Extending The Olivia Branch

The grand dame of lesbian cruising celebrates the big 35 by successfully re-launching both on land and at sea. With A-list talent and new onshore excursions and special events, Olivia emerges as a travel and entertainment powerhouse for seafarers and landlubbers alike.

“When you get on the ship with the lesbians,” jokes comedian Suzanne Westenhoefer in one of her stand-up routines, “the lesbians think they’re bad-ass because they’re holding hands. They’re all like, ‘We’re holding hands! I’m in the dining room, holding hands with my lover!!’ It’s ridiculous, totally fun and so crazy,” she relates.

If you’ve ever been on an Olivia cruise, then you know the meaning of their motto, “Where lesbians go.” As the first viable, lesbian-specific travel entity, Olivia has come to represent not only the finest in lesbian travel and entertainment, but, for thousands of gay women, an opportunity to be “out” in an upscale vacation environment.

Its contribution to the lesbian community not withstanding, the perception of Olivia has often been that of a cruise company geared  mainly toward middle-aged, suburban gay women. No longer. This year, visionary founder Judy Dlugacz celebrates her brainchild’s 35th birthday with a new line of cruises, on-land excursions and cutting-edge special events guaranteed to please a wide array of women and their wallets. Can you say Tahiti? Galapagos? The Cliks? WNBA? Toss all your preconceptions; Olivia has arrived as bona fide 21st Century women’s entertainment.

Surprisingly, the travel icon was founded as a music company. In 1973, Dlugacz and nine other women formed an independent record label for female musicians. They named it Olivia, after a Dorothy Bussey pulp heroine who falls in love with her French boarding school’s headmistress. In 1984, Dlugacz became the sole owner, and over the next few years, she began to shift the company’s focus from record production to live entertainment. One day, after a show in Seattle, someone suggested a concert on the water. “I began to think…Concert on the water, cruise…vacations for women…I can do that!” explains Dlugacz. In 1990, she chartered Olivia’s inaugural women’s cruise. The four-night trip to the Bahamas marked the record label’s maiden voyage as a lesbian travel and entertainment company, launching it into superlative status: 18 years later, Olivia is the world’s largest company dedicated entirely to lesbian travel and entertainment.

Dlugacz was further inspired by her own experience in traveling with her partner, Rachel. “We never felt comfortable being ‘out’ on vacation,” she recalls. “We were out everywhere in our lives except on vacation. Who wants to be the focus of negative attention or curiosity? Just holding hands on the beach was a risk. So I knew if we had that experience, creating vacations for women that were all-inclusive ship charters or resorts would be something most lesbians would want. Kind of a no-brainer…one worthy of risking everything we had.”

The risk yielded massive rewards, both for Dlugacz and for the lesbian community. Not only does Olivia provide a safe haven for lesbian travelers, it furthers LGBT acceptance by increasing lesbian visibility.

Today, Olivia continues to provide stellar entertainment created by and for women. Performers such as k.d. lang, Melissa Etheridge, Lily Tomlin, Heart, The Indigo Girls, Suzanne Westenhoefer, Marga Gomez, Margaret Cho, Kate Clinton, Suede, Karen Williams, Vickie Shaw and René Hicks are a standard feature. Big-name entertainment aside, according to Dlugacz, “The magic ingredient remains the same. A vacation to great places, creating a space where women can be free to be themselves every minute of every day….We make you laugh, we pamper you and we create a sense of freedom while you play and dance and kiss and meet new friends. Not a bad formula for vacations.”

Olivia’s journey to the fore of the lesbian hospitality field has not always been smooth sailing; a recent legal battle between Dlugacz and Olivia’s former management team exemplifies the type of growing pains a company can face as it evolves. Among other issues, the highly publicized conflict pitted Dlugacz against some of her former top executives in a battle over Olivia’s direction and growth strategy. The aftermath of their departure from the company included a battery of “she said, she saids.” While Olivia has already rebounded from the episode, many supporters have posted their concern on the Web site’s message board.

“We have had overwhelmingly positive support from our customer base,” said Dlugacz in a written statement to GO. “I think for the lesbian community, it is emotional to see a company that has been supporting the community for 35 years being attacked by people who were at the company less than five years. Since we cannot control what they say to the media, we are simply focusing on getting Olivia back on track and letting the legal process take its course.”

To that end, Dlugacz and Olivia General Manager Lisa Henderson are embracing a back-to-basics strategy in which they will focus their resources on Olivia’s core competencies, while expanding their product portfolio to include different types of tours and entertainment for a wide range of lesbians. “We’re adding to our existing line of services, which gives us an opportunity to focus on an expanded market footprint: specifically, the younger lesbian community,” says Henderson.

In addition to designing new trips, opening the door to a younger demographic means making travel more affordable. Olivia’s unique, long-term, interest-free payment plan allows travelers to book various vacations from around $100 per person, per month. Those who plan ahead can also avail themselves of special early bird discount rates (from $999) on select packages.

“We’re recognizing a shift in the market where people may have the income to do the types of trips that Olivia offers, but they may not have time. Or, it may be a combination, where they don’t have the time or the income,” says Henderson. “So we’re doing fewer cruises and expanding our resort packages, which are inherently shifted toward the younger audience. What’s appealing about those is that they’re all-inclusive, so you pay one price, and you can have all the beer you want to drink, and, of course, Olivia provides top-notch entertainment.”

For example, the Indie Fest series will celebrate 35 years of women in music, comedy, film and spoken word by hosting an emerging artist concert with a full bill of rising stars. Indie Fest I, a.k.a. Viva Cancun is slated for the week of May 3, and its lineup will include The Cliks, Vicci Martinez, Blame Sally, Trina Hamlin and the Wau Wau Sisters. The Laugh Out Loud series kicks off at Turks and Caicos Island’s Turks Resort this Oct 25 with a comedic extravaganza featuring Elvira Kurt, Lisa Koch, Dana Goldberg, Michele Balan, Julie Goldman, Amy Boyd, Jessica Kirson and more.

Women in Music & Sports Mexican Riviera is a new cruise scheduled for the week of Oct 4. As its name suggests, it is a celebration of pioneering musicians and athletes, including Paula Cole, Missy Higgins, Sweet Baby J’ai, tennis great Billie Jean King and various WNBA ballers, all of whom will be joining travelers on board.

“Most outside the box of what we’ve done historically is the new Olivia Fling,” says Henderson. “The fling is a three- or four-day weekend which can manifest itself in two ways: It can be a boutique hotel buyout or it can be Olivia taking over a hotel in the middle of a city, and then working with producers of lesbian events, sports teams, music festivals or other things happening in that city to make those things available. We call it ‘velvet-rope access’ for the Olivia customer.”

Upcoming flings include Dinah Shore 2009, Las Vegas, a weekend in Seattle during Bumpershoot Music Festival, the Seattle Sports Festival’s lesbian soccer tournament and the Gay World Series. “We have a strategic partnership with the Seattle Storm, and we have access to phenomenal seats,” Henderson adds. “We’re working with the producers of lesbian club events in Seattle, and we’ll be presenting Leisha Hailey and Uh Huh Her. Women who book that fling through Olivia get access to all of those things: preferred seating and preferred entrance to all those events in one four-day weekend.”

Although the flings are geared toward a younger crowd, the under-35-ers are not the only sector for which new tours have been created. “The people who have been traveling with us for a long period of time are more interested in boutique travel, adventure and ecotourism, so we’re launching a line of EcoTours, such as the Galapagos this year, and the Amazon in 2010.” Olivia’s EcoTours focus on promoting eco-aware travel, conserving the environment and safeguarding the welfare of local populations. Amazing Galapagos Adventure is scheduled to begin this November with a 10-day cruise through the legendary cluster of remote islands that inspired Charles Darwin to plumb the mysteries of evolution, forever changing the course of modern biology.

Gourmands, wine connoisseurs and art aficionados may opt for any of several new European riverboat cruises, including Cruising the Romantic Danube, Discovering Provence & Burgundy and Tulips & Chocolate, which travels the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel. The Sapphire Seas Tahiti Boutique Cruise, launching in 2009, is an exquisite jaunt through the islands of French Polynesia.

And here’s something for everyone: Olivia’s 35th Birthday Bash Caribbean Cruise is set for the week of Nov 23, and is guaranteed to blow your mind. Belinda Carlisle and the Go-Go’s, Sick of Sarah, Karen Williams, Vickie Shaw, Suede, Michele Balan, Zoe Lewis and Suzanne Westenhoefer, plus a long list of yet-to-be-named celebrities, will join 1,800 women of all ages and stripes for this monumental Thanksgiving-meets-birthday Caribbean adventure. Vote for the superstar headliner at olivia.com/birthdaybash.

Olivia has also launched Sistas at Sea and Sistas at Play, a line of cruises and resort vacations designed by and for lesbians of color. The programs have evolved out of community feedback from Olivia’s online groups, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

“The backbone of Olivia is embracing diversity,” Henderson explains. “This company was founded to support the lesbian community at large. The Sistas at Sea and Sistas at Play programs were really developed by that community itself—women of color coming together and creating a unique experience in the context of Olivia.” In addition to drawing from customer feedback, Olivia is currently working with Downlink, a Logo property marketed toward gays and lesbians of color, in order to customize vacation packages that fulfill the desired travel experience of this often-overlooked demographic.

While Olivia travel provides great romantic getaways for you and your sweetheart, it’s an excellent resource for singles as well. “Olivia has always had an open door to anyone traveling solo or single. We even have singles coordinators that can put on speed-dating events and make sure that singles meet each other. We have special pricing available for women traveling solo, and we can find you a roommate on a trip if you don’t want the cost of a room all to yourself. You tell us your requirements, and we’ll match someone for you,” says Henderson. Up to 20 percent of travelers on a given Olivia trip are single and ready to mingle, and that can mean hundreds.  So if you happen to be unattached at the moment, why not count yourself among them?

Regardless of your relationship status, consider going “where lesbians go” on your next  vacation. For more on Olivia, visit olivia.com.

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