Israel Looks to Expand Beyond Faith-Based Travel

by Mimi Kmet

Rachel Epstein’s main Israel-bound clientele consists of faith-based organizations. But some of her groups want their Israel trips to be more than pilgrimages.

“Everybody has an intent of some sort,” whether it’s spiritual, educational or family-oriented, said Epstein, president of group travel for FROSCH, a Signature Travel Network agency in New York. “It’s never just a fun vacation.”

Epstein’s clients mix historical and biblical features in their trips to Israel with contemporary attractions. Some groups, for instance, explore the country’s film industry. For others, a speaker like Danny Gold—inventor of the Iron Dome air defense system—is part of the itinerary.

Targeting niche markets
Epstein’s clients are just the sort of travelers the Israel Ministry of Tourism (IMOT) targets.

While faith-based organizations have long been a staple for tourism to the Holy Land—and while IMOT continues to market to that segment—it has also been working to broaden its appeal to other niche markets.

These include “world” or “sophisticated” travelers, Latin Americans and native Spanish-speakers, families, the LGBT community, and sports and adventure enthusiasts, according to a recent IMOT report.

Social connections
The IMOT’s efforts to broaden Israel’s appeal include a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign with the slogan “Beyond Belief.” The campaign, launched last year, includes a strong emphasis on social media.

To reach more consumers, including younger travelers, IMOT now has a presence on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Promotions like a Facebook contest that awarded a trip to Israel, helped IMOT increase the number of fan “likes” from 27,000 in 2012 to more than 86,500 at the end of 2013, a 220% increase.

A Travel Zoo campaign featured packages from several U.S. tour operators. The packages were offered to 13 million subscribers over a four-week period.

Browsers spent an average of more than two minutes on the page. Searches for Israel on Travel Zoo jumped by 23.5 %. In addition, the campaign drove 14,000 network clicks to Israel’s micro-site.

In addition, IMOT brought U.S. television and film celebrities to Israel for a tour highlighting the country's most popular attractions. That led to hundreds of thousands of posts on Facebook and Twitter.

IMOT also hosted top travel bloggers from North America, resulting in hundreds of Twitter and Facebook posts reaching millions of consumers.

Millennials and families
Epstein is seeing a growing number of younger people booking Israel travel through FROSCH.
In fact, she recently began offering tours for millennials. Two millennial groups went to Israel this year and five are scheduled in 2015.

“It’s a whole different mentality,” she said. “Everything is social media-based. And they want a more concise but deeper kind of experience.

“They could have just been baptized in the Jordan River, and the next night they’re nightclubbing in Tel Aviv.”

The destination is also having success hosting families.

People who were bar mitzvahed 20 to 30 years ago are returning with their children who are approaching the age of 13, said Susan Weissberg, owner of Wyllys Professional Travel, an Ensemble agency in Coral Gables, Fla.

Her clients are also looking for off- the-beaten-path, adventurous experiences, like Bedoin hospitality, swimming with dolphins in the Red Sea, horseback riding, zip lining, and Jeep tours.

Among other emerging trends is interacting with local residents.

These experiences might include a Shabbat dinner with a local family, culinary travel including dining at top restaurants and visiting wineries, guided museum tours, trips to beaches for some free time, and nightlife, said Weissberg. “The nightlife in Tel Aviv has become world renowned,” she added.

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