Europe Survey: Agents lagging in growing faith-based travel market By Michelle Baran / June 20, 2012 Share 1 -- The religious travel market is once again growing, but a recent survey reveals that travel agents continue to hold a smaller share of the market than other competing venues, especially churches.The survey, the Globus Religious Travel Study of past and potential faith-based travelers, revealed that some 16.3 million people are now considered potential religious travelers, i.e., travelers who are likely to take an international religion-themed vacation at some point in their life. That represents a 4% increase over the 15.7 million people tagged by Globus' 2007 survey as potential religious travelers.In both cases, the Globus data were gleaned from TravelStyles surveys. The most recent, conducted in November and December 2011, sampled more than 40,000 outbound travelers. The Globus Family of Brands supplied TravelStyles with proprietary religious travel questions, which were answered by 635 potential religious travelers and by 207 past religious travelers. The earlier TravelStyles study with questions devoted to the religious travel market was conducted in 2007.The 2011 results showed that of potential religious travelers, 47% are likely to book directly through their church, 38% online, 35% through a travel agent and 28% directly through a tour operator. Of past religious travelers, 52% said they were likely to make future bookings through their church, 34% would likely book directly through an operator, 33% would book online and 30% would book through an agent.These questions were posed to consumers, so what percentage of churches, for example, might use travel agents to book faith-based trips is not reflected in the data. (Click on the image, right, for a larger view of chart depicting how consumers book religious travel.) In the 2007 study, the question was posed slightly differently. Past religious travelers were asked how they had booked their religious travel, and 35% said they had used an agent.In 2007, three years after Globus launched its religious travel division, the outlook for the faith-based travel market was very hopeful, with travel companies, religious organizations and the media reporting it had great potential. That same year, the World Religious Travel Association (WRTA) was launched, adding to the segment's perceived potential. But then the recession took hold. And in January 2011, an insolvent WRTA filed bankruptcy.Since then, there has been a lot of uncertainty about where the recession has left the religious travel market standing.But Mike Schields, managing director of groups and emerging markets for Globus, said he was surprised to find that coming out of the economic crisis, the faith-based travel market "didn't shrink in size; in fact, it increased slightly."Schields said the market experienced a "pullback" in 2009 and again in 2011. But "ever since then, we've been preparing for expansion."Religious travel bookings at Globus are up 22% in 2012 compared with this time last year, he said.Schields said the resilience of the faith-based travel market is a missed opportunity for agents."You can't call yourself a Christian showing up at Easter and Christmas," Schields said. "A lot of agents say, 'This is cool.' They want to turn on the switch, but they don't want to work the churches. If you're not all in, then don't do it, and that's OK."Schields added that while some agents might have turned their attention away from the faith-based market because of the time and commitment it requires, their departure has left gaps in the marketplace that dedicated agents could and should fill."You want to get in when everybody else got out," Schields said. "This market is not going away."In fact, 35% of all outbound travelers are likely to take a faith-inspired vacation at some time in their life, according to the 2011 survey. Of those potential religious travelers, 68% would likely take an escorted tour, 25% would take a cruise, 24% would likely travel independently and 7% aren't sure how they would travel.Despite ongoing conflict in the Middle East, Israel remains the top religious travel destination, with 58% of potential religious travelers stating that they would be interested in visiting Israel on a religious vacation. Thirty percent cited Italy, and 21% cited England, Egypt and Ireland, respectively (respondents could pick more than one destination). Other top religious travel destinations included Jordan, Germany, the U.S. and France.While the market still appears to be robust, one big impact the recession has had on faith-based travelers is price point; they might still want to go, but they are more price-conscious, according to Schields.Consequently, Globus has launched a faith-based program for its lower-priced Cosmos brand for 2013 with three itineraries.Another interesting contrast between the 2011 and 2007 surveys, Schields said, is that the average age of the religious traveler appears to be coming down slightly. Of past religious travelers, 17% fell into the 45-to-54 range and 24% were in the 55-to-64 range. But of potential religious travelers, 23% fall into the 45-to-54 age range and 22% in the 55-to-64 range. Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.