All About Travel’s Deborah Mason arranges for choirs to sing in England and Scotland. Pictured here is the Bristol Cathedral.
It goes without saying that every group going for a vacation has different travel needs. Religious group travel, though, is a niche so specialized it requires a very distinct set of skills. Those may be skills worth acquiring, however, for agents who would like to get in on the $18 billion faith-based market. We asked several travel agents how they organize religious travel for groups (mostly churches and synagogues).
“Like any group, you need to have a pied piper—preferably the priest/ minister of the church,” says Rusty Pickett of Shellback Cruises in Charleston, SC. “Advertising can be done through the church bulletin or word of mouth and other church methods of communication.”
Brent Clampet of Cove Travel in Annapolis, MD, agrees with this method. “You find a group of people with like interests [and] get one or two of them on board as a ‘trumpet blower,’” he suggests. “Be sure you know the demographic you are working with so you can customize properly.”
Jim Baldwin of Pine Grove, CA-based JB’s Journeys-Uniglobe Travel likes to meet up personally with groups to help customize the trip to their needs, and to advise on travel documentation, logistics and payment deadlines. Each group, whether religious or secular, takes on its own personality. “The most important thing for me is to find out what the primary objectives of the group are,” he says. “Most of the religious groups I do are traveling for humanitarian/missionary purpose, so in recent years I have helped send groups to Haiti, Brazil, Ukraine and the Mississippi Delta where the groups help a community or organization with projects.”
Deborah Mason of All About Travel/Platinum Vacations, Gladstone, MO, has a unique specialization in the world of religious travel: She focuses on sending church choirs to sing in England and Scotland. “I usually already have an itinerary, or an idea of where I want the group to go, then I will contact various cathedrals along the route to see if they have music programs for visiting choirs to perform,” she says. “This is done by e-mail and looking at the various cathedral websites to get a contact person who sets the performance schedules. From there, I pick the dates and times and ask if any of these will work at that cathedral. Most will ask for a donation for the cathedral, and this cost is built into the tour price. Some choir members are surprised that we donate in order to sing there, but that is very standard throughout the UK.”
Surprises like that can be a major hurdle in a trip, and it is important for an agent to be well-versed in all aspects of not only the destination, but the culture and expectations.
It is also beneficial to concentrate on a certain religion and its history, Mason advises. For example, Methodists are frequently interested in learning about John and Charles Wesley, the founding fathers of the Methodist movement throughout England. “My groups have seen their birthplace in Epworth, England, and we have sung in The New Room, which was the first Methodist church ever built in Bristol, England,” she says. “Also, London has many locations of interest for Methodists, as John Wesley spent his last years there.”
There are differences, of course, with organizing a secular tour and a religious tour. To Clampet, putting together a religious tour can be like learning another language. “Understanding their basic beliefs will help you cater to them more readily,” he says. “You may need to find hotels that do not offer pornography or at least are willing to block the option. You may need to find things to do that have no alcohol involved. A trip that involves some volunteering can be very appealing to this group. You may need to find a church or synagogue that they can attend or hold private services in. Perhaps they cannot travel on Saturdays; you have to figure that ‘free day’ into the plans.”
Where to Go
As for popular destinations for religious groups, Rome and the Holy Land always rank high, and Oberammergau in Germany was a popular pick this year courtesy of the town’s once-a-decade Passion Play. But digging a little deeper, religious travel can take a group just about anywhere. As Mason pointed out, England is ideal for Methodists and Anglicans, and Scotland is the birthplace of Presbyterians. “Ireland also has much history with early Christian faith,” she adds. “Monks went there and built churches and monasteries long ago.”
Ineke Brinkman of Brinkman Travel says France, Portugal, Ireland, Egypt and Russia are all popular destinations for religious groups, while Clampet notes that some groups want to see where the Reformation began. Baldwin notes that “between the economy and unrest in the Middle East, a lot of travel is being done to the [U.S.] East Coast to study the religious heritage of America.”
Ultimately, there is a special benefit that comes from organizing a faith-based tour for a church or synagogue. “People love to travel with others they know,” Mason says. “This is the most attractive part of religious travel. You have a common bond with your faith right from the start. There is little worry of being stuck with a group of people that you have nothing in common with, which can happen on normal tours.”
Rome, along with Israel, figures among the most popular religious travel destinations. Shown here is St. Peter’s Basilica.