R Family Vacations was founded in 2003 by Kelli Carpenter, Rosie O’Donnell and Greg Kaminsky to address the unique vacation needs of LGBT families and their children. The company’s travel programming centers around providing safe and family friendly vacation packages for the entire LGBT community. R Family launched it’s maiden voyage in July 2004, a cruise consisting of 1600 passengers, including 600 children.
Today R Family Vacations is evolving steadily and their customer base is growing exponentially to include both new and repeat customers. Kelli Carpenter spoke with us about the pleasure and leisure business, the business of the business, and (last but not least) about R Family’s brand new offerings for LGBT travelers.
GO Magazine: We hear that you just returned from Hawaii and that it was a different kind of trip than what R Family Vacations customers and fans might be used to. Can you tell us about it?
Kelli Carpenter: We just finished our first group trip. No one was quite sure of how it was going to work out. People were like “are we going to stand out, are people going to look at us”; we were half men and half women and some people had kids and some didn’t. There were even four sets of grandparents. And in the end we looked just like everyone else and it was a tremendous success.
So, are you changing the focus of the business?
The group business is not in replacement of us taking over a whole resort or ship. Like this July [10th-17th] we are having our first ever full land-based charter at Club Med. It’s in Ixtapa, which is on the Pacific Coast of Mexico, about 100 miles north of Acapulco. It’s a totally family-friendly environment. To me, the great thing about Club Med now is that they have entirely changed their image. It used to be this singles thing and now it’s the best kids’ destination in existence, with nannies, educational programming and beach parties, and I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. Children can engage in various activities and sports programs, while their parents or grandparents do their own thing.
How has the customer demographic changed since the first vacation cruise sailed in 2004 and how does that affect planning?
What’s interesting about our programming now that we have such an assortment of people on board is that that we have to look at each day and say “ok, if you are six years old, what does your day look like? If you are a single female or single male what does your day look like? If you’re a couple or if you’re a grandparent?” And so forth. In doing our programming, we need to go through and make sure it’s a fulfilling day and a bountiful experience for everyone who comes on board, because there isn’t just one type of passenger who comes on our ships.
Is there the perception that a gay male-only cruise is more sexually charged with a cruisy atmosphere and that maybe bringing gay men and lesbians together—with families and extended families–changes that dynamic?
Yeah, the gay men who come on out trips are looking for less of a partying aspect and are there more for the entertainment. We have stellar entertainment on our ships, it is one of the reasons a lot of people come, and they come for the sense of community. Even if you are a single person who comes on one of our trips, the events are mixed so that takes a lot of the pressure off. If you’re nervous and you are a gay guy, you can go talk to the group of single lesbians over there—it’s not as intense. Of course, there are casinos and discos and enough nightlife so that it doesn’t drag, but it’s less party intensive. It’s really just a group of people getting together to have a great time; to have dinner and go to a show and really have a nice time. That’s my vision for the adult brand, which I am going to come up with a new name for—I just haven’t thought of it yet.
You said you have stellar entertainment. Can you mention a few of the top shelf entertainers you feature?
We have tremendous entertainers! On our full ships we’ve had Melissa Etheridge, Cyndi Lauper (she’s done three cruises with us), Gloria Estefan, Kathy Griffin, Sheena Easton. We’ve been tremendously blessed. Another person who is a huge supporter and who will be on our August Epic trip is Sharon Gless, who never misses a cruise. Sharon is our number one requested celebrity. What’s great about Sharon is that she comes alone and socializes with the passengers. She loves to have dinner and gamble and get to know everyone. And, I think she loves that all the lesbians just flirt away with her.
Sharon Gless is on every one of your cruises??!!
She has not missed a year without being on a cruise, and she just wrote me that she is coming on the August cruise [to Europe]. We usually have her host something like our casino slot night. She loves interacting with the passengers.
Tell us a bit about the business side and about the changes in
The economy is killing everybody. Just staying alive for the next couple of years is really important. Not doing a full ship charter is a reflection of that, but to do a full takeover of Club Med in Mexico in July will, I think, feel like the same experience. I think we’ll probably have the same model next year and then the year after that we’ll go back to a full ship. But, we are offering an all-inclusive gay vacation—we will have that at Club Med. And, if you want to see places we normally wouldn’t go to, then come on a group trip.
The brand has already been defined, the experience has been defined and none of that has changed. The entertainment is still a huge portion of it. Certainly in my personal life there have been changes, but the business is still here and running, and we are offering new and different things.
It’s grown organically to be where it is now. I don’t know that it was intentional. I think that when you start something you don’t really know where it’s going to end up. The people who purchase the tickets are the drivers. The first cruise, a couple would come on with their child, and they would be like “Oh my God,” and they would want to bring on their parents and then their brothers and sisters and their kids. Once they saw what kind of environment it is, it just grew and grew and grew and it wasn’t purposeful.
Do you go on every cruise?
I’m on every one of them. Chelsea was on this last one [Hawaii] and Parker will be with me in Europe, and I’m bringing all four to Club Med, so my kids are quite spoiled in their travels.
How does leaving from an overseas port work [for the European cruise]?
Most people tag on days before and after, especially because it’s summer and children are involved. It’s a great way to see more than just what’s on the cruise. There are very few people just flying in and jumping on the ship and then getting off and flying home. I’ve never been to Barcelona so I’m very excited. We have a group staying at a gay hotel there.
MCC [Metropolitan Community Church, an LGBT religious group] is on board sometimes. Do they perform commitment ceremonies?
Not on the groups, but with the full ship charters we do a tremendous amount of commitment ceremonies. You cannot get legally married on board, but it’s a beautiful way to have a commitment ceremony, out on the deck, with your friends and family there to celebrate. We have a justice of the peace who comes on board. We’ve celebrated a lot of relationships on board. It’s really great to have the children there to help celebrate, too.
We had two couples join us, P-FLAG parents. They didn’t bring their kids, they just wanted to travel with us. One woman wore her button, “I love my gay son.” She was excited to be stopped by other people not in our group asking about having a gay child. She was able to have dinner with the other passengers and talk about her experience in PFLAG. It’s really a way to help change minds, to put faces to what people may perceive as something bad—you can look at us and eat with us and wow, we’re not so different….
Basically it’s a whole new realm of travel. What’s next for R Family?
The two exciting things we are looking at for next year: Greg [Kaminsky, co-founder] and I have been integral for handling the first Nickelodeon cruises. [Carpenter was a marketing executive at Nickelodeon for many years prior to founding R Family Vacations]. We were hired as an outside contractor to run the reservations and program for those trips for the past two years. They [Nickelodeon] just signed a contract with Norwegian Cruise Lines [NCL] and they are going to be on every ship in their fleet and next year they are going to do one with R Family, which is exciting for the kids.
The other thing we are launching is our all-adult brand, because our biggest growth is in the area of gays and lesbians without children who want to travel together. We thought we would offer up an option of a non-kid-focused trip. We are doing the first one on the NCL ship The Epic. The reason we picked that ship is it’s the only ship where you can buy at a single rate and not have to buy tickets for two people. So, we will have some singles programming on board, but of course couples are invited, too. It’s just focused on a more adult travel brand and we want it to extend into more adventure travel, for which I think there is definitely a need out there. There are gay companies and there are lesbian companies, all of which do it very, very well, but we have seen our growth in men and women who want to travel together.