Just five months old, Faith Travel Association (FTA) continues to flourish. In May, it expanded its staff to accommodate the needs of a growing membership. Led by Executive Director Z. Allen Abbott, Ph.D., the organization has named Justina Elsidodi as administrative assistant, Julie Hoover-Ernst as director of marketing and communications, and Theresa Krieg as FTA ambassador.
“We are building a small, highly skilled team of professionals to serve the needs of travelers and the organizations that provide life-changing experiences,” said Abbott.
Note: Article originally appeared in NTA’s Courier magazine (pages 23-24 of the June 2014 issue)
The association is governed by the FTA board of directors: Chairman Ed Dresel, Destinations Unlimited Inc.; Vice Chairman Mitch Sussman, Sussman Consulting; Secretary Malia Asfour, Jordan Tourism Board North America; and directors Cathy Greteman, Star Destinations Inc., and Paul Nakamoto, Gray Line of San Francisco, Silicon Valley & Monterey/Super Sightseeing.
Additionally, a group of experts in the faith-based travel industry serve on an advisory council. Included are Edita Krunic, Select International Tours; Linville Johnson, Bahamas Ministry of Tourism; Paul Larsen, Ed-Ventures Inc.; Mirko Capodanno, Switzerland Tourism; Cindi Brodhecker, Priscilla Woman’s Tours; and Tina Abellanosa, Gaylord Opryland Hotel & Resort.
While FTA will help its members enhance their business portfolios and increase revenues, the gains will go beyond net earnings, according to Larsen, whose Minnesota-based company has built a strong faith travel program. “Faith-based tourism is a market where the first criterion in the traveler’s decision-making process is not the dollar, but the experience,” he said. “Part of my job in offering faith-based travel is to provide the traveler an opportunity to experience faith with others.”
Recently, Courier Editor Penny Whitman chatted with Abbott about his vision for the association.
Tell us about the concept of Faith Travel Association and whom it will serve.
AA: FTA is a bridge. It brings people of faith and the travel industry together. FTA is a worldwide community of faith-based travel professionals with a common goal: to provide experiences of a lifetime to travelers. Our task is to discern the needs of faith-based groups and help facilitate travel resources to these end-users. We are engineering relationships that not only enhance the bottom line but add significance and meaning to life.
We are living in a time of increased specialization and niche marketing. It is also a period of unprecedented mobility for average citizens, making the opportunity to travel more readily available. FTA serves anyone interested in faith-based travel: tour operators, travel agents, group leaders, religious travel planners, faith leaders, destinations and travel suppliers.
Your background includes a period serving as a pastor as well as experience in nonprofit management. What intrigued you about the opportunity to lead FTA? What resources are you employing as you begin the process?
AA: Growing up as a missionary kid, I learned firsthand the value of cross-cultural experiences and respectful interaction with people of other beliefs. My curiosity ignited a wide scope of questions—especially in geography, history, sociology of religion, social change and the nature of leadership. Through my career in denominational leadership, I was constantly involved in mobilization—organizing mission trips, disaster relief, conventions, retreats, camping—gatherings of all sizes in diverse locations.
For years I told friends that, in my retirement, I would love to build a network of travel for people of faith and others who want to visit religious destinations. When I learned of Faith Travel Association, I could hardly believe it was true. The term “vocation” is rooted in the concept of purpose, what one is meant to do with their life; only recently has the term become synonymous with “employment.” For me, FTA is a way to fulfill my personal calling and serve professionally simultaneously.
An association is defined by its members, and FTA is supported by some of the most knowledgeable leaders in faith-based travel. The FTA Advisory Council is a microcosm of our industry, a global kaleidoscope reflecting the many facets of faith-based travel. We convene monthly by phone for collective problem-solving, brainstorming and mutual support. The FTA Advisory Council members advocate for FTA within their individual spheres of influence. They attract new members, resource existing members and grow FTA’s market awareness.
We are venturing into new territory as a professional trade association with a widely diverse membership. Our success will not merely be measured by our membership as an association but by an increased cooperation between faith leaders and the providers of faith-based travel.
There are several groups in the U.S. that identify themselves with the faith-based travel niche. What will set FTA apart?
AA: Faith Travel Association is the only professional trade association of its kind with global reach. NTA and FTA are wisely leading the travel industry in this growing market. Their investment and planning over the past several years extend into the foreseeable future. There is no way to calculate the collective wisdom and experience of NTA’s 2,300 member organizations and staff in this initiative. This relationship automatically places FTA at the center of two major industry events—Travel Exchange and Contact—and provides the basis for our publication, FTA Trip Planner, coming later this summer. The FTA website [www.faithtravelassociation.com] is dynamic and member-focused.
FTA sees education as central to its mission. Our members are clamoring for helpful guidance to improve efficiency, reach more customers and develop products that are in demand. We can provide current information via research, webinars, regional training events and publications. FTA has an opportunity to help people of faith learn to maximize travel as a ministry and help the travel industry understand the diversity and protocols for navigating the religious world.
I am personally committed to making FTA a welcoming interfaith environment. Religious pluralism presents an opportunity for us to move beyond mere tolerance to understanding and cooperation. Travel is largely about discovery and learning. Faith Travel Association can facilitate more interaction between people of different faiths and those in travel.
FTA comes into existence amid changing landscapes for both religion and the travel industry. Norms that existed just 20 years ago are now long gone. Emerging methodologies and frames of reference are altering everything we once thought about how we accomplish our goals. By combining unparalleled travel expertise with religious sensitivity, FTA will remain the premier association for professionals dedicated to faith-based travel.
Faith Travel Association, www.faithtravelassociation.com