R Family moves full steam ahead
Even without Rosie O’Donnell’s participation, R Family Vacations, the world’s preeminent gay family cruise and tour company, has big plans for 2010 and beyond, including land-based vacations, gay family group cruises, new ships, and new destinations.
By Ed Salvato
With the changes in the personal life of Kelli O’Donnell, co-owner of R Family Vacations and co-parent of four children with Rosie O’Donnell, the world is curious to know how this would affect business for the first and most important cruise and tour company catering to gay and lesbians and their families. Kelli and business partner Gregg Kaminsky, a long-time gay cruise veteran and vacation programming whiz paused at their spiffy new office space in Manhattan to discuss highlights for next year: an innovative new product — gay family groups on mainstream cruises, an exclusive week at a recently renovated Club Med resort, and, yes, their unrivaled Broadway entertainers.
Ed Salvato: Let’s start with the question that all your customers are just dying to know. With all the changes in Kelli’s personal life, can you tell me a little bit about what that means for your business?
Kelli O’Donnell: Well, the business is moving full steam ahead. It’s been a challenging year for my family personally. However, a family’s a family forever and Ro [Rosie O’Donnell] and I are continuing to parent our four children together. R Family Vacations is based on families, and families stay together forever. Gregg and I are going to continue to run the company just as it’s been run before. We could never have had this company had it not been for Ro and her contributions, vision and participation and we are eternally grateful. The vision will remain the same. She put her imprint on it and it’s going to move full steam ahead.
ES: Tell me more about the type of cruises and tours you are offering in 2010. How are these different from what you’ve offered in the past?
Gregg Kaminsky: We are going to do a few things differently. We want to keep the product fresh. We’ve always wanted to work with Club Med and next year we are doing our very first Club Med vacation in Ixtapa, Mexico.
KO: Also, our customers have asked for land vacations.
GK: We have a lot of people who are not cruisers. There are a lot of people who will not go on a boat. There are a lot of gay families waiting for something that is land based. Club Med is absolutely fantastic. They’ve really changed their product a lot from what they were in the ’80s and ’90s, which was much more of a singles type of place. All the emphasis now is on families. They have fantastic family activities. They have trapeze, they have great kids programs, and they have tours. It’s really the perfect place for a family vacation.
KO: The Club Med that we choose has recently done a huge renovation — $20 million.
ES: Where exactly is this Club Med?
GK: It’s in Ixtapa, Mexico, which is on the Pacific coast of Mexico, north of Acapulco, south of Puerto Vallarta.
ES: Will there be a group of R Family guests in a bigger group?
GK: No, we’ll be taking over the entire resort.
KO: Separate from the activities for children, they have a tremendous amount of things for the grown ups, like shows at night.
GK: All the signature elements of an R Family Cruise we are bringing to Club Med. So anyone who has traveled with us before or has seen our documentary, that is what we’ll be doing at Club Med.
ES: It’s a cruise on land.
KO: Exactly. Broadway performers, a little bit of comedy.
ES: Likewise, the programming for children would be the same and there’d be babysitters for the kids if that’s what the parents desire
GK: Yes, and that’s something Club Med does really well. They have the best kid’s programs of any travel company. The “G.O’s.” [Gentils Organisateurs; activities coordinators] are fantastic. They host incredible activities for the kids all day long and even take them to dinner at night so the parents can enjoy a little adult time. We are also still partnering with Family Equality and they’ll still be coming and doing a lot of family programming, a lot of educational workshops, and political discussions like we’ve offered on our cruises.
ES: Can you tell me a little about the number cruises you will be offering?
GK: Yes, in addition to our one large Club Med in the summer in Ixtapa, Mexico July 10th, we are going to be starting a new product, group cruises. What that means is instead of taking over the whole ship we’ll have a couple hundred people on a large ship. What it allows you to do is pick new, exciting destinations, like Europe and Hawaii and larger and newer and cooler ships, like the brand new Norwegian Epic.
ES: Tell me a little about the Epic.
GK: The Norwegian Epic is the newest and most innovative ship and the largest they’ve ever done. It accommodates 4,200 passengers double occupancy.
KO: It takes Freestyle to a whole new level.
GK: It does, there are over 20 different dining options. One of the interesting things Norwegian has done is focus on how people cruise. They are getting away from the idea that half the people are in the dining room and half are in the theater. In this ship the largest public space is only 600 guests. They have everything from Blue Man Group to Cirque Dreams to Second City. They have jazz clubs, an endless array. And in addition, we’ll be bringing performers on board.
ES: So you have a couple hundred R Family guests among all these other guests. Will they be together or will they be doing separate things?
GK: A little bit of both. Each night we’ll have group dining options both in the large dining rooms and in the specialty dining restaurants.
KO: So if you want to dine with the other R Family guests you can.
GK: And we’ll have private entertainment options available only to our guests. We’ll also have private excursions. You can have as much of the R Family experience as you want. But you will definitely have a lot of the contained R Family experience.
KO: It’s really about seeing other parts of the world and seeing it with a large group of friends you feel safe with, that you want to share the same sort of entertainment with.
ES: Passengers come on board, they are greeted as before like on other R Family cruises. Will they be staying in the same area?
GK: It’s something we talked about but our guests take everything from the best suites to the inside cabins. So there are all sorts of pricing options available and what we are seeing in the booking pattern is instead of booking in one section, people are booking throughout ship. To have the R Family experience it’ll be in the cocktail parties, dining options and excursions.
KO: It’s not the same experience that you’ll get on the full charter experience, but it is a way, as we’ve said, for R Family guests to see other parts of the world with the R Family experience and with friends they know and feel comfortable with.
GK: The cruises we are offering are cruises we couldn’t charter a full ship for. The group product allows us to offer cruises on these ships. The Epic is August 14. Our first group cruise is spring break, Easter week, March 27 in Hawaii on the Pride of America. It sails around the Hawaiian Islands. It’s the only U.S. flagged cruise ship so you do not need a U.S. passport.
ES: How big will the cruises be and are your customers interested and booking?
GK: Yes, they are. Our groups will range from 100 to 500 people. Our most popular cruise is the European cruise sailing on the Norwegian Jade out of Barcelona on June 20th.
ES: Tell me what kind of feedback you’ve heard from your guests about these changes, especially these incredibly loyal guests.
GK: That’s actually how the changes came about. We’ve been in business since 2004, and we did have many families come with us on every single cruise and we started to repeat, doing some of the destinations a couple of times. They were the ones who requested some new destinations.
ES: How do you anticipate the customer make up to differ if at all? Will you still get a mix of gay and lesbian parents and their straight relatives and friends?
KO: Yeah, it’s an interesting assortment of people. When we first started the company, we weren’t sure who was going to show up. What it has really grown to be is a place where you can bring your children if you have a family, but if you are a gay man, you can bring your parents on board. That’s also a nice opportunity that you can do that on board. We have grandparents and a lot of straight family and friends that come. And that disco is happening at night for all those folks who don’t have children or who have someone else watching their kids. We get a lot of singles on board. I think it’s the kind of travelers who don’t want to go on an all-men or all-women experience. Those companies do a fantastic job also but if you want do something a little different. You want to travel with gays and lesbians together or you want to bring your straight friends, we’re definitely the company for that.
ES: Let’s talk about the programming on these group cruises and at Club Med? Will you still offer Broadway performers? What kind of offerings will you have for the kids?
GK: Let’s start with the Club Med product. This will be very similar to what we do on the cruises, with lots of Broadway entertainers, lots of comedians and speakers. For the cruises since it’ll be a smaller group, we’ll offer some of these elements. Of course, we’ll offer the entertainment that the cruise line offers but four or five nights a week, we’ll offer exclusive entertainment just for our group. It’ll be similar through maybe on a smaller scale than what we’ve done. But obviously we’re here in New York, we love Broadway and that kind of entertainment so that will still be a part of it.
KO: Another thing that will be similar both at Club Med and on the group cruises is we’ll have an R Family team there to participate with our guests. I think that’s a very important element of our cruises, and I think our passengers feel it too.
GK: We’ll also go to the Norwegian Cruise Line’s entertainment line up as a group.
ES: And for the kids?
GK: Similar. The group cruises in Hawaii and Europe are very destination oriented, so there’s a lot of time off the boat. In Hawaii there’s 100 hours at port. In Europe there are six full days at port. We’re very excited. We have a lot of kids coming on both of those cruises. I’ve also said, why take your kids to Disneyland if you can take your kids to Europe for about the same price? There’s so much more to see and learn when you are seeing the real places. With us traveling together, that’s one of the things we’re going to offer.
ES: So, if there is a group of several hundred R Family cruisers on an otherwise mostly straight cruise, do you anticipate that your customers will be comfortable in this environment?
GK: We are really not that concerned. There are gay groups on straight cruises all the time already with other companies like ours. Not that this is better but since we’re such a diverse group, we are not going to stick out that much. I’m probably going to be the gayest person on board. We have gay men, lesbian, straight people, old, young … I don’t know that you’ll get 500 of me or 500 of Kelli. Plus I think that the destinations we have selected tend to attract a more sophisticated traveler.
KO: When you look out at the guests of an R Family cruise, it looks like a really diverse group. I don’t know that it looks any different than a mainstream cruise.
KO: Also, NCL [Norwegian Cruise Line] is so supportive of the gay community. They advertise in the gay press. They’ve been supportive not only of our company but of many other gay travel companies as well. I know we have their support.
ES: How’s business? There’s been a lot of change in this industry, obviously and you’re a small, specialized firm selling a luxury product to a niche market. How have you survived?
GK: In this business it’s really about offering the right destinations and options and maybe not biting off more than you can chew. We have offered more in the past in terms of the total number of passengers so we have downsized just a little bit, but our goal just like any company is to keep it going. We’re doing OK. We had a pretty good year last year. We had 2,400 people sail on our Alaska cruise. We were very excited about that. Our trips are selling well. Our guests are still traveling. Again, we don’t want to offer too much. We just want to offer the right amount so we will be around for many years. We’ve always felt that what we offer is unique with the goal to keep the product fresh.
ES: For readers who may not know much or anything about you, can you tell me how R Family got its start and where you’ve sailed so far? Any favorites?
GK: The way we started was that prior to this company I worked for Atlantis for many years — it’s the largest gay cruise company in the world. We had a headliner that canceled at the last minute and it was right around the time when I met Kelli and Rosie and Rosie had her TV show and I called her and said of every entertainer in the world, who do you know that we could get on a plane and come down on a cruise next week. She was like, “How about me?” I said, “Are you sure?” She said, “Yes.” She came down with Kelli. The boys on Atlantis absolutely loved it. Rosie and Kelli knew what I did for a living but if you haven’t been on a gay cruise, and I have to say that every gay cruise company does a fantastic job. There’s no one out gay company out there that you’re not going to have that life-altering experience with. I think they both had it. They saw this sort of gay magic that occurs on these vacations. They were all excited when we got back. Rosie had asked who’s doing this for gay families which is still a new market and was definitely a new market five or six years ago. It was really her idea to have Kelli and I create this company. She’s really a great marketer. I have the travel experience. So we put our minds together and started working.
ES: Best place you’ve sailed?
KO/GK: I love Alaska.
KO: Just this time we had cabaret singers while whales were passing by us. It was surreal. The Galapagos was pretty magical also. It was a smaller group, more intimate. That’s the experience I think about when I think about the group cruises. People are really going to get to know each other. We worked with Lindblad Expeditions. We had 50 people, 40 adults and 10 kids. Every time we talk about the groups, it is what gets us excited. Those 50 people, all of our team really knows. We swap holiday cards.. It was a much more intimate experience.
ES: People are curious about what you do day-to-day. What do you guys do all year round when you’re not sailing, on a tour or at a club resort?
GK: We’re really small, just 3 or 4 staff and we do everything. We take the bookings. We write the website. We go out and market. We go out to various events. The fun part is doing site visits. Our whole office just got back from Club Med Ixtapa to complete the programming. The resort is fantastic!
KO: It’s great because we’ll know what the programming will be and can share it with our customers.
ES: You both have had involvement with Nickelodeon. Tell us what’s going on with them now.
KO: I worked at Nickelodeon for six or seven years and most of the people I worked with are still there. Gregg and I went over to their offices to beg them to let us do some of their Nickelodeon programming on an R Family cruise. So we are sitting in their meeting and all of a sudden they say to us, “Actually, we have something bigger to talk to you about. We are thinking of chartering a cruise ship and we need someone who’s expertise is programming a cruise.” A number of my Nickelodeon friends had done an R Family cruise. So they wanted to hire us as outside contractors to come in and program their cruise. At that point, we also took the reservations, which is a large undertaking for very large ships. It has been a tremendous experience. It has been fantastic to work with them. It was great for me to have my old world and new world merged together.
GK: We’ve completed three charters with them. We did them on the then-largest ship in the world, the Freedom of the Seas. They were great. It was a little different experience for us but not the programming aspect.
We also have a very exciting announcement about Nickelodeon. Nickelodeon is now partnering with Norwegian Cruise Line, and on two NCL ships this year there will be Nickelodeon characters and programming on-board year round. We are still working with Nickelodeon (and NCL) to assist them in creating this programming. One of those ships is the EPIC so on our August cruise you will see Sponge Bob, Patrick, Dora and Diego and you can experience some of Nickelodeon’s unique brand of entertainment (along with R Family’s!)
ES: There seems to be a big difference between the Nickelodeon brand and the Disney brand.
GK: I have gained a lot of experience in the family market. The way I describe it is that Disney is a lot about sitting back and watching what happens out there, about watching the show. And Nickelodeon is about being in the show.
KO: It’s touching. Everyone got slimed on the cruise.
ES: So new media and social networking are becoming more and more important. How do you keep in touch with your current and future guests?
GK: It’s interesting; I’ve now been in the gay travel business for 15 years and it’s changed so drastically.
KO: It’s changed in just the last year.
GK: It used to be that you could put an ad in the Advocate and reach everyone in the market. Now it’s all diluted. It’s great that there are all these options but it’s very difficult to reach people. I think that some of the social networking sites have been really successful, Facebook in particular, is the best way to keep in touch. Most of our guests are on our page and we’re on theirs. It’s really great. It keeps the experience of the cruise alive all year. Everyone posts their pictures. And people keep in touch. Guests post to Facebook and twitter during the cruises. We will be posting during our Club Med, Ixtapa visit. There’s an R Family Vacations fan page on Facebook and on Twitter it’s R Fam Vacations.
ES: Finally, take out your crystal balls and tell us what’s in store for R Family Vacations in the next few years.
GK: Again, we’ve had this great response to this group business. There’s a big world out there and when we started, we tried to come up with what are we. And what we came up with was that we wanted people to see the world with R Family Vacations. And the group product is allowing us to do that. You’ll see more exotic destinations. I already know Club Med is going to be fantastic even though we haven’t done it yet so stay tuned for more land destinations. And the big cruises will come back again too. You’ll see a lot of different options. We’re getting away with the one big trip a year to multiple options.