Eat, pray, sightsee: Church’s travel club circles world – Detroit Free Press

7 months ago Comments Off on Eat, pray, sightsee: Church’s travel club circles world – Detroit Free Press

When it comes to group travel, Sandra Mathis has been blessed.

The Detroit-based international travel consultant has been to 89 countries in 31 years, mostly while leading tour groups from Detroit’s Historic Little Rock Baptist Church.

At one time the church’s travel club had 2,000 members. Now, it’s much smaller, but Mathis still leads travelers far and wide. She will be at the helm of a trip to China and Hong Kong in August. Trips are open to the public, including solo travelers.

We caught up with her in Detroit to pick her brain about trips, souvenirs, dining abroad and more.

QUESTION: How did you start?

ANSWER: The travel club at Little Rock Baptist Church started in 1985 (with a trip to the Holy Land.) It started with friends, then expanded to friends of friends, and then people came from 11 other states. It was kind of a mystery, how it grew.

Q: A lot of churches and alumni groups hire third-party vendors like Gate 1 or Trafalgar to run their trips.  But you plan all the trips yourself. Why?

A: I customize. I start with a blank piece of paper. I look at the hotels, the whole nine yards. I know the operators. I negotiate the contracts. This is my baby. I know what people want to see. We have a connection with people as well as the places. Every 11 years we try to get onto every continent except Antarctica.

Q: What is the most popular trip?

A: Paris.

Q: What is a place you have been that surprised you?

A: St. Petersburg. We think of Russia as poor ladies with the scarves and people all out of shape, but St. Petersburg was beautiful. I realized my education was less than it should have been. I also love the Great Rift Valley: it starts up in Turkey and goes down to Tanzania.

Q: Culinary travel is a huge trend. Are travelers more interested in the food these days?

A: Well, I have found that the food is not as good as it used to be. The last time in Paris I was disappointed. We got good meals in Amsterdam. What I found that I’m not particularly liking is, I don’t like eating at someone else’s home. Some people like it. In New Zealand they took us to a home visit. I didn’t request it. This lady cooked food, and we were sliding it around the plate, and we couldn’t wait to get out of there.

Q: Do you bring home souvenirs?

A: When I started traveling, I would buy knick-knacks. Now I buy one lovely piece that appreciates in value. My house is like a museum. On a trip to China I bought a jade oriental orchestra. It is 21 pieces, and they are all made out of different color jade.

Q: Do your trips have a religious component?

A: We visit a lot of schools. We go to maybe one church and have a prayer. We have been in most of the major churches in the world. But I don’t go way out with it, because some people might have reservations about traveling with a church, that it might be holier than thou. I clear all that up before we go.

Q: What is your favorite amount of people for group travel?

A: I don’t like a real large group; 25 is good for me. I have had as low as 5. That is also OK for me — you try to go to a Paris restaurant with 50 people. So far, we have 12 people signed up for the China-Hong Kong trip. (The Little Rock Baptist Church trip to China-Hong Kong is Aug. 16-28. Cost is $2,999, including airfare, hotels, sightseeing, tours and meals. For more information, e-mail or call 313-837-9258.)

Q: Who is in your travel group?

A: Well, I’m in my third group of travelers. The first group liked deluxe travel. I didn’t have to scrimp. They didn’t mind spending money. They would tip well. Then I had a middle group, and now I have a third group. We now have mostly seniors and also people in their 40s. We have a lot of single women.

Q: Anyplace you haven’t been you would like to lead a trip?

A: Vienna. I want to see that area. I also haven’t done a lot of Eastern Europe.

Q: What is a cultural sight everyone should see? 

A: The Taj Mahal. There are a couple of hotels that have this wonderful bathroom. You can be bathing and look right over, and there is the Taj Mahal. We will never see those kinds of monuments built again.

Q: Over the years, how have you learned to handle a large travel group?

A: I have a code of conduct. If they are cutting up, I will cut the trip off. My responsibility is to make sure everything goes as smoothly as possible. Your responsibility is to be where you are supposed to be.

Q: But a lot of times, big groups are waiting on one or two people.

A: I tell them, I will leave you. I have no problems leaving you. Once in Rome we were at the Spanish Steps and I said, be back on the bus in an hour and a half. Later, we did our count. One lady was missing. She had the name of our hotel, but our pastor got off the bus to look for her.  It took him an hour and a half to find her. When she got on the bus, she was grinning. She was jovial. He sat down, huffing and puffing. He said, “I see what you mean. I will follow your lead from now on.”

Q: Do you ever get tired of traveling?

A: No. Mostly now I am (leading a group) once a year; before I was doing it twice a year. I read in a business journal that you have seven good years when you are at your peak. After that, and this is with anything, you might still be good but you are not at your peak. When I look at my travel club, I can see that seven-year period was in that middle group period. I intend still to travel. I’m 68 now. I still am very good at my negotiating. But I think by the time I turn 70 or 71, I will be done.

Q: Any final dream trip?

A: The last trip I want to do is to get a DNA test, and I want to go back and trace my African roots. And I want to get with (PBS TV host) Professor Gates and put together a wonderful binder with places to put pictures in and tribes you’re associated with. But that is going to be my last trip. I am just waiting for things to settle down in West Africa. That is where most African-Americans’ ancestors came from.

Q: Most Americans are surprised by Africa; it’s not always what they expect.

A: We have been to 13 countries in Africa. Most people are somewhat disappointed with the cities. A lot of the cities were built after the 1950s, so they are pretty modern. Most tourists are looking for the hut. So we take them to a cultural village.

Q: It is obvious that travel has made you happy.

A: Yes, we have had more fun, I tell you. And dancing? We have danced all over. Greece. Argentina tango time, up in Spain. Once on a cruise I danced with the captain.

For more on the Little Rock Baptist Church travel club, e-mail or call 313-837-9258.

Eat, pray, sightsee: Church’s travel club circles world – Detroit Free Press

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