Written by Ruth A. Hill and published by Travel Market Report
February 11, 2013
Like many sellers of faith travel, Patti Ryall was inspired to pursue the niche during a travel experience of her own. She has since discovered there are many facets to the faith travel specialty, including custom tours for pastors.
Walking in the steps
Ryall, who is owner of And Away We Go! Travel in Lake Oswego, Ore., found her calling during a 2007 cruise from Rome that included stops in Athens and Ephesus.
“As I was walking through the tunnel that leads to Ephesus amphitheater, the realization that the apostle Paul had walked these same steps literally gave me goosebumps,” she said. “The sensation continued as I stepped on Mars Hill, and then again in Rome’s Mamertine prison. Old truths became very real to me because I am a believer, and I wanted to share that kind of experience with fellow believers.”
Marketing to clergy
Her marketing strategy was to approach pastors who might lead groups to faith travel destinations. Her first pastor-client was from her parents’ church. He had been on a pastors’ Holy Land trip and had shared his experience and photos with his congregation. She convinced him to let her organize a return group trip that he would lead.
“Approaching clergy can be difficult – they are busy people and they sometimes don’t understand what a travel consultant does,” said Ryall. “Even if they are interested in leading a group somewhere, they feel overwhelmed by the logistics. They often need to be assured that trip finances won’t be mingled with those of the church.”
One key to success is a personal connection with a church congregation or other faith group, she said.
“Once you get that first couple of trips done, you have something with which to approach other pastors or church leaders.
“You need to be able to help a pastor ascertain what the real purposes are in organizing a travel experience, because it often goes way beyond a tourist experience,” she continued. “It requires dedication, passion, and time – perhaps more than any other kind of travel, because the emotional and spiritual waters run so deep.”
Concentrate on what you know
When Ryall first began working the faith travel niche, she thought she could plan all kinds of religious travel in order to honor and respect all beliefs. But experience has taught her to concentrate on what she knows best: Protestant Christian belief.
“I realized I simply don’t know enough about other beliefs such as Buddhism, so I stay within what I know and love.”
Planning faith-based travel has led Ryall to what she calls an unusual “sub-niche” – sabbatical travel for pastors, usually trips of six to 12 weeks’ duration. So far she has worked with pastors wanting to explore early Christian and Celtic heritage in Scotland, Ireland and Germany.
She also recently co-wrote a $45,000 sabbatical grant for her own pastor, which garnered an award from the Lilly Foundation. “Our grant is for a three-month sabbatical, and it includes money to fill his pulpit while he is away,” Ryall said.
She is now planning the pastor’s six-week trip to Germany and central Europe, where he will research how Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic writings influenced the Nazis.
“We are visiting holocaust sites in Germany and will include bits about how Dietrich Bonheoffer and other Christian believers dealt with the war era,” she said. “He will also do a Jewish heritage tour – all connected to the reconciliation theme.”
Ryall is also arranging a golfing component in Scotland.
Tour operator assistance
Custom tours often require expert assistance to find scholars and others who can provide what pastors and other tour leaders want, Ryall noted.
Her tour operator partner for the pastor sabbatical tour and a pastor-led group tour of Luther sites in Germany this year is Reformation Tours, which specializes in Christian heritage trips to Europe. Reformation will also partner with Ryall to organize a 2014 group tour for the pastor.
“There’s really no substitute for expert knowledge, and I’ve found that Rowena Drinkhouse and her staff really know how to find the specialized private guides and other resources that we wanted.”