Transitioning from a successful career in commercial real estate to help grow his family’s tour business to unprecedented levels, Paul Larsen has embarked on a spiritual journey to motivate religious groups to travel.
His family’s company, Ed-Ventures is a custom tour operator based out of southern Minnesota. The firm specializes in religious travel, but also works with student travel groups and senior tour groups. Learn Paul’s story in this edition of Take 5.
Tell us about the business of Ed-Ventures.
When my father got into the business in the 1970s he wanted to give people a unique travel experience so he customized all tours. Back then, everyone said just create one itinerary and keep filling the bus, that’s the way you make money.
But he knew that people want that experience, and that was his advantage. It’s one of the reasons we are successful in the faith-based market. Whether it’s a pilgrimage, historical or fellowship tour, every group is a little different. Faith- based tours don’t just have to visit the Holy Land to fulfill the mission of the congregation.
We are also seeing this shift in the student market where a biology teacher and a Spanish teacher are collaborating on a trip to Costa Rica. It offers curriculum to support both a foreign language and eco-tourism. This is especially true in rural communities where you don’t have a large pool of students.
How did Ed-Ventures start specializing in religious travel?
I think it was always there because of the customization we did. But in recent years it’s been amazing on how it’s come together. It is humbling. Whether it’s mission trips or a trip that we host every year with a priest and a rabbi, we’ve seen unprecedented growth. I have a passion for this, and I think if you’re going to be successful at anything you need to have a passion for it.
Our groups are coming from around the country and for us, our success is all about getting the word out and building relationships. If you walk into a church office right now, they have a stack of solicitations about a foot high. You have to understand what they want if you are going to do business with them. There are subtle differences between what Protestant and Catholic groups are looking for, and while it’s not monumental, the terminology is different and you have to understand that if you’re going to be successful.
In the religious market, what destinations are selling for you right now?
The Luther 500 Celebration is getting traction. People are saying now’s the time to start planning, so they are looking at Germany. And it’s not just Lutherans. I don’t think this is going to be of a Passion Play level, but the window of opportunity is larger here with events leading up to the 2017 celebration. We have a number of groups interested in traveling to Germany and Switzerland in 2016.
There’s a lot of reasons for faith leaders to take travelers over to Germany. It’s not only the fellowship, but when they travel to places like Switzerland, Germany or the Holy Land, they see some of the great theologians and relive those times.
Do you work with travel agents?
Yes, they are an integral part of our strategy. The best thing I did over the last two years was get involved with MAST Vacation Partners. What I tell agents is that their client stays their client. Their clients cannot book with us book directly with us later. We are there to come alongside the travel agent to help them be successful. Often times in the faith-based travel market it is that travel agent who is a member of the parish who has a relationship with the pastor who gets doors open. Then we can put together the package for them.
If you came to our office you’d find that we have staff who are fluent in Czechoslovakian, Spanish, German and French. We also have staff that can speak some Italian and Portuguese and dabble in some of the African dialects. They all have that type of background and they want to educate clients. It allows us to go almost anywhere in the world and communicate with suppliers in their native tongue.
You are very active in FTA (Faith Travel Association). What’s the future for the organization?
I think it’s going to grow. People are seeking something and I think that by educating the market as to the different facets of religious travel and how it broadens one’s perspective they will succeed. You look at what Nashville is doing now working with the faith-based singers like Amy Grant to draw tourists to the area. It’s a personal experience they can’t get elsewhere that is centered around faith.
I believe there’s a potential for FTA to grow significantly based on the number of travelers interested in a faith-based vacation. I give NTA credit for starting up FTA and running with it.
When asked about the next evolution in the industry, Paul comments, “ I think there are niche markets out there that we need to learn how to tap into. The faith market is a great example, but I think there are others out there waiting to be cultivated. There are people out there who want to travel in groups. We need to tap into that and learn how to develop it. Somewhere in there is a big idea.”