The open skies policy and the lower airfares it’s brought have turned Israelis into globetrotters in recent years. But there’s one night that’s different from all of other nights: That’s Passover, when the Israelis who can afford it want to gather around a seder table with family and friends – but leave the cooking, serving and cleaning to others.
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This April, while hundreds of thousands will be crowding onto planes leaving Ben-Gurion International Airport, others will be paying as much as 1,500 shekels (about $411) for a seder meal of matzah and haroset at an Israeli hotel – and that’s just the meal, without the cost of the room or breakfast the next morning.
“Even with all the options there are for travelling abroad, Israeli hotels have succeeded in keeping occupancy rates very high this Passover,” said Anat Aharon, head of sales for the Fattal hotel chain. “Even now, just days before the holiday, we’re still getting reservations, even just for meals. In many cases we’ve had to turn people down.”
At Fattal hotels, the occupancy rate for Passover is 97 percent, with three-quarters of the rooms filled by Israelis. At Dan Hotels, whose properties included the iconic King David in Jerusalem, occupancy rates are higher this year than in 2016 and 60 percent of the rooms have been booked by Israelis.
“A lot of our guests don’t want to host people for the holiday or want to be with extended family or with groups, and a hotel lets them do it effortlessly,” explained Assaf Shalev, CEO of Rimonim Hotels. “Mostly it’s traditional families that want to be together and don’t want to get involved in the strict kashrut requirements of the holiday.”
Rimonim says its hotels are nearly fully booked for the entire seven-day holiday. And for many hotels, fully booked means really fully booked: Israel Hayat, vice president for marketing at the Caesar Premier chain, said 70% of the Israelis who reserved rooms at his hotels booked an average of five people per room.
Among tourists coming to Israel for Passover, there’s a big difference between country of origin, said Rafi Baeri, vice president for marketing at Dan Hotels.
The French, English, Swiss and Belgians prefer Eilat, Tel Aviv and Caesarea. Americans, in contrast, prefer Jerusalem. “They want the connection with tradition and history, religion and culture,” he said. Russians gravitate to the Dead Sea.
For those wishing to spend the seder at a hotel, there are three options. Guests can join a communal seder led by a rabbi or hazan hired by the hotel, or they can hold a private seder in the hotel dining room or in a private room.
Such a meal will cost a lot. A survey by TheMarker found the cheapest option was 220 shekels, but as Baeri explained, you’re not just buying a food and drinks.
“A seder meal isn’t an ordinary one, not even like a Sabbath dinner. It’s an event in its own right that starts at 7 P.M. and doesn’t end until at least 11:00,” he explained. “The meal is planned down to the smallest detail, the menu is devised months in advance with unique components, new dishes Still, the biggest cost is due to manpower working over the holidays and kashrut supervision.”
Steep prices mean the hotels have to provide excellent, personalized service, which requires additional training for staff. Oren Butbul, vice president for marketing and sales at Crowne Plaza Holiday Inn Hotels in Israel, said that this year there has been a surge of special requests for vegetarian and vegan menus, adding to complications.
One the newest trend in seders is several families or a group renting a large private home or other facility. Such villas not only offer enough space for 20 to 40 diners but also features amenities like pools, Jacuzzis, home theater systems and ping-pong tables to keep people busy when they’re not eating. Not all offer prepared meals, but they do provide big kitchens for guests to cook for themselves or to hire a private chef.
“Villas are an attractive solution for someone who wants a space for a large number of people to bring together friends and family. The guests feel like they’re in a hotel without the crowds of the dining room and they can organize their own activities,” said Dana Lavi of the travel website Daka90.
Prices range from 4,000 shekels a night for seven rooms and 20 people to 11,000 for seven rooms that can hold 28, according to a survey by TheMarker.
And for those who want to get away for the holiday but don’t have that kind of money, there’s camping in the desert, just like the Exodus. At Sde Boker, for instance, pitching your tent costs 60 shekels per night, or 185 with half board. Or you can spend your Passover in a Bedouin tent for 210 shekels a night with half board. Seders for up to eight are available too, with the price depending on the meal ordered.