An Amish Welcome at the Going On Faith Conference
Published October 02, 2017
The Going On Faith Conference is typically held inside large convention halls in midsized cities across America. But in 2017, the gathering happened in a delightfully different place: Holmes County, Ohio, the centerpiece of Amish Country.
Delegates met for three days, August 22-24, inside a large church, but enjoyed plenty of the sights and sounds of the surrounding Amish community. Amish people dressed in their simple daily wear, horse-drawn buggies, and attractive farms and Amish businesses dotted the green countryside.
Locals opened their arms and extended a warm embrace to 135 church travel directors and 130 travel industry professionals who represented 28 states, the District of Columbia and nine foreign countries. Everyone seemed to come away a little better for the experience.
Amish Country has existed since 1809, and the residents make up the largest Amish community in the world. Delegates to the Going On Faith Conference numbered but a fraction of the more than 4 million visitors to the area each year.
“We first visited this site three years ago and found it to be a unique venue,” said Joe Cappuzzello of Group Travel Family, the conference organizer. “It ties in greatly with the Going On Faith Conference, which was held in Grace Mennonite Church. For the church to open its doors to our people was too good to be true. We love the inspiration and welcome feeling they gave us.”
Laurie Judson of the Holmes County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau saw a distinct advantage to having so many travel planners visiting. “We’re so excited to showcase our area,” said Judson. “In Holmes County and surrounding counties, we believed that if we could get people here and show them our hospitality and beautiful scenery, they’d come back on their own. We’d love to host everybody.”
Buyers and Sellers
The chief purpose of the conference was to connect travel buyers with travel sellers. That was accomplished in two busy marketplace sessions.
“The marketplace is where travel industry members can meet with church and program directors about great destinations for their groups. It’s very important,” Mac Lacy, a conference partner, told delegates in his opening remarks.
Larissa Vieira, from Champions of the World Resort in Kissimmee, Florida, attended for the first time.
“We look to bring new business to the property,” she said. “The religious business has really grown in the Orlando area. We’re reaching out to this church conference.”
Many convention and visitors bureaus sent representatives to attract groups to their communities. Kathryn Henning from Manitowoc, Wisconsin, was one.
“Many haven’t heard of Manitowoc,” she said. “My goal is to educate people about what we offer, such as the SS Badger car ferry taking passengers on four-hour trips across Lake Michigan from Manitowoc to Ludington, Michigan. The maritime museum has a submarine tour, and there’s a small family-operated cheese factory producing large wheels of cheese.”
Another was Jessica Smith from nearby Beechwood, Ohio.
“We’re located 80 minutes north of the conference,” she said. “You begin to leave Amish Country and get back closer to the city with our many parks, restaurants and hotels.”
Representatives of attractions across the country also attended.
“We’re so excited about the work our theater does,” said Barbara Reid of the Drury Lane Theater in Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois. “Our productions are Broadway quality. We take great pride in our dining, and we have a conference center for trade shows. We want to invite new groups to come to our theater to look us over.”
Church and program directors came with their agendas, too. Linda Bensen of Trinity Lutheran Church in Oak Lawn, Illinois, was thrilled about what she was learning at the conference. “We came to interact and hear about new destinations with their hotels, restaurants and tours. I’ve gotten some wonderful ideas.”
Two Southern church programmers enjoyed learning. One was Bill Highsmith of Tusculum Hills Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee.
“I try not to repeat trips, so I look for new venues that our folks will enjoy,” he said. “This conference really helps because I get ideas [about venues] I never knew about.”
The same was true for Alice Ortiz of Our Place Tours in Greenwood Springs, Mississippi. “I’m trying to learn about Amish Country,” she said. “I’m unfamiliar with Ohio and was excited to learn about it and other places to visit around the country. Coming here has been successful.”
Yvonne Emmanuel of Williams Temple CME Church in Philadelphia found herself in somewhat familiar surroundings.
“I love our Amish community back home in Pennsylvania,” she said. “The Ohio Amish community has always interested me. Whenever I do this conference, I get fantastic information and discover places I never knew existed.”
Organizations that are sponsoring the Going On Faith Conference bring great travel information to delegates. The 2017 show presented several sponsors that invited planners to partner with them.
Diane Wilhelm of Globus Family of Brands in Littleton, Colorado, said Globus and Cosmos are two brands her company uses for faith-based tours.
“They’re very carefully planned,” she said. “You get hassle-free journeys to the most holy and treasured places on earth. Next year, we will be celebrating our 90th year.”
Wayne Peyreau of MSC Cruises out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, told delegates about his company’s aggressive shipbuilding program.
“Normally, a cruise company builds each ship as a copy of what was last delivered,” he said. “With us, that’s not so. We have three different classes of vessels, and one thing I can tell you is that they keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger.”
Scott Goss of Experience Park Tours in Reno, Nevada, represents a niche tour company.
“We’re a small-group luxury tour company specializing in U.S. national parks,” he said. “Our motto is ‘A Better Way to Travel.’ That means because we’re small, we’re flexible, control the experience and allow you to do what you want.”
Religious attractions were show sponsors as well. Paul Anderson from the Shrine of Christ’s Passion in St. John, Indiana, described the site as depicting “the pain and suffering that our Lord endured to save us.”
“That’s what it’s all about,” he said. “It’s truly a one-of-a-kind destination. They built a place that lets people of all faiths get closer to the Lord.”
Eddie Lutz of the Ark Encounter and Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, described his site as “a full-scale reproduction of Noah’s Ark and built to biblical specifications.”
“It’s 510 feet long, almost two football fields in length and uses 3.3 million board feet of wood, which could stretch from Kentucky to Philadelphia,” he said.
Rob Quillin was a featured speaker. He told delegates about his chance meeting with a man on an airline flight in September 2001 and how he offered to help the man fulfill a special wish for his son. It turned out that Quillin’s seat companion was a pilot on one of the doomed jetliners that crashed the next day, September 11. That prompted Quillin to write a book about the encounter and to create a foundation to help fulfill the dreams of others. “Some of you will make the decision to go home and buy the book, ‘Why Wait?’ And when you do, all of that money goes to the foundation. I have never received a penny from that book. When you buy it, you will be helping someone else’s dream come true.”
Greg Nahmens of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) preached “Look Before You Book.” He urged travel planners to go to the FMCSA website to investigate motorcoach operators they plan to hire to make sure they are properly certified, safe and insured.
Tours and More
Sightseeing, mealtimes and special presentations are always a pleasant sideline during the Going On Faith Conference. The first afternoon featured an ice cream social outside Grace Mennonite Church. The ice cream was churned by an elderly Amish couple using a gas-powered churn to create the frosty treat. That evening delegates went to the Amish Door for a delectable meat-and-potatoes dinner cooked and served by Amish staff. A stage play with a deep spiritual message followed.
On day two of the conference, delegates traveled around the county to see one of the many Amish furniture-making companies, various country stores, a cheesemaking factory and more. That evening, dinner was served at the Amish Country Theater, followed by a hilarious stage performance appropriate for families that featured a country bumpkin named Leonard; a remarkable ventriloquist, Ken Groves; backup singers and dancers; and a live, toe-tappin’ bluegrass band.
Little Rock, Arkansas, looks forward to hosting the 2018 Going On Faith Conference.
“We’ve noticed that many people don’t have an opinion of Little Rock, either good or bad,” said Amanda Glover of the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau. “But when they come and see all the great things we offer, it changes their minds. We’re a hidden gem. When planners see us, then there will be word of mouth, and they’ll all want to book us.”
For more information on the Going On Faith conference go to www.gofconference.com.