Be prepared for questions such as: Does the hotel have Internet access? Can three people share a room? What about my connecting flight? What time is the midnight buffet?
Your groups should have a main contact person responsible for fielding inquiries from travelers and keeping them in the loop. He or she will have all the necessary information on travel logistics and should have easy access to the assigned staff member in the tour operator’s office.
The pastor/clergyman or group leader does not have to be the main contact but should attend pre-trip meetings and share the spiritual goal of the trip. They need to make sure that travelers receive such materials as a reading list or study notes.
The trip-planning timeline will be different for every group, but keep these time frames in mind:
18-24 Months Prior to Travel
- Discuss the purpose of the trip—will it be strictly for fellowship or will there be a spiritual or fundraising element as well? Keep in mind the combination of purpose in one tour is a great way to promote a more specific tour later on. All travel can continue to be a combination of purposes.
- Take an informal poll of group members and list places you want to visit. Create a wish list of destinations or a five-year plan of travel programs.
- Get travel information from a travel agent or tour operator and ask about the time frame required for planning a trip to your destinations of interest. You may work with one partner for cruises, one for domestic and one for international. Many agents and operators specialize in certain types of travel.
- Determine whether you have church affiliations to partner with or a missionary in the destinations.
12 Months Prior to Travel
Make a final decision on the type of travel you will offer:
- Spiritual refreshment
- Fellowship and fun. Will the tour include a fundraising donation?
Choose a destination and date. For best pricing, travel during low or shoulder season rather than peak periods.
Finalize the itinerary, which may include visits to church missionaries, special church visits, church history sites or former members who live out of the area.
Once you have selected the tour operator/provider, start the brochure process and lend your own touch to material the travel company offers. Include biographical information on the spiritual or group leader and any wow factors you want to add.
Due to airline schedules and rates, final pricing may not be available until 11 months prior. Cruise lines and motor coach companies also work 11-12 months in advance. Most airlines will hold group space 11 months prior to travel at a confirmed price, but taxes and fuel surcharges would still be subject to change. Be sure to note this in the brochure so your group will not have any surprises with final billing.
Select travel insurance, which can be included in the tour price or an option. Review the Travel Insurance section in this publication before purchasing tour operator coverage.
Start promoting the tour through organization newsletters and websites, postcards, press releases to local newspapers, church bulletins, themed dinners, coffees and teas, and social network sites.
Plan informational meetings with short lectures and sharing of firsthand experiences. If you have visited the area, bring pictures, books and souvenirs.
Take advantage of any familiarization tours or preview trips offered to the destination by the tour operator. This offers you the added value of experience and firsthand knowledge. Many companies offer a refund when your group travels.
6 Months Prior to Travel
- Early followers should be signed up with deposits paid. Do not be discouraged if the payments do come in slowly. People are waiting to make deposits but you can get verbal commitment and set a solid date for travelers to join. Early booking discounts will encourage them to make deposits quickly.
- If a passport or visa is required, now is the time to apply. Be sure passports are valid at least three to six months past the travel date return. Many destinations require a certain period of validity for a set time after return. Your travel agent or tour operator can give you this information. Keep in mind that a passport is needed for Mexico and Canada.
- Contact people who have shown interest but still have not committed. A phone call from the travel leader can make people feel important and know that they are wanted on the tour. This personal touch can grow your group in the early stages of planning or even last minute if one or two more travelers are needed. Everyone wants to be invited by the leader if possible.
- Do an additional newsletter posting and press release. Keep excitement going with these methods of communication. Create a Facebook page for the group or a blog to keep the information flowing to the traveler and later to the family and friends at home during your trip.
- Encourage folks who have signed up to invite friends or family. If your budget allows, give them an extra incentive to invite others, as simple as a small gift card for Starbucks or other special perks or discounts.
- Stay in touch with contacts in your travel destination so they can prepare for your group’s arrival. Communication is key to building a relationship with your on-site contacts. You will be great friends by the time you travel and build a relationship that will transfer to the rest of the group.
3 Months Prior to Travel
- Do a last big promotional push to get interested people to commit. This is again time to make the personal contact by phone or email.
- Airline and cruise final payment deadlines are looming, so communication with your travelers who have paid deposits starts now. Airline deadlines are not flexible and this is information that your travel group should understand. The utilization date and numbers are extremely important so you or your travel partner do not incur a financial penalty.
- Check all cancellation dates to be sure deposits are still refundable at 90 days should the need arise. Travel insurance is a great tool in giving your travelers protection on their deposit.
- Continue promoting your trip in bulletins, newsletters and meetings – keeping interest alive in those who have signed up and filling those last few seats. Last-minute reservations can make a big difference in many areas—financial, extra benefits to you as leader and even holding the price for all travelers.
- Arrange transportation to and from the airport if your travel company is not handling it.
30 Days Prior to Travel
- Work with the travel company to prepare final travel document packets, which might include a suggested packing guide and study guides for tour visits.
- Once document packets are in order, host a pre-departure meeting to pass out documents and prepare your travelers for the journey ahead.
- Travelers should be made aware of any donations that may be needed on visits to churches or missions.
- If tips are not included in the tour price, discuss the tips needed and give travelers a take-along printed guideline.
- Plan a final fellowship meeting that will create a bond among travelers, confirm trip details and gather any last information you need.
- Suggest any necessary physical preparation, such as walking on a regular basis. This is a good idea no matter what type of tour you are offering. Most tour days do involve more walking than some travelers would do on a normal day back home.
- Suggest proper dress for religious shrines, monasteries or churches. Dress codes may call for head coverings or no shorts or sleeveless tops. This is a good time to include information on any dinners or occasions that will need special clothes
- Finalize contacts and timetables for partners in the destination where you may be holding special meet and greets, meal functions or worship.
- Plan group meals to introduce foods of the destination.
–By Cindi Brodhecker