As more travelers seek to explore their spiritual roots, and the roots of other religions, more agents are combining their own personal faith with their travel agency to build their business.
Carol Rowland, owner of Recess 4 Grownups Travel, has spent the past two years building a strong following in and around Atlanta by serving parishes with pilgrimage travel planning services and customized, personal service.
Rowland is a Georgia Tech alumni and a faithful parishioner at Saint Jude the Apostle church. She fell into religious tourism through – of all things – college football.
In late 2010, her husband, who attended the U.S. Naval Academy, noted that Navy would be playing Notre Dame in Ireland in 2012. Rowland saw an opportunity and began setting up a group tour for fans, eventually booking about 200 customers.
She continued her success booking fans on a 2014 tour built around a Penn State game in Ireland, and followed that up by planning for an August 2016 game between Georgia Tech and Boston College in Dublin.
Rowland heard that her parish priest was taking a group to see the game and go on a pilgrimage to Irish holy sites. “Monsignor told me it was a done deal working with a large, established tour company they had a relationship with the past nine years, so I wasn’t going to win that business,” remembered Rowland, who spent more than 20 years at IBM before becoming an independent agent in 2010. “But ultimately, that tour company couldn’t get good hotel rooms for the trip, because the whole island was already booked for the game. Because I had blocked hotel space for my tour, I was able to come back and make a proposal. They selected to work with me.”
Rowland had knowledge of Ireland and strong experience booking groups, but had never put together a trip that included a pilgrimage itinerary. “That is the beauty of not knowing what you’re doing,” Rowland said. “You can really be creative because you have no preconceptions.”
She organized site visits to the priests’ hometowns in Stradbally, southwest of Dublin, and Loughrea, near Galway, a few months in advance, to meet with their friends and relatives prior to the trip, and plan for group meals at local restaurants. “There are only two pubs there to eat lunch,” Rowland noted. The group also attended masses at the monsignors’ home churches.
Rowland’s relationship with the priests, who attended seminary and were ordained together in Ireland, continues to reap rewards. She has 66 clients signed up for a Holy Land trip this September with them, and the year 2020 is their Jubilee year (the 25th anniversary of their ordination). Rowland already is planning for parishioners to join them in Ireland for their celebration.
She also is working with another parish on a pilgrimage to Italy in October (the group will cap out around 15-20 members). The trips will include stops and celebratory masses at the Monsignors’ home churches, where they were ordained.
Growing faith in religious tourism
Today, Rowland sees a bright future for her religious tourism and pilgrimage group business, which makes up about 40% of her sales. “I am going to try to make more connections with other area priests, and to work with the Archdiocese,” she said.
As her group tour sales grow, Rowland must consider dramatic changes to her business structure. For example, she currently is the principal tour leader, traveling with all her groups and handling local logistics. “What I envision, the more I do this, is that I’ll need to hire people on the ground in these locations,” she said.
For one Ireland tour, Rowland hired an Irish woman whom she met through a travel agent fam trip. “I made sure that she understood my philosophy on handling my guests. My plan over time is to have really great guides like her in these destinations.”
Rowland works with some established tour operators, like CIE for Ireland, Central Holidays for Italy, and Isram for Israel. But she also designs her own itineraries “on top of their suggestions.”
For example, for the September 2017 Holy Land tour, she learned on a fam trip that her group would have limited time on a side trip to Petra, Jordan. She has worked with the tour company to book a hotel in Jordan, “so we will be on the Jordan side, and my clients will have two days in Jordan, and a full day at Petra instead of only two hours.”
Success in group pilgrimages, Rowland said, “is very much about figuring out how to make a difference. Sometimes you go on tours, and it’s nonstop, leaving at 7 a.m. and getting back to the hotel at 6 p.m. You are not getting a spiritual experience. You’re too worn out.”
Rowland also taps into her clients’ other interests outside of religion to build out itineraries for recreation and hobbies. For instance, for an Italy tour, she arranged for a balsamic vinegar tasting at a local press, wine tastings and visits to UNESCO towns. “You’re in Italy. You have to visit some of these incredible towns God created,” she said.
Similarly, for her Holy Land tour, the group is visiting Independence Hall in Tel Aviv and touring the Golan Heights to learn more about Israel’s history.
She also provides her clients with little extra touches, like a shekel bag with currency for the one-shekel public bathrooms in Israel. “I look for these kinds of things, especially if I can take an inconvenience out of a trip,” she said.