The Mormon Tour Industry


While looking on http://www.deseretbook.com this morning for something, I noticed a link to Time Out Tours. I have also noticed that Meridian Magazine has its own tour business. I am sure that there are many others out there (I’d be interested in collecting these links, so if anyone knows of one, please put it in the comments). These tours are interesting to me because they deal with not only educational tours to Book of Mormon lands, Israel/Palestine, and Church History sites, but also trips to Orlando, Cancun, cruises in the Mediterranean, etc. I am interested in the value that these tours offer to their customers, as well as the values that they express.

One of the curious aspects of the educational tours is the way that they are marketed. The tour guides’ qualifications to lead tours to Israel or Gautemala are usually that they are a BYU Religion profressor or have written some humorous or devotional LDS book. Their education, relevant experience, and publications on the subject matter are never mentioned, presumably because they have none of these things. Their qualifications are that they have held prestigious church callings, are nice people, and enjoy the subject matter. Some of these tours center around a cult of personality, like the Proctors, who advertise trips as an occasion to hang out and learn from them. I am quite sure that there is not a lack of competent LDS who work, research, and publish on matters of church history, archeology, history, etc who are perfectly qualified to run such trips. Why don’t they? What is the attraction of popularizers of LDS folklore as tour guides? Is there not a market for experts (or at least competent guides) for Latter-day Saints?

While the other trips to places like Orlando don’t require guides with any training or expertise, I am curious about the reasons that people would want to go to Orlando with a bunch of strangers who happen to be Latter-day Saints. I suppose that I understand the impulse to be around people that share your values and that you don’t have to explain yourself or your beliefs to (you are on vacation, after all). At the same time, I am concerned that people try to bring LDS insulation with them wherever they go. Rather than have to interact with the actual location around them, including people, these tours encourage members to protect themselves within a bubble, to never have to leave home, even when you leave home.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “The Mormon Tour Industry

  1. bodhi

    I looked on the sites you linked and couldn’t see any Religion professors giving tours. Dr. Kaye Hanson is billed as a “Religion teacher at BYU,” but she’s not on the Religiopn faculty. It’s false advertising. She’s in the business school, but was Assoc. Dir. of the Jerusalem Center for two years. That’s why they have her doing tours. All the other tour guides seemed to be non-academics.

    I know some faculty who have done tour groups, but few do, even though they are sometimes recruited. When BYU Travel Study was alive and well faculty used to do more, but it was shut down a few years ago when the liability of travel abroad began to skyrocket after 9/11. Few faculty do tours because, well, they have jobs already. They are only available during holidays and their one summer term off, which they use for personal vacation and research. The few faculty I’ve known who have done the tour thing soon drop it because tour groups are an enormous amount of work and hassle, and they’d rather use their time off as time off. There are easier ways to travel (conferences!), and besides, Religion faculty are all sent to the places relevent to their disciplines as professional development. I only know one (now retired) faculty member who really got into the tour gig, LaMar Berrett. On the other hand, I know of CES people outside of BYU who are regularly used.

    But you’re right that it’s all about marketing. That’s why popular authors and emeritus GAs are often booked on these things. They pull people in. My parents have been on several of these tours and say that the guest talent is usually useless, especially the GAs. Anyway, these are not educational enterprises, but commercial entertainment ventures.

  2. TrailerTrash

    bodhi,
    I think that your assessment is correct about the actual strain that these trips have on scholars in terms of scheduling. At the same time, it seems that the right amount of money for expertise could convince at least a few specialists to enter the field.

    I am curious about the point that you have made that CES people are far more likely to lead these tours. Their academic calendar is the same. What is different for them over Religion or other BYU faculty to lead these tours?

    As regards the larger point, it does not seem that Mormon tourists value expertise over popularity quite yet, or at least cannot distinguish the difference. FWIW, the problem of unqualified tour guides is probably not unique to Mormonism.

  3. bodhi

    Travel Study used to pay, but one colleague who was approached recently by a commercial venture about doing a tour group was just offered the trip gratis. No fee. On the other hand, he only had to lecture, not do all the other real work that Travel Study made you do. That might be worth it. But you’re right. If there was real money it, scholars would jump at it.

    CES guys used to have more time off (the entire summer) and had no research expectations, so they did have more time to burn. They also have fewer opportunities to travel, which makes it more attractive to them. Now they all have to work summers, so that’s out. And really, I haven’t looked at the whole scene for quite a number of years and don’t know what the current trends are. The Israel tours I was most familiar with are not as popular now as in the past, due to the security situation. Church employees are not permitted to travel to Israel as a matter of policy, and exceptions are very hard to win. But if they can get the Jerusalem Center opened up again, as they’re trying to, it will help the whole situation.

  4. I have a travel agency that does LDS tours. I’ve been in this business for several years and my partner has been doing tours for 7 years. Our agency is Bountiful Travel (www.bountifultravel.com). Most of the companies in the business (I have worked for 2 others as the guide before starting my own) look for LDS personalities to go on the tours/cruises that have a following–LDS celebrities. Thus, you will find most use speakers such as John Bytheway, Michael Ballam, or other LDS entertainers. Understand that there are quite a few costs associated with putting a group like this together so if the speaker/entertainer isn’t well known, it can be difficult to make any kind of profit. These speakers are either given a free trip or slightly compensated, but usually only present a couple (2 to 4) times. They don’t have to do any of the logistics of the tour…they just show up and teach and get a free trip.

    From my perspective, there are a couple of motivations for taking a tour/cruise like this. Some people like to travel with other LDS people…especially on a cruise where the environment isn’t necessarily the most wholesome. With an LDS group, you are able to fill your time with more wholesome activities. Others are truly going for an educational experience. We typically have up to 8 hours of classroom time on the ship with anywhere from 2 to 4 different speakers. I am a graduate candidate in Ancient Near Eastern Studies, my partner did Latin American (maya) studies, and I usually use my former BYU professors as my other speakers…most of whom are FARMS contributors. We guide at some of the ruins and use local guides as well. It really can be quite the educational experience. And we definitely market our tours/cruises to those seeking an educational experience.
    Finally, some do cruise because they like the LDS celebrity and to be around them (although, personally we don’t market as much to this clientele).

    There are alot of CES guys that do this. I noticed that at my former company. In part this is because some of them have a very loyal following (and sometimes it is an older following–they teach adult institute classes). This is important because it is primarily older people buying these tours. These men are typically good, dynamic presenters, but do not have the scholarly emphasis and that some of the BYU professors have. They tend to be more motivational/feel-good classes compared to the content-driven classes.

    Many BYU professors do get a least a spring or summer term off; and if they are tenured, they actually have a pretty free schedule. If they aren’t tenured or are associate professors, part-time, etc. it can be difficult for them to get off. Really, it isn’t too much more difficult for them to get it off then the CES guys. I think what has happened is that a few of the CES guys have gotten on the “circuit” and now get used for everything–most these companies tend to copy what the others are doing. We typically don’t use these guys although I am good friends with one having done a couple of tours with him for another company and may use him at some point. We are trying to niche ourselves as the more educational, less fluffy, tour. Mostly because that is what I enjoy listening to and I am on most of the tours.

    Anyway…if you have other questions about the industry, I’d be happy to answer them. You can contact me through my website: http://www.bountifultravel.com