Operators report brisk sales of passion play plans

NEW YORK -- With the start of the once-in-a-decade Oberammergau Passion Play performances only about two months away in Bavaria, Germany, operators are reporting brisk sales of tours that include play tickets, and they're now concentrating on filling in their remaining open dates.

Client interest in the 366-year-old Christian theatrical tradition, performed at an open-air theater in the picturesque town of Oberammergau, is heightened this year by the fact that the pope has declared 2000 to be a Holy Year, or Jubilee Year, in Italy.

A number of tours combine visits to both Germany and Italy as well as other neighboring countries.

"Our Europe business compared to last year will probably be up between 80% and 100% on the tour and group side," said Chicago-based DER Travel Services president Heinz Wesner.

DER is selling a variety of tours that include Oberammergau, and "we could have used more tickets for certain departures," Wesner said. "We do still have some open dates, because some groups waited until the last minute and then released space before they had to pay in full. So now those [Oberammergau] seats are going into our escorted tours that we run throughout the year."

At press time, DER still had space on five escorted itineraries that include a passion play performance, ranging from an eight-day Germany program priced from $2,054 to a 14-day eastern Europe tour from $3,003.

Wesner noted that the crunch of Oberammergau-inclusive tour business coming into Bavaria this year could create problems for agents whose clients are not attending the passion play but need hotel rooms in Munich, Germany; Innsbruck, Austria, or other nearby towns.

"They may be out of luck, because a lot of [rooms] are sold out and those still available have a higher price tag than they had in 1999 or than they will have in 2001," he said.

At Friendship International Tours of Woodland Hills, Calif., a specialist in Christian pilgrimage tours, all the tickets for Oberammergau -- more than 3,000 -- have been sold, according to Wesley Bosnic, director of sales.

"We work primarily in the group market, and we started selling it three or four years ago," he said. "We added more departures than we had in our brochure, but that's because we also do customized group itineraries."

Collette Tours in Pawtucket, R.I., initially bought "what we thought would be enough tickets -- we purchased more than 7,000 -- but they sold out almost immediately, so we acquired some more," said spokeswoman Christine Cimino. "Now we're pushing to sell those. So we're offering travel agents an additional 5% commission on any of our available Oberammergau Passion Play tours."

Four of the company's original 10 itineraries including Oberammergau have already sold out, she added; remaining open dates are scattered from May through September.

Pleasure Break Vacations in Milwaukee has done "very well on group sales, but now we're emphasizing individual arrangements," said Dennis Taylor, vice president-sales and marketing.

"We probably overbought, so we are sitting on almost 2,000 Oberammergau tickets and arrangements that we're now going to open up for individuals," he said; before, the company was only selling Oberammergau as part of its escorted tours of a week or more.

The passion play tickets that Pleasure Break has opened up for FIT sales come with one or two nights' hotel accommodations in or near Oberammergau, he said, along with meals.

As for group sales, those are "filling up very nicely," Taylor said. "The busiest ones now are the last two weeks of May and the first part of June, and then during Octoberfest. We bought another 1,000 tickets for the Octoberfest period" to meet demand, he noted.

There is a considerable secondary market for passion play tickets, as tour operators worldwide who hold official allocations of seats from the Oberammergau organizing committee buy, sell or trade tickets to other wholesalers according to their market needs.

Pleasure Break got about half of its tickets from the official Oberammergau committee, Taylor said, and acquired the rest on the open market. "There are more [operators] than ever [selling Oberammergau tickets this year], because they spread the tickets out," he said.

Legitimate operators in the passion play business have learned to be careful about the secondary market.

"We had a couple of departure dates where we went to other companies to exchange tickets," said DER's Wesner. "But first, we went to Oberammergau's official ticket committee and said, 'Do these guys really have tickets?'

"After that was confirmed, we asked the company to send us an official ticket application, which has to be available -and if they didn't have it, we wouldn't buy."

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