At the first Religious Travel symposium,
held by tour giant Globus last December, Dan Schmier, owner and
president of All Star Travel & Cruises in Flint, Mich., offered
passionate testimony to agents about his personal success in a
niche that is by many accounts one of the hottest growth markets in
Schmier, a former
church choirmaster, had profitably morphed into a tour leader for
faith-based trips. He said that so much business now pours in
through his Web site and phone that he willingly commissions other
travel agencies to help handle the load.
I work with
agents in California, across the country, he said. I book the whole
thing, become the tour operator, escort it personally and pay the
travel agents 12% commission.
Schmier is by no
means unique. A growing number of travel professionals are
benefiting from an apparent boom in religious and spiritually
focused travel. Consider these numbers:
the U.S. Office of Travel & Tourism Industries, the more than
600,000 overseas, faith-based trips taken by Americans in 2004
accounted for 2.2% of all U.S. overseas travel.
Lists, a market research company, calculates that church travel
programs increased 20% between 2000 and 2004.
Marketing recently reported that of the 400,000 religious
establishments in the U.S., 50,000 now offer travel programs.
Religious Conference Management Association reported that religious
meetings and conventions in 2004 increased 8.4% over 2003, with
14.2 million attendees, 16,214 meetings and 3,797 conventions and
Though the rise
in demand for religious travel may have eluded most mainstream
marketers, it is clearly part of a larger trend toward more
interest in religious products of all sorts. Greeting card giant
Hallmark, for example, reports that the market for Christian
products is $3.75 billion a year, up from $2.6 billion in 1991. A
similar boom is being seen in the market for religion-themed music,
videos and books.
Industry Association of America reports that Christian music now
outsells jazz and classical combined. On the book-publishing front,
Rick Warrens inspirational best-seller The Purpose Driven Life has
sold more than 25 million copies, and the apocalyptic Left Behind
series has grossed more than $650
president of the National Tour Association, said that tour
operators have recognized the demand and are responding to
In the last
couple of years, based on our research, weve seen that the number
of tour operators providing religious tours is on the increase,
said Phillips. Now slightly over a third of our members provide
tours they classify in some fashion as being religious.
attributes the increased interest in faith-based products to three
things. The first, he says, is 9/11.
A whole lot of
people had a religious experience real quick, he said. When you see
thousands of people murdered here in our own country before your
eyes, it makes people think about how precious every minute of
their time is. All churches reported an upsurge in the last few
effect, Schmier said, is the influence of the late Pope John Paul
II, who had such a profound effect on all religions. He broke so
many barriers. He had a big effect on business.
Schmiers judgment, the market is being fueled by the entrance of
big tour operators like Globus.
The market was
there, but having mainline tour operators now come online has
created another surge, he said. There were people who hesitated
with the mom-and-dad operators. I absolutely applaud Globus for
being the first mainline tour operator to step up to the plate.
They are doing a lot of marketing.
Globus director of group sales, said that by working with a major
supplier, agents can get overrides plus full commission. A lot of
this kind of product has been sold by smaller operators, Schields
said, but none that have our strength, size, buying power or
For Globus, one
of the worlds oldest and largest group tour operators, faith-based
travel has been something of a recent epiphany. The company entered
the market with eight programs in the 2004-2005 season. In its
second year, it more than doubled its religious offerings, to 20
programs in 20 countries.
Globus is convinced that the traditional travel industry has only
begun to scratch the surface of the religion-focused travel market.
Faith-based products are 5% of the music industry, 5% of radio and
5% of publishing, Schields said. Only 2% of travel is faith-based.
All were saying is, if we keep teaching these agents, [the
remaining] 3% represents a huge chunk of business.
theorized that the percentage of faith-based products is lower in
travel than the other industries because until recently, the few companies
offering it have never been big enough to bring it to the
forefront. But that appears to be changing.
target the three largest religious communities in the U.S.
According to research reported by City University of New York,
there are 100 million Protestants in the U.S., 67 million Catholics
and 4 to 5 million Jews. Other faiths add up to less than a million
Globus ace in the
hole is Kevin Wright, its religious travel manager, who is the
author of a series of Pilgrims Travel Guides to religious shrines.
Wrights personal involvement and knowledge give Globus a big
marketing advantage because he can break the market down for
outsiders to understand and provide insight into its
tremendous, Wright said. We printed 50,000 brochures on Sept. 7. By
the first week of November they were depleted. We printed 100,000
more. Now weve been through about 97,000. He describes that kind of
success as just astounding.
offers agents marketing kits that Schields terms religious travel
in a box -- training programs and turn-key business plans that help
agents set performance objectives and find and approach prospects.
They even include templates for letters to priests, pastors or
It walks them
through the process, Schields said. Heres who to talk to; heres a
form letter; find the pastor, plug in the information. It has marketing tips to train
agents how to sell it.
agents on which destinations are important to different
denominations, such as western England for Methodists, Scotland for
Presbyterians, Germany for Lutherans.
There is a
certain terminology that is appropriate for each group, said
Wright. We provide a list of lingo and buzzwords, so when a travel
agent is out there marketing, they know what words to use. When we
talk to the Catholic market, we use the word community. With
Protestants, we say fellowship.
into the Network
Many of the 200
agents who attended Globus Religious Travel Symposium told success
stories about their faith-based travel enterprises.
president of the Christian Travel Group of Seal Beach, Calif., had
been involved in religious events and conferences for about 15
years and opened a travel agency two years ago in order to develop
these travel programs for a segment Im already very familiar
This segment is
so underserved, Korngold said. The growth is beyond anything I
could have imagined. Our phone rings off the hook all week from
travel agents who can sell these products and have been looking for
them but didnt know ways to get commissions from them.
The company has
booked several 700-passenger cruises each year as well as
individual and other group bookings.
Center, a Denver agency, got into faith-based travel three years
ago by advertising in the Denver Church Guide, offering to donate
10% of its commissions to the participating church.
coming in within six months, and one opportunity led to
You dont just do
a booking, said Joann Thompson, a partner in the agency. It keeps
weaving itself. While were the agency of record, they [the
churches] are out there promoting it, and at a higher level than a
regular travel agency could. Its not just a booking as we know it.
There are a lot more tentacles or feelers, more things that can
Perception is Reality
appealing testimonials, however, some data seem to contradict the
notion of ballooning growth in religion-focused travel.
For example, the
fastest-growing part of the niche appears to be coming from
evangelicals. But in seeking out future opportunities, some
operators are now questioning how deep the evangelical movement
actually runs. A 2004 Gallup poll reported that
70 million Americans, or about 25% of the population, now
characterize themselves as evangelical Christians. But the Barna
Group, a religious research outfit that has done yearly surveys on
the state of religion in the U.S. since 1991, took a different
approach in a 2005 study and got very different results.
Instead of asking
subjects to label themselves, Barna asked them if they held to
specific points of evangelical doctrine, such as literal
interpretation of the Bible, the existence of Satan and a belief
that salvation has nothing to do with good deeds.
Barna, evangelicals remain just 7% of the adult population, a
proportion that has not changed since the group started asking the
questions in 1994.
And although the
number of NTA tour operators who offer faith-based tours grew 9%
from 2003 to 2005, to 36% of member operators, that figure actually
represents a decline from 2000, when it was 41%.
Of course, no
marketing craze was ever set back by anything as mundane as facts,
and few travel professionals doubt that a vibrant, largely untapped
market really does exist for faith-based travel.
What this is
reflective of is the way tour operators are able to really tap into
a special-interest demand, said the NTAs Phillips. It can be
something as broad as religious tours ... or as narrow as revolving
around a popular movie. They are all part of that landscape of
reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].