeer miss people and so do I. Our place is a fun, unique ranch in the middle of nowhere.”

Sandy Price of the Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau is thinking positively.

“I want people to know Oklahoma City is open and our partners are taking all precautions for the safety of clients,” she said. “We want to assure people we will take care of them. I want them to know what’s going on now in Oklahoma City and what’s coming next.”

Meal Sponsors Bring Encouragement and Energy

Despite the effects of the virus on events, several meal sponsors attended in person to encourage and energize attendees for brighter days ahead. Veteran travel guru Bob Buesing from CATours in Mason City, Iowa, also appeared several times at the conference and in one motivational pep talk during a buyer breakout session explained the similarities between scenes in the baseball-influenced movie “Field of Dreams” and the current travel industry. In the film, the primary theme was “If you build it, they will come.”

Conference host and dinner sponsor Joe Vezzoso of the French Lick Resort spoke several times as well, always offering an industry veteran’s outlook on the difficulties of 2020.  “Our owners have done everything humanly possible to protect our employees and project a positive outlook for this industry,” he told delegates. “I think you’ll find throughout your stay that we have put safety measures in place that will make your stay with us relaxing and enjoyable.”

Eddie Lutz, a breakfast sponsor, is from the Ark Encounter and Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. It’s a biblical attraction that is growing and changing every year. Lutz had big news.

“We’ll be holding the world’s largest Christian music festival at the Ark for 40 days and 40 nights, August 2 to September 10, 2021,” he announced. “Virtually every single major gospel group will perform at this event.”

Bob Cline of U.S. Tours in Vienna, West Virginia, was another breakfast sponsor. He always brings clever group tour ideas to the conference.

“We are a three-time winner of America’s most innovative tour operator because of some of the wild and crazy events that we produce, like our renting Graceland for a night,” he said. “Yes, Elvis Presley’s home, for what we call Blue Christmas.”

Jim Edwards of Collette attended personally to sponsor a lunch and encourage delegates.

“COVID-19 led to cancellation of many of our tour departures this year, and now we are being very selective about what itineraries we operate. But, our philosophy remains: ‘We will travel again,’” he said.  “Collette is ready when you are.”

Juggling Jeff

The conference’s keynote speaker wasn’t glued behind a podium during his presentation. Funny, inspiring and energetic Jeff Koziatek delivered motivational messages on ways delegates could improve their personal and professional lives. He managed this as he juggled bowling pins or balanced large objects on his chin or remained upright on a large red ball while struggling to work out of a straight jacket. And he never skipped a beat with his rapid-fire chatter.

Koziatek stressed the human capacity in delegates’ business lives.

“You are the human being behind the human doing,” he explained. “You support the travel business, but you are more than what you do. The work must define what you value personally, professionally and relationally. If you make decisions that don’t align with your personal values because you’re stressed and anxious and grasping for straws, you’ll go down the wrong path.”

Looking Ahead to 2021

The travel industry will keep marching forward. The next Select Traveler Conference is scheduled for February 28-March 2, 2021 in Panama City Beach, Florida. It will be staged at the impressive Sheraton Panama City Beach Golf and Resort Spa, a AAA Four-Diamond resort property nestled pleasantly along St. Andrews Bay.

Details are still being worked out for the site of the 2021 Going on Faith Conference. Travel buyers and sellers should be on the lookout this fall for an announcement on the location and dates for this popular faith-based travel meeting.