To quote the Bible, “…if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.” There’s no beating around the bush here—a tour operator is almost essential for groups planning a religious trip. Groups need a reliable partner to assist with organizing and executing a trip; otherwise, they may find themselves flying blind. There are hundreds of quality tour operators out there, but not all of them will work for every religious organization. Each congregation is different.
If you’re working with a religious tour operator and considering moving your business elsewhere—or searching for a tour operator for the first time—there are a few things you should keep in mind during the decision process.
Lack of Experience and Expertise
Ask any expert about the most important characteristic to look for in a tour operator, and he or she likely will say “experience.” If you’ve selected a company that’s relatively new to the faith-based market, closely evaluate its product with one from a company that has been offering religious itineraries for several years.
“There are many tour companies with a large name in the industry for vacation packages that have recently en-tered this segment,” says John Klados, vice president of sales at Homeric Tours Inc. He believes it takes much more than certain language or marketing to attract religious groups—it takes intimate knowledge and understanding of what groups need for their trip.
The tour operator you select should be able to differentiate between denominations, says Nick Mancino, president of Regina Tours. It’s essential that they understand the difference between the needs of a Catholic group and needs of a Protestant group. That kind of expertise can only be found in a company that has years of experience in this segment of the faith-based market.
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Each religious group, as we’ve mentioned, is different and requires certain elements to make their trip special. Many tour companies that lack experience with faith groups offer only a cookie-cutter itinerary anyone could select and doesn’t have distinct activities or amenities that make it unique for each group. Klados says, “I’ve seen too many tour operators…for example, with ‘The Steps of Apostle Paul’ itineraries that offer the typical cookie-cutter itineraries without a fully immersing experience for the pilgrim.”
Paul Larsen, president of Ed-Ventures, says, “I would recommend that groups work with somebody who will listen to their needs and customize the tour to meet those needs, as opposed to using an off-the-shelf kind of itinerary.”
Very Little Value in Tour Packages
More often than not, price becomes a major factor in choosing a tour operator. However, the highest price shouldn’t automatically be tossed aside, and the lowest price shouldn’t immediately get selected. A higher price is usually reflective of higher quality tours with more included in the itinerary. For example, Regina Tours offers 4-star and 5-star hotels in all its packages, according to Mancino. These are comfortable accommodations that provide great service for groups. A lower package cost doesn’t mean the hotels are of lower quality, but it is something to research when analyzing companies.
Groups should also evaluate other inclusions in the itinerary, says Mancino. Look at how many meals are included, what kind of special excursions or exclusive experiences are part of the schedule, and the kind of service you’ll be receiving on the trip, such as luggage handling and transportation.
There are a lot of important questions to ask when looking at itineraries. Is the tour operator able to arrange private church services for a group? Can the tour operator schedule visits with important figures? Klados encourages group organizers to ask these kinds of questions and really pay attention to answers provided by the companies.
It almost goes without saying that if a tour operator does not offer insurance—or some kind of protection—you shouldn’t work with them. However, it still bears repeating. Most companies are part of the United States Tour Operators Association, and many experts would insist that you only work with a USTOA member, as it guarantees you coverage or a full refund if that tour operator goes belly-up.
This kind of protection comes in handy if something goes wrong with the tour or the company. For example, if you’ve already made payments for your church group and the tour company goes out of business, you have to reimburse your members or your members are stuck with a loss. If the company is part of USTOA, then you’ll receive a full refund. And the coverage is at no additional cost to the religious group.
If the company isn’t a member of USTOA, but still appears to be a good operator, be sure to inquire about the coverage they offer or any additional insurance they recommend. If they have no coverage or recommendations for insurance, they may not be the best choice.
Another key element to look at when analyzing your current or potential future tour operator is to find out what kind of additional services they offer. This can be anything from marketing assistance to payment collection and maintaining reservations.
“Marketing services can go a long way to help a church spread the word of their upcoming trip,” says Klados. If a company offers little or no help with this, it is left up to the church to market the trip on their own, leaving them with limited resources. A good tour operator will provide a variety of different services to make the trip a success, such as free printed flyers and posters, or a visit by company representative to discuss the pilgrimage with church members.
Deposit and full payment collection is another useful service that tour operators can and should provide. Rather than the church collecting payments and keeping track of who has submitted money, a tour operator can set up a personalized website just for your group and members of the congregation can send money directly to the company. The operator can then let the church know who has paid in full and whom they’re still waiting on. This kind of service is also useful when sending reminders about when deposits and full payments are due, as well as information on itineraries, packing essentials and other trip details. It’s just one less thing for your group to worry about.
Poor Reputation and Recommendations
Of the biggest red flags you can come across when searching for a tour operator is a bad review. Obviously, not every bad review is a true reflection of the company and it’s always smart to research further if you see one or two negative testimonies.
“Requesting testimony and even following up by trying to con-tact the reviewer to ensure accuracy is one of the best ways to get a clear picture of the company you are about to do business with,” says Klados. Most tour operators will collect reviews from past customers and make them available upon request.
Another way to research a company, according to Mancino, is to contact the tourism office of the country or countries you’re planning to visit and asking if they are familiar with an operator. Usually, tourism offices have records of operators that do business there and can provide information regarding their qualifications.
Bad Chemistry or Relationship
Even if your tour operator meets all the criteria of a good com-pany, it still might not be right for you. Just because they have the experience, the services, the reputation and the coverage, the chem-istry with your church may be missing.
“Look for somebody that has the experience in the faith travel niche and understands the marketplace and will sit down and listen to them as to what they want to get out of the tour,” says Larsen.
Every faith leader may want something different from the ex-perience. Some really care about the historical perspective; others may want a mission component. It really can vary.
“Make sure that the company you’re working with is a good match for you,” says Larsen. “If they don’t understand what you’re about, it’s hard for them to deliver the product that you want.”
There is a certain sense of comfort and reassurance that should be felt when you work with a tour operator, especially since you have to trust them with your members on a trip. It’s important to look at all aspects of their business, from past experience and knowledge of the faith tourism industry to their services and benefits. And re-member that what works for another church may not work for you. Your church group is unique and there’s a tour operator out there that’s a match made in heaven.