The youth and faith-based markets are longstanding niches within the travel industry, and there is no reason to believe they will be declining anytime soon.
To the contrary, a study by the National Tour Association (NTA) actually showed the faith-based travel market is growing and approximately 25 percent of all U.S. travelers surveyed are interested in ‘spiritually-motivated travel.’
A study by the Faith Travel Association (FTA) revealed faith-based tourism contributes up to $100 billion per year to the global economy. One potential reason for this serious impact is that faith-based tourism tends to be less affected by global economic changes and variations.
With thousands of churches and religious organizations around the country, there are a plethora of opportunities for destinations to get in on this growing niche, ranging from service-based trips to religious conferences and youth group outings.
Beaumont, Texas is a destination that has made a name for itself in hosting faith-based events, namely youth events.
The southeast Texas city hosts a variety of these events each year, such as RCYC Youth Conference, which brings together Catholic youth ministries from the region, the Baptist Missionary and Education Texas State Conference, the Diocese of Lake Charles’ youth conference, and the Diocese of Beaumont’s Southwest Liturgical Conference.
“Beaumont is very fortunate in that we have a very strong coalition of interdenominational preachers,” said Beaumont CVB convention sales manager Rebecca Woodland. “Beaumont is so welcoming to all faiths and denominations, and everybody tries to work together.”
Balancing the budget
While the faith-based market tends to be consistent, it does come with its own set of unique needs and challenges. One of those challenges is booking the right destination but doing so within an often limited budget, which is usually significantly less than other travel sectors.
“One thing destinations have to understand is that faith groups, as a general rule, are more budget sensitive than, for example, the corporate world,” noted Phil Waldrep, planner of the Women of Joy Conference, which is a weekend event which sees crowds upwards of 10,000. “For us, the importance of the hotel price is going to be different versus a corporate meeting. Churches aren’t reimbursing attendees the cost of a hotel room like a corporation would be.”
The right timeframe
Youth and faith-based groups also tend to be more confined to certain times, Waldrep added, as the window of opportunities for travel tends to be more limited. That means they need destinations which understand and will work with them to make it happen.
“Faith communities tend to have a very narrow window of when they can host an event,” he said. “There is a lot influencing when a meeting or event can be hosted. For example, we would never plan an event on Easter or Mother’s Day weekend. Often we avoid hosting conferences during winter because travel can be hindered due to weather because most in these markets drive instead of flying.”
While budget restraints and timing restrictions are longstanding issues within these markets, so is the need for being guaranteed enough space, both for sleeping rooms and event needs. That is where Beaumont boasts another advantage.
In addition to amenities such as two full-service convention hotels with up to 200 sleeping rooms and 20,000-plus square feet of meeting space, and 35 limited service hotels, there is remarkable ease of transportation.
“Beaumont is smaller so you can get anywhere in 10 to 15 minutes,” Woodland explained.
The city also boasts another important feature in Ford Park, the area’s premiere sports, entertainment, and convention space. On the 221-acre property there are 12 baseball/softball fields plus the 14,000-seat Ford Pavilion and 8,500-seat Ford Arena.
Ford Park attracts numerous groups to Beaumont, including Hot Hearts, which has become a premier event for youth attendees, hosting approximately 8,000 students each January.
“It’s the biggest annual event that comes to Beaumont every year, and Ford Park gives them plenty of space as they also need other space options such as prayer rooms and breakout rooms, which Ford Park easily gives them,” Woodland added.
Gulf Shores, Ala., is another destination that sees frequent tourism from the youth and faith-based markets thanks to its options for lodging. Specifically, the Alabama Gulf Coast destination hosts many youth summer camps, where groups often look to be housed together.
“Our destination works so well for these groups because of the various size condos available,” said vice president of sales for Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism Beth Gendler, CMP, CDME. “Staying in condos helps with costs because they can accommodate more people than just the two to four per most hotel rooms. Condos are also equipped with kitchens, making dining in easier and more affordable for groups. [We also host] similar camps that are held on local college campuses, and students are housed in the dorms.”
The right environment
In addition to providing plenty of space, destinations also must have the right type of atmosphere to attract these groups as well, explains Danielle Sullivan, a property specialist with Student Life Camp.
Student Life hosts youth group events each year in Gulf Shores, and in addition to being attracted by the lodging options, they appreciate the destination’s environment and many activities and attractions.
“What we love most about Gulf Shores and Orange Beach is that it has so much of a family friendly environment,” Sullivan said.
Pigeon Forge, Tenn., is another destination which often works with youth and faith-based groups—the latter actually makes up approximately half of the city’s tourism market—and the destination’s environment is one of the many reasons why. It is certainly one of the aspects which have attracted Waldrep and the Women of Joy Conference year after year.
“Pigeon Forge is a family vacation destination, so it’s a town built on tourism,” said Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism executive director Leon Downey. “Groups that come here have a lot to do—there’s always something new and different each year. On top of that, we have more than 90 different restaurants to choose from, 14,000 lodging units in the city, and LeConte Center at Pigeon Forge, which provides these groups with 105,500 feet of free span space.”
Above and beyond service
Space requirements, budget-friendly lodging options, and family-friendly atmospheres are always important for youth and faith-based event planners, but what cannot be overlooked is the desire of planners to have destinations work with them hand-in-hand to create one-of-a-kind experiences for their attendees.
That is the goal of destinations such as Chattanooga, Tenn., where tourism leaders seek to offer amenities and services that will benefit attendees within these groups, such as interactive apps specifically designed for the younger age groups.
“The app is completely interactive,” said Chattanooga CVB business development director Jeannie Tatum. “For example, if they are at the convention center and want to know what food options or shopping opportunities are nearby, the app will provide that. They can open the app, see where they are, and find how many steps away restaurants are, their price points, and even hours of operation.”
Campus Outreach hosts a New Years’ conference in Chattanooga each year, bringing in college students from campuses from all over the southeast U.S.
While hotel options and meeting venues in the city more than meet their needs, they also appreciate the assistance from the Chattanooga CVB in creating fun opportunities for attendees. Over the years this has included getting discounts for students at local attractions and even helping with the logistics and permits needed to have food trucks set up outside their event.
“That was huge for our students. The CVB knows the city so well and connects us to what the students would be interested in, and they have a powerful voice with the hotels and restaurants to help us where needed,” said Taylor Tollison of Campus Outreach.
Being able to provide beneficial experiences such as these is just one of the many reasons these groups should turn to CVBs and tourism bureaus when in the planning process, adds Woodland. “As a CVB, we know what’s going on,” she said. “Planners can make one phone call to us and we can reach out to get the info they need for them or help get things set up that they can’t make happen themselves. Let the CVB help save you time and money while also creating a great event. That’s what we’re here to do.”