Following the Going On Faith Conference in Panama City Beach, we took the opportunity to speak with Charlie Presley, founder of the Group Travel Family, about faith-based travel’s resilience after COVID-19 and about challenges and opportunities for groups in general.
Does faith-based travel have any unique characteristics that either improve or hamper its ability to rebound after three years of pandemic-related difficulties?
“I’m pretty optimistic about the growth of this segment of the overall market for a couple of reasons. First, we’re seeing some newer, younger faces at this conference now who are getting involved in organizing trips for their churches. When I say younger, I mean people in their 40s and 50s. There seems to be a new generation of planners rising up in many churches.
“Secondly, our best estimate is that the pandemic may have caused 12% to 15% of older travel planners in general to retire, but I don’t think the faith-based market was affected to that degree. In many cases, churches were not as affected by some of the cautionary thinking that affected the overall public. That’s not to say they weren’t careful; it just means as people of faith, they felt differently.
“Many people begin to think about their faith as they get older, and there are a lot of baby boomers out there now who are doing that. That will only increase the likelihood of people traveling with friends they know well from their churches.”
What do you see as the biggest obstacles today to a robust group travel industry?
“We’ve moved beyond the initial obstacles of group size and social distancing. There is sticker shock out there over the cost of travel, but people will adjust. Good leaders will always have a following.
“Facilities are a problem. Hotels don’t have the staff they had. A group leader must prepare their group for differences in room cleaning, check-in times and food service times in restaurants. If you prepare your group properly, they’ll adjust. Planners are getting better at that every day.”
Are there any advantages to group travel that the industry can emphasize?
“Absolutely. Travel is harder than it used to be. There will be many new converts to group travel due to the ease of going with a group. Convenience is a huge motivator today in airports, cities and everywhere else. Having someone do all the heavy lifting so you can go enjoy somewhere new plays well after making all those plans for yourself for years. The pandemic only increased those feelings.”
What trends would you encourage travel planners and destinations to address?
“Sightseeing is no longer enough for most travelers. They want to participate, so plan those kinds of interactive options for them. More free time must be built into itineraries. You can’t just take the group everywhere on a bus anymore. For instance, one afternoon you offer four options and assist people with making their own plans. They’ll grab an Uber and go.
“Uber and other technologies are part of the group travel landscape now. Travelers use apps every day. The tour planner or operator still covers the basics of transportation, flights, hotels and a few special meals or experiences as highlights of the trip. And I’d encourage everyone involved to be able to process electronic payments of all types. That’s where payments are going.”
Winter is upon us. Can groups utilize winter trips more?
“Sure. Winter trips don’t all have to be to warm weather destinations. DMOs and CVBs in cold weather cities can plan great weekend jaunts for groups. Try one and plan for half your usual turnout and let it sell out. When 20 people come back and say they had a great time, the next trip will be larger.”