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Passion Play

Oberammergau sales start slowly in core US market

David Browne  May 27, 2009

Tour operators promoting the 2010 Oberammergau Passion Play are reporting a sluggish start, and there are fears that the core US market may have collapsed. It could mean that thousands of unsold ticket and hotel allocations may be handed back to the organizing committee in Oberammergau as the deadline for full payment approaches.

Every 10 years a huge boost is given to European inbound tourism by the staging of the Passion Play in Oberammergau. Typically around a quarter of a million tourists come from North America to see it and it acts as a catalyst for bookings across the whole of Europe. For the first time in living memory, sales appear to be slow.

Tom Jenkins, executive director, European Tour Operators Association (ETOA) said: “My members are telling me that their bookings are down, and they are holding allocations they can’t shift and will have to give them back before the October deadline. If this happens, it will be the first time that Oberammergau will have had returns. Normally the entire season is sold out far in advance.”

The Passion Play is held every ten years in the picturesque village and is a major religious and cultural event for the region. Oberammergau is located in the Bavarian Alps close to the border with Austria, about 60 miles southwest of Munich.

The village has a permanent population of just over 5,000 people, and more than half of them are involved in the production of the play, either on stage or back stage. The 2010 production is being directed by a professional theatre producer who was born in Oberammergau.

The Passion Play season is known throughout the Christian world and demand for tickets and tours has usually been high. Tickets for the performance are only available in advance as part of a package with one or two nights local accommodation in Oberammergau, the neighboring villages of Ettal, and Unterammergau and other villages in the region.

As Oberammergau is a big draw for incoming church groups, tour operators have had to scramble for allocations to fulfill demand. This year is different!

“Sales for the Oberammergau Passion Play so far have been slower than for the same period for the last staging in 2000,” admitted Barbara Geier of DZT, the German National Tourism Office.

“Uptake is expected to increase during the next few months. Tour operators have registered a lot of interest and are optimistic they will achieve good sales. But customers are, at the same time, more reluctant to book so far ahead and seem to be waiting until closer to the event,” she said.

The organizing committee in Oberammergau released allotments last year on payment of a deposit. The balance is due on October 1. This time, tour operators may have to lose their deposit and hand back thousands of unsold packages to cut their losses.

Christian Hoechner, owner of Oberammergau Tours in Miami, said the organizing committee had imposed new booking conditions this time that were too stringent and were making it very difficult for tour operators. “They really have gone overboard. They demand a 20 percent deposit just to secure an allocation. That’s a lot of money to put up front when it’s very difficult to sell tours to Europe in the current global economic crisis.

“Oberammergau does not sell itself. It’s hard work to put together group tours, and we are having a rough time. In the past, there was more time to sell and pay the balances in the spring of the Passion Play year. That would give us fall and winter to sell the tour. But this time around they want full payment by the end of September. Trade is very slow at this time.”

A US specialist in small church group tours who did not want to be named said she had sold out her initial allocation but was having difficulty dealing with the Oberammergau committee to get more tickets. “The committee [is] acting as if they were sold out, but I know they are not. They have allocated packages to the trade, but sales to consumer groups are slow in the US. I want to know when unsold tickets are to be released so I can get more. It seems I must wait until October. But I could sell more now.”

The Passion Play is performed four days each week over the summer from May 15 to October 3 in a specially-designed, open-air theatre seating 4,720. Accommodation is provided in hotels, hostels, guest houses, and private homes in Oberammergau and surrounding Alpine villages. Ticket-only sales to attend the performance are only made available through a network of German distributors for some Saturday performances. All visitors from abroad must commit to buying a ticket and accommodation package.

In the United States, tour operators say there is very little interest this year as consumers are worried about their personal finances and are leaving vacation bookings to much closer to the intended time of travel.

“It is expensive this year, but that does not seem to put off the people who are determined to go to Oberammergau, said Phil Dean of Pax Travel. “It may be that the American operators have rushed in and taken the most expensive options of hotels and best seats and are now having difficulty selling on their allocations to customers.

Alistair McCabe, managing director, McCabe Pilgrimages, said: “Oberammergau is hugely expensive this year. It is an expensive product at any time. I can see that sales directly to the public are very slow, so I worry for some of the smaller tour operators who feature Oberammergau in their brochures this year. There may be a spate of bookings in the autumn, but I wouldn’t bank on it, and I am not going to spend money advertising Oberammergau.

“The organising committee in Oberammergau, in their wisdom, has more than tripled the price of a Passion Play package compared with the event in 2000. Our market for Oberammergau is people in their 50s and 60s, two-thirds female, on middle incomes and above. But even for them travel to Europe is a big ticket item, a discretionary luxury spend. Even lower air fares across the Atlantic are not enough to generate trade, because people are watching carefully all the other extra costs such as fuel surcharges, taxes, and security fees.

“Oberammergau packages are over-priced in the current economic circumstances and going unsold. The retail price of a ticket package with two nights in the best grade of village hotel comes out at US$1,133 at current exchange rates. A more modest arrangement of a Passion Play ticket and a hotel in the second lowest grade works out at no less than US$740. This looks expensive."

US tour operators are concerned that the event is over-priced and that the organizing committee has paid little regard to the current economic downturn, which has caused a slump in forward travel bookings especially incoming tours to Europe from the American market. The Oberammergau Passion Play usually attracts large numbers of church groups of all denominations, but, uniquely, this time around, interest appears to have drained away.

“Compared with previous Oberammergau seasons, we are behind schedule,” said Joerg Kramer of Value Holidays in Mequon, Wisconsin. “Compared to the 2000 and 1990 seasons when 85 percent of sales would have been confirmed by now, only 38 percent have sold so far for Oberammergau 2010.

“Booking patterns are different this year because of the economic crisis. People are holding back from booking vacations until much closer to the time; six weeks in advance is not uncommon. We are concerned about the September deadline for full payment,” he said.

“The North American response is very worrying,” said one tour operator who has run six previous Oberammergau programs. “Bookings are muted to the point of being non-existent. The holding deposits at this stage are quite high at about US$300 to secure a tour including a performance of the Passion Play and a night in Oberammergau.” He said people who are worried about their finances and jobs are not prepared to commit to a European tour next summer even with the Passion Play.

“The organizing committee has always pitched high. The Passion Play package looks expensive, but their response to us in the travel trade is along the lines of 'look at what people pay for a Rolling Stones rock concert.' I am afraid the Oberammergau organizers have overdone it this year and have allowed themselves to be lulled into complacency by past performance. The situation was a lot different ten years ago. People are uncertain about the economy now and uncertain about their personal finances.

“There may be some interest next year, closer to the Passion Play season. But few tour operators will have the nerve to hold on to allocations that long and gamble on a late rush of bookings from church groups in the Bible Belt of America on the basis of how slow advance sales are going just now. In my experience, we would have expected to have sold 60 or 70 percent of our allocation, but, in fact, we have sold only just 25 percent to the public."

Much of the problem is that tour operators and group organizers have bought up allocations and paid holding deposits, but onward sales to consumers are not happening. Not only is the recession hitting the prospects for bookings, but Oberammergau is looking expensive for another reason.

Part of the Passion Play tradition has been that staying in a room in a private home in the village or in a cheap guest house is part of the experience, but this year fewer families are making their rooms available. The shortage of local accommodation is being taken up by 4-star and 5-star hotels, many of which are not in the immediate area and are charging full hotel rates for the Passion Play season.

“Sales of the Passion Play in 1970 were not good, but this year is much worse. I don’t think the organizing committee understand[s] how dire the situation is,” said Tony John of Trafalgar Tours. “They are nervous, but all they see is the sales they have made in bulk to tour operators – they are not fully aware that the operators are holding allocations with little prospect of selling them to consumers. The operators will have to cut their losses and hand back their unsold allocations in October and bear the loss of the deposit. They will come out of this with burnt fingers, but that’s better than paying the balance and gambling on a late rush of consumer sales next year.”

This view was echoed by an American tour operator who has been running Oberammergau Passion Play tours since 1980 and has taken more than 10,000 clients to the event over previous years. “There is not much interest this year, to be honest. We are in the worst recession in 50 years, so people are not prepared to put down big sums in advance for a vacation at this time,” he said.

There are additional problems this year. Coach drivers are much more heavily restricted in what they can do than was the case in 2000. The organizing committee has changed the timing of the show to run throughout the afternoon and evening. (It used to be during daylight hours.) This means that drivers will find it very difficult to transfer clients to the show before lunch, return them back late in the evening, and then be ready for an early start the following day. The reason: driving regulations introduced in 2006 now require a minimum rest period of nine hours.

Tom Jenkins concluded: “The Passion Play organizers could not have foreseen the credit crunch and, given the irregularity of the event, they lack expertise in the technical side of coach operations. So if they want large numbers of American tourists to come, as they have in the past 60 years, they will have to show flexibility and understanding when the final deposit payments are due.”

Oberammergau sales start slowly in core US market
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