Olivia Celebrates 40 Years of Adventure on the High Seas

by Winnie McCroy
EDGE Editor
Friday Jan 25, 2013

Forty years ago, a group of 10 women met in a Washington, D.C., living room with a dream of starting a record company for women and lesbian artists. Millions of records later, Olivia has evolved from a company that brought lesbians closer through music, to one that literally connects millions of lesbians through cruises, and resort and adventure travel.

"Back in 1973, we thought we could change the world by creating music by women for women," said Olivia president and founder Judy Dlugacz. "So we put out our first albums by Meg Christian and Cris Williamson, and we had an extraordinary response. We sold tens of thousands of albums. We had no idea it would have the impact it did -- an instantaneous coming together of women and lesbians."

Dlugacz told EDGE that Olivia had tapped into the zeitgeist, as women were just beginning to grasp the possibility of being free in that way. She likened it to "the Internet of the '70s," as women who formerly felt isolated united through music, buying records and attending concerts.

After about 15 years making music, Dlugacz began to think of the next step for her successful enterprise. Someone suggested a 15th anniversary concert on the water in Seattle, and the idea resonated.

"I found out how to charter a ship, and we did our first cruise in 1990," she said. "It was a natural extension of the music and entertainment, the thread that connected the record company to the travel company."

She wrote a letter to Olivia fans, inviting them to sign on to cruise to the Bahamas, where they could be free to be themselves while on vacation. They needed 600 women to book the boat, and tickets sold out almost immediately, Dlugacz said. They chartered another boat for the following week and had 600 takers for that one, too.

What made the vacations unique -- besides that almost all the guests were lesbians -- was the onboard entertainment: the musicians, standup comics and other performers the community had grown to love.

"Olivia was able to do cruises because we had built a connection person to person, record by record," Dlugacz said. "This has been a constant for the past 40 years, and although we are much bigger now, with a lot more visibility, Olivia still has the same connection to the community that allows us to be able to do what we do today."

From Hootenannies to Adventure on the High Seas

The success of those first cruises let Dlugacz and her crew know that they had a business model with amazing potential. And although Olivia Records continued to release music until the late ’90s, the vacation options grew and diversified to include a full complement of cruises, as well as resort and adventure travel packages to suit all interests.

"When we started, we were primarily offering cruises. Then the resorts were integrated. And then, as more guests wanted to travel to exotic places, we created the Ultimate Escapes, like small cruises to the Galapagos Islands, Tahiti or the Mediterranean," said Tisha Floratos, Olivia’s vice president of travel.

The company now has more than 150 cruise, land and adventure vacations in its portfolio, ranging from culinary-themed world cruises to stays at a Mexican Riviera beachfront resort and eco-friendly African safari lodges.

Olivia also began offering Ultimate Escapes programs: more intimate, extra-luxury cruises at a higher price point. Riverboat cruises in Vietnam came complete with excursions, and 130-person boat trips through France stopped at villages along the way for wine tastings and dinners.

"At some places, we get right off the ship and visit the town," said Jill Cruse, Olivia’s vice president of guest experience. "Then we have adventure trips, going around the world with National Geographic to watch whales and to kayak, or to the Galapagos, or cruising to Alaska in smaller ships that can go close to the glaciers and get more intimate with the wildlife.

"The energy on the women on these trips is something you can’t imagine," said Cruse, who has been with Olivia for 23 years. "Something about it attracts the animals. You see a lot more than usual. On a recent safari, we saw a pride of lions where a week before, they saw none. And guests on our Kenya safari saw all the ’Big Five’ in one day."

Every decade, Olivia hosts an enormous anniversary celebration. This year it will replicate the inaugural cruise by reuniting Christian and Williamson for the first time in 30 years for two back-to-back cruises. Each will have far more than 600 guests this time around.

"We decided to do our biggest cruise ever: a 2,100-passenger ship," Dlugacz said. "We brought Meg and Cris back together, along with 20 other amazing performers in both music and comedy, and put this out there. In two weeks, it was completely full. So we chartered another 2,100-passenger boat, and that filled up as well."

Welcome to the Way the World Should Be

Those unfamiliar with Olivia might have a difficult time imagining how things work. Floratos explained that the company rents the entire boat or resort, and brings its own staff, including DJs, solo coordinators and lesbian entertainers, who also mingle with the guests for the entire trip.

"The first thing women can expect to see is our fearless leader Judy greeting every guest as they get on the boat or resort," Floratos said. "The minute they step onboard, we like to share Judy’s tagline, ’Welcome to the way the world should be.’ There is an immediate feeling of excitement, camaraderie and community that I believe Olivia delivers in such an incredible way."

Lesbians haven’t always been so welcome. In 1997, Dlugacz said, Olivia spent $30,000 creating a travel ad for television, meant to run during the "Ellen" show. ABC rejected it, saying that the place for same-sex lifestyle was programming, not advertising.

"Only eight affiliates in the country had the nerve to allow us to pay to run this ad," said Dlugacz. "And they wouldn’t let us use the ’touch’ version, meaning it had two women touching hands or embracing. We were that scary just a few years ago."

Olivia is now widely known as the go-to company for lesbian leisure travel and has gained respect in the wider business world. This comes in handy in foreign ports of call.

Olivia has an impact on the countries visited, some of which are not savvy about -- or friendly to -- gays and lesbians. Just by showing up, spending money and being who they are, Olivia’s clients make an important impression.

"Not everywhere we’ve gone has been open to lesbians coming to visit," Dlugacz said. "We don’t announce that we’re coming, but we are such good ambassadors and travelers, and spend such a lot of money, it really has made a difference in many parts of the world in how they see our community. We do a tremendous amount to enrich the countries we visit; we do a lot of giving when we go to different parts of the world."

Olivia Opens Up Lesbian Luxury Travel to All Women

Today, Olivia hosts vacations featuring a 99 percent lesbian clientele from the U.S., South and North America, Europe and Australia. It welcomes couples, families and ’solos,’ which comprise 15 percent of guests, and boast that 96-98 percent of past guests say they would travel with Olivia again.

"We do an entire solo program to allow them to find and meet other women," Floratos said. "We give them a ’solo’ dog tag to wear all week that identifies them as someone who is traveling by themselves and interested in meeting people."

They also host trips like "Sisters at Sea" and "Sisters at Play," giving women of color the opportunity to enjoy programming with a diversity focus.

Although the R Family Vacations cruise line has cornered that LGBT market, Olivia has plans to move into it more beginning in 2015.

Other trips include 70-person safaris to Kenya and Tanzania, of which Olivia has done four since 2007. Newer offerings include forays to Asia, Antarctica and China, and upcoming tours in Vietnam and Cambodia.

"What’s great is that women have grown with us to go to places they would have never thought to go in their life," Cruse said. "We have planned a great South American trip to Rio de Janeiro and a popular trip on the six-star boat Paul Gauguin to Tahiti."

Best of all, Olivia offers a customer-friendly payment model, with cruises often posted a year in advance and payment plans available.

"We try to make trips as accessible as we can, so women can plan a trip in advance and pay it off in smaller chunks," Dlugacz said. "It’s a very important part of what we do."

Although Olivia has 40 years under its belt, its founder continues to look toward the horizon.

"We started out with 600 passengers on a four-night trip to the Bahamas," she said. "Now, the entire world is what we look at to decide where we are going to go."

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Winnie McCroy is the Women on the EDGE Editor, HIV/Health Editor, and Assistant Entertainment Editor for EDGE Media Network, handling all women's news, HIV health stories and theater reviews throughout the U.S. She has contributed to other publications, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, Chelsea Now and The Advocate, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.


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