Cruise companies continue to court LGBT travelers

by Edith Stull

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday April 17, 2009

While the economy has clouded the travel outlook, cruses--and gay and lesbian cruises in particular--remain one of the most resilient segments of the industry.

Roughly 12.5 million people took a cruise in 2008.

The idea of a moving hotel, restaurant and entertainment complex appeals to many travelers... and two new LGBT travel companies hope to capitalize upon them. And they continue to target niche markets within the LGBT community and offering very different cruise experiences.

Sweet, which recently celebrated its first anniversary, will kick off its travel with a Salmon River rafting trip and then move on to its signature 2009 cruise--a seven day voyage through the western Caribbean that leaves from New Orleans on Norwegian Cruise Lines with 2,000 lesbians and visits the Costa Maya, Belize, Roatan in Honduras and Cozumel. Comedians Suzanne Westenhoefer, Erin Foley, Gloria Bigelow and Sandra Valls; singer, songwriters Jen Foster and Edie Carey; AfterEllen vloggers Nat and Megs and a fitness boot camp are among the series of offerings. Sweet also will provide volunteer opportunities - including a three-day pre-cruise land package in new Orleans where they will spend part of a day planting trees. They also will offset the trip's carbon emissions through the Carbon Fund.

Sweet's green travel concept and volunteer activities separate it from many other cruise companies (link to Sept. 9, 2008 story), but the company stresses the main purpose is still to focus on a fun and affordable vacation.

Sweet founder and CEO Shannon Wentworth said she is more excited about the future of the new travel venture than when EDGE spoke with her last fall.

"I am probably more positive and upbeat about the future than I've ever been in my whole entire life," she said. "We have really honed the concept and made these really wonderful relationships... I couldn't be more excited about where we are going."

Wentworth acknowledges her company's growth may be slower than anticipated due to the economy.

"No one is going to say I was a genius on choosing when to start this company and at the same time we have had an incredibly successful year at list building and reaching out to people," she said.

"We have really honed the concept and made these really wonderful relationships... I couldn't be more excited about where we are going."

Sweet's all-in-one pricing and liberal cancellation policy are popular offerings. Passengers will not lose their money for cancellations made at least 90 days before the scheduled departure. And the company will even transfer their deposit to another trip and refund the rest.

"Nobody cancels a fabulous lesbian cruise without a good reason," Wentworth said. "We don't want to punish you for losing your job... that sucks. That is not Sweet."

Sweet also is offering a three-some special... with third and fourth guests free in select cabins for reservations made before May 15, 2009.

Variety Cruises is another company that caters to gay and lesbian cruises. And the company offers a week-long cruise of the Green Isles--two for gay men and one for lesbians--on ships that accommodate a maximum of 49 passengers in 25 cabins.

Variety seeks to create an experience will be at the opposite end of the spectrum... much smaller, more quiet and laid back.

"We have been in the cruise business since 1949," Variety marketing director Constantine Venetopoulos said. "This company understands how to enjoy the Greek isles and that includes swim stops, hidden coves, going to small villages, docking only where you could dock with a small boat."

The company's cruises, which set sail on Aug. 21, 2009, and Aug. 20, 2010 (gay) and July 9, 2010 (lesbian) are its first LGBT specific voyages. They will be on the Panorama, a three-masted sail cruiser with a 20-member English-speaking crew.

Variety will offer a casual sailing experience with breakfast and one other meal daily that allows passengers to explore the islands. And Venetopoulos added his company has tailored their traditional cruises to cater to gay and lesbian passengers.

"We have more days on Mykonos, which is a fascinating island and gay friendly and one of the most popular gay destinations in the world."

Both cruises leave from Athens and visit Hydra, Folegrandros, Santorini, Mykonos and other island throughout the Aegean Sea.

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