For the better part of a quarter century, Charlie and Kathleen Presley have been running the Going on Faith annual conference. “Our 4,500 members are mostly volunteer travel planners,” explains Charlie. “There’s always one person in a church or faith organization who gets everyone else together. They usually have other jobs and have volunteered to plan a cruise or go to a destination and everyone else signs up and attends.” Those are the Presleys’ people.
The Going on Faith conference brings those planners together every year for a three-day event of education, networking and a marketplace where they can meet travel industry vendors (both domestic and international) who are interested in hosting or attracting faith-based groups. This year, the event will be at the Sheraton Panama City Beach Golf & Spa Resort in September.
The Presleys, who live in Ohio, have been in the group travel business for about 30 years, and they shuttle back and forth to Florida quite often. “She’s the one that makes it happen,” says Charlie about his wife. “She has all the IT and organization background.”
The couple runs other niche group travel conferences, including Boomers in Groups, African American Travel Conference, Agritourism World Summit and more, but Going on Faith is one of their longest-running shows.
The conference has changed in recent years. “The thing I notice the most is the younger groups that are traveling together inside the leisure faith market,” says Charlie. “That’s very rewarding. Visually, I can see the attendees getting younger each year.”
While groups in this valuable segment are usually from a church, that's not always the case, shares Charlie. Sometimes, it's the kind of person who gets 30 or 40 people to go see the Ark Encounter in Williamstown, Kentucky, or on a leisure cruise together. Most of these leisure faith planners plan trips for a few dozen people.
Charlie estimates only about 25% of the time it’s a pastor planning these trips. “If you think about it, a church pastor is usually pretty busy,” says Charlie. So, finding these special volunteer planners can be especially important.
Fortunately for the group, COVID-19 has not interrupted the Going on Faith conference. “We’ve had to relocate, but not reschedule,” says Charlie. “Everything is in-person, not virtual.”
In 2023, the conference will be held in Green Bay, Wisconsin. It moves destinations every year to give attendees a chance to see a city the planners may not originally have thought about visiting. “We try not to go to places like Las Vegas that everyone already knows,” he adds. “We want the planners to do some sightseeing and get some knowledge about new places to take their groups.”
Connecting the Audience
The Presleys limit the buyer size each year and only 250 attendees are allowed. It keeps the marketplace appointments to a 2-1 ratio, with about 400 or more travel industry vendors attending. Think destinations, venues, cruise lines and airlines, both domestic and international, who want to attract these groups.
“It’s a small, niche market. Our members aren’t really in business, they are there to provide a service,” explains Charlie. “We get the planners out of their house and interacting with other friends and family. That’s lovely to see. My favorite part of the conference is when the marketplace is going on and everyone is meeting and having these networking moments. To see the ideas go back and forth is exciting. They take this information back home and they affect tens of thousands of travelers around the country.”
There are two or three leisure faith planners who have never missed a Going on Faith conference, but they rotate the registration for the conference to all 4,500 members. At every conference, half of the delegates have been before and half are newbies. “That’s how we keep new blood coming in,” says Charlie. “For instance, we wouldn’t want the same leisures planners coming three years in a row.”
One way to get these planners interacting with vendors is the Sponsors Auction. “We’ve been doing it for about three years. We auction off travel items, earbuds, etc. It’s really fun. The sponsors give attendees fake dollars when they go talk to them at their booths, and then the planners use those dollars to bid on items,” he says. It's been a unique, successful way to get the two kinds of attendees to interact.
Aside from meeting destinations, vendors and transportation sponsors, the goal of the in-person conference is to get the leisure faith planners interacting and networking with each other as much as possible. The more they know one another and share information, the easier their jobs will be. Rather than trial by learning, the conference gives them loads of connections with other religious travel planners who have been around for a while.
That's why the conference has an ice cream social where people can get together and talk.
“Almost all of them will share knowledge because they're not in competition with each other,” Charlie says.