Tuesday, September 22, 2009

If it's Tuesday, this must be the Sistine Chapel

There was an interesting article in The Wall Street Journal last week on the Vatican's travel agency, Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi (ORP), pilgrimage central for those who, when in Rome want to do as the Catholics do: see the pope

Cesare Atuire, a priest from Ghana, runs the agency - on ORP's LinkedIn page, he's listed as its CEO - is tasked with making the Holy See the Holy Must See. (Wouldn't want the Pope to be standing on his balcony getting ready to address the throngs in St. Peter's Square and looking down on nothing more than a handful of Chinese tourists debating among themselves about whether the bishop of Rome is more like the Dalai Lama or Chairman Mao, and a group of American nuns protesting the Vatican's crackdown on their practicing Reiki.)

The ORP is full service - it'll take care of the planes and boats and trains, and even line up bargain-priced stays in convents that run a B&B on the side (now that they can't do Reiki). They even have a call center - Saturday hours during the April-October high season, and a road warrior who goes around to churches in the US to sell the packages.

There are plenty of advantages to booking your next pilgrimage through the ORP. For one, no waits in the line at the Sistine Chapel . Anyone who's waited for a couple of hours in the broiling sun or chilly rain for craned-neck peek at Michelangelo's Creation of Adam  - you know, the one with the little 'goodbye and good luck' finger-bump - knows that bypassing the line is worth a few euros.

And woe betide those who don't go the ORP route.

The Rev. Notker Baumann had heard of ORP but decided to make his own arrangements in planning a trip to St. Peter's for himself and 52 churchgoers from Germany.

When his group arrived at the Vatican City gates to attend an indoor audience with the pope, Holy See guards turned them away. Standing at the edges of St. Peter's Square, the group unfurled a banner intended for the pope while watching on a giant TV screen as the pontiff greeted other German pilgrims.

Well, blessed are those who stand on the edge unfurling their banner, for they shall inherit the earth.

Meanwhile, everyone would rather be the chosen people whose outsized mugs are there for all to see, getting up close and personal with the pope. (Wonder what German for neener-neener is?)

CEO Atuire is apparently a pretty shrewd business man. Last year's 60,000 ORP'd pilgrim total was a whopping 40% increase over the count for the prior year.

Father Atuire's strategy includes getting pilgrimages to elsewhere - Lourdes, Fatima, Czestochowa - make a side trip to Rome. Surprisingly, this is more of a draw now than it was during the reign of John Paul II, a far more popular pontiff than the incumbent, Benedict. This is because Pope Benedict is more likely to be there than his predecessor, who spent a lot of time during his papacy on the road, playing 'where in the world is Carmen Sandiego.' (Planning and executing papal road trips is also part of ORP's charter.)

The ORP, by the way, has been around since 1934 - which has to have been pretty bad timing in terms of opening a travel business, no?

There's a Great Depression on. Mussolini's about to invade Ethiopia. Hitler's poring over maps of Europe.

Let's hear it for organizational survival! (It helps to be a non-profit backed by deep pockets.)

Deep pockets aside, the ORP has not been without crisis.

A lot of their historic business was running pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Between and Second Intifada and 9/11, that business dried up at the turn of this century. In 2001, the ORP booked only 750 pilgrims on trips to Israel.

Father Atuire set about making Rome the hub of religious-based travel, and making sure that he has trips that appeal to less well-heeled travelers - thus the convents and monasteries that are now receiving paid guests.

"The poor you will always have with you," and if they're planning on staying at the convent that ORP is helping renovate just outside of Rome:

... guests will be expected to do their own housekeeping and bus their own tables.

And speaking of bus, Father Atuire is also running hop-on, hop-off double-deckers around Rome that ferry pilgrims from one basilica to another.

His biggest coup may have been his deal with Mistral Air, a cargo airline run by Italy's postal service. Mistral will "offer low-cost connecting flights from Rome to popular Catholic destinations."

The flights include prayers at takeoff, headrests emblazoned with lines from the Bible and, on special occasions, bottles of holy water.

Since there are few atheists in foxholes or on airplanes, most flights already include prayers at takeoff. Those emblazoned headrests sound a bit blasphemous - don't they get greasy? (At least the pilgrims get to ride in seats, not mail bags.) And a note to non-Catholics: don't drink the holy water.

Next up for ORP is the large and lucrative US market. This fall, ORP will launch a web site aimed at Americans. If Father Atuire's market research is correct:

"At least 60 to 70% of [U.S. Catholics] would visit Rome and take part in celebration and visit Holy Father if given the opportunity," he says.

Something tells me that the ORP will succeed.

Business is business, and ORP's CEO sounds like one businessman who's figured things out that you need to know your market, deliver the goods, provide value, negotiate hard, and never get complacent - even if you're a non-profit backed by one of the wealthiest corporate entities on earth.


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