With a growing number of Americans looking to discover their roots, genealogical travel is a niche market with increasing potential for travel sellers.
Genealogical travel offers not only a chance to grow business, but personal rewards for agents as well, according to travel sellers and boutique tour operators who focus on genealogical travel.
Although statistics on the numbers of people pursuing genealogy as a hobby are unavailable, the fact that ancestry.com has 2 million paying subscribers worldwide indicates a solid interest in the field.
One agent who is capitalizing on this growing market is Jerry Rabas, owner of Weber Travel Agency in Willowbrook, Ill. Rabas has been involved in roots travel for years. Although he left Czechoslovakia at age four, Rabas speaks the language and has been able to tap the large Czech community in Chicago as well as Czech Americans nationwide.
“Over the years I realized that the second, third and fourth generation Czech Americans were interested in discovering their roots. When Communism fell it opened up opportunities for them to go back,” he said.
“I have found that people in their 20s, 30s or 40s don’t have an interest in finding their roots, but as people get older they do. Boomers have more time on their hands to do more research and go back to wherever they come from.”
Weber Travel, which sells all types of travel, with about 60% FITs, also operates tours to the Czech Republic and Slovakia, for which Rabas pays agent commissions.
He has partners in the Czech Republic and Slovakia who will do research for clients trying to locate their ancestors’ villages.
“Whatever your destination, find a really good ground operator in that country whom you can trust and who can do some research on that end,” Rabas advised. “That’s crucial. If you don’t have that, you’re going to spin your wheels.”
Find the village
To help clients find an ancestor, urge them to search the microfiche files of old ethnic newspapers in the U.S., Rabas suggested. If they know when the ancestor died, they can check the obituaries, which usually included the name of the village an immigrant came from.
Once someone knows the name of the village, Rabas contacts the mayor, who is often willing to meet clients or introduce them to someone in the town.
Once they get there they can start knocking on doors with the interpreter/driver that the ground operator has arranged. Many European families have lived in the same houses for centuries and know everyone in the village.
“About 80% come back having found either a relative or a house that their ancestors once owned,” he said. “People say, ‘I found 10 relatives I didn’t even know over there.’”
Following Rabas’ example, agents should determine which areas of the world ancestors of their local population came from and concentrate on those. If their own family has the same roots all the better.
Knocking on doors
Ancestral Attic, which is located in Carp Lake, Mich., specializes in private escorted genealogy tours to Poland, as well as custom tours to other countries in Eastern Europe.
The company operates about 40 tours per year. They consist of general sightseeing, as well as visits to specific villages, churches and cemeteries. Ancestral Attic also puts together reunions for groups as small as five or six up to as many as 200 people.
“On average, participants are between the ages of 50 and 70,” said Elaine Bostwick, Ancestral Attic’s tour coordinator. “We are, however, starting to see a younger crowd of people wanting to get to know their roots. I had people in their 30s and 40s last year.”
Bostwick has advice for agents who are thinking of getting into this business. “You have to know how to investigate specific destinations, especially if they’re off the path or don’t even exist anymore,” she said.
“Focus on one particular area to start with. You have to be a very detailed person and patient, because each tour involves a certain amount of research. If agents work with a tour operator they don’t need to do anything, however.”
Ginger Aarons of Time Travel Tours in Wilsonville, Ore., is a former travel agent who decided to reinvent her business about 15 years ago after the airlines stopped paying commissions.
“I was researching my own roots and one of my special interest groups asked me to do a tour,” she said. Now Aarons offers three scheduled departures each year to Ireland, as well as custom ad hoc tours. The maximum group size is 12. Every group spends at least four days in each major Irish city to do research at public record offices and the national library.
This year is an especially good time to steer roots-seeking clients to Ireland, according to Aarons. The country is reaching out to the more than 70 million people worldwide who claim Irish ancestry, calling them home to celebrate The Gathering, a yearlong, nationwide event.
Kathy Wurth, founder of Family Tree Tours in St. Louis, specializes in Germany, her family’s country of origin as well as that of many St. Louis residents. Her company offers group and private guided tours and arranges independent tours to Germany, Switzerland and Ireland.
Wurth’s interest in genealogy dates to her teenage years, when she began researching her roots with her mother. Years later, she decided to start her own company.
“We’re a bit different because we take a group of people who have different hometowns,” she said. “We stay in one place and do things as a group and have a couple of days where people go out to their hometowns. We mostly go by train.”