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."


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