Destination: Israel

JerusalemIsraelatduskFor many church  leaders, the idea of a group trip to Israel is compelling. However, the logistics of planning such an excursion can strike fear in the heart of even the most adventurous pastor.

To quell the hesitation, Noam Matas — general manager of the Calabasas, CA-based America Israel Travel (AIT) — walks you through the planning process, step-by-step.

First things first: How prevalent is church group travel to Israel right now?

Tourists to Israel are coming mostly by plane, and mostly from North America. That’s why our main offices are in Israel and Calabasas, CA: because 90 percent of our travelers go to Israel. In fact, 2013 was a record-setting year for tourism in the country, with 3.54 million visitors from around the world — a new all-time high. Overall, it has been a consistently popular destination.

What are the most commonly cited motivations — and expectations — expressed by pastors when considering a faith-based group trip to Israel?

They want to understand the Bible better. They want to walk where Jesus walked. They want to visit biblical sites and the churches which commemorate those sites.

There’s also a social aspect to consider. A lot of bonding and fellowship happens between congregants and pastors over the course of an Israel trip.

When should pastors and church groups start fundraising for an Israel trip?

For large groups of travelers (200 to 600), I’d recommend planning a year in advance. This ensures we can secure all the hotel and airline accommodations.
But, our average group of travelers ranges from 30 to 50. They’re our bread and butter. For these groups, we recommend fundraising up to a year in advance — nine months, minimum.

For small groups of 15 to 20, two months is sufficient.

How can pastors ensure they’re getting the best possible value when they travel?

We find that when pastors decide who to enlist to plan their church groups’ travel, referrals from other pastors are often accepted at face value. That isn’t a cost-effective approach.

With faith-based travel groups, the end decision seems to be based a lot more about trust than on price. That’s actually to a detriment; pastors can’t get the best value if they don’t explore all their options.

Our company offers wholesale pricing — about $3,000 on average, round-trip to Israel, from any city in the United States.

When is the best time to travel to Israel?

Ninety percent of our groups go in March, April, May, October and November — basically, spring and the fall. The fall season in Israel is wonderful because of the great weather and better airfare deals.

Any advice for first-time trip planners?

The process is much easier than they might think. More often than not, planning the trip isn’t nearly as time-consuming or labor-intensive as they anticipated. Those are our most rewarding clients, actually.

They should also know that travelers to Israel typically come back to us to plan a second, third or fourth trip. Over time, many of the pastors who travel with us enlist other church groups to come along, because they already know how easy it is to plan, and they want to go back again and again. That’s not always easy to do with their own church groups, since many of their congregants will have taken an Israel trip within the past few years. So, joining forces with other church groups makes frequent trips to Israel more accessible.

— Reporting by RaeAnn Slaybaugh

Feature photo: David’s tower (citadel), the old city of Jerusalem, Israel (Photo courtesy of America Israel Travel)

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